Opportunities and challenges facing India hotly debated at Asia’s largest literature festival

Men in regional dress greet visitors at the ninth ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Men in regional dress greet visitors at the ninth ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Opportunities and challenges facing India hotly debated at Asia’s largest literature festival

01 February 2016

By Naomi Canton

“When you get on the train don’t accept or eat any drink or food any passenger offers you,” my Sikh driver told me as he drove me to New Delhi train station at 5am to catch the train to Jaipur for Asia’s largest literature festival. The driver and I over three days in India’s capital days had become friends.

When I had landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport, he had come to pick me up even though I hadn’t booked him. I had sent an email to the hotel enquiring how much a pick up would cost. I then arranged for another friend to send his driver. When I landed I saw a friendly man holding my name on a piece of paper so I assumed that was my friend’s driver. I got in the car and chatted away and it wasn’t until close to reaching my hotel that I realised that the hotel had sent him (and my friend’s driver was waiting at the airport)! That is the go-getting entrepreneurial spirit of many Indians for you. On the way to the airport I asked him why no one obeyed traffic rules. The ‘odd-even’ pilot scheme initiated by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (in which cars with odd number plates could only be used on odd dates and even ones on even dates) had significantly reduced traffic in the polluted capital. But it had ended just before I arrived. “In India no one follows the rules, so then if I follow the rules I will be the only one. That is why I don’t and why no one does in India,” he explained.

At New Delhi Railway Station I was faced with a crowd of porters in red shirts. My driver shouted at them for asking too much and in the end we agreed that I would pay Rs300 to one of them to carry my bags to the platform and load them onto the train. The station was enormous, there were tonnes of platforms and I was sure I would never find the right one. We set off and before I knew it the porter suddenly had my gigantic black suitcase on his head. We went up and down stairs and then he stopped at the exact point on the platform where he said my train carriage would stop.

Within minutes of getting onto the train, a waiter brought complimentary tea on a tray with biscuits, then a newspaper, then mineral water, then nimbu pani (an Indian lemon drink) then hot breakfast, then more tea as we glided through the Indian countryside. After two hours, I collapsed into sleep. Next thing I knew it was five minutes before arriving.

At Jaipur train station I was greeted by a crowd of taxi drivers, auto rickshaw drivers, tour guides and a beggar all vying for my attention. I was too tired to handle it, found my driver and went to my hotel – a beautiful Haveli with a swimming pool. Before long I had met the owner, a scion of an Indian royal family. I asked him why the hotel didn’t have room service. “I’m totally against room service,” he said. “And televisions! When you stay in a palace, why do you want to stay in your room?” he asked.

I went to my room and sure enough the TV did not work. I called reception. A porter came up and got it working and started flicking through the channels. “I want the news” I said. He put on Ten Sports. “There you go that’s the news. The cricket,” he said.

The following day I headed to the first day of the ninth edition of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival which is held at Diggi Palace, the same venue that has been used since outset, despite having grown considerably in size since it was founded in 2006 by authors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale. The entrance was adorned with hundreds of brightly-coloured Rajasthani puppets hanging overhead.

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The entrance to the Diggi Palace, venue of the world’s largest free festival of its kind

The Festival takes place every January across the Palace grounds with author talk sessions in different marquees and the Durbar Hall. It’s free to enter for people who register in advance allowing Indians from all walks of life to learn more about literature and current affairs. In recent years it has become extremely popular attracting huge crowds and lots of security.

This year the organisers charged Rs100 for walk-ins and the programme seemed to be less about huge names (although Bollywood star Anupam Kher and British comedian, actor and writer Stephen Fry were there) and more about intellectual topics, representing a diverse range of authors and topics. As a result although at times crowded, it was always under control. Within minutes of walking in a TV channel asked me to comment on the Festival. I said the thing I liked best about the Festival was the networking opportunities in between events and the fact you could swan in and out of sessions without having to buy a ticket or have a specific seat. Indeed there are lots of cafés, tea stalls and open spaces between the various venues ensuring you are likely to bump into someone you know. There is also a Festival book store alongside shops selling local handicrafts, meaning that there is plenty to do outside the sessions.

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Food stalls at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

The first session I went to was in the front lawns with Founder and Chairman of Essel Group (an Indian conglomerate that owns ZEE – the key sponsor of the Festival) Subhash Chandra who was discussing his autobiography The Z Factor. There was a huge turnout. A member of the crowd asked him if it was possible to do business in India without corruption. “Yes if it’s a straight business but if you want to make money quick with many shortcuts then you will have to share it with others,” he said.

”In India the media is not just about running a business, it’s more than that,” he said. “Rupert Murdoch offered to buy out my 50 per cent. I said ‘No India is not for sale’,” he said to resounding applause. “The Government is making smart cities but I say let’s make smart villages,” Chandra continued. “By smart village I don’t mean give them the Internet I mean give them a healthy life, hygienic living, better facilities, electricity and sanitation. The Internet will come anyway. If we do this with just a quarter of villages, we will see our GDP growth increase by 30 per cent,” he added.

Next, I went to a session with Indian novelist Anuradha Roy and British Indian author Sunjeev Sahota, both of whom had spoken at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in 2015 and both of whose books had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015. They were in a panel with the winner Jamaican author Marlon James who spoke about how there should not be one single narrative to describe Jamaica. Sahota, whose shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways is about illegal immigrants in the UK, spoke about life as an Indian-origin Briton. “Even now there is nowhere in the world I can call my land. A door closes when an immigrant leaves a place. This book is about not finding a home,” he said.

The next highlight was a session debating the Emergency in India declared by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 to counteract civil unrest across the country. Indian journalist Salil Tripathi opened the discussion by pointing out that many of the young generation did not even know about the Emergency.

Tripathi said he was 15 when the Emergency was lifted. “I can’t tell you how happy I felt. I remember going to India Gate to see the fireworks and Ved Mehta’s The New India was published shortly after that. The period after the Emergency created a whole new culture in India including investigative journalism,” he added.

Journalist Coomi Kapoor, who has written a personal account of her experiences during the controversial period in a book, The Emergency: A Personal History, said: “This has been blocked out of history and political science books and that is why I have written this book,” she said. “Indira Gandhi said the country was in anarchy but that argument does not hold,” she said.

Indian journalist Mihir Sharma said: “The institutional strength of India is what we are proud of but our institutions could not prevent it. Someone could declare an Emergency even now.”‘

Sharma continued: ”We didn’t decolonise our institutions as we should have. Being critical led to being branded as anti-national and being locked up. Indira Gandhi jailed right-wing people during that period to appease the Left. Some people in the Left approved of it and some opposed it but even today we should not associate Left or Right with being anti-national.”

In response to a question as to whether India was intolerant (a matter that has been the subject of intense debate in India in recent months) he said: “I think the political class is intolerant of providing each other enough space and that causes a lot of problems.” This was followed by huge applause.

“Authoritarian regimes give the impression they are more efficient than India but that is not true. Democracy allows you to hold the people in power to account. Let’s not pretend there is something brilliant about China,” he added.

Indian editor C. Raja Mohan said: “The only way we can bring the poor out of poverty is through democracy”.

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The Festival had a record 330,000 ‘footfalls’ this year

Another exciting and packed session was with French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a book which looks at the reasons for income inequality. It has sold more than two million copies worldwide. Piketty spoke about the need for Indians to pay more taxes to lift the poor out of poverty.

He explained that it was only in the last century that Western countries had corrected inequalities and it has taken major events like WWII to persuade the western elite to implement higher taxes and increase social spending. “The rise of the modern welfare state has not happened in India yet,” he said. “The rate of tax to GDP in India is 10 to 11 per cent so it is difficult to have a proper health and education system with such a low tax base,” he continued. China’s tax rate to GDP is three times that. “At some point the Indian elite will have to accept that they have to pay more taxes to finance inclusive development.”

He apologised for not covering India enough in his book but said: “India stopped releasing income tax data in 2000 so for the past 15 years it has been impossible to know the number of income tax payers and how much tax they pay. If India wants to continue with growth and to develop it has to increase its tax GDP ratio.”

Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, promised to get Piketty the income date and said: “India’s taxation and spending is not out of line for a country at India’s level of development,” but he admitted the number of tax payers in India was “abnormally low”. “This Government is very committed to increasing the tax base.” As for opening India up to further foreign investment, he said: “Do we have the capacity to cope with money coming in and out so rapidly? We should be more cautious about embracing that as the exchange rate would become strong and exports would suffer. Once you have opened up it becomes difficult to go back so we should be cautious about embracing certain forms of capitalism.”

Another fascinating session was with Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, a granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi. “No one took enough notice of Gandhi at the time. Now we are taking more interest in him from the ecological perspective,” she said. She said he was a great family man despite leading the Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) movement in India.

“He was fearless. He met anyone who came to visit him and had the ability to turn enemies into friends.”

Partition was the hot topic in another session at which author Nisid Hajari said: “I doubt Gandhi had the power to stop Partition as the political forces pushing this were too great and it had gone too far for anyone to stop it.”

He said that the Congress Government at the time of Partition could have opted for a temporary solution but whether this would have led to more violence years down the line, nobody knows. Pakistani-American historian Ayesha Jalal: “It’s not helpful to nail one person or the other. We need to move forward to live together as three neighbouring countries.”

Another session that attracted huge crowds was that of R. Raj Rao a gay activist and poet, translator and author of one of The Boyfriend, one of India’s first gay novels. He spoke about the need for Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes homosexuality illegal in India, to be amended. He estimated there were 50 million gay men in India’s 1.2 billion population, most of whom are too scared to come out. “A lot of gay men in India have regular marriages to women and lead double lives,” he said. “But homosexuality was even referred to in the Karma Sutra so we need to get rid of our cultural amnesia.” Hijra, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi said: “I don’t believe in reservation, casteism or colour. I believe in equal opportunities,” she said.

Another packed discussion was about the Modi-led Swachh Bharat Abhiyan ( Clean India Mission).” It began with some grim statistics from Sanchaita Gajapati Raju, winner of the Google Global Impact Challenge India Award and founder of NGO Social Awareness Newer Alternatives (SANA). “More than 600 million Indians defecate in the open every day and more than 30 per cent of Indians have no access to safe drinking water. More than 6,000 children die of diarrhoea-related deaths every year,” she said. “We are a country that equates cleanliness with godliness yet we have primitive waste disposal systems and our holy rivers are adulterated. All this creates the need for Swachh Bharat. It is essential that it is not just a hashtag on Twitter,” she said. She called for better equipment to be given to cleaning staff and rubbish collectors.

“In India we have a curious dichotomy between private cleanliness and public squalor,” said Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. “We live in immaculate surroundings yet think nothing of spitting etc. There is no civic consciousness. Gandhi said in the 1920s that sanitation was more important than independence.”

Tharoor said that even when toilets were built they often lay unused as there was no water to flush. A survey conducted in Uttar Pradesh found that 47 per cent of people found open defecation in fields more convenient.

“Sanitation is not just about building toilets and not littering – it’s about infrastructure too.”

“How can you think of sanitation workers without caste?” he asked. “Let’s give them gloves and uniforms, and decent salaries and early retirement pension schemes. It should be a respectable profession that anyone of any caste can do. We need more facilities, toilets, dustbins. We have not made enough progress beyond photo opps of VIPS wielding brooms in front of cameras.”

Anustup Nayak, who has developed a hygiene curriculum set to be rolled out in 10,000 government schools, said: “It has to start with the youngest minds. But it won’t work without good leadership from schools and politicians.”

In another session titled Decoding India’s Visual Culture the panel discussed how India was like Europe with each state having its own specific culture. Festival Director and Founder author William Dalrymple said: ”Indian art is being taken seriously in the West now. There has just been a major exhibition on Deccan art in New York for the first time. Rajasthan places great importance on visual culture but in so many of India havelis are being pulled down and replaced with shopping malls.”

The Indian economy was again up for discussion in a session titled Make in India referring to a Modi-led initiative launched in September 2014 to encourage domestic and foreign companies to manufacture their products in India. Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion Secretary Amitabh Kant said: “Make in India will enable us to compete with China.” But he warned it was unlikely to generate large numbers of jobs, which India needs as 20 million young people enter the labour force each year.

Secretary of FICCI Dr A. Didar Singh said: “Step no. 1 is to create the hype. No. 2 is to get the policy and no.3 is to implement it. India is good at 1 but 2 and 3 is problematic. The ground level work takes a long time. Have the land reforms and reforms of labour capital happened yet?” But he said he saw a lot of opportunities for Indians overseas as China and Europe aged. ”The world is the stage for Indians today,” he added. He also said start-ups would create the jobs, not the traditional manufacturing jobs. “That is the new world that is emerging,” he said. President of Ford India Nigel Harris pointed out that there was a rich resource of talent in India today.

The panel discussed how oil, cement and steel were all at their lowest prices and India should be investing in infrastructure projects.

Indian entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw said: ”India has innovative ideas but we don’t have the ecosystem to market them. In my own sector there are some Nobel Prize winning innovative ideas but we don’t have a way of discovering their intangible asset value. It’s about doing away with licenses and unnecessary regulations and permissions. You can make in India but you can’t innovate in India,” she said. But Bangalore was an exception, she said. ”Despite awful traffic and physical infrastructure, it is the research hub of the world for multinational corporations because of its scientific talent and its ecosystem is world-class.”

The Festival continued for five days. Each night there were musical events and private parties hosted by publishers. One of the tricks of this Festival is to get yourself on one of the guest lists to these parties. Indeed the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is not just about the sessions but the whole experience in the Pink City. In a car back to my hotel one night some of the non-Indian authors and academics were trying to decode India. ”I would describe it as amiable chaos,” said one. ”It’s like a novel with no plot and lots of characters,” said another. For me, however, the intellectual debate, the energy and diversity of the events were what impressed me, as were the skills of the organisers to pull off such a large and free festival with such success.

It was probably journalist and BJP spokesman MJ Akbar who summed up India the best. He reiterated what Gopal Krishna Gokhale had told Gandhi when he returned to India in 1915 from South Africa. “If you want to understand India, keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open for one year,” he said.


The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival returns in 2016, and will take place between 4 and 18 May with a selection of warm-up events in April. The Festival still holds the title of being the only festival in the UK devoted solely to literature from across the whole of Asia. More information on the Festival line-up will be announced soon. For more information on our ongoing literature programme read here.