The Jaipur Literature Festival, which I help to direct, has in just six years grown like some monster from an Indian epic. Each year it doubles in size and we struggle to keep up with the vast crowds who come to hear our authors speak. We’ve also inspired nearly 40 daughter-festivals across South Asia. The great Bombay poet Javed Akhtar aired a theory about why the region has suddenly taken to literature like this: ‘We abandoned language and arts in the last 40 years,’ he said. ‘We wanted cars and fridges. Now today’s generation takes them for granted. They want something else. They want arts and literature.’
‘Everywhere sales of novels are declining,’ claimed Howard Jacobson at his Jaipur session on the future of the novel, ‘yet attendances at literary festivals going up. Are these events replacing reading?’ It’s an interesting idea but in fact it’s not true, at least in South Asia. India is the one place in the world where reading and sales of books are increasing, and at an estimated 10 to 12 per cent per annum — the envy of publishers everywhere else in the world. It’s also about the only place in the world where sales of newspapers are rising too.
From Jaipur to Rangoon, where the outgoing British Ambassador and his wife have started the latest literary festival in the region.While waiting for my sessions I walked around Rangoon, guided by U Thant’s grandson, Thant Myint-U, who is trying to conserve the heart of old city from the depredations of developers. Since the recent political liberalisation, Burma has been transformed: 100,000 new cars have been added to the capital’s streets in the past year and a half, and for the first time there is traffic congestion. There is also a real estate boom and office prices are approaching those of London and New York. Thant took me around the magnificent remains of colonial Rangoon — the offices built by Burma Oil, the Irrawady Flotilla Company and the Bombay Burma Trading Company. In the 1930s Rangoon was much bigger than Kuala Lumpar, and one of the top five cities of Asia, with huge houses as well as the usual colonial paraphernalia of clubs and fancy hotels like the Strand. Today the city centre feels as decayed and melancholic as Calcutta, with pipal trees skewering out of the pavements, ruinous teak staircases and women doing their washing on parquet floors that once housed major commercial concerns. During its Jazz Age boom, everyone came here — the palatial Sofer building was owned by a Baghdadi Jewish family; Rander House belonged to a Gujarati dynasty; the Scott Building was owned by Scottish rice company, and within living memory the Armenian Church and the Parsi Fire Temple were filled with Levantine bankers and Bombay traders. Today there are only 20 Jews and two Armenians left. The only Indians to remain as a distinct community are the Pashtuns, who once filled the Burmese police force and now, according to Thant, survive as the mainstays of the Burmese porn industry.
At the festival, the imported writers, who would have been mobbed elsewhere — the likes of Vikram Seth and Jung Chang — drew respectable crowds, but inevitably it was Daw Suu (as everyone here refers to Aung San Suu Kyi) who was the real star of the occasion. She first appeared on the terrace under the shade of a parasol, wearing a kingfisher-blue sarong, smiling and beautiful. Despite the intense heat, 5,000 people sat in the full glare of the sweltering Burmese sun to listen. The Lady is as fragile and elegant as she appears in the pictures; what is a surprise is her deep, resonant voice and Oxford blue-stocking accent. She talked about living in a village outside Oxford in the 1970s and being amazed every week at the visits of the mobile library. Afterwards she made an appeal for donations to build as many libraries as possible, starting with the 128 villages in her constituency. She also talked, most movingly, about how books kept her going during her years of house arrest: ‘I must mention Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy,’ she said, ‘because that gave me a lot of entertainment.’ The Lady revealed that she had also memorised Seth’s poem about loneliness, ‘All You Who Sleep Tonight’, as part of her plan to keep her mind alert by learning one new poem every day of her imprisonment. By the end she had memorised the complete works of Tennyson and Yeats. ‘We need to be open to as many trends and influences as possible,’ she said at the opening of the festival. ‘The writers who have come here will teach our people what literature always teaches us — to reach out and to attempt to understand people who are different from us.’
William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42 is published by Bloomsbury.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 February 2013