Writer and author Anosh Irani at JLF

Jaipur Literature Festival: 10 Tips for Experiencing the Greatest Literary Show on Earth

The 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival kicks off next month. For five days in January, thousands of people will gather at the Diggi Palace in the Pink City of Rajasthan to talk about books, ideas, and the world. I had the great fortune to attend JLF this past year and wish I could go again this year. If you find yourself in Rajasthan next month, here are 10 tips for making the most of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

1. Attend the Jaipur Literature Festival

Seriously, you must go. Tina Brown once called it “The Greatest Literary Show on Earth,” and no matter what you think of Ms. Brown, I can assure you she’s right this time. JLF is to other writers’ festival as an Indian wedding is to a nice quiet WASPy affair. It’s big, it’s bright, and it’s full of people and passion and once-in-a-lifetime moments.

2. Don’t Pay to Register

Paying for a Delegate’s pass seems like a great deal—$260 for 5 days, including meals and  social events and the chance to interact with speakers and VIPs, and some discounts on expensive transportation and accommodation. But the true value is going to the festival for FREE! General registration gives you access to all sessions and books signings and the grounds, just like paid delegates. You can’t beat that! Heavy corporate and government sponsorship gets the event off the ground, so be prepared for the Tata Steel Front Lawns or the Google Mughal Tent, but considering the cost of most conferences and lectures, free registration at JLF is a steal. All you need is government photo ID. Do pre-register and bring your confirmation—it will save you time the day you arrive. And don’t loose your badge.

The Google-sponsored tent with six speakers on stage.

Discussing Shakespeare in the Google Mughal tent at JLF 2013

3. Stay on M.I. Road

Close up of a saffron lassi in a clay cup.

The saffron lassi at Special Lassiwala on M.I. Road

The Diggi Palace is lovely, but you can’t stay there during the festival, and the near-by modern hotels lack character (and depending on your expectations, are rather overpriced). Instead, plan to stay on Jaipur’s famous M.I. Road. The Hotel Savoy cost me about $15 per night and offered clean rooms with proper hot showers and satellite TV, attentive friendly staff, and free WiFi in the common areas. I picked the place based on a TripAdvisor review from a previous JLF attendee, and I met other attendees and volunteers during my stay. We all agreed it was perfect. The food in the restaurant is decent and you can walk to and from Diggi Palace in about 15 minutes (avoiding the festival-inflated rickshaw rates). And being on M. I. Road puts you right in the heart of Jaipur—Jorhari Bazar Market, Hawa Mahal, the famous Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar (also known as LMB), the gates of the Pink City, Raj Mandir Cinema, and Special Lassiwala (the oldest lassi shop in Jaipur—the one with the red sign, on the north side of the M.I. Road, just down the Paanch Batti roundabout with the lanterns. Order the saffon lassi.).

 4. Dress the Part

Been bumming around India? Try to step it up a notch for the festival; locals and delegates and speakers alike look casual but smart at the event, and you never know who you will meet. So do try to wear your nicest gear, whether it’s western or Indian in style. Also remember that Rajasthan in January can be chilly in the evenings and mornings, with hot afternoon sun in between. Go with layers you can remove, and be sure to have sun glasses and something to protect your head during those outdoor afternoon sessions.

5. Eat Before and After

The food at JLF is yummy, but a touch trendy, which makes it really pricey. It can be a great treat after a steady diet of Indian to have fancy event food (gourmet pizza, fro-yo, brownies). But with event-style pricing, it starts to add up and all of a sudden you’ve spent the equivalent of a night’s stay at your budget hotel. Eat a good breakfast and plan for a good dinner, and ask your hotel about where you can get a tiffin or boxed lunch—they may even put something together for you. You can also bring some snacks and then treat yourself to one lunch item—stick to traditional Indian fare for the best value at Diggi. And bring your own water.

6. Plan Your Days

Five days and five venues can be overwhelming. Know which sessions you want to attend and where they are (and if you are a woman, you may want to plan your trips to the powder room—JLF seems to be the one public space in India where women outnumber men). The site is big and it can take time to get from one venue to another. And popular speakers (like, say, Oprah. Or, you know, the Dalai Lama) attract huge crowds. I sat through the latter half of a session on the roots of yoga and an entire lunchtime kids book launch, just to make sure I had a seat for his Holiness.

 7. Exit Early

To get a seat for your next session, be sure to leave your current session early and hang out at the back of the next. When people get up en-mass, you can nip in and grab a seat (and stick to the sides so it’s easy to nip out for your next session). Your cue to leave is when the Q&A begins and a self-important man stands up to make a statement masquerading as a question. (You’re there to hear the speakers, not the peanut gallery, and the size of the audience always seems inversely proportional to the quality of the questions asked. But if a spunky teenage girl gets a question in edgewise, stick around a bit.)

 8. Buy Books

The book publishing industry may be feeling the squeeze back home, but book sales in India are sky rocketing. The JLF has a great bookshop on-site with unbeatable prices—at least half of what you’d expect on the same books in North America. And if you plan well, you can get them signed!

9. Seek Out Authors from Home

Writer and author Anosh Irani at JLF

Me and Anosh Irani at JLF 2013

JLF isn’t just about Indian literature, it’s about literature and culture in South Asia and around the world. The entire English-speaking world is represented, and sessions are often sponsored by someone at home (like the Canada Council of the Arts). Maybe this year you could cozy up to John Rauston Saul and invite him and the Honorable Adrienne to join you at Lassiwala. Or if gender politics is the bee in your bonnet, try to bump into Gloria Steinem. Be sure to research the program fully (either online, or you can purchase a print copy); you may not know all the speakers and writers by name, but this is your opportunity to learn about them.

 

10. Drink It All In

There’s always a controversy, but the most remarkable thing about JLF is the atmosphere. Even though the crowds are extensive, there is an intimacy and earnestness among speakers at JFL that you won’t find at festivals and conferences open to the public in North America. And the audience is full of young people who truly appreciate the opportunity to be there. If you work in arts and culture in any way, shape, or form, make sure you have business cards ready to go. You never know who you might meet, and people are keen to hear from other attendees—who are you, where you come from, what you do. Finally, be sure to take notes—with seven sessions a day for five days, a notebook is the only way you’ll remember it all.

Are you planning a trip to JLF? I’d love to hear about it. What speakers are you looking forward to? Be sure to keep me posted!