For generations, India has intrigued foreign and local writers lured by its rich culture, diversity and multitude of stories to be told. From this Thursday, writers from across the globe are converging in northern India for the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. Among those set to arrive in the Pink City will be one Nobel laureate, two Booker winners and five Pulitzer prize winners for an event described by The Daily Beast‘s Tina Brown as the “greatest literary event on Earth”.
Hyperbole aside, the growing popularity of the event – last year an estimated 20,000 people turned up – shows there is an ever-growing appetite for the written word in India.
Traditionally, Indian literature has focused on two main themes: family and Partition. Now, however, with about half the population under 25, there’s a desire for new and fresh subject matter.
To meet that demand, a new generation of young Indian authors are telling stories about an emerging India that reflect the growing self-confidence and international connections of the South Asian power.
Chetan Bhagat’s stories of the love lives of call centre workers and the misadventures of university students have not only made him India’s best-selling author, they have spawned at least one hit film.
Meanwhile, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, You Are Here, has its roots in her hugely popular blog where she candidly writes about dating, sex and Martinis in Mumbai.
“India’s still at its baby steps phase, especially when it comes to matters of sexuality or family,” says Madhavan. “I’ve tried to represent the only India I know – new to some, modern to others, overly westernised to yet others – in my writing as best as I can.
“I think writers in India are receiving a lot more attention these days than they did in the past. Everyone knows who Arundhati Roy is, or Aravind Adiga. I think publishers abroad are still looking for more Indian content – in the sense, they want the India you read about in newspapers, with poverty and dirt and a few snake charmers. But I think that’s slowly changing,” she adds.
Madhavan is among the authors slated to appear at Jaipur, which is the world’s largest free literary festival, according to organisers. While the free entry might make balancing the books difficult, it keeps the event democratic and accessible to all.
Access is a key aim of the festival, which will showcase the works of tribal and other non-English-speaking authors along with big names from India and abroad.
Co-director Namita Gokhale, whose company publishes with Penguin India in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu, says the works of tribals will be a major feature at this year’s festival.
“One of the reasons why Jaipur is so extraordinary is because India has huge linguistic diversity, and we have 22 official languages. We have so many different languages and each has an established literary tradition. Everything is not flattened over by English, there is a lot of writing in regional languages and there are new writers, those who are less registered on the larger literary scene,” she says.