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Shashi Tharoor on why the Jaipur Lit Fest is not just about parties and celebrity writers

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Many at the Jaipur Literature Festival are drawn by the idea of taking selfies with celebrities than with reading their books or engaging with their ideas.

I’m in Jaipur, as I manage to be at this time each year, to participate in the Literature Festival. Amid the teeming throngs of writers and readers, books sometimes seem an excuse, to be talked about rather than read. Literary festivals are often as much festivals of ideas, since the one thing attendees rarely have time to do – amid the panels, the provocations and the parties – is to read.

One of the fringe benefits of being an author is getting to meet other authors. After the international publication of my books, I discovered that writers are as much a global community as doctors or racing-car drivers. They meet at conferences and seminars, read each other’s books (or, more commonly, discuss each other’s books without having read them), share startlingly intimate gossip about each other, and join each other in promoting earnest causes from human rights to the environment.

Sometimes, of course, as in Jaipur, they are brought together for the ostensibly literary purpose of celebrating themselves. Writers come, confer and consume, and literature serves to provide a unifying purpose under the cover of which a good time is had by all. The emphasis is usually on conviviality, not controversy, but sometimes the media ensures that enough controversy is generated for the event to make news.

I have been privileged to be invited to appear at festivals in exotic locations ranging from Toronto’s Harbourfront to the medieval city of Saint-Malo in Brittany (France) and the artists’ village of Ubud in Bali (Indonesia). The Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales, held in a village with the largest collection of second-hand bookshops on the planet, has acquired legendary status. I was the first Indian author to appear there, now more than a quarter century ago. I suppose, as a result, I can consider myself something of a veteran of the festival circuit.

The idea of the international literary festival has been spreading across India only over the last decade. I remember writing a column just over a decade ago lamenting the absence of literary festivals in our country. I need not have worried. We now have a proliferation of them. Annual literary festivals in Jaipur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai have already acquired “must-attend” status in those cities.

I brought the Hay festival to Thiruvananthapuram for two wildly successful years in 2010 and 2011 – successful, that is, with readers and audiences. But festivals cost money, and sponsors were few and far between. Hay lost money in Thiruvanathapuram, and pulled out after those two events.

That is why I am delighted that, six years after the second Hay festival, the Mathrubhumi Festival of Letters is coming to Kerala’s state capital. As an MP and author, I take special pride in the cultural affirmation of the city that an international literary event implies.

For a writer, to be a member of a literary community is a unique privilege, and yet one whose pleasures are primarily self-referential. You are introduced to other writers as a member of their tribe; you meet them, in this sense, as an equal. People who have been names on the spines of books, faces you have only seen on dust-jackets, suddenly become intimate and accessible. Some even claim to have heard of you, or to admire your work. It is all heady stuff, much of it for the wrong reason, a sense of ennoblement by association (“I belong amongst this company, so I must matter, as they do”).

But for all the reflected glory, all the chatter and gossip, the best literary festivals offer the humbling realisation that the books are more important than the writers, that indeed the writers are only important because of their books (and the ideas and insights they contain). And with that realisation comes the knowledge that you only belong in their company because of something greater than yourself, some part of the infinite mystery of creation to which you have been able to lend your words.

Many at the Jaipur Literature Festival are attracted more by the idea of rubbing shoulders (and taking selfies) with celebrities than with reading their books or engaging with their ideas. As a writer, I can’t afford to disapprove. That may be the price literature needs to pay to remain viable in the 21st century.

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