Jaipur: Adventures in Time and Space

By , 13 February, 2010, 4 Comments

A few weeks ago, I took a weekend business-cum-pleasure trip down from Delhi to Jaipur. I was there to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival, a 5-day conference of writers, journalists and artists organized by Namita Gokhale (a great champion of Indian writers) and William Dalrymple (the dean of expats in India). But the Lit Fest has grown far beyond literature related to India into what might be the largest free gathering of its kind anywhere in the world.

I spent most of my time in newsy panels on everything from terrorism to regional politics to civil liberties, featuring such personal heros as Steve Coll, Lawrence Wright, Anne Applebaum, Asma Jahangir and Niall Ferguson. If 1% of their collective wisdom seeped into my brain, I’ll have done well.

I’d been itching to check out the conference since it kicked off several years ago, but have had to settle for long email accounts from my grandmother, who tends to spend her time in artsy sessions on poetry and film. Which brings us to the pleasure: a weekend in Jaipur is a weekend alone with the old folks. Highlights include sleeping in my grandmother’s garden swing, looking for peacocks in the back lawn and swimming—outdoor pool!—in (allegedly) the dead of winter.

Jaipur is a funny place, the capital of an old princely state that managed to survive both Mughal and British rule in India as a semi-autonomous unit, and a place whose significance in Indian politics peaked in the mid-19th century transition between these two regimes and collapsed with independence in 1947. While it remains a great center for art and culture, and a repository of old architecture, in some essential ways, modern Jaipur is a city in decline. [Geography may have played some part here, since Jaipur would have been dead center in old Rajput India, but is on the northwestern margins of a post-Partition independent India whose center of gravity has moved south].

My family has some association with this decline—as advisors in the heyday of the monarchy, then as agents in the independence movement that brought the house of cards down. Nowadays, for the most part, we’re ‘just folks.’

My grandfather, who is a great lover of history and preserver of family stories, often speaks with a kind of vague nostalgia that attaches simultaneously to the India of his youth (the 1920s and 30s) and the 19th century India of his grandparents. At some point in the future, when I’m up to the task, I’m hoping to write more about the history of my family. For the moment, I bring this up to point out this vague nostalgia, not for a specific moment but rather for an era, from the 1720s to the 1940s when Jaipur really mattered.

In many ways, that longing is what Jaipur is all about. As a tourist, it can be beautiful. I wonder if as a resident, it wouldn’t just be profoundly sad.

The literary festival certainly cashed in on that romantic nostalgia—the conference is held in an old palace-turned-hotel. But the festival, like Jaipur, can’t be cut off completely from the rapid, profound transformation of India in the last twenty years. The rise of a working and middle class in India with disposible income to spare has taken the conference’s appeal to a new level. My grandmother says when it first started the Lit Festival was attended mostly by members of Jaipur’s social elite, and the small rooms at Diggi Palace made for intimate tete-a-tetes with the literati on the stage.

Now, the Lit Fest is a destination not only for locals from all walks of life, but also those from other towns in North India who bus in for the weekend. The leisure to enjoy culture is a great and democratic byproduct of economic growth, but it comes at a price: sooner or later, the Lit Fest will need to ditch its 18th century drawing room setting for a convention hall that can handle mass audiences, or, to maintain its romantic aura, the festival organizers will have to start charging admission, which will price ordinary folk out. There is something intriguing and brutal about this, about a democratic public trying to take ownership of a history that does not have room for them.

It also speaks to a major policy hurdle facing modern India—the way in which development has magnified the importance of its large population. A billion people who want to own and drive their own cars is a lot of cars, far more than India’s road system is designed to handle and certainly more than its polluted skies can afford. On the other hand, a billion people who want to be able to afford cars, many of them under age 25, is a strategic asset that a number of wealthier nations would kill for.

4 Responses {+}
  • shazia

    loved it; jaipur will have to become partially what lahore is; the cultural center. lahore of course is the political center as well. so lit fest is the way to go – longing and nostalgia, with accompanied palances, a booming tourist industry and luminary writers in residence – sounds like a long-term project perfect for you when u r ready to the book

  • smw

    I am totally envious, Maha.

  • Colin Clout

    Hey. DO you have any thoughts on the Indian publishing/printing industry? I have read a few things, but wondered if you had any comments. I know not directly related, just reminded me I wanted to ask you.

    Also, TOTALLY JEALOUS.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Colin,

    The Indian publishing industry is expanding rapidly, from what I can tell. But it faces a kind of existential challenge in the linguistic diversity of India. There's a robust English language publishing sector, of local houses, and a rise in franchises of international publishers (RandomHouse et al) in the last few years. But most of those publishers are looking for the next Salman Rushdie–ie they are publishing Indian authors in English who can appeal to English-speaking readers abroad. The English reading public in India is still relatively small. At the same time, the business case for publishing in Indian languages is worse, because there are so many that you're looking at maybe 1/6 of the country that speaks or reads each. So there's a lot of publishing IN India, but it's unclear how much of that is being read BY Indians.

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