India’s Pink City gears up to host the world’s largest free literary festival

The 11th edition of India’s renowned Jaipur Literature Festival will get underway in the Pink City this coming Thursday, with more than 350 speakers on the programme and nearly 200 sessions spanning an extremely diverse range of topics and genres.

The five-day event, which is held at the Diggi Palace Hotel, and this year runs from January 25 to 29, is the largest free literary festival in the world. This year the speakers hail from more than 35 different countries.

Novelists, poets, playwrights, screenplay writers, translators, and filmmakers will be taking the stage along with environmentalists, politicians, journalists, academics, and popular cultural icons.

This year’s speakers include the British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, who will be discussing his life and work with Sanjna Kapoor in a session entitled “The Real Thing”,  and the American author Amy Tan (pictured left), whose works include the stunning novel The Joy Luck Club, which explores the relationship between four Chinese immigrant women and their Chinese-American daughters, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and The Hundred Secret Senses, and whose latest book is her memoir Where the Past Begins.

Man Booker Prize winner and author of The English Patient Michael Ondaatje, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mohammad Yunus, and the American crime writer, forensic anthropologist, academic, and producer of the TV series Bones, Kathy Reichs, are just three of the other renowed authors coming to Jaipur for this year’s event. 

The festival’s keynote address “Charting a World Without Borders” will be given by British-born American essayist and novelist Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer, known as Pico Iyer (pictured below).

Iyer, who has written two novels and ten works of nonfiction, is best known for his travel writing and is the author of numerous books on crossing cultures, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. 

He will be talking to writer and historian Patrick French about his nomadic life, his work, movement and stillness, and changelessness and change.

One of Iyer’s better-known TED Talks comments is: “For more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil, than you could say, with a piece of soul.”

A global reach

The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, (pictured left) will be in discussion with writer, historian, and festival co-director William Dalrymple. In a session entitled “The Great Survivor”, Karzai will discuss his life, legacy, and leadership, talk about India’s role in Afghanistan past and present, and share his thoughts about the future of his country.

Other speakers include the director, producer, screenwriter, and actor Anurag Kashyap. Three of Kashyap’s recent films have premiered at Cannes and his epic two-part movie Gangs of Wasseypur is hugely popular.

Kashyap has served on the jury at the Sundance, Venice, CPH PIX, and Marrakech film festivals and was awarded the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2013.

The English novelist, journalist, and screenwriter Helen Fielding, who is best known as the creator of Bridget Jones, will be in conversation with Meru Gokhale on the third day of the festival.

On the same day, Australian writer and translator Robert Dessaix, whose best-known books are the autobiography A Mother’s Disgrace, the novel Night Letters, the travel memoirs Twilight of Love and Arabesques, and his meditation on love, friendship, religion, and mortality, What Days Are For, will be in conversation with William Dalrymple.

He will be joined in “The Travel Session” discussion by Pico Iyer, travel writer Hugh Thomson, the Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh, and Redmond O’Hanlon, who is known for his journeys into some of the most remote jungles of the world, in Borneo, the Amazon basin, and the Republic of the Congo.

German writer and veterinarian Ilse Köhler-Rollefson (pictured left) will be talking about camels and other animals who are part of the culture in India. The author of Camel Karma, Köhler-Rollefson spent twenty years among Indian nomads. She writes about human-animal relationships and is a passionate advocate for the rights of pastoral peoples.

Köhler-Rollefson will be joined in the “Camel Karma” session by journalist and conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra, who has been at the forefront of the battle to conserve India’s wildlife for more than a decade. They will be in discussion with writer Paro Anand.

Spotlight on journalism

Journalistic practices will be the focus of numerous sessions this year and one of the speakers will be the Portuguese-American journalist Michael Rezendes (pictured left), who won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative work as a member of The Boston Globe’s legendary Spotlight team.

The team’s investigation into widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests led to several criminal prosecutions and revealed how the Archdiocese of Boston quietly settled child molestation claims against at least seventy priests.

Rezendes will talk about the power of traditional and local reporting, the values, veracity, and commitment required for investigative journalism, and the changing definitions of news in the current media landscape.

Investigative journalist Suki Kim will talk to Michael Breen about going undercover in North Korea.

Kim posed as an evangelical Christian and an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and worked for six months at an evangelical university in Pyongyang.

Her 270 students were the elite of North Korea. They were the sons of high-level officials and were being groomed as future leaders.

The journalists who will participate in the session entitled “Manhunt: Pakistan and the Search for Bin Laden” include the author of Manhunt, Peter Bergen, who met and interviewed Bin Laden and was the only journalist to gain access to his Abbottabad compound before the Pakistani government demolished it.

There will be a session about journalistic objectivity and a debate about how Hollywood has glamourised war journalists, and depicted them as hard-drinking chancers.

Discussions in the session entitled “Among the Insurgents” will focus on the need for accurate reporting about those who take up arms against established governments.

“Greed and Human Aspirations”, “Magical Mystery Tour: the Beatles in India”, “Cleopatra: Queen, Lover, Legend” and “Dark Matter and Dinosaurs: the Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe” (a presentation by the theoretical particle physicist Lisa Randall) are just some of the topics on the festival programme, and, on the last day, there will be a session entitled “America Trumped: How Did This Happen?”.


Support independent journalism that digs deep.

All the content on this website currently remains available to be read for free, but you can donate or take out a paid subscription using the Paypal or GoCardless buttons on the top right-hand side of this and other pages.

Changing Times brings you a unique and panoramic perspective on issues rarely covered elsewhere. Just $5, 5 euro or £5 a month from each of my readers will ensure its sustainability.


Gender issues will be at the forefront of numerous sessions, includingInferior: How Science Got Women Wrong”, in which writer, columnist, and feminist Namita Bhandare will be in conversation with the author and theoretical physicist Lisa Randall.

“Indian Women Mystics: From the Rishikas to the Bhakti Poets” promises to be an illuminating session. The participants will delve deeply into history and look at the ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns Rigveda, in which 27 women had their work represented. 

Journalists Kota Neelima and writer and translator Namita Waikar will be in discussion with Namita Bhandare in a session entitled “Visible Work, Invisible Women”.

Neelima is the author of four novels focused on the themes of farmer suicides, gender issues, and media and political ethics in India, as well as two books on spirituality. Her upcoming non-fiction book, Widows of Vidarbha, Making of Shadows, is based on the lives of widows on farms in India.

Waikar anchors and curates the Grindmill Songs Project, in which songs traditionally sung by rural women at the grindmill are collated, recorded, transcribed, and translated.

The database already contains more than 100,000 folk songs composed and sung by generations of women in Maharashtra while toiling at the grindmill at home and performing other household tasks. Close to 30,000 of the songs have been digitally recorded and 40,000 have been translated into English from the original Marathi.

The project is run by the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). The digital journalism platform has been described as an “archive of the living past, a journal of the present, and a textbook of the future”.

Bhandare was appointed as India’s first gender editor for the Mint newspaper and continues to write a fortnightly column on gender and social issues for The Hindustan Times.  

In “Fish at War and a Cup of Brew: The Politics and Poetics of Women’s Work in India’s Northeast”, novelist and poet Mamang Dai, visual artist Minam Apang, and poet Mona Zote will be in conversation with graphic novelist and educationist Parismita Singh.

The festival’s closing debate will be “#MeToo: Do Men Still Have It Too Easy?”.

Environmental conservation

Protecting our environment will be the subject of several discussions at Jaipur and one of the speakers will be the conservationist and educator Hema Maira.

 Maira will take part in two sessions: “The Vanishing: Tigers, Forests and Nature” and “Swachh Bharat: Taking Responsibility for Change”.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a massive movement, officially launched in October 2014, which is working to create a clean India.

In a session entitled “River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future”, former India correspondent for the Financial Times Victor Mallet will talk about the history of the holy river from ancient times up until the present day. The Ganges, he will tell the audience, is now choked with sewage and toxic waste.

The participants in “Conflicts of Interest: Betrayals of the Earth” will address the causes and consequences of climate catastrophe.

In “Waters of Contention: Asian Faultlines” the participants will talk about disputes over territory in the South China Sea and rivers that run through India and Pakistan, and  the water resources of the Brahmaputra river, which are a potential flashpoint in relations between India and China.

In a session entitled “Greed and Human Aspiration”, economists and sociologists will discuss the role of the market economy, the political ecology of consumption, and the ideals of frugality and sustainability.

They will explore the idea that greed and the search for immediate gratification are at the core of modern society’s endless cycle of aspiration and consumption, and will talk about the depletion of the world’s resources, militarisation, conflict, and climate change.

In one of the festival sessions, journalist Victoria Lautman will discuss her book The Vanishing Stepwells of India, which documents the history and importance of these traditional water storage systems. In conversation with writer and hotelier Aman Nath, who is a pioneer in heritage restoration, and writer, archaeologist, and historian Rima Hooja, Lautman will talk about the architecture of the stepwells and their role in groundwater conservation ecosystems.

Book launches

More than twenty new books will be launched at the festival, including the Hindi version of An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by the writer, former diplomat, and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor and the just-published novel, Last Email, by Mridula Garg, which tells the tale of two intertwined lives: that of Kevin, a vicar devoted to the political struggle for Scottish independence, and that of Maya, a reputed author of Hindi literary works.

Other books to be launched include The Golden Dakini, which delves into Tibetan-Buddhist mythology; India’s Heritage of Gharana Music: Pandits of Gwalior by Meeta Pandit; and the fourth volume of Chhote Haath Badi Baat, which is an anthology of literary and artistic works created by children from diverse educational and socio-economic backgrounds throughout the various workshops and celebrations organised by Bal Bhavan Jaipur over the past year. Central themes are selfless service and the lessons we can learn from nature.

Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit (pictured below) will be releasing her memoir Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life at the festival.

Radius 200, a dystopian love story by Veena Nagpal that is set in a world after nuclear war, is due to be launched on the same day, along with Governing the Ungovernable by Ishrat Hussain, who examines the reasons for the steady decline in Pakistan’s economic and social development.

Contrary to popular belief, factors such as terrorism, foreign assistance, military rule, and global economic conditions are not the sole or even main reasons for the declining performance of the country, Hussain says. The real reason, he argues, is the weakening of civilian institutions of governance.

In a lighter vein, Pakistan Heritage Cuisine: A Food Story explores how the cuisine of a country is intricately woven into its fabric and is shaped by the history and characteristics of a region and its people. The book, by Sayeeda Leghari, is scheduled for launch on Day 4.

Touch the Sky: The Inspiring Stories of Women from Across India Who Are Writing Their Own Destiny, by Rashmi Bansal, is also due to be launched at the festival, along with Chinatown Days, a searing novel by Rita Chowdhury about Chinese Indians that tells the story of the horrors of slavery on the tea plantations in Assam.

Writer, publisher, and co-director of the festival, Namita Gokhale (pictured left) said: “This is a vintage year for the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, with an amazing line-up of international and Indian writers and multiple strands of thoughtfully curated sessions.

“A space to interrogate our changing times and to encounter poetry and the dreaming mind, the festival returns with its unique brand of magic, whimsy, and intellectual rigour.”

Gokhale says one of the trends in literature that she discerns in 2018 and coming years is mythology. “The space for books based on Indian mythology has grown immensely since the time I wrote the children’s Mahabharata and In Search of Sita (2009), and I foresee that it will grow even further in the years to come,” she wrote in a recent article published in DNA India.

“I truly think that the dumbing down of the publishing industry is finally being reversed, and this is a trend that will become more evident in the coming year,” she added.

Gokhale also predicts that speculative fiction, which includes science fiction, fantasy, superhero fiction, science fantasy, horror, and supernatural fiction, as well as their combination, will also take off this year.

“Short, nano stories will also find their place, but provided the writers find the right format.

“Another trend that will slowly unfold over the years to come is that of enhanced fiction – audio books and the like, which bring into play the other sensory facilities such as voice, even smell … and are interactive. These serve to make reading a complete experience.”

Shared stories and narratives reinforce our human bonds and understanding, Gokhale says.

William Dalrymple says the festival organisers have gathered talent from across the globe – from Afghanistan to Patagonia and Tasmania to Turkey.

“We delve deeply into areas of world literature we have so far failed to explore, notably the novelists and poets of Scandinavia, Syria, and West Africa, while returning to examine eternal classics such as the works of Conrad, Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf.”

Sanjoy K. Roy (pictured left), the managing director of Teamwork Arts, who produce the festival, says the organisers are looking forward to the “infectious energy of intellectual debate and dynamism that charges the festival’s atmosphere” and comes, he says, from a mingling of celebrated minds, diverse perspectives, and heightened cultural experiences.

“What is heartening is that this incredible global phenomenon that the festival has evolved into is still deeply rooted in its core identity as a completely accessible and democratic platform.”

Over the past decade, the Jaipur Literature Festival has hosted nearly two thousand speakers and welcomed more than a million book lovers from across India and the globe.

Gokhale says the festival’s core values remain unchanged: “to serve as a democratic, non-aligned platform offering free and fair access”.

Dogged by controversy 

The festival organisers have experienced difficult moments over the years when there have been protests over the presence of particularly controversial speakers.

Last year, there was a demonstration outside the Diggi Palace by a small group of fundamentalists who were furious about the surprise appearance by the exiled Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen.

There was also criticism last year of the fact that two senior functionaries from the right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – Manmohan Vaidya and Dattatreya Hosabale – were in the festival line-up.

The festival organisers pointed out, however, that this was not the first time that the event has had right-wing speakers in its programme.

In 2012, the author Salman Rushdie had been scheduled to take part in the festival, but cancelled his visit in the face of an assassination threat. Rushdie wrote to the organisers saying: “I can’t imperil the audience or my fellow writers or any of you.”

There were threats of violence over a planned video link-up with the author, however, and the owner of the Diggi Palace, Ram Pratab Singh, stepped in at the last minute. Heeding the advice of the Jaipur police commissioner, he said he was unable to take responsibility for a truncheon charge and possible deaths in a venue full of children and elderly people, and forbade the video link-up to take place on his property.

This year, it is controversy over a new movie Padmaavat, which is based on Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat, that has spread to the Jaipur event.

Furious at the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for clearing the movie, the fringe group the Rajput Karni Sena has threatened to prevent the CBFC’s chairman Prasoon Joshi from entering Jaipur and attending the literature festival.

The group alleges – not having seen the film – that ‘Padmaavat’ distorts history and hurts Rajput pride.

Joshi is scheduled to participate in a session “Main aur Woh: Conversations with Myself” on January 28.

India’s Supreme Court stayed the ban imposed on the film in several states, and paved the way for its planned release on January 25.

Music and dance

Each day the Jaipur festival commences with a musical performance on the main stage at the Diggi Palace Hotel.

Performers at the evening music sessions at the Clarks Amer hotel will include the global ambassadors of contemporary Rajasthani folk and Sufi music The Barmer Boys, Afro Celt Sound System, and The Ska Vengers from New Delhi, who blend ska, dub, punk, jazz, and rap in their innovative music.

This year’s heritage event at the Hawa Mahal palace will be “The Troth”, a multimedia dance and theatre performance that tells a story of love, loss, and sacrifice against the backdrop of the horrors of World War I.

The event at the Amber Fort will begin with a performance by Sarangi maestro Ustad Kamal Sabri, the son of Sarangi legend Ustad Sabri Khan Sahab, followed by Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, a tribute to late ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh by singer and composer Shekhar Ravjiani.



While the festival is free, attendees can buy a special delegate’s ticket, which gives them access to the exclusive lunch and dinner areas and the delegates’ lounge, entry to two special fringe events at heritage sites in Jaipur, and an invitation to the “Delegates Only” session.

Four years ago, the Jaipur Literature Festival launched a new initiative: Jaipur BookMark, which is held in parallel with the main festival and provides a platform for publishers, literary agents, translation agencies, and writers to meet, talk, and listen to speakers from around the world. This year it runs from January 24 to 28.

There are also satellite festival events in England, Australia, and the United States.


Article updated on 23/01/2018 and 24/01/2018.