Where Writers Are Rock Stars: Gideon Levy Goes to India

Some 250,000 people – the writer included – descended on the capital of Rajasthan for the world’s biggest free literature festival.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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JAIPUR – Chetan Bhagat concluded his talk and was about to leave the stage when hundreds of fans, most of them teenagers, mobbed him to ask for a selfie, or at least an autograph, from the bestselling author. Security guards hustled him into a small pavilion located at the edge of the stage, and the announcer declared that Bhagat had left the site, so there was no point in continuing to wait for him. The announcer was lying.

Slowly the large crowd began to disperse. Shortly afterward, when the escape route was free of fans, Bhagat was extricated from his shelter and directed into a waiting car. That scene was played out two weeks ago in a huge tent that was erected on the grounds of a crumbling hotel which was once a palace in this city, the capital and largest city of the state of Rajasthan in northern India.

Bhagat is not a rock star and he did not sing on the stage. This youth idol is a writer of fiction, one of the most popular authors in his country. His books sell in the millions. A former banker who is 41 years old, he published his first book 10 years ago and since then has published six more, all of them blockbusters. He writes mainly for young people about young people like them, members of the new urban middle class.

One of the most impressive questions he was asked from the audience was posed by a 13-year-old boy: Doesn’t the discrimination suffered by women in India stem from the original sin in the Garden of Eden? Bhagat replied affably, saying that possibly the level of his books was too low for the questioner, drawing laughter from the audience.

He’s a charismatic individual. But even without the charisma, India loves its authors, in some cases almost to the point of worshiping them, and the country’s young people are avid readers.

Jaipur, India.Credit: Dreamstime

This was nowhere more apparent than in the Jaipur Literature Festival, held two weeks ago, which was attended by a quarter of a million people, the great majority under the ago of 20, who came to hear writers, journalists and thinkers. A genuine thirst for knowledge, such as is no longer seen in the West, was palpable.

In the course of five days, tens of thousands of Indians, along with many foreigners who came specially for the event, attended 170 discussions on a wide range of subjects. They listened quietly and reverently to the speakers, asked intelligent questions and bought large numbers of books at the festival shop, which by the end of the event resembled an abandoned battlefield.

For an Israeli, it was a thrilling experience: young people who love books, writers as stars, literature as a folk festival, spectacular and fascinating. Entrance is free. It’s hard to believe how the myriads squeezed into the hotel compound, which was really too small to hold them.

The chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, told the crowd that they were part of a natural wonder: Every year, more and more people come to the event, and all of them somehow manage to enter the same, not very large, hotel grounds. The Indian press covered the event extensively on a daily basis. A reporter for the relatively new English-language paper DNA, complained that the national paper’s circulation had decreased somewhat during event, from its usual 15 million copies a day.

The evenings were devoted to world music. India cheered singers from the enemy nation – another fascinating phenomenon for an Israeli visitor. Sain Zahoor, from Pakistan, whose stirring performance I won’t easily forget – nor that of Rizwam Muazzam Qawals, a large band composed of male members of two Pakistani families – enthralled the Indian listeners. Marvelous musicians from Albania and Azerbaijan, as well as from India, of course, added to the atmosphere. Only the luxury meals and the ostentatious receptions for the writers, at Jaipur’s top hotels, seemed out of place.

Still, the celebration of literature was the crux. There were famous writers, such as the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, Hanif Kureishi and Paul Theroux, alongside young writers and poets who are just starting out.

But the biggest outpouring of adulation was reserved for 83-year-old Abdul Kalam, a former president of India, a rocket scientist and space researcher – a small, fragile figure with a peculiar haircut – from the Muslim minority.He asked the young people if they want to fly and told them to repeat after him: “I can fly!” “I can fly!” They responded ecstatically.

Another youth idol was on hand. Shashi Tharoor, perhaps the most impressive of India’s current crop of politicians, who was almost elected United Nations secretary general, showed up with his books and his designer clothes, amid a police investigation of his wife’s mysterious death, and was cheered and applauded.

Only Aisha Chaudhary didn’t show up. She had been scheduled to take part in the launch of her book, “My Little Epiphanies,” but died the evening before her planned appearance, at the age of 17. Aisha was born with a hereditary disease (severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID), underwent a first bone marrow transplant when she was a few months old, and had fought the disease throughout her short life, until she succumbed just before the moment she had dreamed of, the publication of her book. She wrote about her life, her disease and her thoughts.

A day earlier, the publisher brought her the first copy of the book, which is dedicated to her sister Tanya, who died of the same disease. Like a Bollywood movie, the debut book became the death book. There were few dry eyes in the audience when the festival’s producer, Sanjoy K. Roy, did the launch honors in her place.

Among those who took part in the festival this year were two attractive young Iranian writers-in-exile, Sahar Delijani and Ramita Navai; Tshering Tashi, a historian from the mystery-shrouded country of Bhutan; Fady Joudah, a young Palestinian poet and physician who lives in Texas but whose heart is in Isdud, today’s Ashdod; Charles Glass, an American war reporter who was taken captive by Hezbollah; Ruth Padel, a British poet and conservationist who is the great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin; and Anchee Min, a former actress in Maoist propaganda films in China, who was later sentenced to years of hard labor in a camp and now lives in America.

Also on hand were the Canadian literary critic Alberto Manguel, whose father was Argentina’s first ambassador to Israel, and who still remembers his house on Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv and thinks Amos Oz’s new novel, “Judas,” which he read in Portuguese, is the author’s best book; Hakan Nesser, a crime-fiction writer from Sweden; and Valmik Thapar, who in the basement of his spacious home in an affluent neighborhood of Delhi writes books about India’s wild tigers, and wages fierce battles to keep them and their natural habitat alive.

Incidentally, Thapar’s wife, Sanjna Kapoor, is the daughter of one of India’s greatest actors, Shashi Kapoor. Sanjna, who is also involved in theater, is planning to host the Freedom Theater company from the Jenin refugee camp on a tour in India.

These and many others were present at Jaipur’s spectacular festival last month, in which I appeared on three panels, one of them called “Against the Grain,” about minority groups in different nations. The festival’s co-directors were the Indian writer Namita Gokhale and the India-based British author William Dalrymple. A day of rain almost did away with the festival, most of which takes place in the open air, but the sun soon reappeared.

Six hours from Jaipur is India’s capital, New Delhi. It was Republic Day, and U.S. President Barack Obama was visiting. The chaotic route from Jaipur to Delhi is studded with carts harnessed to camels or bulls, elephants carrying hefty loads, monkeys and of course cows on the road – along with numberless homeless people and the most astonishing number of noisy colorful trucks in the world.

When the driver of the tuk-tuk in Delhi heard that I was an Israeli, he asked me if I knew Ephraim Sneh, the former Labor Party minister. He has Sneh’s phone number, the two are friends, and he was about to call him.

Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz