Jaipur festival audiences cross continents on an eclectic journey of literary discovery

The 11th Jaipur Literature Festival took attendees on an eclectic, five-day journey of discovery that spanned continents, genres, and an impressive diversity of subjects.

Politics, the environment, the plight of wildlife, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the Rohingya crisis, oppression in Palestine, sex trafficking, greed and human aspiration, “youth and the age of anxiety”, the pollution of the Ganges River, and adapting novels for the screen are just a few of the issues that were tackled.

The Jaipur event, which is the largest free literary festival in the world, was this year attended by more than 350 speakers hailing from more than 35 different countries.

There were about half a million footfalls at the festival this year, which is a record number and about 23 percent more than last year.

There was an element of controversy when film certification board chairman Prasoon Joshi, who had been due to talk at the festival, was threatened by the fringe group the Rajput Karni Sena.

Furious at the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for clearing a new movie Padmaavat, which is based on Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat, Karni Sena threatened to prevent Joshi from entering Jaipur and attending the festival.

The group alleges – without having seen the film – that ‘Padmaavat’ distorts history and hurts Rajput pride.

Joshi (pictured left) decided not to attend the festival, saying he did not want the dignity of the event to be compromised or discomfort to be caused to the organisers, fellow writers, or the attendees. Also, he said, he wanted the lovers of literature to be able to focus on creativity, not controversy. He said he did his job in relation to Padmaavat and “sincerely took a sensitive and balanced call”.

Certification of the film, Joshi said, was done with due processes, incorporating valid suggestions whilst staying mindful about the concerns of the society and the canvas of cinema.

“It’s sad that we are not relying on genuine peaceful dialogue,” he added. “It’s important that we keep mutual trust and faith in each other and our institutions so that the issues don’t reach this far.”

Sanjoy K. Roy from Teamwork Arts, who produce the Jaipur festival, said he respected Joshi’s standpoint, but added: “There is no place for violence in the narrative of the new India.”

Opening the festival, Roy said that, around the world, cultural heritage was at risk because of increased violence.

“It is crucial in our times that citizens absolutely understand and appreciate the importance of culture, of a place where they can come and discuss, debate, and, most importantly, create a sense of dissent.”

The spoken word was centre stage at the festival this year and there were performances from poets from India, the United States, Canada, and Malaysia, and by the French-American poet and playwright, Nathalie Handal, who was born in Haiti to a Palestinian family from Bethlehem.

The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur (pictured below) performed on the first day of the festival. She is a young woman who has taken the literary world by storm. Her latest book, the sun and her flowers, was an instant global bestseller. Her debut work, milk and honey, was the best-selling book in the US last year. More than 2.5 million copies have been sold and the book has been translated into more than thirty languages.

Cultural diversity

Borders of all kinds are crossed at the Jaipur festival, and the organisers’ global vision was epitomised this year by the American essayist and novelist Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer, known as Pico Iyer, who gave the inaugural keynote address and participated in several sessions.

Iyer, who was born in England to parents from India, has a home in Japan and spends part of each year in a Benedictine hermitage in California, spoke about how the world of English literature opened up to writers from diverse cultures.

“Suddenly poppadoms and Bollywood jingles and Nigerian spirits and Jamaican patois were filling our pages and suddenly our books were crackling with strange garments, fresh spices, new melodies.

“What all these writers were doing was not just throwing open the doors and the windows of the dusty Havisham House of literature, but bringing us new stories, new histories, and new ways of telling stories.

“These days the defining American writers have names that most American readers can’t pronounce.”

The capital of 21st century writing in English so far, Iyer says, is Mumbai.

Iyer told the audience that many people feel threatened by the “rainbow flood” and would love to return to a simpler world of us versus them.

“We’ve all witnessed, sometimes painfully, a rise in nationalism and brutal tribalism across the planet in the last year or two and it’s as if the countryside is rising up against the city, the desperate are rising up against what they see as the privileged, and the past is rising up against the future.

“In the context of this struggle, literature is indispensable precisely because it’s the voice of the individual.”

Our global neighbourhood, Iyer says, is grievously wounded. “Poets are ever more being eclipsed by novelists and novelists more and more by multimedia devices, weapons of mass distraction.”

The blessing of writing, Iyer says, “is to speak over the wall and under the wall and around the wall”.

The state over which we have the greatest control, he adds, is the state of our imaginations.

“Ultimately, we change the world by changing how we think of it, by changing how we dream of it.”

Crossing cultures

One of the notable cross-cultural discussions at Jaipur was the conversation between the author of Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, Sujatha Gidla, and American performance poet Jovan Mays.

Mays (pictured left) is the former Poet Laureate of Aurora, Colorado, a national poetry slam champion, a TED speaker, and the director of “Your Writing Counts”, a youth poetry programme in Denver that engages just over 200,000 students annually.

He talked to the Jaipur audience about his poem The Burning House, written jointly with Theo Wilson in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2014, and about the wider recognition of police brutality that happened that year.

The title of the poem harks back to a comment Martin Luther King made to the singer, songwriter, actor, and social activist Harry Belafonte about civil rights. King said he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was integrating his people into a burning house.

Gidla is a Dalit who migrated to the United States at the age of 26 and now works as a conductor on the New York subway. She is a Marxist and believes that we can engage in struggle wherever we are, She speaks about the connection she feels with the oppression of Black people in the US.

She told the Jaipur audience about her participation in a rally of 10,000 New Yorkers against the Klu Klux Klan. “I do feel,” Gidla said, “that the struggles of Black people are my struggles, not as an outsider, but as part of you.”

Talking about the fight for the rights of Dalit people, she said that caste is a social institution, not a religious one. Hinduism, she says, is a religious prop for the caste system.

 “You cannot legislate away untouchability,” Gidla said. “You cannot protest away untouchability.

“You have to look at the reasons why untouchability is still being practised. Who is it benefitting to perpetuate the caste system and how are they benefitting? You have to look at that aspect of untouchability and strike at that.”

The roots of untouchability, Gidla says, lie in the agricultural structure in India and the landowners’ need for plentiful, dependent, reliable labour. There needs, she says, to be a restructuring of the Indian economy.

Gidla told Changing Times that there had been a steady increase in violence and the brutality of that violence since the late 1960s.

“There used to be sporadic murders of Dalits; now it’s mass-scale murders, the whole village of Dalits wiped out.”

She recounts one horrific case in 2007 when the bodies of the Dalit victims were chopped up into little pieces, put into gunny bags, and thrown into a canal.

The increasing violence, she says, is a backlash against the increasing desire of Dalits for a better social position.

Gilda says change can be brought about by gathering together people who are genuinely not interested in caste for their own sake. Emotions overwhelmed her and she cried as she tried to explain how the working class has the power to bring about change.

“Workers, if they withhold work, even for one day, everything comes to a screeching halt.

“If workers take up the struggle for Dalits it will change.”

Because of their poverty, Dalits are very easily weaned away from the struggle by small incentives, Gidla says. Politicians tell them they are part of Hinduism, and they are pitted against Muslims.

Gidla talked about the time, in 1986, when she was arrested and tortured. “There were no specific charges. It was just for the sake of harassing me.”

She also spoke about Dalit suicides, particularly of university students, who are harassed and feel they don’t belong. She cites the case of one PhD student, Rohith Chakravarti Vemula, who took his own life in January 2106. His stipend had been withheld for months, with the result that he had no money even for food and couldn’t send money to his parents, who were also depending on the payment.

Gilda broke down again after telling Vemula’s story. The reason, she said, was survivor guilt.

“Every time I eat I feel like there are people who don’t get this food. Every time I see my nieces having nice things I feel that there are children who don’t have these things.”

Jovan told Changing Times that Gidla’s way of holding people accountable had made him think that maybe he should ease up on his empathy for certain people and do that more himself.

The choice to be identified as a poet is a pretty difficult one, Jovan says. “There’s not a blueprint for what your success looks like. Publication of contemporary poetry does not equate to success in today’s society.”

For Jovan, the act of being a poet is trying to bring something to light that is commonly not brought to light, “whether that it is the fact that you have noticed the curvature of a cedar tree or that you have seen a pattern of abuse that has created a belief inside of your family that is symptomatic of society”.

He talks about poetry being “tiramisued”. There are, he says “so many layers to everything that we want to express”.

Jovan says he is a big fan of linguistics and of rhetoric. “I learn from presidents to pulpits. There’s a lot of science behind the spoken word that hasn’t really been written about yet.”

He emphasises the importance of documentation and encourages his students to write their own stories, so those stories don’t get washed away or perverted.

“If you are not on time, you are going to miss some things that are really important. So many of us, we lose our grandparents, we lose our parents, before we got to ask them those great questions to bring forth our familial history.”

And, Jovan tells students, “you might find a thread through your family that’s an issue of social justice.”

Jovan has a “writer’s lab”: his desktop computer with a bunch of notebooks laying around and notes on the wall that inspire him.

The US has had crazy presidents before, Jovan says. They may have been more presidential and less “say-it-to-your-face” than Donald Trump, but having a brash white man as president is nothing new, he says, and the current administration, he adds, “is teaching us more than we want to give it credit for”.

Americans, Jovan says, are “sheep in wolves’ fur”. The US, he says, is a culture of unoriginality, assimilation, silence, and complacency, but it’s also a country built of immigrants and refugees. “Because of that we have some survival instincts that I think are unique.”

Honesty and humour from Amy Tan

Book lovers were treated to a wonderful session with the American author Amy Tan (pictured left), whose works include the best-selling novel The Joy Luck Club, which explores the relationship between four Chinese immigrant women and their Chinese-American daughters, and was made into a movie. Her latest book is her memoir, Where the Past Begins.

Tan was in spirited and often hilarious conversation with the writer and photographer Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who sees her as his spiritual grandmother.

Tan is extremely candid and delighted the audience with tales not only of her life as a writer, but of her time as a leather-clad, dominatrix rock star, who, on her own admission, sang very badly. She was in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band whose members were all published writers and which raised $2 million for charity.

Don Henley from the Eagles gave a scathing review of one of the Remainders’ performances and said the women sounded like alley cats.

Amy Tan fronting the Rock Bottom Remainders at the Nokia Theatre in New York city in April 2010.

Tan had the audience in fits of laughter as she recounted her conversation with the then US president Barack Obama at a State dinner at the White House.

She was sitting directly across from Obama – of whom she was in total awe – and he said to her, “I hear you’re in a band”. He asked her what she played and her answer was “the dominatrix”. She then went on to tell him about her renditions of “Leader of the pack”, and suggested that they should sing it together.

She then went on to say embarrassing things to the then prime minister of Singapore.

Tan talked about forgetting her lyrics, going into a bondage shop in the gay district of San Francisco to buy outfits, and the time she decided to wear a pink outfit with a red wig on stage, thinking it would be really cute.

There were visible gasps when she told the audience about the time when her mother, as she put it, “went a little crazy”, locked her in a room, backed her up to the wall, and held a meat cleaver to her throat.

Wild-eyed, Tan’s mother told her that she planned to kill Tan, her younger brother John, and then herself. (Tan’s father and older brother, Peter, died within six months of each other when she was aged 15.)

Tan had no memory of her mother attacking her until she recalled it twenty five years later when attending a writing workshop during which participants people were asked to recall a moment when they thought they were going to die.

Her mother’s reaction when Tan asked her if she remembered trying to kill her was “oh God, you made me so mad”.

Tan is a highly spiritual person, who was very much in contact with her mother – who left behind her three young daughters when she moved to the US with her lover, a Baptist minister – and the grandmother she had never met, who committed suicide, to check the veracity of what she was writing.

She says that, aside from the consultation she has in her mind or her heart with people who have departed, she finds inspiration in just about anything.

“I can see something happening in an airport and that’ll be the inspiration and idea for a chapter, even a whole story.”

Tan told the audience about dreaming, and how she can remember and control dreams. “I have always been a prolific dreamer,” she told the audience. “I’ve gotten whole short stories or the answer to a problem of where the story is going.” Tan once dreamt a whole novel, which she hasn’t written yet.

She says that writing The Joy Luck Club was like creating a sculpture, adding layers, removing things, and seeing contradictions.

Tan says having ambiguity, confusion, damage, and problems is good for her as a writer.”

Nature – seeing the ocean, the islands, and the mountains where she lives in San Francisco – is very important to Tan. “It is one of the main things that makes me happy today,” she says.


The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai drew the crowds. He talked about his childhood, leading his country, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, his role in the mujahideen, the assassination of his father, and his love for India, and shared his thoughts about the future of his country.

Karzai spoke of how he initially agreed with and supported the Taliban, and was later hunted by them.

He told how, in the same half an hour, he narrowly escaped being killed by an American bomb and heard the news he had been chosen as president. The country, at that stage, was in a state of total destruction, he said.

Karzai says the Western media claims he is anti-American. He says he is in fact very pro-America and very pro-Western. His stand against the US, he says, was because “they were hurting Afghanistan by bombing our country … by taking prisoners, and by ignoring the sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan, from where we were getting destroyed.” He was referring to Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

Talking about US policy in his country, he said: “Whether it was deliberate or mistakes, they have to correct it, and correct it soon.”

Asked if he had regrets, he said that Afghanistan should not have adopted a free-market economy. “It went into a free-for-all thing where some people became billionaires overnight and others remained as they were.”

Asked about corruption, he said Afghanistan was not more or less corrupt than the countries around it, or even in Europe.

“The big corruption in Afghanistan was not an Afghani corruption; it was the corruption of the US money and contracts that they gave to people,” Karzai said,

He cited the case of one young Afghani who received his first contract from the Americans when he was just 17. Five years later he was getting contracts worth no less than 100 million dollars each.

Afghanistan is not secure, Karzai says. “We do support President Trump’s statement on Pakistan’s use of extremism and we hope that now they will take action; we hope that now they will walk the talk.

Peace will not come to Afghanistan without Pakistan agreeing to peace, or the Pakistani establishment being forced to agree to peace, Karzai says.

“If we don’t have peace in Afghanistan, I can say with great clarity and great conviction that it is because of the United States and Pakistan together.”

The hunt for Bin Laden

Journalist Peter Bergen produced the first published interview with the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 1997. In the interview, Bin Laden made his first declaration of war against the US, citing its support for Israel, the Egyptian regime, and the Saudi monarchy.

Bergen told the Jaipur audience that Bin Laden carried himself like a cleric and spoke quietly despite his words being full of anger towards the US.

The 9/11 attacks in the US would not have happened without Bin Laden, Bergen says. There was opposition within Al-Qaeda to those attacks, Bergen said, but Bin Laden ran the organisation as a dictatorship.

In a discussion about whether, in having Bin Laden living on its soil in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was complicit or incompetent, journalist Adrian Levy said there was no evidence of complicity. There was a “cape of invisibility” stitched around Bin Laden, he told the audience.

Levy’s partner and fellow journalist, Cathy Scott-Clark, with whom he co-authored the book about Bin Laden, and Al-Qaeda, The Exile, also said there was incompetence. She pointed out that Bin Laden was living just one kilometre from Pakistan’s premier military academy.

Levy and Scott-Clark found evidence that Bin Laden did leave the Abbottabad compound and “was a bit of a daredevil”. There is, they say, the famous story of him hiding in the back of a van whose driver was given a ticket for speeding.

Bergen said that Bin Laden was hiding from people on the compound in which he was hiding. “There is no evidence for the assertion that Pakistan knew.”

A reality stranger than fiction

One of the most extraordinary stories told at Jaipur was the one about a nuclear-powered spying device being buried in an avalanche on the Nanda Devi, one of the highest mountains in India, close to one of the tributaries of the Ganges river.

The tale sounds like something out of James Bond movie, but it’s true.

In “The Travel Session”, writer Hugh Thomson told how, in 1962, the American CIA and India’s Intelligence Bureau decided to collaborate in a clandestine mission to plant the device on the mountain, which is on the border with China.

The book in which Thomson tells the story – Nanda Devi – was published in England 15 years ago, but, for legal and political reasons, it was not published in India until this year.

The device was carried halfway up the mountain by a crack team of Indian and American mountaineers.

“The American mountaineers were given man tan so that they could darken their skins and blend in on this so-called covert operation,” Thomson told his astonished audience.

Winter arrived, however, and it was decided that the device should be left on the mountain until the following year. By the time the mountaineers came back, a landslide had covered and lost the device, Thomson said.

For many years, Thomson says, the Indian government managed to suppress the story completely.

“This nuclear-powered spying device is still, as far as we know, covered by a landslide somewhere in the Nanda Devi sanctuary,” Thomson told the audience.

“And this is why the Indian government refuses to let anyone go into the sanctuary area. They claim it’s for ecological reasons; it isn’t; it is for military reasons.”

Teams of sappers are sent in from time to time to try and find the device, but to no avail.

Thomson says an investigation should be held into the whole affair. He told Changing Times that the area in which the device has been lost is a beautiful area of the Himalayas, which has been celebrated by renowned authors and mythologised in stories like Shangri-La, “but at the heart of it, mankind has now potentially polluted it with a radioactive spying device”.

In Nanda Devi, Thomson writes about the intelligence services trying to plant another “chunk of plutonium” on another mountain, Nanda Kot. “The device was so hot that it sank into the snow so, when they went back to check on it, it had created its own underground chamber.”

The story of the spying device is a surreal element of Nanda Devi, but Thomson didn’t want it to take over the book, which is also about Thomson’s experience of going to the mountain, the mountain’s history, and travellers who have been there.

“I was fascinated by the idea of why climbers climb mountains and what they find, and what this particular mountain has symbolised over the years,” Thomson said.

From a prison cell to writing fame

One of the most extraordinary people attending this year’s festival was the Bengali Dalit author Manoranjan Byapari who, when he was in his early twenties, learnt to write scratching letters into the dirt on the floor of his prison cell with a stick.

Reading, he says, became an obsession and he went on to read four or five hundred books. He has since published nine novels and numerous short stories, and, in 2014, received the Bangla Academy Prize for his autobiography Itibritte Chandal Jibon (Interrogating My Life), which has been translated into nine languages, including English, and was launched at this year’s Jaipur festival. .

Byapari, who is now 68, was involved in the Naxalite Communist movement and was at one stage a wanted man.

He had a realisation, however, that, in the violent struggle for social change, everyone who was dying on both sides of the divide was poor, so he stepped back from the movement. He ended up in jail, however, after someone informed on him.

When Byapari came out of jail, he worked as a rickshaw puller, and, in an extraordinary twist of fate, one of his passengers was the celebrated author the late Mahasweta Devi.

Byapari asked Devi the meaning of a particular word and Devi was taken aback that a rickshaw puller would know that word. Byapari recounted his story and told Devi about some of the books he had read, including five that she had written. One of her books was under the seat in his rickshaw.

Devi suggested that he should write a book himself, and bring it to her, and only then did he realise who she was.

Writing his first book, which was a novel about a rickshaw puller, was very difficult, Byapari says, but he did it, it was published, and he became a big news story.

His books now sell in the hundreds of thousands.

Byapari is a modest, enchanting man, who has by no means forgotten the rigours and realities of his early life. He describes himself as a “protest writer”.

He was clearly relishing his time at the Jaipur festival, and the much-deserved celebration of his writing success.

Travellers’ tales

Australian Robert Dessaix describes writing about travel as a “going-home ritual”. Unless you are happy at home, he says, you will not travel well.

Travel, Dessaix says, is always, on some level, an erotic experience. He talks about astonishment, transfiguration, and gasping with wonder, about travel sharpening your appetite for life, not quenching it.

Ravishment, Dessaix has written, is the key to travel, to being alive. “It must make everything that has been ordinary about you now feel extraordinary.”

For Dessaix, travel is about going behind “enemy lines”, not about going somewhere familiar.

“Going to Canada is just like staying at home, but colder,” he told the Jaipur audience. “Canada is nice, Canadians are nice, but you don’t want nice when you travel.”

Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh read from his book Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, and talked about the joy of rambling in the highlands and islands of Scotland, far from “criminal, political, and physical disasters” and the “unending sequence of wars” that he has lived through in his home in Ramallah on the occupied West Bank.

Shehadeh told his audience about the calamity of Jewish settlement, the destruction of ancient ruins, the deletion of signs in Arab villages by “over-active” settlers, the distortion of history, and his hope to preserve at least in words “what has been lost forever “.

Pico Iyer talked about what he considers to be the folly of bucket lists. They provide a clarifying sense of direction, he says, but fly in the face of the first two laws of travel: that on any good trip our expectations will be upended and that most of us don’t know what to look for until we see it.

“The whole point of travel of travel, for me at least, is to have my sense of possibility expanded.”

Iyer says his bucket list these days “consists mostly of empty space”.

The Rohingya

In a session on the last day of the festival, the audience in the Mughal Tent heard about the horrific suffering of Rohingya refugees.

The Rohingya are mostly from the Rakhine State in Myanmar. The majority are Muslim and a minority are Hindu. The United Nations has described them as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They have faced discrimination in Myanmar for generations and been denied citizenship rights as they are seen as migrants from Bangladesh. Bangladesh says they are Myanmar citizens.

The veteran foreign correspondent and south Asia bureau chief for the New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman; emergency communications specialist Shelley Thakral; research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute and author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide Azeem Ibrahim; and journalists Nick Perry and Praveen Swami, discussed the Rohingya crisis in a conversation with author Salil Tripathi.

Gettleman, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, talked about the helplessness he has felt in face of the atrocities he has seen and people who are “traumatised, broke, and homeless”. In the Rohingya’s case, he says, “they’re stateless; nobody wants them”.

He spoke about soldiers at a mega camp in Myanmar butchering men and raping women. He talked about them ripping a woman’s son out of her arms and throwing him into a fire.

“She says the last words she heard were her son crying for her. They then marched her into a house and they raped her again and again. They killed her mother; they killed her sisters.

“She was left for dead in this burning house and woke up because of the smoke and then somehow ran out, totally naked, covered in blood, dodging the soldiers who were still there killing other people, and made it to Bangladesh a week later.”

Gettlement told the audience: “At the end of the interview I just watched this crushed young woman trudge back into these camps; this frail figure just disappear into these masses of people and that was the last that I saw of her.”

There have been claims that many Rohingya stories are fabricated. Gettleman says that, in the case of the camp massacre, he talked to dozens of other people in different areas who told him almost exactly the same story.

“These people were not arranging some media PR blitz for my benefit. They were spread out over these camps that were miles apart.”

There are a million people on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar and neither side wants them, Gettleman told the Jaipur audience.

Not only is Bangladesh poor, but it is also one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, he pointed out. And, in addition, the Bangladesh government is urgently putting huge sandbags in place along the coast at Cox’s Bazar to stop the ocean from rising.

The Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. (Photo courtesy of World Renew.)

Shelley Thakral talked about her experience in the refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, to which more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled.

She echoed Gettleman’s account. “These people have got the same stories. They’re orphans, they’re young women, they’ve been raped, they’ve seen their husbands killed.

“We meet them at the border and they’ve probably walked for four to five days. They’re hungry, they’re traumatised, they’ve seen their homes taken away, they’ve seen their lives burnt to the core.”

Thakral talked about a second disaster looming. When the monsoon and cyclones arrive, thousands more people are going to die, she says.

Nick Perry also echoed Gettleman’s experience of seeing people up and down the border, day in, day out, repeating the same stories of arson, rape, and murder. “This isn’t some sort of gigantic campaign to sway international opinion. A lot of these people are illiterate farmers.”

Perry’s response to allegations that Rohingya have burned down their own homes is to tell the story of a man he met who was holding a toddler who was black and pink from burns, and covered in bandages. Her father had just managed to drag her out of the blaze. How can one imagine the Rohingya doing this to themselvesPerry asks.

Perry talked about the planned repatriation of Rohingya from Bangladesh back to Myanmar. Bangladesh says noone will be forced to return to Myanmar, but Perry says it is impossible to imagine that Myanmar would meet even one of the conditions the Rohingya would insist upon as necessary for their return.

Praveen Swami described all the talk of repatriation of the Rohingya from India as “complete rubbish”.

Asked what has happened to Indian compassion (India not welcoming the Rohingya), Swami said compassion and empathy were not his business as a journalist.

He says there is too much “empathy journalism”, which, he says, blurs reporters’ ability to meaningfully engage with the politics of a situation.

Thakral, who works for the United Nations, disagrees. She says empathy journalism helps her to “message the story”, get funding, appeal to donors, and raise awareness.

There are of course not two sides to genocide, Swami says, but politically, he argues, there are always at least ten sides to a story and journalists’ judgements need to be informed by a sense of history and a “granular knowledge” of what is going on.

Gettleman agrees that understanding the causes of the Rohingya and other conflicts is very important, but says there are “absolute wrongs”. There are not two sides to massacring unarmed civilians, he says, and the Rohingya are being victimised one hundred percent.

The role of journalism

The role and ethics of journalism were the subject of several sessions, including one featuring a journalist from the Spotlight investigative team from the Boston Globe, Michael Rezendes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

Rezendes talked about the Spotlight investigation into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the cover-up of the scandal by the Catholic hierarchy.

The experience of uncovering the cover-up was like experiencing a series of big revelations, a series of earthquakes, Rezendes says.

“The thing that blew everybody’s mind was that the highest Church officials in the Boston archdiocese, including the senior Catholic official in the United States, were fully aware of the extent of the child sexual abuse within the Church and nevertheless allowed it to continue happening.”

Rezendes told the audience that the Spotlight investigation started with one priest, John Geoghan, who molested more than 150 children over thirty years in six different parishes.

“Now we know that there were more than 250 priests who were credibly accused of sexually abusing children in the Boston archdiocese alone.”

The scandal of the cover-up of child sex abuse by priests spread all over America, Rezendes said. “What we didn’t expect is that the scandal would spread all over the world.”

Rezendes cites Argentina, France, and Australia, where the government has set up a special commission to investigate child sexual abuse and has discovered rampant abuse within the Catholic Church there.

Rezendes also talked about his work exposing the deficiencies in the mental health care system in Massachusetts.

“In the United States we have really stopped taking care of people with a serious mental illness, so, instead of being in hospitals where they can be cared for, they’re out on the street, they’re in jail, and they’re being treated often in very barbaric ways.”

Investigative reporting, Rezendes says, is essential to our democracies and our freedom. “The job of a journalist is to always question authority.”

It is more important than ever, Rezendes says, for journalists to be factual and credible.

“What motivates me,” he says, “is to make change. I want to write stories that make the world a better place.”

Four months after the Spotlight team started writing stories in the sex abuse investigation, all the bishops in the US got together and produced a charter for the protection of children and young people, Rezendes says. “I don’t think all the bishops are following it, but the fact that this document exists and the bishops are pledged to follow what’s in there is great progress.”

The Spotlight investigation into child sex abuse cost about a million dollars to complete. While there are half as many reporters at the Globe today than there were in 2012, the size of the Spotlight team has doubled and this, Rezendes says, is because investigative reporting has been shown to be good business. “The Spotlight team is making money for the Boston Globe.”

Rezendes told Changing Times that investigative journalism is alive and well in the US. “There’s almost been a renaissance in investigative reporting,” he said.

He adds, however, that journalism in general is in crisis worldwide because the Internet has destroyed the revenue model for news organisations.

Smaller organisations are suffering, he says, and, in many parts of the world, investigative reporting is in trouble.

In a session entitled “Not the Nine O’Clock News”, writer, diplomat, and politician Pavan K. Varma (pictured left) talked about the dumbing down of  debates on prime time TV in India. He said the discussions lacked “sane, civilised balance”, nuances, sophistication, and intellectual insight. Substantive issues are pushed out to make way for so-called breaking news, Varma says. “All the issues that are less glamorous don’t make it.”

Varma says there is now a new form of editorial tyranny in India. Political bias is not unusual, he says, “but what we are seeing in India is the principal [TV] anchor who has come with a fixed point of view, which then does not become a matter of debate. It becomes a matter of conformity.

“You either have to agree or be shouted down, if not by the principal anchor himself or herself, by an entire team of vigilantes sitting with him.”

Writer and teacher Ruchira Gupta, who founded the Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, talked about the things she sees missing in the nine o’clock news: the daily struggles of people and the growing inequality that is being deliberately created in India and the world.

“There seems to be a trend where this is being normalised through the nine o’clock news,” she said.

Gupta said one of the biggest and most urgent issues in India today is intolerance. She spoke about “intersecting oppressions” and the constant marginalisation of people “sometimes because they are Muslims, sometimes because they are women, and sometimes because they are Dalits”.

Vital issues such as land being taken over for mining, and women being raped and dying in the sex trade are not being reported in the mainstream media, she says.

Other journalists who came to Jaipur for the festival included Suki Kim, who participated in several sessions and talked to the Seoul-based author 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.

There was also a session in tribute to the Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was assassinated in September last year. Lankesh exposed corruption and was an outspoken critic of right-wing Hindu extremism. She was a campaigner for women’s rights, and an opponent of caste-based discrimination.

Protecting wildlife and their habitat

The importance of protecting wildlife and their habitat was highlighted in several sessions at the festival, which ranged from one on the plight of wildlife in the Chernobyl zone in Ukraine to a session entitled “India’s Elephants: A Cultural Legacy”.

Journalist and environmentalist Prerna Singh Bindra said in a session entitled “The Vanishing Tigers, Forests and Nature” that there is a silence about environmental destruction.

“The world has lost fifty percent of its wildlife in the last forty years. We should hang our heads in shame. We don’t want to talk about it. We live in denial.”

Bindra, who is the author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis and When I Grow Up I Want To Be a Tiger, talked about the difficulties of writing about, and campaigning for, wildlife conservation.

“It’s a very tough battle. You’re up against very difficult forces, very strong lobbies. It’s all about a fight for resources.”

Less than five percent of land in India is protected, Bindra says.

Bindra told the story of villagers in one area of Maharashtra that is a crucial wildlife corridor, who are hoping the presence of tigers on local land will save it from being swallowed up by mining. “We need the tiger; the tiger does not need us,” she said.

In a separate session. author Victor Mallet talked about the Ganges River. He says his book River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future is a celebration of the river, but also a plea to save it before it is too late. “This is not a dead river,” he said. “It can be saved.”

Mallet says there is a hundred times as much water in the Ganges during the peak of the monsoon than in the dry season.

Talking about the pollution of the river and the over-extraction of water for agriculture, he said: “If you kill this life-giving force, you also kill the goddess, the divine nature of the river.

“Why is it that a river that is worshipped is also abused and sullied and damaged by the same people who worship it?”

Mallet says Indians are killing the Ganges and the Ganges is in turn killing Indians. “By putting untreated sewage into the river, you are killing people downstream,” he said.

He also talked about superbugs and antibiotic resistance and pointed out that 58,000 newborns in Indian hospitals were dying of untreatable diseases.

The plight of the camel

On Day 1 of the festival there was a fascinating presentation about camels by German writer and veterinarian Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, who is a passionate advocate for the rights of pastoral people and spent almost twenty years amongst India’s camel nomads.

Köhler-Rollefson told the audience that camel populations are increasing worldwide, but – surprising many of those listening – she then said that they are heading for extinction in the desert state of Rajasthan, a place where one would expect them to be thriving.

Problems have been caused by the camel being listed as a state animal in Rajasthan, where there are now all kinds of regulations and prohibitions about the use of camels.

“Basically the camel has lost its value because it is not used anymore for transportation … At the moment, the only thing you can do with a camel is milk it,” Köhler-Rollefson said.

Now, those who are using camels for long-distance migration have to get permission from the government to take the camels out of Rajasthan, and, when they come back to Rajasthan, they have to have the same number of camels, Köhler-Rollefson explained.

“In other countries the camel is used in many ways. In Africa, cattle-keeping people are actually switching to camels in order to survive global warming.”

Köhler-Rollefson told the Jaipur audience about the medicinal benefits of camel milk and said that it has been shown to be of particular benefit to autistic children.

“Many autistic children, they drink just a little bit of camel milk and they change their behaviour. They establish eye contact; they sleep better.”

There is a big interest in camel milk in Europe and the US, Köhler-Rollefson says, and camel farms are being set up to meet the demand, not only for autistic children, but also for diabetes patients, and in cases of skin disease.

The camels in Rajasthan are eating thirty-six different plants, all of which are used in traditional medicine, Köhler-Rollefson explained. “All the goodness of these plants gets filtered into that milk and that’s one of the reasons why it is so healthy.”

If the camel is to be saved in Rajasthan, the whole traditional ecosystem needs to be kept in place, Köhler-Rollefson says.

Previously the camel milk was never sold, but now it is for sale, even as ice cream. The taste, Köhler-Rollefson says, depends on the vegetation that the camel eats. If the camel eats neem leaves, the ice cream becomes bitter and salty, but if it eats the leaves from certain other trees, such as the pear tree, it becomes very sweet.


The ever-erudite writer, former diplomat, and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor is a festival regular and participated in several sessions, including one entitled “Why I am a Hindu”.

Hinduism, Tharoor says is, in many ways, almost the perfect religion for the 21st century, but has been “reduced and traduced into something it’s not”.

He told the audience at Jaipur: “All Hindus need to stand up to recognise what is being done in our name and speak out against it.”

Tharoor says modern leaders of the Hindu faith are not speaking up enough against the “terrible distortions of the faith”.

There needs to be a serious taking back of Hinduism, Tharoor says “because very often the alternatives that are being taught are actually dangerous to our social peace and cohesion”.

Tharoor says some people have reduced Hinduism to a symbol of identity akin to the badge of a football hooligan, “reducing our wonderful metaphysics to a chauvinist rampage”.

Dreaming your way over the garden fence

One of the voices that carried most throughout the festival was that of Pico Iyer, who told Changing Times that he is a great optimist.

“With every day, even as governments close borders, individuals open them … That’s happening at the speed of light and nothing can really turn that back.”

Iyer talked during the festival about the term cultural appropriation, which, he said “sounds like what I have always understood to be literature”.

To believe in cultural appropriation, he says, can often be almost to give up on the possibility of understanding somebody different from yourself. “It can be a very dark form of nationalism.”

For Iyer, “the whole point of writing is to dream your way over the garden fence and into somebody other than yourself, and, by doing so, to see how much of the other is inside yourself”.

He also spoke about “The Art of Stillness”, which is the title of one of his books. Stillness is an art, and stillness generates art, Iyer says.

“Everyone who travels knows that you can’t really be moved if you are running around. You have to be still to be you. You have to be very rooted to be transformed.”

Iyer limits the time he spends on social media. He never goes online after 6 p.m. and logs in as late as possible in the day. He consults his emails once a day, at about 2 p.m.

“One of the challenges we all face is we are in this vicious cycle where we are in such a hurry we don’t see what a hurry we are in.”

Iyer never uses a mobile phone, has no car, and sees no TV that he can understand.

As people try to live at a post-human speed, he says, stress levels have maxed out. “I don’t think humans can live at a pace determined by machines without becoming machines or robots ourselves.”

Iyer points to the changing situation at the Time magazine offices, where there used to be about a hundred people producing about forty very rigorously proofread, fact-checked articles a week.

Now, the journalists have to produce a hundred articles a day with a smaller staff.

In the US, Iyer says, fifty percent of physicians are said to be suffering from burnout.

Busyness, he says, is not what we should be aspiring to, but we’ve been propelled into it and are losing touch with the deeper, better parts of ourselves.

After spending an hour reading a novel or some serious non-fiction, Iyer says, he is no longer just dancing on life’s surface, but has been pushed down into the depths of his being.

Tom Stoppard

In a session entitled “The Real Thing”, the renowned British playwright Tom Stoppard  talked about his own life in conversation with Sanjna Kapoor, the co-founder of Junoon, a social enterprise that aims to create platforms for theatre in India.

Stoppard, now 80 years old, was reflective and measured. He talked about what he considers theatre to be, and delivered some wonderful lines.

Without artists, Stoppard says, our world would be a dystopia.

“We are all performers and creators if we allow ourselves to be that. We’re not actually drones. We are not born to live the life of executors. We are born to fulfil our unique identities.

“Being an artist is almost like being the visible edge of a very deep truth.”

Stoppard is very funny. He told the audience that, last year, he invested in his first hearing aid, but he forget to put it in that morning in Jaipur.

He says he is constantly busy, but not constantly productive, and quite often he is busy doing things “in arrears”.

It is important, Stoppard says, to look ahead to what comes next. “You’ve never earned the right to just rest up and do something easy like fiddle around with a play you wrote twenty years earlier.”

As you get older, he quipped, “it’s not just the years which go by more quickly, it’s the minutes.”

Stoppard describes himself as a text-driven playwright. He says that, to him, theatre has been a recreation. “I have never written anything that wasn’t supposed to get a laugh.”

He lays great store by “clarity of utterance”, which he says is much more rare than one would suppose. The lack of it in the performance of a play nullifies the whole experience, he says.

“I have shrivelled in dismay a million times because … a complete sentence goes for nothing because of the failure to enunciate one consonant on the end which tells you whether the person is speaking in the present tense or the past tense.”

All writers, Stoppard says, need to be moralists in order to be political. “It’s really important to live with an ever-present sense of the ethics one ought to be living by, failing, no doubt, on countless occasions.

“We have to try to live as though we were in a contest of generosity”.

‘The Afropolitans’

A session entitled “The Afropolitans” brought together Nigerian authors Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Chika Unigwe and Nadifa Mohamed from the Hargeisa in the self-declared, but internationally unrecognised, Republic of Somaliland.

Unigwe talked about women migrating from Nigeria to work in the red-light district of Antwerp in Belgium.

In order to portray the characters in her novel On Black Sisters’ Street with a sense of integrity, Unigwe spent time in the red-light area and talked to the women working there.

She says the stories she heard were counter narratives to the constant stories of victimhood. She says the women had agency. “But then again,” she said, “how much agency do you have if you don’t really have other options?”

Unigwe heard about a place in Antwerp where women were auctioned off. “They are paraded naked and all they have around their necks are number tags. They twirl and they walk around and the auctioneer is rolling off all their qualities.”

Nadifa Mohamed talked about writing about the trials and tribulations of older women and how her grandmother was left in a city where the situation had gone from being dangerous, but tolerable, to being intolerable.

“The whole city emptied out within a matter of days and the people that were left behind were the infirm, the elderly, the lonely, the mentally ill.”

Ibrahim talked about the way African writers are expected to explain everything that non-Africans might not understand. Sauerkraut, he points out, doesn’t get translated for readers.

Unigwe talked about being forced to speak English in school. “You grow up seeing your own language as irrelevant.”

She says that she now takes back that power; she says she writes Ibu in English. She talks about “colonising the language” when she writes, and “assuming knowledge”. She says a very observant or careful reader will hear the cadences of Ibu when he or she reads her work.

Ibrahim says he feels like he is narrating and translating at the same time. Talking about his characters, he said: “In my head they speak Hausa, so when they speak English that becomes a foreign language.”

In another session, entitled “The Empire Writes Back”, Ibrahim talked about society disintegrating, in the sense that it is becoming more individualistic.

“My characters are humans,” he said, “and that connection to the humanity of every single person is what I aspire to.”

In the same session, two authors – Charmaine Craig and Jeet Thayil – talked about getting away from traditional narratives.

Craig is the author of the novel Miss Burma, which is based on the lives of her grandparents and her mother, who was from the Karen ethnic group, and was a national beauty queen, a famous actress, and a “woman warrior” who had a price on her head.

She said she wanted to tell a human story rather than a political or historical one and not to deliver the expected “orchid-strewn tale of exotic beauty and strife”.

Thayil, who is a novel writer and performance poet, says he tries very hard not to write the “monsoon-soaked, uplifting family narrative” that paints a rosy picture of India.


The final debate of the festival was entitled “#MeToo: Do Men Still Have It Too Easy?”.

#MeToo is a worldwide campaign to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

Ruchira Gupta was as straightforward and eloquent as ever, telling horrific story after horrific story of abuse against women. “Do all the men in Haryana who are raping all the Dalit women every day not have it too easy?” she said.

“What about the judge in Rajasthan who said that someone like Bhanwari Devi could not be raped because she was low caste and therefore she had to be sexually available.”

Devi, who is a Dalit, was gang-raped and beaten by five men after attempting to stop a child marriage in her village south of Jaipur.

Gupta also cited one judge’s comment that “a feeble no means a yes”. No, she says, means no, “and people have to understand that”.

Men are buying girls by the dozens and three million women are being raped in India every night, ten times a night, Gupta said. Men justify it, saying that the women wanted it, she says.

“The women did not want it. They were little girls. They are 13 and 14 years old, and they are being raped.”

Gupta told the Jaipur audience that someone “touching your cheek, pulling your bra strap, poking you in the waist”, all these are rape culture.

A rape culture is a culture of impunity, Gupta says. “We have to speak out by naming, by shaming, by calling every act of abuse, of exploitation, what it is.”

Novelist and journalist Sandip Roy made some excellent points. “How do you change the culture to preempt sexual harassment instead of dealing with the aftermath?” he asked.

He said that people’s silence played into a toxic work culture.

Men have it easy, Roy said, because #MeToo immediately turns into “not all men”, or “not me”.

In the case of rape, the bystander and the perpetrator may not be the same thing, “but it doesn’t mean one gets let off the hook”, he said.

Roy said change will have happened when a woman walks into a police station to file a First Information Report (FIR) about rape or molestation and is not asked about what she was drinking, why she was drinking, what she was wearing, and why she was out at that time of night.

We have to get rid of the term “honour killing”, he added.

Author Manu Joseph tried to make the point that things were now difficult for men, for instance in offices, because of all the rules about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. He complained that “because of the horrific things that are going around”, men could no longer date, or make a pass at a colleague. He even commented that “successful inappropriate behaviour is called romance”.

Roy retorted that “ordinary men can understand the difference between romancing and stalking”.

Joseph had already been taken to task by writer Bee Rowlatt, who told him to close his mouth and listen to what women have to say.

A ‘Woodstock of books’

Pico Iyer said in his keynote speech: “Literature recalls to us that our drone attacks will never deter terrorists; our guns are never going to erase nationalists. But our words and our ideas, our rigorous imaginings, can take us a little bit past simplicities and remind us that, ultimately, we change the world by changing how we think of it, by changing how we dream of it.”

Festival co-director William Dalrymple says there is an extraordinary appetite for serious writing and real literature, and the Jaipur festival is heading towards being a “Glastonbury or Woodstock of books”.

Unlike Glastonbury, however, the festival remains free, with an option to buy a special delegate’s ticket, which provides 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.

One of the heritage events this year was the world premiere of the multimedia dance and theatre performance The Troth: Usne Kaha Tha at the stunning Hawa Mahal palace. The Troth tells a story of love, loss, and sacrifice against the backdrop of the horrors of World War I and is dedicated to the 60,000 Sikhs who died serving in the British army during that war.

The Jaipur line-up for 2019

Authors Neil Gaiman and Zadie Smith, the actor Ian McKellen, the Israeli historian, philosopher, and best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari, the producer of Game of Thrones Frank Doelger, artist and author Edmund de Waal, Harvard academic and critic Stephen Greenblatt, the American writer Donna Tartt, the Libyan-American writer and 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner Hisham Matar, Monty Python’s Michael Palin, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, and the actress, model, and artist Tilda Swinton have already said they will come to Jaipur next year.

The 2019 literature festival already promises to be yet another stellar experience.


Rupi Kaur performing on Day 1.



1= 5 euro, x 2 = 10 euro, X 3 =15 euro, etc.