Down and Out at the Jaipur Literature Festival


Part I

1/16/2013 – 02:19 – Jammu-Ajmer Express

Six Punjabis are jostling and talking in the steel bunk racks above as this train clanks and rattles across Haryana south towards Rajasthan.

I am lying on the ground in Sleeper Class. I don’t have a berth because I don’t have a ticket.

After the long bus ride down from the Dhauladars I jumped on the wrong train, then, two hours into the ride, I jumped off and got on the right train only to find a young Sikh sleeping in my berth. Only after I shook him awake did I realize that my ticket was actually booked for the following month.

Thus I’m berthless for this 14-hour ride to Jaipur. I am lying on my shawl on the floor, which smells of aged urine and mutton curry.


Upon opening my eyes this morning I found a young boy staring at me.

He summoned me to his berth, gave me a cold samosa and we talked for a time. He told me he had just left his hometown in the Punjab and was heading south to Maharashtra to join the army. He showed me pictures of his life: his high school graduation, his girlfriend – a tall, innocent-looking Assamese. I’m not sure why, but he also showed me their love letters – lots of I love yous and I’ll miss yous and smiley faces in purple ink. Very Bollywood. I nodded perfunctorily. I was still very sleepy and my eyes were roaming the dark cabin in search of a place to lie down again.

I want to marry her when I get out of the army, the boy told me.

A love marriage? I asked. To an Assamese? You’re a Sikh, what will your parents think?

He didn’t know, but he knew how he felt. He asked if I thought such a love marriage would last.

I have no idea, I said. The military will change you. You will feel differently afterwards.

He smiled.

I’m gonna go lie down over there, I said.

No please, he said, barring my way. Take my bed.

Thanks but I’ll go lie down over there. I grabbed my pack.

No please, he said. You are my guest in India.

He sat on his suitcase in the aisle as I lay in his berth. We talked more about his girlfriend. He showed me more letters, pictures, then, before he got off in Delhi, he took a ten-rupee note out of his wallet and wrote ‘I will miss you’ next to Gandhi’s portrait and gave it to me.



The landscape is changing as we enter Rajasthan.

The first image from beyond the window is that of a donkey-drawn wagon commanded by a man in a tall pink turban on a scorched orange road, backdropped by a vast field of swaying yellow mustard flowers.

1/17/2014 – 11:03 – Jaipur Literature Festival

First morning of the festival, waiting for Jonathan Franzen to come onstage.

The security to enter this festival was a joke. Two unmanned metal detectors were bleeping continuously as me and others walked through unchallenged, one after the other. Then, a policeman with a wooden baton looped through his belt patted my left pocket, looked at (but not inside) my backpack and waved me through.


William Sutcliffe is sitting next to me. Sutcliffe wrote Are You Experienced?, a novel about backpackers in India. He is telling the person next to him that he feels bad because he hasn’t read the book that he is supposed to be discussing later.


Franzen has appeared beside the stage. His presence draws in the eyes, sends a low murmur through the crowd.

He’s much chubbier than I imagined. He looks like a 45-year-old boy.


I’ve drifted over to the “Google Mughal” tent, where William Dalrymple, Gaiatra Bahadur and Emma Rothschild are talking about slaves.

I have never heard of Emma Rothschild. Is she a true Rothschild? Is that why she is an authority on slavery?


I find myself unable to pay any attention to this talk. These intellectuals, so admirable for the vastness of their knowledge, but very hard to get a hold on who they are as people.

I ask myself why I admire them and can’t think of anything. Particularly the biographers, people who spend their entire lives in the lives of others, neglecting their own.

Writers in general have seemed unadmirable to me lately. So many hours alone, in the mind, hallucinating, self-obsessed. I’ll take experience over the words. As Whitman says, “Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopened!”


I’ve wandered off to the side of the stage here so I can look at the crowd.

Instantly I catch myself looking at their festival passes, which hang in different sizes on lanyards around their necks, to judge whether or not they are important.

Unimportant people like myself have been issued generic passes, roughly four inches in width and five inches in length, while important people have been issued passes that have an extra inch of length, in addition to their printed names.

Important, unimportant, important, unimportant – I scrutinize them one by one, attempting to discern whether those with the extra-long lanyard passes emit a special light, a extraordinary presence that might explain why they are distinguished them from the rest of us.

In the front row sits a dreadlocked, wizard-bearded sadhu-looking Westerner with straw sandals and a yoga bag.

1/18/2014 – 11:20 – Jaipur Literature Festival

I have encountered, for the first time in my life, Muslim proselytizers. Like smiling, sheepish Midwestern Christians they are handing out badly translated Korans and a pamphlet inviting the reader to “Get to know the prophet Muhammed” outside the festival gates.


I’ve wandered into this talk on Wittgenstein given by his preeminent biographer Ray Monk.

A man with black-framed glasses and a Nietzschean mustache is sitting next to me. As we wait for Monk he notices that I am reading Bukowski’s Last Night On Earth and says, I see you’re reading Bukowski.

You’re familiar with him? I ask. It was hard for me to imagine Bukowski being very popular in India.

Familiar with Bukowski? he says. Well obviously. Look at my face.

His face was ragged and pockmarked and there was a strange scar on his left cheek that looked like he’d been stabbed with a fork.

Is he well-known around here? I ask.

In my friend circle he was, but not in general. I think my friends and I were the only ones reading him in Bangalore. I would like to see him better known in this country.

Is there any Indian equivalent?

You find similarities among some modern Indian poets but nobody so blatantly self-destructive.

Just talking about him makes me want to drink, I say. He pulls out a flask and hands it over. I smell it. Whiskey. I take a drink. It’s surprisingly bearable.

The lecture begins.


All I’ve gotten from this talk is that Wittgenstein is that he continually requested to be posted at the Front during World War I so that he could have a direct experience of death in the hope that it would make clearer what it meant to be.

21:03 – Jaipur Hostel

Back in the hostel. The people in the room around me, none of whom I’ve attempted to communicate with, are all young Indian travelers. In and out of the room they walk, quietly, deferentially, trying not to stare at me but at the same time not being able to help themselves.


I just went outside to smoke a joint and am now attempting, unsuccessfully, to write about the festival.

This hostel is loud and busy. It’s hard to concentrate. Minute by minute, the atmosphere grows increasingly peculiar.


I’ve kept mostly to myself tonight but a few minutes ago I attempted to speak to a bearded young Coloradan in the bunk on the other side of the room.

I had eavesdropped on him earlier as he was guru-ing some drunk Indian girl who was complaining to him about her problems. The things he said were therapeutic and Buddhist in origin and I wanted to chat.

When the drunk Indian girl left I shouted, ‘Hey there’, waving my arms in the air from my bunk on the other side of the room. ‘Did you come for the festival?’

He gave a complicated negation. He hadn’t come for the festival, but yes, he had indeed attended. I asked if he enjoyed it. He responded in riddles. He gave me the impression that the charms of the festival had been lost on him. He said he couldn’t get around the ubiquitous corporate sponsorship and was suspicious about the fact that our name badges had barcodes. They scanned the barcodes each time we entered or left, he noted with a conspiratorial lifting of his eyebrows.

I’d given little thought to either of these issues, but for the bearded Coloradan they were cause for alarm.

But what did you think of the speakers? I asked.

He shook his head in disappointment. Small minds, he pronounced.

I was a bit taken back. How could he label Amartya Sen and Jhumpa Lahiri “small minds”?

He began to backtrack and apologize.

My mind is all jumbled up at the moment, he said. All I can think about is getting back to my teacher.

Your teacher?

My guru.

Where is your guru?

In Rishikesh. Getting back to him is all I can think about right now.

I left him alone after that.


I find myself unable to write anything about the festival tonight.

Part II


1/20/2014 – 20:00 – Jaipur Hostel

Another unusual and traumatic day.

It began this morning during my 9 a.m. rickshaw ride to the Literature Festival. I was wearing sunglasses. I don’t remember the last time I wore sunglasses. But wearing them helped shield me from the chaos of early morning Jaipur. I rode through the mists and reaching hands and honking to the venue, paid, got out and walked about thirty feet.

It was then I realized my wallet was gone.

I ran back to the street just in time to see the rickshaw vanish into traffic. I sprinted after it, shouting like a mad man, then carefully retraced all 30 of my steps and tore my backpack apart again and again, as if somehow there was a secret compartment that might have eluded me.

I complained to a nearby policeman, but only after my account was finished did I realize he didn’t speak English. I kept repeating myself, as though somehow repetition would transform my message into Hindi.

He just looked at me.

Back out to the street I ran, sweeping the ground with my eyes, thinking of all the terrible things that would soon happen to me if I didn’t find my wallet.

As I stood in the middle of the busy highway beseeching the uninterested traffic cops a man in a hooded shawl leaned out of his rickshaw and in perfect English asked me where I was going.

I told him what had just happened. He told me to hop in and he would help me. He asked where the previous driver had picked me up, but I didn’t know. He asked where my hostel was, but I didn’t know – I always just handed rickshaw drivers the hostel’s card, which was in my wallet, and they took me.

Through means I still don’t understand he was not only able to locate where I had picked up my rickshaw, but also managed to track down the driver, who claimed not to have found anything.

In a final fruitless attempt to deceive myself into thinking there was a chance I might recover my losses, I asked the driver take me to the police station, where I filled out a police report. But from the beginning I knew my wallet was gone forever, along with 11,000 rupees, all sorts of train tickets and my only debit card with access to a bank account in the US.

I didn’t even have any money to pay the rickshaw driver.

Luckily, a few hours later a friend arrived to town, a Wisconsin native named Beau whom I’d met months ago while traveling in Xinjiang, China. He was with a friend named Aaron on a short trip around Rajasthan.

They met me at the festival and as we walked back to the hostel, to add to the humiliation of the morning, my foot broke through the grating of an open sewage drain and my leg got soaked up to the knee with greenish-black sludge.


 Back at the hostel, smoking a joint.

Beau just showed me a huge chunk of hash with all sorts of strange debris in it and asked me if he should eat it.

Of course not, I said, but he threw it into his mouth anyways.


Things are getting weirder.

We’ve journeyed into the streets in search of rajma and have somehow picked up a 28-year-old Latino from Miami. This is his first night in India, his first night outside of the Americas.

I’m not sure where he came from. He must have been talking to Beau or Aaron or someone and just followed us out of the hostel.

As we walk through the dark unlit streets full of cows and emaciated dogs, the Miamian looks terrified.

We’ve only gone 100 yards and already he is ready to turn back.

How far are we going? he keeps asking.

Just up the road, I keep saying.


At the dhaba now.

The Miamian is refusing to eat. His eyes keep lingering on our food. He seems so lost, so out of place. His tongue keeps unconsciously wetting his lips, then he’ll look at the unwashed hands we’re scooping up our food with and then over at the filthy kitchen, which is dirty and greasy and stained black from years of never having been washed, and I can see the nausea rising into his throat.


After dinner we had planned to go out exploring Jaipur but the nugget of hash Beau swallowed is beginning to take control of the evening.

He is stumbling down the street like a drunk man.

We have to get him inside.


Back at the hostel. Outside. Smoking.

Beau continues to fall down the rabbit hole.

Things are about to get a whole lot weirder for you, I tell him.


Beau is lingering on the edge, glassy-eyed, slipping in and out of some strange interior drama. He has began mumbling incomprehensibly, trying, for some reason, to recount the entire plot of Con-Air.

Aaron keeps mostly quietly.

The Miamian is making pedestrian observations about India.

I feel alone.


Beau just lurched up, roared, fell flat on his stomach on the cold, wet ground and is now crawling across the floor like a soldier with an intestinal wound, half laughing, half moaning. And now he is vomiting.

I leap up to hold a trash bin under his mouth to catch the vomit as he spews over and over and over again.

I have never seen so much vomit. He nearly fills half the bin before he collapses and just lies there, shivering, twitching.

We throw a shawl over him and let him lie there.


Aaron and I dragged Beau back into the hostel and almost got him into bed before he began vomiting again and we instead had to take him into the bathroom, where he lay gripping the edge of the toilet for another hour, vomiting every few minutes, quoting obscure film lines in between.

By the end of it the toilet and two different trash bins were full of undigested rice, rajma and yellow curry.

1/21/2014 – 13:28 – Jaipur Literature Festival

Last day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Heavy, unseasonal rains washed over much of the city last night. The streets this morning have turned into rivers. Wings of sewage and mud spray up by the rickshaw’s wheels as I ride to the JLF.

The tents over some of the stages have collapsed and most of the talks have been moved into the cramped little courtyards of the nearby palace, giving the lectures a feeling of intimacy.

But today I find I have lost much of my interest in this festival. Most of the best authors have gone home and those who remain migrate from panel to panel lecturing on subjects they seem to know very little about.

Everyone looks sad and cold and wet. Like the stages themselves, the prestige of the festival is crumbling for me.

I half-mindedly attend a few lectures before my mind begins drifting onto the adventures that await me in the rest of Rajasthan.

I leave.

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