Racism row clouds India's biggest literary festival

India's biggest book festival kicks off Friday clouded by accusations of racism and an ugly public spat over the apparent obsession with former colonial power Britain in literary circles.

The Jaipur Literary Festival in the western desert state of Rajasthan is one of Asia's biggest book events, drawing many renowned international and South Asian writers and crowds of up to 30,000.

This year features Nobel winners Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee on a long list of luminaries who are set to appear in conversation in Diggi Palace, the converted 19th century mansion that hosts the event.

The atmosphere is informal and the debates are conducted in a polite and generally consensual manner, often featuring the father of the festival - the British historian and expert on India, William Dalrymple.

But Dalrymple, a ubiquitous presence on the Indian literary scene who co-founded the modern Jaipur event in 2006, has been sucked into a damaging row after coming under attack in the Indian news magazine Open.

In an excoriating piece published on January 1, political editor Hartosh Singh Bal questioned why a white middle-aged Scottish man had established himself as a "pompous arbiter of literary merit in India."

The festival, he argued, "works not because it is a literary enterprise, but because it ties us to the British literary establishment."

After dismissing British foreign correspondents who write books about his country, Bal then suggested that Indian authors were mere sideshows in Jaipur next to the main attractions, such as hit British writer Ian McEwan.

Hurt by the attack and an unflattering portrait of him in colonial-era regalia, Dalrymple took the decision to respond to the provocation, pointing out that two thirds of invitees to Jaipur were Indian.

British writers "brown, black and white" make up "a minority within the minority" of foreigners, he wrote back, pointing out that he has written five books on his adopted country where he has lived on and off for 25 years.

The article "felt little more than the literary equivalent of pouring shit through an immigrant's letterbox," Dalrymple said, adding that Bal's arguments "reeked of double standards and reverse racism."

"Just reverse the proposition for a moment. If anyone was to suggest that Vikram Seth had no right or qualification to write a novel about England like 'An Equal Music' ... it would be regarded as blatantly racist," he said.

In further twist, Indian author Pramod Kumar then declared that he and others had directed and conceived the first Jaipur festival. Dalrymple was guilty of "post colonial whitewashing" by declaring himself as the founder.

The row continues to rumble on on Open's website and is likely to feature prominently in the conversations of Delhi's chattering classes who make an annual pilgrimage to Jaipur.

South African-born Coetzee, author of the Booker winner "Disgrace," is scheduled to lead a panel discussion on the legacy of Imperial English.

Whether Indian writers are indeed the sideshow will be seen when national heavyweights Vikram Seth and Booker prize winner Kiran Desai take to the stage, or others speak on emerging low-caste literature and Hindi blogging.

Fans will vote with their feet.

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