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.
Last November, when my book was finally finished, I received the invitation: “We look forward to having the book launch of The Cartiers at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2020…The launch slots are held in one of the main venues and attract a considerable audience.” They weren’t wrong. I found myself walking onto the “Front Lawn” stage in front of an enormous crowd, my children appearing even smaller than usual as they smiled up at me from the front row below. A vast, brightly-colored canopy shaded the venue, bathing everyone in otherworldly light as I spoke with Meru Gokhale, the editor in chief of Penguin Random House India, about the book.
My own link with India begins with my great-grandfather, the Parisian jeweler Jacques Cartier, who regularly visited India’s royal families—many of whom would number among the most significant Cartier clients of all time—in the early 1900s. I tried to convey to the assembled crowd how his 100-year-old diaries had brought those trips to life for me. He described opulence beyond his wildest imagination: palaces, banquets, polo matches, cavalcades of Rolls Royces, and, of course, jewels—the ultimate symbol of wealth, power, and taste. He wrote of ropes and ropes of perfectly-matched natural pearls, fabled diamonds, blood-red rubies, carved emeralds dating back centuries, and sapphires the size of bird’s eggs.
Midway through my talk, in keeping with this royal theme, there were whispers offstage left: the VIP had arrived. It was, a friend had messaged me earlier, “a great honor” that Princess Diya Kumari of Jaipur was joining us to unveil a waist-high cut-out of my book’s cover, and I felt the level of excitement rise a notch. The ruling families may have officially lost their royal titles after independence, but it was clear they still have the respect of their people. With India witnessing violent protests against new legislation perceived by many as anti-Muslim, the arrival of a real-life princess was a welcome distraction from the intense political discussions making the rounds.
That evening, I would meet the Princess’s dashing, 21-year-old polo-playing son, the current Maharaja of Jaipur, at a party hosted by Penguin. At this soirée, which took place in the stunning Sujan Rajmahal Palace and was considered the hot invite of the festival, dancers in colorful saris welcomed guests from a high balcony while musicians played on each side of the arched entrance. But the most staggering impression was made by the candles, which covered the huge lawn in front of the palace. “We are transported to a dream-like world,” the French paper L’Illustration had written in 1928 about the Cartiers’ exhibition of jewels for the Maharaja of Patiala. As I entered the enchanted kingdom of the Sujan Palace, those words leapt into my head.
“You can’t overdress out here,” a literary agent friend told me when I’d asked about the dress code for the evening. Elegant dresses, jewels (Jaipur is the gem capital of India, after all) and well-cut suits mingled amongst the flickering candles and, later, huddled around the open fires. It was an eclectic, exciting group: authors, publishers, and literary agents from all over the world mixed with Indian businessmen, 13th-generation jewelers, the odd royal, and local bookstore owners, and the young and arty. Though I’d said I wouldn’t stay long, I think I was one of the last to leave. Miraculously the candles all seemed to have remained lit, still casting their spell over the night.
My great-grandfather had written of ropes and ropes of perfectly-matched natural pearls and sapphires the size of bird’s eggs.
Back at the festival the next morning (sunglasses firmly in place), I received a surprise email from the Jaipur Royal Foundation inviting me to a polo match that afternoon. I was flying out later that day, bags still waiting at the hotel to be packed, children needing to be fed, but it’s not every day an invitation like that drops into one’s inbox. I accepted. My plan was to pop by briefly, pay my respects to the princess, and see a few minutes of polo before discreetly making an exit.
When I arrived, however, I was asked if I would like to start the match—another “great honor,” I was told. And so, in a surreal experience, I stood with various bigwigs on the sidelines pretending to know something about what was going on, when in fact the closest I had come to a polo match was reading my great-grandfather’s diaries (not that it seems to have changed much …). The crowd looked on from two levels of stalls behind us as an oddly Scottish-sounding band kick-started proceedings with a march around the field timed to the tunes of bagpipes and tartan. Next, the players, including the dashing young Maharaja, galloped into the center on their magnificent horses. Then it was my turn: as the gentleman to my left gave me a gentle nudge and whispered it was time, I ceremonially threw the polo ball (“underarm, just like you’re playing boules in France”), trying not to hurt anyone in the process. And that was it. The game began, and I made a hasty dash for the airport, by now well and truly hooked on the pink city.
Francesca Cartier Brickell is the author of The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire. You can watch her book launch at the Jaipur Literature Festival here