Global Literature or International Readers? The Hindi Dream at the Jaipur Literature Festival


The past two months have witnessed a long wave of book fairs and festivals across India. Stories and ideas are being celebrated across the country: in Bengal, which recently inaugurated the 38th International Kolkata World Book Fair; in Delhi, where publishers, writers, and readers have met uninterrupted for the past 41 years at the Delhi World Book Fair; and in Bihar, where critics converge to debate new Hindi releases in a manner reminiscent of Sen’s Argumentative Indian. Yet among this constellation of fairs and festivals, the Jaipur Literature Festival–often billed as the largest free literary festival on earth– shines brightest amongst them.

Why Jaipur? It might be due to the controversies that have flared up year after year to burn the festival’s name into public memory. After all, who can forget the Salman Rushdie affair, when Rushdie’s video link from England  was withdrawn in 2012 under pressure from an angry mob. Or of the blunder of Ashish Nandi last year, who was faced with the threat of arrest because of his assertion that the Dalits were corrupt? The very function of the Jaipur Literature Festival, it seems, in conjunction with it’s panel discussions, has brought to the public questions of censorship: what can be said, and who can be heard.

When Indian and international crowds assembled at Diggi Palace this year, they undoubtedly wondered, “what will happen next?!” Yet, in comparison with past years, the young Indian anchors and media vans returned home without their anticipated, sensational stories.

One shouldn’t assume Jaipur wasn’t as sensational and controversial as usual, however. The media simply failed to capture the real controversy at stake: the controversy that was to be found in the “empty spaces of language” that played across the panel this year. Spaces which–by virtue of their emptiness–refused to perform before mainstream cameras, and, in fact, can even be said to have remained invisible because of them.

At the Front Lawns, Indian middle-class crowds settled in their chairs with clay cups of chai and amongst their friends in the grass. A carnivalesque atmosphere filled the air: the audience buzzed in anticipation for the session on the “Global Novel” while the speakers and projectors boomed “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,” the new commercial of Zee TV, title sponsor of the festival.

Renowned writers from across the world—Jumpa Lahiri, Maaza Mengiste, Jonathan Franzen, Xiaolu Guo, and Jim Crace—ascended the stage following the Vedic-like chant of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, Sanskrit for, “The World is my Family,” captured the bizarre essence of the festival: the juxtaposition of India’s ancient past and globalized present, as the world’s great writers met to discuss international literature in English in one of India’s most traditional cities.

Scenes featuring traditional Hindi ritual and custom danced across the screen as assistants clipped microphones to the panelists’ collars. Scenes included the serene Ganges river, a golden bowl for oblations, a circling pooja tray of fire. Just as Hindus welcome their guests as, Zee TV greeted the guest of India’s cosmopolitan future with much fanfare. White women loaded trucks and danced across farmland in red saris with blonde hair and bright smiles. A white boy with long, flowing, curly locks led a line of Indian boys in a long leap over an irrigation canal. A Caucasian man hung garlands of saffron on the wall of a Rajasthani Haveli in preparation for a wedding. The ethnicities of the world grinned through a shared mask of Holi powder.

(See Zee TV Commercial)

The moderator, Chandrahas Choudhury—born in Mumbai, the only Indian on the stage—introduced the subject of the panel. An apparition of nostalgia flashed through the air as we watched the birth of a Literary League of Nations. In this literary forum, our renowned representatives of literature, speaking for different cultures, nations, and languages, gathered to discuss a growing awareness of the ecumenical aesthetic seizing the imaginations of readers and writers across the globe.

But did the global novel exist? Chandrahas Choudhury launched into the discussion with the comment that the novel has always been global. So what has changed? This question sparked a reaction of similar topics: the difference between the commercially global and the aesthetically universal; the tension between imaginative transcendence and the limitations of identity; the growing hegemony of America and the English market over a world democracy rich in idiosyncratic linguistic expression and genre.

Jumpa Lahiri, a cultural product of both India and the United States, was the first author asked to speak on her experience. “What I know is confusion,” she said, “the seemingly irreconcilable differences and the things that can wedge us apart, and yet a sort of constant attempt in spite of those differences to bridge the gap.” She emphasized her distinction between what she viewed as the ‘global,” which she defined as a “commercial term” with the “universal,” which is “a more aesthetic question.”

But Franzen dismissed wishy-washy nods at universalism by addressing the “homogenization of global culture.” Xiaolu Guo, similarly, the most aggressively honest of the bunch, launched into a diatribe against English and mainstream American storytelling: “What a struggle to write in any other language other than English!” she exclaimed. “I don’t have this self-comfort, this self-congratulating attitude towards writing, as mere beautiful self-narcissistic expression.” She leaned passionately into the microphone. “No, I am burned by some anger. And I think that’s the same way I make all the documentary films. Rather documentary than fiction! There is so much going on, you just need to capture them without going through the process to beautify them.”

(Watch “The Global Novel”)

There should have been a documentary for the scenes unfolding behind the scenes at the Jaipur Literary Festival. For while the media zoomed their lens on the famous speakers on the stage, young Indian students in the audience, plagued with their own questions about identity, fueled their own debate on international literature by questioning panelists on the future of the Hindi language.

 A young Indian woman in “Writing Indai, Speaking Bharat” asked Ganesh Devi, of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India: “Aajkal (These days) we see the homogenization of languages. Jaise (Like) Hinglish. Nobody can speak pure Hindi or pure English. Vaise. (Just like that.) Even though there is homogeneity, and language may be getting lost, do you think ki new languages emerge honge and will make up for the languages that are being lost?”

(See Question at 46:48)

The question of Hindi’s future rippled throughout the festival. In Kavita ki Kahaani, (The Story of the Poem) a young man challenged Hindi poet Ashok Vajpayee’s entreaty for his audience to maintain the maryada (dignity) of Hindi. “Sir, my belief is that change does not leave behind the dignity of any language, but rather believe that it is necessary for languages to change with their environment…Isn’t it the case that change doesn’t abandon the dignity of any language, but rather brings with it it’s own positive change?”

(See Question at 35:50)

Finally, in Ek Vachan, Bahu Vachan (One voice, Many Voices) a young lady asked the journalist and two popular Hindi writers on stage: During this time of change does your writing also change, or do you believe…” Unable to maintain her fluent flow of Hindi, she broke into English, “should it remain in it’s purest form…matlab, should it be the same throughout?”

(See Question at 41:30)


Hinglish, a mix of Hindi and English, has become a market of identity for Indian youth raised during the first baby steps of India’s liberalized economy. Indeed, India’s youth today are beset by social and economic pressures to speak in English rather than Hindi. Their parents encourage them to practice English at home to improve their job prospects. India’s education system, similarly, encourages English through the university level, while Hindi stops at the 10th standard. No wonder, then, that the youth, flooded with a wide range of media options vying for their attention, would demand literature represent them as well.

Throughout every tent and hall of the festival, Zee TV’s commercial refrained, “The World is my Family, the World is My Family.” The same questions replayed in my mind. “Whose Global Family?” “Who are it’s family members?” And “How do they speak?”

In “Geographies of Reading” on the final day of the festival, Mita Kapur turned the mike toward the concerns of Indian readers. She asked the panel of some of the most influential publishers in India, including Penguin Books and Vani Prakashan: What books are being published? What do publishers do to market these books? And: are these strategies influencing readers?

Vani Prakashan’s Director, Aditi Maheshwari admitted: “Maybe we have not been able to join the dots when it comes to content management, when it comes to content imagery, when it comes to marketing our content. But that’s also got a lot to do with the aspirations of our country,” she said, putting her finger on the problem. “In India we dream in Hindi, cry in Hindi, sleep in Hindi, but aspire in English.”

But Hindi’s aspirations remain. “The medium changes over a period of time, people change, reading habits change, reading tastes change, and so has Hindi,” Aditi said. “Today we are standing at a crossroads, because we are trying to understand what exactly people in Hindi are trying to read.”

As a publisher and representative of the Hindi reading public, she conveyed her commitment to ensuring a vibrant future for Hindi literature. “We have to strike a balance…we have to make it more relevant for the younger lot. We have to make sure they are on facebook, we have to make sure they are on youtube, we have to make sure they are in English newspapers as well…we have to push our boundaries.”

(Watch “The Geographies of Reading”)

In an environment of unresponsive politics, it is reassuring to see at least one representative listening to the needs of her people. Xiaolu Goa vented her dissatisfaction with the English mainstream media’s refusal to provide space for other voices, languages, and genres. Hindi Literature, too, has much to contribute to democratic dialogue, with new expressions of women and Dalit’s experiences.

Maaza Mengiste argued that it is not so much literature that has become global as our readers who have become international. Jim Crace, similarly, believes foreign literature and translation transform our imagination and perception of the country in which it is set. The question, then, for Aditi–a young, third-generation Hindi publisher determined on carrying Hindi’s legacy into the future–is whether she is ready to translate the aspirations of a young Hindi public at home and abroad, and transform the way we international readers imagine India, so that the world not only dreams in English, but dreams in Hindi as well.