Columns | Open Diary
The Success of JLF
I am yet to crack the mystery as to why a literature festival, whose proceedings are in English, enjoys such an enormous popularity
26 Jan, 2023
THIS JANUARY, I spent a very enjoyable three days in Jaipur attending the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). This used to be an annual pilgrimage until Covid-19 disrupted life for three years. However, I am elated that life has by and large returned to normal and that JLF is once again drawing huge crowds, including a substantial number of visitors from overseas, particularly the UK.
The stupendous success of JLF over the years is, of course, welcome, not least because its contribution to the tourist economy of Rajasthan is considerable. Still, I am yet to crack the mystery as to why a literature festival, whose proceedings are in English, enjoys such an enormous popularity. Why, to take a random example, from a session that I participated in some four years ago, does a discussion on Rudyard Kipling at 10AM on a winter morning, draw a crowd of around 300 people? Why did some 350 people sit quietly and listen to Shashi Tharoor, the Manchester University historian David Olusoga and me discuss a book on the iniquitousness of the British-Indian Army? The audience included individuals—by no means, professional historians—who were familiar with relatively obscure tracts, such as the recollections of Subedar Sita Ram Pandey and the diaries of Amar Singh of Kanota. It was so like those scores of Indians who defied the tenets of political correctness to record their appreciation and admiration of Kipling’s immortal tales of India.
Judging from the appreciative and rather well-informed audiences at the sessions in Jaipur, not to mention the teeming crowds at the festival bookshop, it would often appear that India is a big centre of English language literature in the world. The crowds, not least those who take time off from their daily existence to spend a few days imbibing the wisdom on offer in Jaipur, have often travelled from distant places to combine culture with tourism. Yet, and this is the paradox, the sales of books in India are modest. If a book published in India records sales of some 2,000 copies, it is considered a reasonable success. This is unlike the West where the success bar is set much higher.
There are just so many middle-class homes in India where books— and I don’t mean decorative volumes of encyclopaedias—are a rarity. It is always possible to provide an economic explanation. A decent (non-fiction) book costs anything between `600 and `1,200 for a hardback edition. I doubt if there are too many Indians who see this as a worthwhile investment, considering that a book’s resale value plummets dramatically, unless for some reason the first edition commands a premium. In the West, particularly in the UK, there are also conveniently located public libraries that allow people to borrow books. In India, public libraries are virtually non-existent. The few that exist are crowded with young people preparing for the civil services examination.
Then there is the problem of comprehension. In theory, a fairly large number of Indians are fluent in English—at least, they can read the language, even if their spoken English is awkward. However, this understanding does not always extend to the comprehension and usage of idiomatic English. A high score in English at a school-leaving examination does not, unfortunately, equip a student to acquire an easy familiarity with English. This can happen either through diligent application of mind or sustained exposure to conversational English. Neither is easily on hand.
Maybe, it is because of this patchy familiarity with English that the literature festival in Jaipur is the only one that has made a mark. Over the years, I have attended festivals in cities such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bhopal. They have all—without any exception— been extremely convivial occasions, and I have been fortunate to meet very interesting participants and members of the audience. However, in terms of audience response, the festival in Jaipur is a cut above the rest. A foolproof way of assessing the level of audience comprehension of the proceedings is to lace your comments with either generous doses of sarcasm or fall back on wry (and very English) humour. The audience reaction will tell you if the message has hit home. In most cases, the target is missed, which can be somewhat disorienting.
The uneven nature of English language comprehension doesn’t mean that a check is put on the mushrooming literary festivals. It suggests that more and more sessions are conducted in multiple languages simultaneously. Indians have acquired the art of shifting from one language to another, even in mid-sentence. This may not be good for literature but its effectiveness in disseminating ideas shouldn’t be underestimated.
About The Author
Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative columnist. He is the author of Awakening Bharat Mata
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