Nothing could have prepared me for the moment I walked onstage at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) earlier this year. What started 13 years ago as a small gathering in the fairy-tale pink capital of Rajasthan, in northern India, has since exploded to become the largest free literature festival in the world. Speakers as diverse as the Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey, and William Dalrymple (the Scottish historian and one of the festival’s founders) have attracted increasing numbers over the years—so much so that the fabled Diggi Palace, the festival’s longtime venue, might not be able to accomodate the crowds in 2021. Time Out proclaimed the festival “The Woodstock, Live 8 and Ibiza of world literature with an ambience that has been described as James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding.” In fact, “the greatest literary show on earth,” as JLF has also been called, has proven so successful in recent years that it has expanded overseas, with spin-offs in London, Doha, Colorado, New York, and Adelaide.
Waiting in the wings of the stage, surrounded by the energy of the festival, was jarring. For the past few years I’ve been living an almost reclusive life, communing with the ghosts of my ancestors. This journey into the past began in my late grandfather’s cellar, when I stumbled across a trunk of long-lost letters. I began to search the world for clues to their lives, and then locked myself away trying to put their stories into words.