What experiences or places most give you “life”? Where you feel extra energy, joy, happiness? Places that don’t drain you but instead refresh you? For me it is activities connected to learning. I am an intense learner. I love to read, learn in any way I can, and then share that learning with whoever will listen!
So it should not surprise you that attending sessions for three days at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week was an incredible experience for me. Started nine years ago, this is the largest free literature festival in the world, and the largest of any kind in all of Asia. It is held each year in January in the state capital of Rajasthan, India at a former royal palace grounds.
I had heard of the JLF for several years, partly through my awareness of the books of William Dalrymple (I have read almost everything he has written). Dalrymple, who spends most of his year in Delhi and the rest in London, helped found the Festival. One of the great treats for me in attending this year was to listen to two of his sessions, one where he interviewed the brilliant Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, and another where he was a fellow panelist with among others Steve McCurry, the celebrated photographer who took the iconic photo for National Geographic of the Afghan girl with the piercing green eyes. (For those interested in Dalrymple, see my post From the Holy Mountain. This is the title of my favorite book of his, and it is also included in my page Recommended Books.)
Back to the JLF. It had over 200 sessions spread over 5 venues and five days. The tagline for the event beautifully summarized it, Celebrate the Word. And that is what happened. But those who may think the interest in the printed word is dying would be extremely surprised by the fact that there were not just a few introverted bibliophiles in Jaipur. There were thousands upon thousands! And they didn’t seem so introverted! Some put the crowds at up to 50,000 each day, although I would think it was smaller. But even if there were only 10,000 attending, it is still astounding. The crowd was from all over India and the world, jostling each other to get to the next session but such a tremendous buzz of the sheer joy of excitement celebrating learning.
There are many reflections I could share on this event. But something that stood out to me so strongly above others was the atmosphere of freedom to exchange ideas that at times were controversial or threatening. Sessions that had to do with sexual identity, the present Indian government and how they are doing, lack of justice, and so much more. As I walked the grounds with my friends over the days, I was struck again by the opportunity for freedom of expression in India. The largest democracy in the world, India has a genuinely free press and the ability to have meetings like the JLF is a strong evidence for that freedom.
One of my favorite sessions is an example of that freedom of expression. It was with two outstanding Indian women, both extremely courageous in their own contexts. One was Barkha Dutt, the TV journalist who goes to the most dangerous areas for her stories. (For Western readers think of Cristianne Amanpour perhaps). I had watched Dutt for many years on TV, but to hear her opinions on everything from the role of women in Indian society to the ruling government was stirring. She was interviewed by Shoba De, a writer who has also showed courage in her tussles with extremist groups in India. The discussion they held over the hour session was being repeated all over the Diggi Palace venue, with freedom of expression the norm.
I am already making plans to come again to the JLF. But I left this year confirmed again in my love for learning, of the exchange of ideas that can hopefully help change our world. I started this post with the question, what gives you life? Make sure that in your busy life, no matter how vital your work may be, you continue to give yourself to the interests, hobbies, pursuits that refresh you and stir you. Your world will be a better place for it.