Jaipur, the final chapter

January 26th, 20109:25 am @

Ferguson, Dalrymple, McCall Smith and O'Hagan hold court

The Vuitton bags of the Delhi princesses are packed and their convoy of four-wheel drives is pulling out, the authors have had their fill of groupies and I’ve had my fill of free beer and food. Yes, another Jaipur Literature Festival is over and it’s time to head back to the capital.

The penultimate day’s surprise guest speaker was Ayan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author of Infidel and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. Slating the West for appeasing radicals and being too scared to criticise Islam, she said their reticence had led to the rise of anti-immigrant right wing groups. Islam, she concluded, needs to go through the same Enlightenment that other religions have and question itself.

I decided to skip Tina Brown’s “Princess Diaries”. There might have been a fair number of princesses swanning about in their large sunglasses, but I was struggling to see the relevance of an Anglo-American author presenting her book about a dead British princess at an Indian literature festival. Then I saw that Brown’s Daily Beast was a festival sponsor and it all became clear.

The British and their empire-building are a popular topic in Indian writing and historian Maya Jasanoff’s “Edge of Empire” looked at the Brits and their time in India through the lives of individual adventurers who came over to explore, plunder and get laid. Questioning the orthodox Orientalist views of Edward Said, she said it was too simplistic to see the imperial relationship as a one-way transaction. Yes, there was an imbalance built into the system, but there were gains on both sides and it’s not as clear-cut as the Orientalists like to present.

There’s no harm in ending the day with some brain bubblegum, which is what Andrew O’Hagan, Alexander McCall Smith, Niall Ferguson and William Dalrymple (pictured above) presented with “Under the Kilt” – which took a stand-up comedy approach to Scottish identity and independence. Again, there was the question of relevance and again it was answered by the sponsors’ board (Scottish Tourism). Still, they had the punters laughing as Ferguson compared Scotland to Belarus: depressing industrial landscapes, alcoholism, low life expectancy: “home!” he exclaimed.

The evening’s entertainment was – from what I’m told – some rather good violin work and a bit of rapping (not, mercifully, at the same time). I was too caught up trying to make words out of little plastic squares after one of our group brought out a word game that was surprisingly addictive and had a dozen adults absorbed for a couple of hours. We were joined by a few local kids who helpfully provided hints on words that could be made. At least it was a venue-appropriate game.

By the final day most of the crowd had disappeared, making it much easier to get around the grounds and find a seat. I only managed to catch “Imperial Cities” with Malavika Singh, Pramod Kapoor. and Sam Miller who spoke on a topic dear to my heart: how the hell do you make Delhi a nice city to live in. Miller confessed that he hated the place and there were moments where I was holding myself back from shouting out “yes!” when he or Malavika criticised the city’s lack of planning, its illogical construction decisions and its lack of footpaths. If you think a lack of footpaths is a trivial problem, I invite you to try walking to the shops in Delhi’s traffic.

With the annual debate over – this year’s topic was “Has the state declared a war on the poor in the name of development”; surprisingly the crowd’s vote was “no” – it was time for the tents to come down and the grounds of the palace to sit empty once again. This year’s event was much bigger than last year’s and with the festival getting more publicity each year, it’s going to be interesting to see if they can fit the inevitably larger crowd next year.

I don’t mind, as long as there’s still food and beer.

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