Mesmerising poets, harrowing stories, and heated debate – Jaipur festival sends sparks flying

slide1This year’s Jaipur Literature Festival set the Diggi Palace ablaze with a multitude of debates and readings, along with performances from musicians and poets from across the world.

The five-day event, which is now the largest free literary festival in the world, was this year attended by more than 250 speakers ranging from writers, academics, journalists, and translators to politicians, film stars, and movie directors. The subjects tackled were extraordinarily diverse.

On the final day, there was a mesmerising performance by the English poet Kate Tempest, a heated debate on whether we are living in a post-truth world, and a surprise appearance by the exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen.

Nasreen was not officially on the Jaipur programme. She arrived unannounced, and under police protection, on the final day and took part in a session entitled “Exile”.


There were protests outside the palace by a small group of fundamentalists who were furious about Nasreen’s presence, and there were media reports stating that the festival organisers had bowed to extremist pressure and vowed not to invite Nasreen or writer Salman Rushdie in the future.

Organiser Sanjoy K. Roy denounced the reports as fake news.  “… an erroneous statement saying jlf has banned taslima has been issued by pti. We have not said this,” Sanjoy tweeted, referring to Press Trust of India reports.

“Reports of us ‘banning’ @taslimanasreen from future editions of the festival are not true. No statement to this effect has been made,” he added.

Nasreen, who describes herself as an author, secular humanist, feminist, human rights activist, and physician, has been living in exile since 1994. Fatwas have been issued against her because of her criticisms of Islam.

She is not only unable to return to Bangladesh. She was forced to leave India, her adopted homeland, in March 2008 after protests in Kolkata against her writings. Even Bengalis in Delhi have refused to rent her an apartment, she says.

In the first part of her autobiography, Nasreen talks about her vulnerability as a child. In the second part, she talks about how she was oppressed and tortured by her husband, and was forced to divorce him. In the third part she talks about her sexual freedom.

Everybody sympathised with her when she was talking about her weakness and vulnerability, she says, but when she described herself as a very strong person who was deciding what she would do with her body, then she was considered as bad.

“As long as women are weak, or tortured, or oppressed, those women will get lots of sympathy, but not strong women.”

Even writers and intellectuals in Kolkata asked the government to ban her book, Nasreen says.

She called for “real secular education” and education about women as equal human beings.

She told the Jaipur audience: “Women are getting raped; women are victims of domestic violence; women are victims of sex trafficking.”

She added: “I don’t believe in nationalism. I believe in rationalism. I believe in rights and freedom and one passport, one world.”

Nasreen has described Bangladesh as a medieval country of bigotry, extremism, and fanaticism. She says that all religions are anti-women. “Because I fight for women’s rights and freedom, I have to criticise those religions which are against women.

“When I criticise Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or Judaism, I don’t face problems, but whenever I criticise Islam, then I see that Islamic fundamentalists want to kill me.

“It’s not only me; whoever criticises Islam, the Islamic fundamentalists want to kill them.”

It is necessary for Islamic societies to be tolerant and accept criticism, Nasreen says. “Without criticism of dogmas and religious fanaticism or religion, you will not have any progress. I am against all kinds of fanaticism.

“Without criticism of Islam we will not be able to make Islamic countries secular. We have to make religion and state separate.”

The state and society respect the right of people to believe in religion, “but do not respect the right not to believe in religion”, Nasreen says.

A uniform civil code is urgently needed for women’s rights, she adds. In Bangladesh, she says, Hindu women do not have the right to divorce their husbands or inherit property.

Nasreen called for the abolition of old British laws that are still on the statute book in India and Bangladesh, and are used against freedom of expression. “Without freedom of expression democracy has no meaning.”

After Nasreen spoke, Roy told the audience: “It is our duty and our responsibility to ensure that all kinds of viewpoints are presented here.”

There was also controversy at the festival over the organisers’ decision to include two senior functionaries from the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – Manmohan Vaidya and Dattatreya Hosabale – in the festival line-up, and about the fact that a session entitled “Nutrition and the Girl Child” was sponsored by Nestlé.

Nutrition and the girl child

In the session about nutrition and the girl child, the Member of Parliament and former diplomat Shashi Tharoor provided some shocking statistics. While there had been significant improvement in India’s nutritional standards since independence, he said, there are forty million stunted children under the age of five, and a further 17 million who would be categorised as “wasted” (severely malnourished).

Writer and teacher Ruchira Gupta (pictured below), who founded the Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, pointed out that India is the world’s largest buyer of arms (nearly 40 billion US$).


Meanwhile, she said, six million Indian girls go to bed hungry every night. Midday meals programmes in schools have been slashed, she added.

There are numerous government projects that are completely underfunded and are simply branding exercises, Gupta says.

“How do you educate a girl when she is hungry? Malnourishment is just another word for hunger.”

Gupta told the heart-rending story of a girl in Bihar who put the egg she had been given to eat at school into her pocket. When asked why, the girl said she was taking it home to share with her mother, her brother, and her younger sister.

Child traffickers take advantage of the “choicelessnesss” in India, Gupta says. “India has become the epicentre for trafficking rings in our world; 1.4 million girls are trapped in brothels all over our country. The ages are going down and the numbers are going up.”

The trafficking of tribal girls has increased, Gupta says.

The actress, author, and child rights activist Nandana Sen said the nutrition of girl children had to be seen in the context of general health care and education, women’s employment, infrastructure, and sanitation.

“What is critical about the well-being of the girl child is not only her nutrition, but the fact that she gets caught in this co-dependent grid of gender discrimination very, very early on and it becomes very difficult to get out of it.”

In India, a girl child is more than 50 percent more likely to die between the ages of one and four than a boy child. “When there’s a food shortage, we know that the boys get the food. The girls get what’s left or nothing at all,” Sen said.

Sen pointed to the continued prevalence of child marriage in India. “If you have an undernourished girl child being married and giving birth to another undernourished girl child, and she has no education, there is no way one can avoid the intergenerational propagation of undernutrition.”

More than 64 million adolescent girls in India are severely anaemic, Sen pointed out.

The plight and power of women

The plight, the power, and the creativity of women came to the forefront at Jaipur in sessions that ranged from “Women’s Voices: New Writing From Rajasthan” and “Women Waging Peace” to the session entitled “Manelists, Misogyny, and Mansplaining¹”.


In the latter session, the author and former national chess champion Anuradha Beniwal talked about misogyny in her home state of Haryana. She said that when her sister was born her father received messages of consolation.

When a girl is born, Beniwal says, there is no welcome, no joy in her presence. She is seen as a future expense and, ultimately, this leads to the genocide of baby girls.

Commenting on recent attacks on women during New Year celebrations in Bangalore, Ruchira Gupta said: “A new toxic masculinity is going through our political culture.”

She added that “women are in the greatest danger in the place they should be safest: inside the home”.

Globally, one in three women face domestic violence, Gupta says.

“We should have the freedom,” she said, “to go out at midnight and buy a cigarette if we choose.”

Gupta spoke about the “culture of masculinity that is being driven by the porn industry”. Of the three million women engaged in prostitution in India, 1.4 million are girls, she says.

Also speaking about violence against women, Beniwal commented: “We have to occupy those shady spaces and make them safe.”

The only man on the panel, Suhel Seth, came under heavy fire from British journalist Bee Rowlatt – some considered unfairly.

When Seth admitted that he was no expert on the subjects being discussed, Rowlatt asked “Why are you on the panel at all?”

During the debate, Seth was challenged about his comments about gentlemanly behaviour, but he said he was speaking about treating women with respect, not gender superiority.

“In Calcutta, we didn’t know misogyny or mansplaining¹,” he commented. “We understood, and still do, the concept of being gentlemen and gentlemanly.”

p1120227-480x640Talking about mansplaining, Rowlatt (pictured left) said that it is not just a hashtag. “It’s actually a very serious issue. It’s a label for a very, very common experience.”

She told how, for an article, she spent a day “as a man” and totally enjoyed “manspreading” – being loud, and filling and owning so much space.

Writer Antara Ganguli made the point at the beginning of the session that “if you believe in equality, you’re a feminist”. That, she said, is what the word means.

At the end of the session, members of the audience were asked to give a show of hands to indicate whether or not they are feminists and the vote was decidedly ‘yes’.



Seth (pictured below) also took part in the “post-truth” debate, which Rowlatt described on Twitter as “generating more heat than light”. There was a lot of raucousness and microphone-grabbing.


Also on the post-truth panel were the ever erudite and engaging Shashi Tharoor; the impassioned performance poet Anne Waldman; political scientist Ashutosh Varshney; the Irish economist David McWilliams; investigative journalist Luke Harding; lyricist, screenwriter, and poet Prasoon Joshi; and the journalist and MP Swapan Dasgupta.

While most of the speakers made some very salient points, much of the debate was dominated by shouting by Dasgupta.

“Is alpha-male shouting the way to get to the truth?” Rowlatt tweeted.


Harding, who was thrown out of Russia by Vladimir Putin, said there was a new breed of authoritarian leaders, like Putin, Trump and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who consider truth to be irrelevant.

What matters to them, Harding says, is “their sovereign version of reality that they shout out to you guys using social media, using trolls sitting in factories, using people who send me abuse every morning on Twitter”.

Trump, Harding says, doesn’t have a cupboard full of skeletons; “he is man who has a rolling conveyor belt of skeletons”.

Tharoor commented: “We are living in a world of lies and we have always lived in a world of lies.”

The majority in a democracy, Tharoor says, “gets to decide which version of the truth prevails”.

According to a Stanford University study, fabricated stories supporting Trump were shared 30 million times.

With the social media, it has never been easier to tell lies and have them spread, Tharoor says. However, “thanks to this same Internet, these lies are getting exposed”.

Waldman, meanwhile, spoke about climate deniers living in a post-truth world. “You cannot obviate the truth of global warming.”

An ‘investigator of consciousness’


Waldman gave a stunning reading/performance during the inauguration of the festival. Her language is grippingly rhythmic and powerful. She exudes a dynamism that is rooted in her conviction that poetry can be a catalyst for positive change and her determination to help bring about that change.

Waldman describes herself as an “open field investigator of consciousness, committed to the possibilities of radical shifts of language and states of mind to create new modal structures and montages of attention”.

The author of more than forty books, she has been an active member of the “Outrider” experimental poetry community and is a professor of Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

She has been extremely active in Occupy Art, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, and has been involved in projects around the theme of Symbiosis, which studies the interaction between two or more different biological species. She advocates for more arts in education, and in prisons.

One of Waldman’s main messages (a message shared by Kate Tempest) is that people need to wake up to what is happening in the world.

She told Changing Times: “We should have greater intelligence and respect for what we don’t even yet understand about consciousness and interconnectedness. About symbiosis. About entanglement and Quantum theory. About empathy. About other species. Other dimensions. Also Artificial Intelligence. Advanced technologies like digital augmentation.”

We operate out of a limited perspective, Waldman says. “Schadenfroh and small mindedness. Driven by greed and capital. Hegemonies of all kinds. Petty and small. We need a bigger rhizome of tolerance and imagination.”

Can poetry and performance really help to wake people up and can it have a wide enough reach to really make a difference? Waldman says it can.

“Poetry has been around since humans needed to communicate. It works like magic, like dream. Ritual of performance can be salutary, transformative, and cathartic.

“We need better education systems, inspired teachers, and new paradigms for the arts in education.”

Children need to be exposed to music and poetry, and poetics of all cultures, from an early age, Waldman says.  World history, the science of climate change, and information about other life forms should be included in school studies, she says, and “we need to stop perpetuating the eternal war machine as manifest destiny”.

Waldman has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism since the 1960s. Enlightened ideas about empowerment that are free from bigotry, hatred and racism can take hold, she says. “We have to continue fighting for civil and human rights; for women’s rights. And engage in anti-nuclear activism.”

We must not, Waldman says, remain paralysed in the face of fascism and dystopia. “I have been involved with many struggles that have changed the frequency.”

The streets of London

In an epic hour-long performance, the equally impassioned Kate Tempest took the Jaipur audience on a roller-coaster ride into the streets of south London and the lives of the residents of one street, who are all awake in the early hours of the morning.

She, too, railed against environmental destruction and other global ills such as political corruption, the dumbing down of society, and rampant consumerism.

“Your kids are dosed up on medical sedatives
But don’t worry ‘bout that, man, worry ’bout terrorists
The water level’s rising! The water level’s rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!

‘The last gasp of white supremacy’

Environmental issues are also at the forefront of Waldman’s concerns. She cites “fighting the pipelines and hydraulic fracturing” and urges people to act now; to do much more. “There is strength in numbers.”

Global warming will be the supreme challenge, Waldman says. “Humanity is being tested. We need an army of bodhisattvas to combat this Dark Age.”

We must, Waldman says, “build a world out of our collective broken hearts” and also share our joy.

With the arrival of Donald Trump as president, there is an extremely urgent situation in the United States, Waldman says.

“We have an unprecedented unravelling of human safety nets. I keep asking everyone ‘What is your hundred year plan?’ We have to think ahead with vision and alacrity.

“We must defeat Trump and his cronies in four years; we need to build coalitions. Many people are confused and misled.

Waldman says the US was in a new phase with “Black Lives Matter” and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) rights. “This new regime is the last gasp of white supremacy, of the confederacy, of oil barons …

“They will go down eventually into their own quagmire of hate and revenge, pseudo-religious ideology, and misogyny.”

The comment of the festival about Donald Trump came from the hip-hop poet and novelist Paul Beatty, who is the first and only American to have been awarded the Man Booker prize. “He’s kind of like an American dick pic,” Beatty said.

Before We Visit the Goddessp1110715-480x640

The renowned author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose numerous novels include The Mistress of Spices, The Palace of Illusions, Sister of My Heart, and her latest book Before We Visit the Goddess, has a quieter, but no less powerful voice.

Divakaruni, who lives in the United States and teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, also writes books for children, and gives talks in schools. She has written a fantasy series for young adults called The Brotherhood of the Conch.

“I started writing for children after 9/11 when there was a lot of backlash against immigrants and against our community … It was in some ways a political action on my part.”

Divakaruni says she wants to reach young readers before their minds are closed off to diversity. “I want to engage them in characters who are not like themselves.”

Women are always the focal point of Divakaruni’s novels. “I decided a long time back that I wanted women in the centre of my canvas,” she told the audience at Jaipur. “It’s very important to give the woman her space; to allow her to tell her own story in her own voice.”

Before We Visit the Goddess is about three generations of women and takes the reader on a journey from the countryside of Bengal in India to the streets of Houston, Texas.

“The book follows the geographical trajectory of my own life,” Divakaruni said. “But otherwise it’s not biographical.”

The novel is about the spiritual journey of the main characters, Divakaruni says, and, in each generation, the woman has to get in touch with the divinity inside herself. “Sometimes we need to grow through tragedy and sometimes we need to learn things like compassion and forgiveness, including forgiveness for ourselves.”

On one level, the book is about women and success, Divakaruni says. “It asks the question ‘What does it mean to be a successful woman?’ Does that change as we move from one generation to another, one country to another? What remains the same, and what prices do women have to pay?”

Life, Divakaruni says, is a “strange mixture of character and destiny” and literature is similar. “Either disaster or assistance will come from sometimes most unexpected sources.”

In all the years Divakaruni lived in India, she never thought she would be creating literature. “Immigration made me into a writer because it pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

When she became immersed in her life in the US, Divakaruni felt she was losing touch with her Indian culture. “I really began writing as a very personal action against forgetting.

“For years I was a closet writer. I didn’t show anyone my work … Some of that early writing was quite bad.”

Divakaruni joined a writers’ group, got feedback, and edited and edited. “Even now I have a writers’ group. We meet once a month through Skype.”

She says that every time she writes she pushes herself out of her comfort zone. “I write about risky topics.”

The Palace of Illusions is a rendition of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata retold from the viewpoint of Draupadi, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers – a woman living in a patriarchal world.

“There are strong, complex, amazing women characters in the Mahabharata, but in the original they are kind of pushed aside and, as with most epics, not just in India, but all over the world, the focus is on the men, on the palace intrigue between the factions, and the wars. Even the weapons get more space than the women.”

Divakaruni’s next book will be another novel based on an epic, this time the Ramayana, retold from Sita’s point of view.

“Sita is such an icon of Indian womanhood, but she has often been interpreted by the patriarchy as submissive. I want to show that Sita wasn’t submissive. She made her own decisions. She was very courageous.”

Divakaruni believes that writers have an important role now that Trump is in power. “Being a writer in an easy time is an easy task; being a writer when your voice is not going to be heard so easily, that’s when it is important to be a writer.”

“Early in my writing career I had a near-death experience and, after that, I think I was very aware of the unseen dimensions of our world and our lives, and I wanted to indicate that in some way in my fiction, sometimes more overtly, sometimes more just as a glimpse.

“The whole idea of life being a spiritual journey also became very important to me.”

Divakaruni suffered serious complications after the birth of her second son and was in hospital for a month.  Her experience of hovering between life and death influenced her creation of the main character in the Mistress of Spices, Tilo, who travels back and forth between one existence and another.

There is almost a taboo against writing that is too overtly spiritual, Divakaruni says. “People put you in a certain category.” All writing is spiritual, she says.

“Creativity comes from a spiritual source, and our life’s journey is itself a spiritual one whether we understand it as such or not, whether we acknowledge it as such or not.”

Divakaruni says her writing comes from somewhere deeper in herself than her conscious self. “It often surprises me, and when it does that, that’s my biggest, and deepest, and best work.”

Before she became a writer, Divakaruni was a painter. Colour, shape, and gesture are very important for her and there is a visual richness in her work.

Divakaruni says she thinks of herself as an activist. “I think being spiritual and being an activist go very much hand in hand.

“What good is our spirituality if we don’t have compassion for the people around us; if we don’t try in whatever small way we can to make their lives a little better?”

Divakaruni is on the emeritus board of Pratham, an organisation that helps to educate underprivileged children in India, and also advises two organisations – Maitri in the San Francisco Bay Area and Daya in Houston – that provide assistance to South Asian and South Asian American women who are suffering domestic abuse.

With Trump’s arrival in power, Divakaruni says she may have to speak up a little more. “I’ll have to push the immigrant story forward a little more.”


On the second day of the festival, one of India’s most popular film stars, Rishi Kapoor, who recently released his autobiography Khullam Khulla, delighted the audience, candidly telling story after story about his life in the movies and the struggles he has faced. He spoke mainly in Hindi.


The star told one story about making a small appearance in the movie Shri 420 when he was just two years old. He had to walk in the rain. “I would shut my eyes because water was going into them. I threw tantrums and. every time, the shot had to be cut.”

The actress Nargis promised to give Kapoor a chocolate if he completed the shot properly. “Basically I started taking bribes from a very early age,” Kapoor joked.

He said that, for the first 25 years of his career, he didn’t do good work. He sang songs, danced with heroines in romantic locations, “and wore colourful sweaters”.

He says that in his “second innings” he is really getting to act, and is enjoying the second phase of his career.

The horrors of dictatorship

The writer and human rights activist Hyeonseo Lee, who is a North Korean defector now living in South Korea, was another of this year’s speakers. She is the author of The Girl With Seven Names (which refers to the way she has had to keep changing her identity).

The book has been published in 21 countries and Lee has given evidence for a special panel at the United Nations Security Council.

Lee is now writing her second book with other female North Koreans living in South Korea and has set up the North Star NK foundation to help North Korean defectors improve their lives and interact with the international community.


Lee told the audience at Jaipur the harrowing story of her escape from North Korea at the age of 17. She recounted the horrors of living under a dictatorship under which forced labour, torture, public executions, and starvation are commonplace.

Even young children are forced to watch the executions, Lee says. She saw her first public hanging at the age of seven, and later watched a man being shot in the head in front of his family. People were executed for such acts as bringing food from China to feed their starving family, or killing a cow because they were hungry, she says.

Lee says the most deaths in North Korea have been caused by starvation, which, from the mid-1990s to early 2000, killed more than a million people.

She also talks about self-denunciation: the criticism sessions that people were forced to attend every Saturday afternoon.

If someone didn’t criticise another person, they would have problems. “We never learned to love each other; we only learned to criticise each other.”

Lee still cannot trust people easily. She is suspicious of new people. She only talks to them by SMS and won’t meet them in person unless she is able to fully check them out.

She is saddened that she cannot trust her fellow defectors. At one stage, her best male friend in South Korea was convicted as a North Korean spy.

She still worries about her safety. After her book was published in 2015, when she was in New York, she received an unnerving phone call from the North Korean National Intelligence Service, where orders had been received from the regime to “do something to this girl who is slandering the country”.

She was afraid that she would be kidnapped and would be forced to speak in favour of the regime.

“I was living in fear. I suspected everyone around me. Whenever I had a book event and somebody wanted to hug me, I felt scared.”

Despite the oppression in North Korea, Lee says she misses her home very much; she misses all her relatives and friends. “I hate that I can only go back to my country in my dreams every night. Everybody is suffering there.”

While she was living in the country, and despite the horrific things she saw, Lee believed the regime’s propaganda: that North Koreans were suffering because of American sanctions.

Lee escaped to China, and lived clandestinely for ten years. At once stage she was captured by the Chinese police and narrowly avoided being sent back to North Korea by convincing them she was a Chinese citizen.

“When we cross the border into China as North Koreans we don’t know how to speak Chinese and we don’t know where to go. The only people waiting for us are human traffickers.”

Lee escaped an arranged marriage, but ended up working in a brothel. Amazingly, within 24 hours, she again managed to escape by outsmarting the brothel owner.

Many other women are not so lucky, Lee says. “That’s the reason I started my foundation in New York and South Korea, to rescue those sex-slave female defectors in China.”

About 200,000 defectors are hiding in China, Lee says, and about 40,000 are sold into sex slavery. She tells heart-rending stories of young women she has managed to rescue, including one who tried to kill herself by jumping from her apartment.

Lee sought political asylum in South Korea in 2008. Twelve years after her own escape, Lee’s mother and brother also got out of North Korea.

She says her view of freedom is now very simple; small things like sitting in a café having a cup of tea, and looking out of the window to see the sky, are happiness to her. “I cherish this freedom and hope it lasts for ever.”

Lee told Changing Times about the hardships faced by North Korean defectors in South Korea. They have great difficulty adjusting to a new society and face serious discrimination and prejudice, she says. Suicide rates among defectors are very high.

“People like us who never tasted freedom before don’t know how to enjoy it. We need somebody guiding us. In North Korea, we never made our own decisions. The government always made decisions for us. We became human robots.”

There are 30,000 North Korean defectors living in the south. “One of the hardest things for them is the economic situation,” Lee said. “It’s hard to survive. It’s hard to find jobs. Another problem is isolation.”

Lee is struggling with her own emotions since her book came out as she is remembering past trauma. “Right now I feel I am suffering more emotional agony than in the past. In the past, I never cried, but right now I am crying a lot.”

She says that it was largely curiosity about the outside world that made her want to escape North Korea. Then there was the famine in the 1900s. “1997 was the year I saw people dying on the street.”

Traditions of healing

p1110854-480x640In a session entitledTraditions of Healing: Travels Through Indian Medicine”, writer, biologist, and broadcaster Aarathi Prasad (pictured left) talked about the way Indian medicine has evolved.

She spoke about India’s huge multiplicity of treatments, ranging from faith healing to hi-tech medicine, and the way patients will often use both systems, seeing no contradiction between the two.

Social inequality, however, reduced the choices available to the poor, who often had no access to safe, free healthcare, Prasad pointed out.

Prasad talked about “fish swallowing”, in which the patient swallows a small fish stuffed with a medicinal paste at an auspicious time of the year, spiritual healing at shrines, and the work being done at an integrated hospital and research institute in Bangalore, where the ayurvedic and unani systems of healing are used along with modern diagnostic tools that have enabled the examination of ayurvedic doshas (constitutional types) at a cellular level.


There was a lively debate about Brexit (the United Kingdom’s decision to leave Europe), with the renowned author A.N. Wilson in discussion with pro-Brexit historian and journalist Andrew Roberts, historian Linda Colley, writer and analyst Surjit Bhalla, and historian, author and commentator Timothy Garton Ash.

Roberts argued that those in favour of leaving Europe were looking forward and trying to make the UK a “proper global country”, free from what Roberts considers to be the shackles of the European Union, and with control over its own economy. “Even if we make mistakes, it’s better to be independent,” Roberts asserted.

Wilson said Brexit was “an encouragement to the neo-Nazi extreme right in Europe”.

Colley commented that what won Brexit was the “incompetence of the Remain campaign”. She said Brexit was setting loose “all kinds of demons” that would be difficult to control.

Referring to Britain’s former prime minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who is now foreign secretary, Garton Ash said the Brexit campaign ended up as a “Boris and Dave show”.

p1110772-640x480Wilson (pictured left) told Changing Times that he believed Brexit would bring about “what we have been praying for since 1922” – a United Ireland.

Inner engineering

Numerous spiritual threads ran through the Jaipur festival and there were discussions about Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the roots of yoga. The subject of atheism in the ancient world was also tackled.

The yogi, mystic, and New York Times best-selling author Sadhguru (pictured below) drew a large crowd.


In conversation with Sanjoy K. Roy about his new book Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy, he talked about the path to inner transformation, harmony, and well-being.

“The entire yogic system is about the geometry of your existence in relation to the cosmic geometry,” Sadhguru told the Jaipur audience. “If you get this geometry right, perception will burst forth. Ultimately, human life is enhanced only by enhancing your perception. The rest is all imagination.” Imagination, Sadhguru says, “is just recycling of your memory”.

Sadhguru urged people to bring their minds to ease so that they can access the intelligence that is beyond intellect.

“There is a deeper dimension of intelligence within you; around you everywhere. The effort and the human striving should be towards accessing this. You don’t have to travel into space to access this.”

If we access this higher dimension of intelligence, we move from superficial logic to the magic of life, Sadhguru says.

He emphasises the importance of sitting and breathing correctly, and eating healthily.

Seventy percent of the US population are already taking prescription medication, he says, and, if nothing is done to remedy the situation, the number of people depending on chemical solutions to try and solve their problems will increase.

India is the world’s largest exporter of beef, Sadhguru told journalists, “and it’s a crime”. Soil quality was bad, and people were drinking the wrong kind of milk, he said.

‘Being the Other’

In a session entitled “Being the Other”, Sadia Dehlvi, who is the author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam, said the delinking of Islam from the Sufi tradition had led to “disastrous consequences”.

Sufism, Dehlvi says, is the spiritual current that flows within Islam. “It represents the dynamism of Islam to adapt to local cultures.” Islam, she says, “is like a clear-water spring that takes on the colours of the land that it flows through”.

namita-gokhale-sadia-dehlvi-and-reema-abbasiDehlvi (pictured left) talked about Islam being hijacked. “I do not think Islam requires you to commit cultural apostasies, and that is what is happening today.”

She says that petrodollars have been the biggest curse in the Muslim communities globally “because that is what is destroying our cultures”.

Problems are arising, Dehlvi  says, because Muslim communities have rejected spiritual traditions and are focusing too much on the law, without compassion.

“Hate is unsustainable. That is why we have to reclaim spirituality for the soul.”


The acclaimed British-Pakistani novelist Qaisra Shahraz said life for Muslims had been a nightmare since 9/11.

“People like us, living in Britain, in the West, are sandwiched between two monsters – ISIS on one side and Islamophobia on the other.”

Anti-Muslim hatred is increasing,  Shahraz says. “As a writer, I am using my platform to reach out to people, to talk to them, to challenge their stereotypes.”

Shahraz also says Islam has been hijacked – and demonised – and Muslim women are being victimised.

“Who has the right to tell me how to dress; whether to take off my niqab; to take off my burqa, or to put it on? It is wrong.”

Filmmaking, migration, and investigative journalism

The playwright, screenwriter and theatre and film director David Hare was as erudite as ever and took part in several sessions at Jaipur, including “The Page is Mightier Than the Screen” and “The Art of the Screenplay”.


In the latter session, he spoke out against boring, “dialogue-heavy” film writing. “Almost all the original filmmaking is going on outside the structural rigidity taught in all those god-awful screenwriting courses in California.”

In a session entitled “Citizens and Borders: Migration and Displacement”, Sean Anderson from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York talked about an exhibition at the gallery that “attempts to locate and define what it is to live in a world that is in transit; in constant flux”.

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera (pictured below) commented: “A new nationalistic wave is trying to come to the world.” Borders, Bruguera said “were made by people with a specific economic interest”.


p1120336-480x640In a session entitled “A Very Expensive Poison: The Story of the Murder of Litvinenko”, Luke Harding (pictured left) talked about the killing of the former Federal Security Service and KGB agent, who fled from court prosecution in Russia and was granted political asylum in the UK and died in November 2006 from acute radiation syndrome caused by polonium-210.

Harding also talked about the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and whistleblower Edward Snowdon, about whom he has also written a book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.

Missed opportunities in Iraq, and ‘Remembering the Raj’

There was an enlightening and troubling session in which the author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, Emma Sky (pictured below), talked about leaving her job with the British Council to volunteer in the country, suddenly becoming the governor of a province, and ending up as the political advisor to an American general.


Britain’s colonisation of India was the subject of several sessions, including one about how the East India Company took over the country, and one about the Raj. “The British came to one of the richest countries in the world at the time … and, over two hundred years of rule, reduced it to one of the poorest countries in the world,” Shashi Tharoor said in “Remembering the Raj”, which is the subject of his recently published book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.

Tharoor listed the things that Indian are supposed to be grateful to the British for: “the railways, the rule of law, political democracy, the English language, tea, and even cricket”, and said “not a single one of them was intended for the benefit of Indians, but was brought here either for the British, or to further British colonial interests; was built for British profit and run through British racism.”

p1110911-480x640Shashi Tharoor


This year was the fourth edition of the festival’s four-day BookMark event, which runs parallel to the main festival and provides a platform for publishers, literary agents, translation agencies and writers to meet and listen to speakers from around the world.

On the last day of BookMark, Nandana Sen spoke about her own work, and that of her mother, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and about translation.


“She writes about the healing and destructive power of language,” Nandana Sen said of her mother.

Oopali Operajita joined Sen on stage and read from The Dynasty Of The Immortals, by Gopinath Mohanty, which she co-translated.


In a session entitled “Trends in Media and Publishing”, Vaibhav Chauhan gave a presentation of the Indian arts, culture, and heritage resource Sahapedia.

p1120058-640x480Vikram Chandra (pictured left) gave a fascinating presentation about Granthika, a tool for writers that combines editing and timeline functions with a database.

Talking about the use of reflexive text, which unifies text and knowledge, Chandra commented that the Word text-editing programme “hasn’t changed over the past half century”.

The Granthika team is building a prototype platform with the help of five fiction authors, who are testing it.

When the Jaipur festival started it attracted just 100 attendees, including a group of Japanese tourists who got lost and turned up there by chance. Now it attracts crowds of more than 300,000.

Some say the festival has become too commercialised, with a host of stalls selling much more than just books. Negotiating the crowds is certainly a challenge, particularly at the weekend, and there is much jostling for seats for the most popular sessions, but the atmosphere was mostly one of tolerance and good humour, and the programme is truly eclectic.

Every morning, festivalgoers are treated to an musical performance on the Front Lawn.


Festival attendees fall into several categories. There are the thousands of people who benefit from free entry, battle with the crowds, and subsist on the food and drink available for sale on-site. These include many students who spend the five days sleeping in the railway station because they can’t afford to pay for a room.

Then there are the guest delegates, who pay 6,000 rupees (about 88 US$) a day to have access to a special delegates lounge, lunch at Diggi, dinner and music at the Clarks Amer hotel, and invitations to a “Delegates Only” session and two special fringe events.

Then there are the authors and other VIPs, who get invited to exclusive parties at places like the Amer Fort.

Only authors and other VIPs are invited to the last-night musical and culinary  extravaganza at the five-star Le Méridien hotel. There’s no evening finale for the public, which is a bit  anti-climactic, but, then, the festival remains free and provides a literary feast to suit all manner of tastes.

“There’s an interconnectedness at the festival that I really appreciate,” said Anne Waldman. “A real range of urgent realities being tackled.”


Sanjoy K. Roy and Anne Waldman (photo by Teamwork Arts).


  1. Mansplaining: a man explaining something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronising.







Hyeonseo Lee’s TED talk

Videos of the festival sessions are available on YouTube.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is joining forces with the Melbourne Writers Festival to present JLF Melbourne on February 11 and 12.