Namita Gohkhale chooses to give her speech sitting down but makes up for it by delivering an engaging and interesting talk. Considering there is a strike on, the small auditorium in the Colombo University building is surprisingly full. There are perhaps 40 people in the audience – about the number, Namita estimates, that attended some of the earliest sessions of the Jaipur Literary Festival.
The Indian author co-founded and directs the Festival with the writer William Dalrymple, and the mightiness of their combined clout is one explanation for how in the years between then and now, 16 authors have swelled to over 200 and audiences have multiplied exponentially, until in 2011 the festival welcomed an estimated 120,000 people over the course of its five day run.
It has been dubbed ‘The Greatest Literary Show on Earth’ – and everyone gets in for free. While inhabitants of the gloriously beautiful and historic host city flock to the festival, the majority of visitors come from outside. They pay for transport and accommodation and it’s what makes Namita certain they would be willing to pay to attend the festival as well.
“It being free is important,” she concedes during a quick post-speech interview, “but even more important than the free part, is that it is an entirely democratic festival. There are no V.I.Ps, there is no special seating. For a society like India when they see a cabinet minister or a chief minister or important people just sitting on the floor listening, they get a shock.” Famous writers who attend – and there are plenty of those – are offered no remuneration. There isn’t even the perk of a business class airplane ticket or a cordoned off room for writers at the festival.