The Indian Litfest Bug

It can get you via email, bring you up close to writers you wouldn’t drink or piss with, and even send you into a fever of writing a book on litfests

01 February 2012
VS Naipaul (centre) with Vikram Seth (left) and Amitav Ghosh at the first International Festival of Indian Literature in Neemrana, held in February 2002.
MANISH SWARUP / AP PHOTO
VS Naipaul (centre) with Vikram Seth (left) and Amitav Ghosh at the first International Festival of Indian Literature in Neemrana, held in February 2002.
MANISH SWARUP / AP PHOTO

I LOST MY LITERARY-FESTIVAL VIRGINITY almost a decade ago when, at the poor Indian taxpayers’ expense, I was summoned to the International Festival of Indian Literature at Neemrana in Rajasthan. It was the first Kumbh Mela of literary gatherings, the mother-of-all literary fests, which inaugurated the venerable tradition of tantrum-throwing before the eyes of the national media, and pioneered—and this is no mean achievement—the bringing together of writers who wouldn’t be caught drinking, or even pissing, together.

I may sound critical, but don’t be mistaken—I was thrilled to have been invited. I had written only one academic book at the time; it had been reviewed in Outlook magazine, but even I couldn’t understand what the review was saying. The invitation to the festival made me think I could now become one of those people who roams the circuit—and, this being in the days before Facebook, claim a famous writer as my friend.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Delhi wanted to celebrate the Nobel Prize that had been awarded to VS Naipaul. I was still jetlagged from my flight from New York when we were taken by bus to Vigyan Bhawan for a reception: I shook hands with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who wore industrial-size hearing aids and thick socks that climbed up toward his dhoti. Perhaps the prime minister was jetlagged, too, because I saw that he had fallen asleep before I had let go of his hand.

Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, USA. His latest book, The Lovers: A Novel, is forthcoming from Aleph Book Company.

Keywords: Jaipur Literature Festival literary festival Neemrana International Festival of Indian Literature schoolchildren
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