07 February 2013

Jaipur Literary Festival

I have wanted to go to this particular literary event for three years now and at last this January I went.
It was well worth the trip.  If you are even vaguely curious about India or about Indian writing I would encourage you to attend.  Because it can be somewhat daunting to get all the information you need about attending the festival I have set out the steps that may help you get there from Australia.

Getting there from Australia
Once you make the decision to attend the Jaipur literary Festival you should immediately begin the process of arranging your visa.  The place to start this is online at http://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/  This will be your first taste of Indian bureaucracy but not your last.  It can be a lengthy process so be prepared with all documents required before you begin to fill in the forms.  Details such as your parent’s names seem oddly unnecessary until you arrive in India and see that the Pakistani threat is very serious indeed and so such detail is important to them.  Indian visas require a photograph that is not the usual passport size taken at post offices.  You will need to locate an actual photographer and have it done in a studio.
Next register for the festival.  This is mandatory – you will not be able to enter the site without having done so – however it is possible to register on arrival depending on availability.  I advise pre-registration however.  The lines can be long. http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/registration

Get your inoculations
Recommended are Hepatitis, cholera, and malaria tablets.  If instead of using a specialist travel doctor you use your family doctor and shop around for the drugs it can save literally hundreds of dollars. 
Take mosquito repellent tho there were no mosquitoes while I was there. Take hand sanitiser – you will need it frequently.  Be sure to wash your hands just as frequently since the sanitiser seems to move the dirt about rather than actually remove it.  Take antibiotics if you think you might get Delhi belly.  This allows you to treat a bacterial infection.  Your doctor will have other suggestions.  I ate from food carts and did not get sick.  Drink only bottled or filtered water. 
Flights
I flew Singapore airlines.  The service was excellent.  Qantas have flights but these are more expensive.  Singapore Airlines was the cheapest I found. If you have to overnight in Singapore as I did it is advisable to book a room at the transit lounge at least three weeks in advance as rooms are not likely to be available on the day.  Here for a budget room you get a bed, table and television should you wish to watch it rather than sleep.  The shower and toilet facilities are shared, clean and good.  It costs around S$40 for six hours from midnight to six am and avoids you having to wander the corridors wondering why duty free goods cost twice as much as anywhere else.  book a room at http://www.gosimply.com/airport-lounges/singapore/singapore-airport/sin3atl
Arrival
You will transfer from the Delhi international airport to the domestic airport by walking from one to the other.  You will not be permitted to leave the airport – heavily armed militia will prevent you from attempting this.  The overwhelming presence of the military is both reassuring and terrifying by turns.  They carry AK47’s and hand guns.  They do not smile.  No one other than passengers with boarding passes and passports can enter an airport in India.  It is advisable when departing to allow at least three hours prior to boarding.  The bottle neck at Jaipur airport was long and unpleasant as people struggle to just enter the airport through the many security checks.  You will have your baggage which is to be loaded on the plane strapped automatically once it has been passed through the scanner.  This is a slow process as each bag is painstakingly checked.  TAKE CARE to attach the baggage label you are given at the airline counter to your hand luggage.  This is stamped and without it you cannot proceed through the subsequent security checks.  You will walk through the usual electronic ‘gate’ and then be patted down and have the wand passed over you and your hand luggage. There are three such security checks before you reach the boarding gate.  Even as you are about to board you are stopped on the gangplank and your boarding pass is stamped for a fourth time.  I watched an international author be sent all the way back to the first security point as we were about to board – he had lost a tag.

Accommodation
There are many possible places to stay depending on your taste and required level of comfort.  A number of authors and publishers from overseas were staying at the Country Comfort but I understood it wasn’t very special.  I stayed at a homestay called Ikaki Niwashttp://www.ikaki.in/
This was so good I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone.  It has only been open for a couple of years and is run by a warm and friendly young married couple called JD and Devi. It won a Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice award for 2013.   They arrange a driver to pick you up from the airport and drive you back.  This was complimentary. It is a short trip by Tuk Tuk (a charmingly wild and death defying vehicle, diesel powered and three wheeled) to the festival site and the journey costs approximately 100 rupee or about $2.  Tuk Tuk’s are easily obtained right outside on the main road. Check for current rates at Ikaki but our rate included all meals which are beautifully prepared and vegetarian.  Laundry can be sent out at night and is returned in the morning.  It costs very little to do a bag of washing.  This is a non-smoking venue.  JD was able to arrange vehicles for us to see the Taj Mahal, Amber Fort and an extraordinary Mughal palace – drivers were excellent and the cost was very little.  He will help with any query, speaks beautiful English and is the perfect host.  The cook reminded us a lot of Manuel but he isn’t slapped about the head by JD.

Buying block prints and eating salad
Jaipur is famous for its textiles and particularly the block printing.  To buy this go to Anokhi – it is fabulous, supports the artisans, sells real block printed clothing and there you can eat a brilliant, safe salad, have a great cup of tea and generally relax.  Their museum is also well worth a visit. I had no trouble getting there (you will see a warning about drivers on their site).  When leaving it’s a good idea to stuff the distinctive red shop bag into another bag or the new driver is likely to charge you double. http://www.anokhi.com/anokhi/visitingjaipur.html
Transport
Cabs are usually arranged by the hotel or homestay – I did not see any ‘for hire’ signs.  They are inexpensive but for a true Indian experience try either the Tuk Tuk or a rickshaw.  If you are overweight do not put the rickshaw rider through it however.  They struggle so hard over terrible roads determined to get their passengers to their destination and expending more energy than they can take in from the few calories they obtain each day.  They may, literally, be working themselves to death.  Tip them generously though they do not expect it.  You can afford it.
Always fix the price of your journey at the outset before you get into any vehicle.  You can haggle but it may not be worth it.  Driving in any form of transport is akin to finding yourself suddenly inside a video game where there are no traffic rules other than honking and slipping into impossible spaces as fast as you can.  They tend to ignore lanes altogether and prefer in fact to drive right down the centre line.  I was told this is to best avoid the occasional dog, cow, pig or person which may decide to launch itself from the side of the road.  It is at best a white knuckle adventure.  Shutting your eyes and crying ‘oh god’ just makes the driver laugh like mad.

Beggars
These proved to be far fewer than I expected but are almost always women with babies and the babies scratch on the car windows or tug at you as you pass.  This is truly heart breaking but the advice is not to give them money since it perpetuates the begging by children and often the money is taken by a man who is controlling many beggars.  You can give them food however which is easily obtained in most places from street vendors.
Is it really dirty?
Jaipur and Delhi were surprisingly clean.  There are slums of course and here the filth can be very overwhelming but even there rubbish is sifted by rag pickers and swept into piles which are collected.  I saw some examples of terrible filth in the old city – if you are particularly sensitive you can easily avoid these places.  Cows, pigs, goats, dogs (oh they are so very sad) donkeys camels and even elephants share the roads.  Dung is collected, mostly, dried and used for fires.  We were never accosted by any animal or person while walking in Jaipur.  It felt very safe indeed.

 The Festival itself
The first festival in 2005 had 14 visitors ‘most of whom were tourists who took the wrong turn’. This year the festival expected over two million footfalls on the weekend, which happened to coincide with the Indian national holiday, Independence Day.  Since they scan your pass every time you enter the site or leave and at each venue within the site they may be counting each as a footfall.  Nevertheless there was a steady and extraordinarily large stream of people all day long entering the site.  I would have no trouble believing in the figure of more than one hundred thousand people that were initially predicted.
The Indian Times covered the proceeding on the front page each day. The festival received a lot of publicity and is clearly highly regarded within India. There had been threats made against a Muslim author and there were snipers stationed on roofs around the festival – these were quite visible.  Military police are three or four deep at the entrance and scan the crowd.  They were also very visible and in large numbers on site.  You will have to pass through security which includes the scanner, the wand and the pat down before gaining entry. (This happens in every public building).
I was told that the Indian Government had told the organisers that no writer could make any derogatory comment about India – if this happened they would shut down the festival.  Some authors refused to attend at the last minute.  The Dali Lama was there and spoke on day one but for what I assume were security reasons was not listed on the programme – hence I missed him.

The bookshop was well stocked with every author’s work, both backlist and front list. It was doing a very good business indeed and even stocked a beautiful collection of Indian children’s picture books (I bought some).  Paperbacks cost around 400 rupee or less than ten dollars for exactly the same quality we would pay A$25 or more here.  I suggest you leave plenty of room to bring home books.

Young people will hand you a festival brochure as you enter showing the map of the site.  Go also to the information booth and buy a programme for 100 rupee.  This will then allow you to interpret what is otherwise a bare bones programme on the free handout.  The site is beautiful and literally swathed in gorgeous cloth which acts as sun screens and chair covers.  I have never seen such a beautiful literary festival. There is an avenue of orange pink and yellow paper lanterns and everywhere you look is colour and life.  Get to your chosen session as early as possible or you will stand with the hundreds of others who got there late.
There are food stalls around the site – our festivals could take a lesson from the various foods and craft stalls which so enlivened the proceedings. There were stalls for supporting the animals of India, to encourage registration by Indians (this is a huge government initiative to register every Indian national) stalls selling hand crafts made by disabled Indians and by artisans. It reminded me more of Womad than a literary festival site; it was vibrant and interesting and altogether appealing. Toilets are available but remember that in India toilet paper is rarely provided.  You are expected to use the hose.  If you take tissues you can have a western toilet experience however the system is not designed to handle the paper. 

The chairs of some of the sessions were particularly poor; the questions were not as probing as i hoped and they  wandered off topic frequently.  One began to talk about himself at some length while ignore the many questions from the audience. There were sessions which were both in Hindu and in English and were very enjoyable.  At all venues are enormous screens so that you can see the stage no matter where you stand.  There was also a huge twitter feed screen which was good fun. 

 India is like no country I have visited.  I want to return to see more.  The organisers of the Jaipur literary festival told me that they will be beginning a new festival in Bhutan.  i was instantly interested.  Looking back at the overall experience it seems better and better each day and each day I vow never ever to complain about my life again.

As Billal our sweet and funny driver said while wryly contemplating a particularly chaotic Indian moment on the road
‘Ahh.  My incredible India’

And it is.

2 comments:

  1. Dyan, I recommend you read "Cat and Fiddle" by Adelaide author Lesley Jorgensen. It won the 2011 CAL Scribe Prize for an unpub ms. It's a comedy of manners, cleverly parodying Pride and Prejudice, with a cast of upper class landed English gentry and their neighbors, a family of Bangladeshi immigrants. Great fun!

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    1. Thanks Ruth. I am always glad to read a book you recommend.

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