I SPENT REPUBLIC DAY in Jaipur, at the JLF—the Jaipur Literature Festival. I have lost count the number of times I have attended the festival, beginning from its second year when the very idea of a lit fest was quite novel. Over the years, I have shared a platform with some wonderful writers, at least ones I have truly admired. These include Andrew Roberts, Margaret Macmillan, Simon Schama, Kwasi Kwarteng and, this year, Tom Holland—all historians. My eternal regret is that the JLF never got Sir Roger Scruton to India. I would have loved to have had a conversation with him on conservatism.
These days the number of lit fests has multiplied and nearly all cities in India boast at least one. Then there are the festivals in exotic locations such as Kasauli and Puducherry. The quality of the festivals are hugely variable and it is likely that some will fall by the wayside in the coming years. This year, at least two festivals—in Mumbai and Chennai—appear to have shut shop owing to the lack of sponsors.
A reason why JLF has not only survived but become an international event is that the focus is primarily on books and ideas. More to the point, since the appeal of books goes beyond national boundaries, it has reached out to international authors. It is not that all the writers are well known in India, but their exposure to an Indian audience has been educative.
This year, for example, I was in conversation with the historian Tom Holland on his remarkable book Dominion: Making of the Western Mind. It is a magisterial study of the ideas and the individuals who have shaped Western sensibilities over the centuries. It is all about how different, and often conflicting, religious ideas beginning from Aristotle and the Roman inheritance have impacted contemporary society. This included contemporary perceptions of secularism.
Although Tom Holland has a formidable reputation in the UK and is the author of several highly acclaimed books on the history of the classical world, I imagined that his appeal in India would be rather limited. I was mistaken. Even though the session was at 10 AM, the hall was overflowing. Most of those present hadn’t read his book, and perhaps they never will. At the same time, they were interested in hearing Holland hold forth with characteristic passion on a facet of intellectual history that doesn’t feature in the curriculum of Indian universities. People came because they were interested and not because they thought the session would be useful.
I think one of the reasons that JLF has made a mark is because they have, by and large, avoided the so-called relevance test. Three years ago, I moderated a discussion involving four scholars who had written on Rudyard Kipling. All of us on stage were, without inhibition, admirers of the man who is today decried in fashionable circles as the high priest of imperialism. What I also discovered that winter’s morning in Jaipur was that the appeal of Kipling, as both a writer of children’s stories and as a chronicler of India, cuts across generations. Despite the wave of political correctness that has swept across the Eng lit departments across the globe, there are enough people who are not afraid to say they still admire Kipling and are also aware of his historical context.
Unfortunately, there is also a creeping trend in lit fests to try and reduce all deliberations to contemporary political controversies. I guess there is a space for festivals that are either explicitly Left-oriented or Right-oriented—an over-simplified binary. But there are also people, ordinary people who love books and ideas, who are anxious to hear all points of view.
This year at the Kolkata Literary Meet—better known as Kalam—held on the lawns of Victoria Memorial, there was a huge fuss over the discussion on my book Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right. A group of Left-leaning students felt that the notion of Bharat Mata was patriarchal and Brahmanical. That’s fair enough. They also felt that the organisers had no business to give me a platform because I allegedly held ‘fascist’ views. They wanted to disrupt the session and this led the organisers to be extra cautious with security arrangements, with the result that many who wanted to come could not enter the venue. They missed an extremely civilised, non-polemical conversation on the historicity of Bharat Mata.
I think what needs addressing is this tendency of some of the more politically committed individuals to close their minds to other awkward ideas. As long as festivals transcend people’s voting preferences they will thrive. Otherwise they will be reduced to political meetings where everyone speaks the same language.