Wednesday, January 29, 2014

2014 Jaipur Literature Festival Breaks Attendance Records

With over 200,000 people attending this year, India’s Jaipur Literature Festival can claim to be one of the biggest in the world—and certainly the most fun. Vijai Maheshwari reports on the big speakers, controversies, and hits from this year.

Asia’s largest literary festival kicked off in Jaipur, India, last Friday, with over 200,000 people thronging the various stages of the 17th century Rajput-built Diggi Palace in the center of the “pink” city. Free from the controversy that dogged 2012’s festival, when Salman Rushdie canceled his trip because of death threats by Muslim fundamentalists, this year’s festival has a more relaxed, bohemian vibe. Speakers at the prestigious festival include Jonathan Franzen, Gloria Steinem, Novel-prize winner Amartya Sen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Reza Aslan, Jim Crace, and memoirist Ved Mehta.
Looking relaxed in a grey puffer vest, Franzen joked that it was hard writing for an American audience grown used to “sitcoms with laugh tracks.” He admitted that he instead preferred “cold, dark, silent spaces” which helped him focus his mind. Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian-American writer, Jhumpa Lahiri created a stir when she declared that American literature was “massively overrated” and its reading habits “transformed by the mainstream.” She was in Jaipur to promote her latest novel, The Lowlands, a tale of two brothers set in Calcutta of the 1960s, during the Naxalite uprisings.

American feminist Gloria Steinem was a big draw at the festival, with huge crowds at her talk on the parallels between the American and Indian women’s movements. With India going through a late-birthing feminist movement in the wake of the recent spate of violent rapes, there’s a renewed interest in America’s successful struggle for women’s rights in the 1960s. Steinem praised India’s feminist movement, saying that it “goes back hundreds of years” and had ‘”personally influenced her.” She spoke as part of a new series of talks called Women Uninterrupted, which are an effort by the Jaipur Literature Festival to include more strong female voices in its lineup. Other speakers from the forum included American writer Cheryl Strayed, whose bestselling book about a solitary hike on the 1100 mile long Pacific Crest Trail, is now being made into a film, Wild, with Reese Witherspoon. Audiences also packed a session on Women Writers of the Islamic World, which included Shereen El Feki and Fariba Hachtroudi.

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