The Jaipur Literary Festival: A uniquely Indian Experience
Imagine this scene. We are huddled together in the bracing cold in the magnificent Amber Fort between ancient pillars on marble floors. The voices of the Sufi Gospel singers warm our hearts as they chant the word of God in all religions. From the silhouette of soft lighting, the entrance of the fort in all its architectural splendour emerges intertwined with the powerful voices of Shabana Azmi and Javed Akbar as they recite poetry in the ancient tongues of India.
I have been making a pilgrimage on an annual basis for several years now, in search of intellectual debate, out of the box thinking, brilliant writing and riveting poetry in a uniquely Indian cultural experience at the Jaipur Festival. It is the biggest and most amazing gathering of intellectual giants, novelists, poets, spiritual gurus, women activists, film directors, journalists, editors of leading newspapers magazines and opinion makers. Dubbed the greatest literary show on earth, it is indeed an awe-inspiring experience.
Conceived a decade ago the Festival evolved from fourteen guests to what it is today at 250 thousand footfalls. Every person entering and leaving the Diggi Palace grounds is closely tagged for statistical purposes. The success of Jaipur has inspired a whole galaxy of nearly sixty other literary festivals in other parts of India and further shores. Even Dubai—hardly considered as a literary destination—is inviting writers to its shores. So why not South Africa? And what exactly is the attraction for this massive literary pilgrimage?
“The right to dream is the moral fundamental human right” proclaims a leading writer in her keynote speech and the Jaipur Festival supports the freedom of the human imagination irrespective of physical borders and boundaries.
The festival is open to all, from the Delhi jetset to schoolchildren interested in meeting their favourite filmstars and other notables. In one session I sat beside an 11 year-old school boy who was fiddling with his cell phone. I asked him if he understood the discussion and he promptly answered in the affirmative and though he may not have understood much he was being exposed to a rich cultural tradition of books, theatre and music. In another session a 16 yearold was seriously questioning fiscal issues of national interest. Clearly, India values its youth and starts nurturing them at a young age but always alongside adults.
I see the famous Vidyadhar Naipaul and his once-proclaimed nemesis Paul Theroux as well as Mark Tully and William Dalrymple and in my mind I transport this forum to my home country. The appearance of South African writers like Mark Gevisser, author of many award-winning books and Damon Galgut, author of eight books which have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize amongst others, give me hope. I think excitedly that we must import this idea to South Africa where literacy is a challenge and books are rarely bought and read.
At such a festival one is immersed in the discourse on national and global issues. India is the prototype of the world. It houses everyone comfortably within its bosom but it feeds only Indian milk. So as an African of Indian origin I find so many issues of relevance between our 2 countries. Like us they are battling with issues of education, secularism versus religious bigotry and ethnic conflicts. But unlike us they value the written word and display a hunger for books. South Africans are car crazy and Indians are book crazy. The absence of a widespread culture of reading in South Africa acts as an effective barrier to our development, reconstruction, and international competitiveness.
The question arises are we ready for a literary festival on as grand a scale as the Jaipur experience?
I am optimistically hopeful though we face immense challenges. Most disconcerting of all are our low literacy rates which are estimated to be among the lowest in Africa. Thirty percent of adults are functionally illiterate. The absence of a culture of reading in South African society may be attributed to many factors.
Apartheid ideology led to the banning of many books and South African libraries were deprived of some of the best literature on the continent. Inequitable funding structures, disparities in school fees, insufficient teacher training, lack of supplementary materials in indigenous African languages and absence of access to books are typically seen as the causes of low literacy rates. In his campaign to have VAT removed from books, satirist Peter Dirk Uys says, “It is cheaper in SA today to buy a secondhand AK47 assault rifle than it is to buy a new Harry Potter book.”
As a nation we need to seriously promote the value of reading by developing an education system which integrates reading at the core of the curriculum, and encourages reading for pleasure and lifelong learning. In addition we need to develop a flourishing writing and publishing industry to support the heightened demand for books and most of all we need to make books available to our people at cost effective prices.
How absurd is it to charge VAT on books in the same way as we treat cigarettes and liquor. We have to end this national crisis on illiteracy as an urgent goal. Maybe we should just catch the bull by the horns and develop a Jaipur model for ourselves.
Dr. Devi Rajab is a respected South African journalist and former Dean of Student Development at UKZN and the author of several books.