Jaipur Literature Festival
Reading for a better future

The 13th edition of Jaipur Literature Festival was held during January 23-27
The 13th edition of Jaipur Literature Festival was held during January 23-27 | © Faizal Khan

The 13th edition of Jaipur Literature Festival votes for borderless literature, preservation of planet and fighting global poverty.

By Faizal Khan

Inside the mammoth makeshift bookshop at the Jaipur Literature Festival's heritage venue this year, book lovers were willing to back titles that served a cause. There were tomes that had names like The Uninhabitable Earth, Client Earth and Flood and Fury that received the undivided attention of patrons of world literature. In large tents at the 19th century Diggi Palace, speakers negotiated sessions termed Poor Economics, New World Disorder and Borderless Literature. 

In a world witnessing devastating fires, floods, civil wars and economic challenges, a literature festival attended by one Nobel laureate, several Pulitzer winners, at least two Magsaysay winners and many acclaimed authors from around the world presented a significant space for freedom of expression and thought. The giant strides in modern technology made a mathematics professor, who delivered the keynote address, even wonder whether there would be an Artificial Intelligence author sitting on the JLF stage in the future reading from its own novel.

In an impassioned speech at JLF held during January 23-27, New York Magazine deputy editor David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, told the audience that we have done more damage to the environment in the last three decades since the creation of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change than in the millennia before it. "We need to be doing much more, quickly and across the world," said Wallace-Wells, who warned that the world would looking at 1 billion climate refugees by 2050 if the planet gets warmer by 2 degree celsius. 

Climate Crisis

Held in the aftermath of the Amazon fires and the Australian bushfires, sessions on climate crisis witnessed the biggest attendance at JLF 2020. The huge audiences were eager to listen to speaker after speaker reeling off statistics on environmental disasters facing the world. China and India -- the second and third-largest oil consumers after the United States -- came in for specal mention. British writer Martin Goodman, who co-authored Client Earth, the 2017 book about climate change litigation, with American lawyer and founder of environmental law firm ClientEarth, James Thornton, narrated how ClientEarth is training lawyers and judges in China. 

"More people in India today are aware of climate change because of the uncertainty of monsoon, floods, Himalayan glaciers under retreat and the dangers to coastal communities," said India's former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, while participating in the session, titled Client Earth. Massive floods in Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam in recent years are making a case that India's traditional reverence for the nature should be translated into climate action. 

"In Ladakh, people had to abandon two villages because of drought," said Sonam Wangchuk, an innovator and environmentalist from the Himalayan region. "The droughts are followed by flashfloods," adds Wangchuk, who has helped launch the I Live Simply movement (ilivesimply.org) that encourages young people to pledge for behavioural change towards the environment last year. "If masses are sensitised that is when governments would respond," says Wanghuck, who won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2018.

Indian-American economist Abhijit V. Banerjee, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year for his experimental approach to alleviating global poverty explained the Randomised Control Trials used by him to statistically evaluate an economic programme's impact on its beneficiaries. "There is so much prejudice against the abilities of the poor," said Banerjee, author of Poor Economics and Good Economics for Hard Times. "It is not like if you give poor people a freebie, they will become lazy. They will work many more hours, they will work harder. If anything, they feel encouraged."

Borderless Literature

Translations dominated the Jaipur BookMark, the industry platform of JLF founded six years ago. Delivering the keynote address on Towards a Borderless Literatre on the opening day of Jaipur BookMaark, Berthold Franke, the Director, Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, described the community of translators as "a group of pioneers, virtuosos and scouts of international cultural exchange". "They help us to get out of the inescapable limitations of our access to world literature (Goethe: ”Weltliteratur”) and into the wisdom and truth of texts from all parts of the world and from all generations, and to whom we all owe so much," said Dr Franke. 

Describing every reader as a translator, Dr Franke said just as much as literature, whether translation or not, can cross borders, it must necessarily remain within the limits of language. "The paradox of literature is the paradox of language: to be both a border and a delimitation, freedom and isolation, a dead-end and a journey into the open and at the same time," he added. 

German author Jo Lendle, who wrote All the Land, a fictionalised account of the life of polar explorer Alfred Wegener, said for him as a translator, translating wasn't about crossing bridges, but about learning to write. "Translating brings ideas from other languages into our voice. It is also about understanding the idea of language," said Lendle. "Nobody knows the text better than a translator," he added. "Already the writer is a translator, he translates his ideas into languages," Dr Franke responded.

Artificial Intelligence

Technology and creativity was one of the key topics at JLF with data scientists, AI experts and tech activists speaking about a future of machine-generated literature, music, theatre and cinema. "After four decades of AI winter, this decade is of AI heatwave," said Oxford mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy, who delivered the keynote address on The Arts, Sciences and Creativity at JLF. "We want AI to have human empathy and understand the world. One day when AI develops consciousness, it will have stories to tell. But it will be different from ours," he said. “If a lion could speak, we won’t be able to understand it,” said du Sautoy, quoting German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. “AI and humans can make a pathway as collaborators, not competitors," du Sautoy added.

Founded in 2006, Jaipur Literature Festival is today one of the largest literary festivals in the world. Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple, one of the directors of the festival, recalled an incident at the first edition. "There were a total of 16 people in the first year of JLF. Ten of those were Japanese tourists looking for the Amber fort in the Pink City," he joked. Since then, the number of people attending JLF has risen to over 100,000 every year. "The JLF is the best example you can see literature is alive and well in India," said Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.