India's biggest literary festival kicks off

21st January 2011, Comments 0 comments

South Asia's largest book festival kicked off Friday in India's western desert state of Rajasthan, drawing many renowned international writers, critics and thousands of literary fans.

This year features Nobel winners Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee, as well as Booker Prize winners Kiran Desai and Ian McEwan on a long list of luminaries set to appear at Diggi Palace, a 19th century mansion that hosts the event.

The five-day festival, launched six years ago by best-selling British author William Dalrymple and others, prides itself on being the "most democratic" book festival in the world with free entry and no special treatment for VIPs.

Dubbed by organisers as the biggest and liveliest book event east of the Suez, it is expected to draw 50,000 book enthusiasts, according to Dalrymple, and 223 speakers from 20 different countries.

"We welcome any bookworm who likes to hear about literature and wants to see how writers work and talk," Dalrymple told the Hindustan Times.

This year, however, the festival has been clouded by accusations of racism and an ugly public spat over the apparent obsession with former colonial power Britain in literary circles.

In an excoriating piece in early January, Open news magazine political editor Hartosh Singh Bal questioned why Dalrymple, a white middle-aged Scot, had established himself as a "pompous arbiter of literary merit in India."

Hurt by the attack and an unflattering cartoon of him in colonial-era regalia, Dalrymple noted that two-thirds of invitees to Jaipur were Indian.

British writers "brown, black and white" make up "a minority within the minority" of foreigners, he wrote back, accusing Bal of "reverse racism" for questioning his role in the festival.

© 2011 AFP

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