Let your mind play in a world of arts, ideas, humour, history and knowledge, writes Rosemarie North.
Inspired by the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and their ilk, but not quite ready for the full-body, multi-sensory assault that is India?
The Jaipur Literature Festival might just be the ticket.
Spread across several stages and areas in the park-like grounds of the Diggi Palace Hotel in Jaipur, the royal capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan, this annual, five-day event has been described as the "greatest literary show on earth".
Simply rock up with your free online registration, and you plunge into a world of arts, ideas, humour, history and knowledge. It feels like a playground for the mind.
The festival is held in January, when the overnight temperatures can hit single digits, so bring a cardigan or wrap for the first sessions. Ease into the day before the crowds arrive with live music and a clay beaker of hot spiced chai. By mid-morning, it's a pleasant 20C.
While you're waking up, check out the programme to see what takes your fancy. Highlights in 2019 were Alexander (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) McCall Smith, historian Mary Beard, Yann (Life of Pi) Martel, Germaine Greer, illustrator and journalist Molly Crabapple, Kiwi skin cancer specialist and evolutionary biologist Sharad Paul, acid-attack survivor Reshma Qureshi, Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri and a panel discussing the dilemmas of war reporting. In previous years, festival director, best-selling writer and raconteur William Dalrymple also took to the stage.
Writer Lawrence Norfolk has described Jaipur as "part-circus, part-postgraduate seminar, part-revolutionary assembly". Nothing is off the table: censorship, nationalism, toilets, magic, social media, political cartoons, the nature of truth and memory, writing, creativity, visual arts, ethics, feminism, science, climate change….
In between are launches, where you get to meet your favourite author, ask questions, and buy the book and have it signed in person.
You'll find yourself next to academics and retired historians, Jaipur citizens, writers and poets, photographers, journalists, politicians, glitterati in platform stilettos and designer handbags, grandmothers in Gandhi-inspired khadi saris, tourists and gaggles of students.
The relaxed, bookish atmosphere — apart from the sometimes-fiery performance of political debates — lends itself to meeting strangers. Among the finds in 2019, a retired primary school teacher from Sydney, a retiree living right next to the palace, a former journalist who has joined a technology giant and Jenny Bhatt, a writer, translator and festival speaker who shuttles back and forth between India and the US, and is likely to return in 2020 with a new book.
It's first come, first served. You're almost guaranteed a seat, except at the most popular sessions where you can stand. Since there are several talks running simultaneously, you can always go to your second choice. Some of the venues are open-sided marquees, so if you aren't gripped, entertained and stimulated, you can move on.
This being India, there's cheap and delicious food on tap, using a hygienic voucher system. A plate of South Indian idli, a steamed rice cake, with coconut sambal sauce is just the tonic for a brain that's full to overflowing. Stalls offer clothing, textiles, jewellery and more, but they're not the main event at Jaipur, where ideas are centre stage.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Where to? Famed wood-block fabric print company Anokhi (anokhi.com) has a beautiful shop and cafe a short rickshaw or Uber ride away.
Jaipur has major cultural and historical sites that make a welcome change from literary pursuits. Take the famous pink palace, Hawa Mahal, for example. Constructed in 1799, it has 953 small windows to allow the breeze to flow through, giving it the name "palace of the winds". The ornate five-storey facade hides a rabbit warren of mysterious and wonderful walkways and rooms. Outside is a scruffy market where you can sip tea while watching the world go by or browse for souvenirs or crafts.
Although the festival is free, India charges US$80 for an online visa. You can fly directly into modern Jaipur Airport, which is close to the city, or take a train from Delhi. Fancy historic hotels in palaces book out in advance, but you can find a room at short notice in a guest house that's walking distance or a short ride away. I stayed at hotel Chitrakatha (chitrakatha.co.in), where you breakfast overlooking a 1700s fortress wall, for $20 a night. Another time, I stayed at a traditional courtyard home, Nana Ki Haveli, for $33. Food is delicious and well-priced, but you won't see alcohol on the menu at local restaurants.
Weekends, the civility sinks. Hordes of students pose for selfies, blocking access between the venues. Teenage boys use their elbows to move human obstacles out of their paths. Tip: go early, leave early.
DETAILS: You can register for the 2020 festival, which takes place from January 23-27, and watch out for the programme, which will be progressively revealed.