When William Dalrymple talks of the “biggest literature festival in Asia” it is without a tinge of pride. Just a statement of fact.
When the prolific author, who never ever has space for a dull moment, talks about “the largest free literary festival in the world”, he again does it without really patting his back.
And to think, he, along with seasoned author Namita Gokhale, is the bedrock of the Jaipur Literature Festival that begins its annual date with the Pink City this coming week!
“It is not a sarkari exercise in diplomatic relations. For instance, last year, hot on the heels of 26/11, we invited Pakistani writers to the literature festival because we felt the voice of writers should never be muzzled. We try to arrive at a mix of authors and keep evenings for a blend of literature and music. This year we are likely to have about 150 authors.”
The world in Jaipur
Even as preparations are in full swing to welcome some “very good” African and French writers among others, Dalrymple does a quick rewind, “The whole idea of a literature festival was mooted by Namita Gokhale and me. I programme most of the international authors and she takes care of the ‘bhasha' ones but there is nothing written in stone. It is all fluid, some degree of overlapping is there. But the basic principle remains the same: The world meets Jaipur, Jaipur meets the world.”
He might be engaged in bringing the world to Jaipur, but actually Dalrymple is worth going miles to listen to, or read. So articulate, precise, yet not averse to subtleties.
Sitting in South Delhi, which he calls “home” for the simple reason that he spends some 10 months in a year here, he says, “Delhi is about peaceful coexistence. Life is not compartmentalised. Things are fluid and unpredictable. On the road you can have some absolutely raucous elements, then just a few metres away inside a temple, a dargah or even a Mehrauli monument, things could be completely serene.”
Talking of Mehrauli monuments, well, a walk down there in the soothing afternoon sun of winters provides Dalrymple with moments of quietude, often giving him the space he needs to get his creative juices flowing. This is the place he shuts out the world. “Walking around the Mehrauli complex is my favourite afternoon activity. I could just drop down at Qutub, go to Dilkhusha, Metcalfe, through Jamali-Kamali on to Zafar's empty grave.”
Clearly in love with the city, he says, “Delhi, and indeed, India surprises me every day. The day it ceases to surprise, I might just get bored and pack up. India is changing, new traditions are developing. There are so many ways of being an Indian today. Delhi is Dickensian. It can be cruel, brutal, materialist, yet remain beautiful.”
Though Delhi springs surprises, there are a few constants Dalrymple does not feel happy about. “The traffic in the city. Of course, having a Blackberry is handy when you are caught in a jam. Then I have had hilarious experiences of boys trying to sell me ‘City of Djinns' at traffic lights!”
However, sandpaper away the lighter side of Dalrymple and you realise that here is an author blessed with a keen sense of observation and a tender heart. “For long Delhi was resistant to change. Now it is in rebirth. It is no longer a city of boorish people with one community dominating. Earlier it was a conglomeration of ghettos. There is nothing called an average Delhiite, just like there is no way of being an average Londoner. It is truly a national city now. You have Sufis of Nizamuddin, you have this beautiful Garden of Five Senses in South Delhi which I just adore. Delhi was in denial of the past. Now, it is embracing the future. South Delhi, in particular has changed. There is a lot of multi-media activity, there is lots of space for finer arts. Delhi has a hunger for growth that is not easily satisfied. Somebody recently called it the Paris of India.”
Even as he plays with his goats, dogs and hen at the vast garden of his home, Dalrymple realises he is among the privileged lot in the city where alienation is often a constant companion. “The difference between the rich and the poor is disturbing. Poverty shocks me at an individual level. When hands reach out to my car at the intersections, I roll down the window and hand over some chapattis. At times though, I have no alternative but to look the other way.”
Well, that is not often. And considering he is usually the cynosure of all eyes wherever he goes, that is a no mean achievement. Pink City or the City of Djinns, literature festival or literary accomplishment – his last book “Nine Lines” has sold more than 35,000 copies – Dalrymple continues to delight.