Can Words Help Heal a Fractured Nation?: A Visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival

By Parul Kapur HinzenMay 14, 2020

Can Words Help Heal a Fractured Nation?: A Visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival
THREE MUSLIM GIRLS — two sisters and their cousin — stood in the sunshine on the grounds of the Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur, where the world’s largest literary festival took place over five days in late January. All around them, young people streamed into the sprawling compound, before a pandemic changed the world, girls in skinny jeans and sunglasses, college boys with a casual swagger. Friends huddled together for selfies, then swept across terraces and lawns in the tens of thousands to join Delhi’s literary establishment, Mumbai socialites, provincial Rajasthani gentry, readers, writers, academics, and international visitors to listen to some of the best minds in India and the West deliberate the issues of our times. Who are we? What has become of our world? Do we have any recourse? These anxieties prevailed against an array of programming about war, culture, casteism, Gandhism, climate change, big tech, poverty, history, fiction, poetry, and politics.

Shazia Khan, the elder of the two sisters, a radiant young woman with a passionate manner of speaking, was a “B.Tech” student at a local engineering college — many of the students I spoke to planned a future in technology, pursuing the same “B.Tech,” or Bachelor of Technology, degree. Shazia had come to attend a talk by a fashion designer to the Bollywood stars, Manish Malhotra, whose couture draws on traditional Indian craftsmanship. Shazia herself wore a leopard-print hijab of multi-colored hues. Her cousin, a student of Urdu literature, let her thick, wavy hair cascade down her shoulders. I wondered at the difference between them. The decision to wear hijab was a personal one in their family, Shazia explained. I asked why she had chosen to wear one, wanting to understand her attachment to the traditional head covering since it was paired with modern attire — a quilted jacket and leggings.

These are fraught times in the secular republic of India. Just a month before this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, the ruling Hindu nationalist party passed a controversial amendment to the nation’s citizenship law, fast tracking Indian citizenship to undocumented immigrants from three neighboring countries as long as they are not Muslim. The amendment has been condemned by opposition parties as a violation of India’s constitutionally-defined secular identity. India’s Muslim minority — 200 million people — fears the amendment is part of a larger government initiative to deprive them of their rights. Deadly violence erupted in New Delhi in February, instigated by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A proud Hindu nationalist, schooled in right-wing ideology since boyhood, Modi conveys his anti-Muslim sentiments in blatant code. You can tell who troublemakers are by the clothes they wear, he has said, in a clear attempt to other Muslims.

When I asked Shazia about what her hijab meant to her, she looked at me with luminous brown eyes and said in the most heartfelt manner, “It is my identity.” I understood. I understood in an immediate, emotional way that is perhaps the most powerful way to apprehend anything. Her answer prompted me to reflect on my own sense of self. Why was I wearing a bindi on my forehead? It wasn’t really a part of my identity. I had left India as a child and grown up in Connecticut, where my family’s cultural traditions withered like neglected plants in the suburban landscape. Returning to India, to a quiet provincial city like Jaipur, I felt closer to the languorous atmosphere of my childhood than I did in a teeming city like Mumbai. Here in Jaipur, through my scarlet bindi, I imagined I could reclaim the self I had left behind.

In a world marred by upheaval, identity becomes a central dilemma. The collapsed colonial empires of the 20th century created large populations of rootless immigrants and refugees who transformed the Western world. In its early years of independence, India struggled to remake itself, as two centuries of British tyranny had left the nation impoverished, illiterate, and barely industrialized. When the country was torn apart in 1947 to create Pakistan, over three million Hindus and Muslims were killed or went missing, and at least 18 million more were displaced in the largest forced migration in human history, according to new research by Harvard South Asia Institute’s Partition Project, which revises previous estimates significantly upward. This was the bloody birth of modern India. Some 70 years later, the country has sunk to Modi, who is sowing religious discord to amass political power.

Since its inception in 2006, the Jaipur Literature Festival has become an unexpected occasion for national self-examination. “We’re making sense of our changing times, making sense of our fractured society,” the writer Namita Gokhale told me over tea in the inner courtyard of the nobleman’s palace that serves as the festival’s home. An accomplished novelist and independent publisher, Gokhale co-directs the festival with the Scottish historian William Dalrymple, a longtime resident of India. Collaboration has been the key to their success, she said, also mentioning the festival’s producer Sanjoy Roy. Last year, crowd size swelled to half a million people, surpassing Woodstock. Young people, ravenous for knowledge and new ideas, accounted for more than half the visitors. Indeed, India is a young country — half of the nation’s 1.3 billion people fall under the age of 25.

For provincial youth, I imagined, entry to the festival might feel like slipping through the looking glass into a space where worlds collided — India and the West, past and present. The palace compound was festooned with dazzling Rajasthani decorations. Traditionally dressed vendors dispensed snacks and tea, evoking rural India, the artistry of the environment recalling an old-fashioned fair or wedding. Meanwhile, speakers brought in a breadth of knowledge and brilliance, opening up a multitude of new horizons.

Although Indian authors, journalists, and intellectuals dominated the programs, almost every major contemporary writer in the world has appeared under Jaipur’s colorful tents: Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, J. M. Coetzee, Colson Whitehead, Patrick French, Ben Okri, Orhan Pamuk, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, and Michael Ondaatje, among others. In 2015, V. S. Naipaul publicly reconciled with his protégé Paul Theroux at the festival after a bitter 19-year feud. Salman Rushdie was kept away from a visit in 2012 by threats of assassination from the Muslim underworld.


Gokhale recognizes that cross-cultural dialogue can pollinate exciting ideas and connections. But, for her, the festival’s significance lies in the interrogation of India by Indian writers and thinkers. “I didn’t want this to be a Club Med for Western writers to come in and tell us about ourselves,” Gokhale said. “We’re looking for ourselves in our own mirror.”

At the festival’s opening ceremony, held under an enormous tent on the front lawn, Gokhale began by welcoming an audience of a couple of thousand people in Hindi. I was surprised, accustomed to Indians speaking English in the presence of foreigners and the elite. Gokhale’s welcome in her native tongue was a natural way of asserting her identity, signaling to Western visitors they were being given seats at India’s table. Her commitment to Indian languages and literatures is reflected in a thread of popular vernacular-language programs at the Festival showcasing regional writers. After a brief address in Hindi, Gokhale switched to English.

The Festival has become an incredibly influential platform in India, a local TV journalist told me as we listened to Gokhale. We were perched above the tent on the Press Terrace, the palace’s expansive rooftop, where journalists hunched over their laptops. Dalrymple had told me that the festival was originally an offshoot of a local heritage event, and in its first year, it attracted only a handful of tourists. But it quickly developed a reputation as a showcase for the best Indian and Indian-American writers, flourishing alongside a sophisticated new publishing industry, which emerged during India’s economic boom at the turn of the millennium. This year, 35 literary festival directors from around the world converged on Jaipur to study the workings of the literary juggernaut. Everyone wanted to speak here, the journalist said, knowing their words might be transmitted around the country.

The chief minister of Rajasthan state, Ashok Gehlot, who lit the ceremonial lamp to inaugurate the festival, told reporters he hoped “authors and intellectuals would use this platform for free speech to discuss the burning issues […] and send their message across” to Modi. Their collective “voice of sanity” might inspire “a new beginning” for the country, he said. Then the American ambassador, arguably the most important foreign official in India, stepped onstage for a moment to declare that “literature is one of the most effective forms of cultural diplomacy,” before introducing the popular writer Elizabeth Gilbert. (Gilbert proceeded to win over the women in the crowd with her stirring paean to female sexuality and cutting rebuke of marriage.)

The next afternoon, a massive crowd assembled under that same tent and spilled across the lawn, anticipating political fireworks. Shashi Tharoor — a member of Parliament, prolific author, and one of India’s most outspoken intellectuals — was onstage. “Should religion be the determinant of nationhood?” he exhorted in the clipped tones of an English aristocrat. “Muslims who believed that created Pakistan. The vast majority on the Indian side said, ‘No! Religion does not determine our identity, our nationhood!’”

Tharoor’s Congress Party, crippled by losses in the 2019 election, offers feeble opposition to Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. But the politician carried on exuberantly before the crowd, pointing out a fascinating semantic distinction: the Indian Constitution defines India as a territory and the Constitution as a document applying to all the people of that territory. But Hindutva — the political ideology of Hindu nationalism — posits that “a nation is a people and the people of India are Hindus.” So, is the nation of India a people or a territory? The founder of Hindu nationalism, V. D. Savarkar, had once called for the Indian Constitution to be torn up. In the 1920s, Savarkar formulated the Hindutva ideology while he languished in a draconian British prison during the dark days of colonial rule. Hindutva imagines a prelapsarian India, before the waves of Islamic invasion, where Hindus reigned supreme. Tharoor lamented that India’s “current rulers” — Modi and his cronies — were steeped in this warped worldview. “This is the first time I’m starting to worry about the disintegration of the country,” he confessed, his bravado slipping for a moment.

At the festival, many journalists raised the alarm about Modi. Nobel Laureate and MIT economist Abhijit Banerjee steered clear of politics but still offered a brilliant lesson on good governance that was in direct contradiction to Modi’s heavy-handed approach: bend your ideas to people — to their needs and proclivities — instead of trying to bend people to your fixed ideas. Banerjee, co-winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics with his wife Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, spoke of his and Duflo’s experimental approach to improving development programs undertaken by various Indian state governments. The reason poor children weren’t learning in school, they discovered in one such project, was the “hallowed” syllabus to which educationists unswervingly adhered. Their simple solution was to ask teachers to take a few hours each day to teach children what they most needed: those who couldn’t add, should be taught to add; those who couldn’t read, should be taught to read. Learning outcomes increased dramatically.

Another long-term project revealed that microfinance failed in alleviating poverty, because the abject poor used small loans to pay off debts. Banerjee and Duflo found that a better approach was to provide a poor man or woman a simple asset like a cow or a few goats along with “some encouragement” — they took psychological needs into account — which resulted in many more successful income-generating activities. “India is many countries in one,” Banerjee said. The key to development was devolving power to the states. “Authority is an illusion,” he continued. I hoped those words would reach Modi’s ears.

Among literature festivals of international stature, the Jaipur Literature Festival stands out for the intellectual heft of its programming. Dalrymple has compared the festival to a university pitching its tents for five days; his network of international contacts draws in many of the European and American literary prize winners. Gokhale personally designs a large number of the 250-odd programs on offer, a creative act in which she is perpetually engaged. When I met her, she was already jotting down ideas for next year’s panels. The Indian-American writer Akash Kapur, whose 2012 book on India’s economic transformation, India Becoming, has taken him to renowned literary conferences around the world found the quality of discussion at Jaipur exceptional. “It’s a festival of ideas,” he said.

Programs that might read as academic, such as “Intersections: Caste, Colour and Gender,” could be startlingly revelatory about areas of darkness within Indian society. The journalist Yashica Dutt spoke about the shame of being born in the “lowest of low castes,” in the scavenger subgroup among Dalits. “Being Dalit meant being Untouchable and talentless,” she confessed. “It is a deeply ingrained sense of inferiority.” Though affirmative action programs had lifted her family out of poverty, they remained secretive about their caste identity for fear of being shunned. Dutt’s groundbreaking memoir, Coming Out as Dalit, grew out of conversations about equality she had as a graduate student in the United States. Stigmatized groups in India were poised for “toppling hierarchies in the quest for equality,” suggested feminist activist Ruchira Gupta, and the first step toward that might be publicly proclaiming one’s identity.

A young woman in a maroon blazer stood to ask Dutt why she had written her book in English, to which Dutt replied that it was empowering to use a language previously monopolized by the elite. English was now being democratized across India. Later, I spoke to that young woman, a PhD student in English literature, who was writing a thesis on Dalit activism. She herself was a Dalit — “The inferiority is there,” she conceded. I glimpsed her ruled notebook covered in neat, squared Devanagari script, and, in that moment, the gap between her lived reality as a Hindi speaker of the lowest caste and her aspiration to transcend the fissures of her disadvantage became poignantly clear.

“There is a new India!” journalist Rajdeep Sardesai proclaimed during a talk titled “The Democracy Index.” “It is the most aspirational society in the history of the world — more aspirational than the United States!” I listened from afar, milling around in the garden. “You cannot be part of the privileged elite in India and talk down to people anymore.” That was true, I thought. This India, the India represented by the several hundred thousand students who poured into the festival grounds, bore little resemblance to the India my parents left behind. Many of the youth here would have once been referred to as “the masses” — members of the lower middle class or even the poor; or low-caste, tribal, or other disadvantaged groups for whom affirmative action programs reserved 50 percent of all university seats. Entrance to the festival was free to those who registered online, so many came to lay their claim to knowledge and beauty, congregating where their parents might have once been afraid to enter.

The festival’s essential power, the power of its words, lay in its influence on the youth of India. What other book festival in the world attracts over a quarter million students? India is in the midst of an intellectual boom. In the 12 years since the Jaipur Literature Festival began, 300 literary festivals have sprung up across the country and in the surrounding nations of South Asia. The desire for self-examination now appears limitless. The new festivals have knit together a vast community of writers across India, Gokhale told me, where none had existed before. I wondered how many young people the other festivals attracted. Did youth in every part of India now have access to some kind of marketplace of ideas? Those ideas might offer a defense or alternative to the impoverished, narrow-minded Hindutva ideology that the prime minister was peddling to the nation.

If Modi idealizes an antediluvian, hegemonic Hindu culture, then the youth of India aspire to capture something new — new ways of seeing, thinking, articulating. One boy I spoke to marveled at the extraordinary variety of books available at the festival bookstore; he had wandered through the aisles, admiring all the books by so many foreign writers. No bookstore like it existed in all of India, he said. A college girl who volunteered with a Teach For India program that helps underprivileged students prepare for the job market had picked up ideas she could share about effective communication in English by observing festival speakers. The lesson one 18-year-old engineering student took away from the “seminars” he’d attended was “how to represent yourself.”

Identity politics is the new template for India, bellowed one journalist during a talk. People now defined themselves as Hindu, Muslim, or Dalit first, he insisted. I wondered, was it true that Indians identified themselves primarily by their religion? I asked a pair of young men standing in the front lawn, behind a row of seated policemen in khaki uniform. (Security at the festival was a heavy yet unobtrusive presence.) From the boys’ halting English and humble appearance, I gathered they were from modest homes and wondered if they might be drawn to Modi’s message of Hindu empowerment. “Modi is trying to make us think like that,” one of them said. He’d been a supporter of Modi’s political party until Modi began using anti-Muslim rhetoric. He said he was driven away when Modi declared that you could identify a Muslim by his “topee,” using the word “hat” as a kind of mocking slur for “skullcap.” I turned to his friend. A shy boy with a smattering of beard around his jaw, he shook his head and looked down, embarrassed by my question. “We’re educated people, Ma’am.”

There was a compassion and hopefulness among the youth I met that was lacking in the sharp, impassioned, and sometimes explosive onstage critiques of Modi and his inner circle. Anger and fear dominated those discussions, just as they do many conversations about Donald Trump in the United States — pummeling, exhausting emotions. The young seemed to assess the situation with both a sense of justice and an air of grace. I asked Shazia Khan if she felt discriminated against in the current climate. No, she said. It was Modi who wanted to create a “Hindu rashtra” — a Hindu nation — but she’d experienced no bigotry from her fellow students at college. “We are united first by our humanity,” she said with a brilliant smile. She and her bashful younger sister and her cousin formed a line, and I leaned in, because she had asked, “Do you want to take a selfie with us, Ma’am?” Her cousin extended her arm and tilted my phone at just the right angle to take a good picture, capturing the four of us in a single frame.


Parul Kapur Hinzen is a fiction writer, journalist, and literary critic living in Atlanta. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications including Guernica, Slate, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal Europe.

LARB Contributor

Parul Kapur Hinzen is a fiction writer, journalist, and literary critic living in Atlanta. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications including Guernica, Slate, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal Europe.


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