The eleventh Jaipur Literature Festival got underway at Diggi Palace amid a shadow of protests over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie Padmaavat. Delivering the keynote address at the inaugural session, travel writer and novelist Pico Iyer said, “At this time when so many of us are really concerned about wars and travel bans, literature is more indispensable than ever, precisely because the imagination is no respecter of boundaries or fences. The blessing of writing is to speak over the wall and under the wall and around the wall. Even as the world is moving towards hard and fast distinctions, literature revels in the soft and the slow. Literature tells us that what unites us is much more important than what separates us. And that’s how your story becomes mine. Literature tells us that much better than waging wars is to hold festivals such as this.”
The festival was inaugurated in the presence of former Rajasthan governor Margaret Alva, JLF co-directors Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, and Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, Sanjoy K Roy. Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje gave it a miss following her bypoll campaign in Alwar.
Iyer added, “Literature recalls to us that our drone attacks will never deter terrorists, our guns are never going to erase nationalists but our words and our ideas, our rigorous imaginings, can take us a little bit past simplicities and remind us that, ultimately, we change the world by changing how we think of the world, by changing how we dream of it.”
“We have all witnessed, sometimes painfully, a rise in nationalism and brutal tribalism across the planet in the last year or two. And it is as if the countryside is rising up against the city, the desperate are rising up against what they see as the privileged, and the past is rising up against the future. In the context of this struggle, literature is indispensible precisely because it’s the voice of the individual. And the individual is more…plural than ever. She knows she can’t be pushed into a single box or category, she knows emotions can’t be reduced to simplicities,” he said.
Exploring the notion of “Charting a World without Borders,” Iyer said that while physical restrictions are growing the world over, the differences are fast vanishing in the world of books. As a British-born American writer of Indian descent, he said, “The greatest travel writer in North America…was literally the most powerful person on the planet for eight years. Barack Obama famously saw the world differently because he couldn’t think in terms of black or white. He is and was black and white. He is from Kansas, Kenya and Indonesia and Hawaii; blessed with a Buddhist half-sister and a Chinese Canadian brother-in-law.”
“A world where, by national consensus, the dish of Britain now is chicken tikka masala,” he said. He went on to say that “If London was the capital of 19th century writing in English, and New York of 20th (century), I think there can be no doubt that the capital of 21st century writing in English so far is Mumbai.”
“Across the West, publishers are running scared, bookshops are closing, magazines are dwindling. Every time I come back here, to the world’s largest democracy, is to find there are new publishing houses, new magazines, new readers eager to talk about page 961 of The Suitable Boy,” Iyer said.