Every January I return to South Asia to experience an assault on all my senses by two of the best-attended English language literary festivals in the world.
From January 11 to 15, 2017, the Galle Literary Festival will be held in a restored Dutch fort on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. The historic Diggi Palace in the fabled “Pink City” of Jaipur, India, is the venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival, which runs from January 18 to 23, 2017.
The organizer expects 350,000 visitors at the Jaipur Literature Festival, from across the Indian subcontinent and the rest of the world. Some of the authors I look forward to hearing from at the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival are Alice Walker, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anne Waldman, Swanand Kirkire, Mark Hadron, Ajay Navaria, and Prasoon Joshi.
Dressed in multihued salwar kameez, sarees, sarongs, jeans, couture dresses, as well as in suits with ascots, festival goers from all over the world and many ethnicities listen in pin drop silence to stories and ideas with themes that are both ancient and current.
The audiences at Jaipur are not at all reticent to challenge ideas, opinions and ideology expressed in author interviews, panel discussions and readings. Quite often the authors and panelists seem to be quite taken back by the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter and the alternate formulations that are politely but firmly expressed.
In contrast to the chefs in the French outfits are the all male wait staff attired in traditional knee-length cream-coloured sherwani jackets with red embroidery worn over churidars which are trousers that are loose around the hips and thighs, but are tight and gathered around the ankle. The colourful clothes are capped by the traditional turban known as safa which is distinctive in style and colour, and indicate the caste, social class and region of the wearer.
The Jaipur Literature Festival is as famous for the authors who have attended, including Margaret Atwood, Margaret MacMillan and Marlon James who headlined the 2016 festival, as it is for the Indian government’s banning of Sir Salman Rushdie in 2012 on the grounds that Rushdie’s presence would lead to civil chaos because his book, The Satanic Verses, is regarded by Muslim extremists as sacrilegious.
In 2012, not only was Rushdie banned from attending the festival, but the organizers’ contingency plan to have Rushdie participate by video link had to be cancelled at the last minute when religious extremists invaded the festival venue and threatened to burn it down.
Other notable authors who have participated in the Jaipur Literature Festival include Hanif Kureishi, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee, Mohammed Hanif, Orhan Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Colm Toibin, Vikram Seth, Alexander McCall Smith, Chetan Bhagat Niall Ferguson, Shobhaa De, Stephen Frears and Tina Brown, Cyrus Mistry, Thomas Piketty and Wole Soyinka.
Oprah Winfrey gate crashed the 2014 festival and insisted on interviewing her friend and Indian-American lifestyle guru Deepak Chopra to the delight of Indian festival attendees and sneers by foreign media.
Canadians attending the 2014 festival were left scratching their heads during a presentation on multiculturalism when Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul claimed that Canada was created by three equal founding nations, French, English and Aboriginal, who continue to coexist with a good degree of harmony.
The invite-only after parties at the Jaipur Literature Festival are nothing if not legendary. The first one is hosted by the Chief Minister of the State of Rajasthan at the historic Amber Fort. It starts with a concert of Indian music and dance followed by a champagne reception with live jazz and dinner in elegantly decorated rooms lit only with candles and oil lamps.
At the more western-style open air parties held at venues such as Clarks Amer and Diggi Palace, guests stand around charcoal pit fires that help to cut the chill of the winter night trying to balance plates laden with vegetarian and non-vegetarian food with glasses of South African wine or Single Malt Scotch.
A unique aspect of the Jaipur Literary Festival is that it is entirely free of charge because it has always had a major corporate sponsor. For the last four years the giant Indian TV network ZEE TV has sponsored the festival.
Unlike the Jaipur Literary Festival with its major corporate sponsorships, the Galle Literary Festival charges up to $25 per day. The Galle festival does still offer value for money with its excellent array of authors and panels. Sri Lankan-born Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai has curated the festival in recent years.
Over the years the Galle Literary Festival hosted authors as diverse as Richard Dawkins, Sakuntala Sachithanandan, Lawrence Hill, Gillian Slovo, Sebastian Faulks, Meera Syal, Sir Tom Stoppard, Candace Bushnell and Randy Boyagoda.
At the 2017 Galle Festival some of the authors I look forward to hearing from are Amish Tripathi, Catherine Bush, Somini Sengupta, Philippa Gregory, Malathie Kalpana Ambrose, and Theena Kumaragurunathan.
The Galle Literary Festival will culminate with the awarding of the Fairway National Literary Award for the best Sri Lankan author and the $50,000 DSC prize for Best South Asian Literature.
The two South Asian festivals provide welcome relief to Canadian book lovers from the usually interminable Canadian winters as well as post-Christmas blues.
Viresh Fernando is a Toronto-based lawyer, traveller and writer.