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Surprised by India

What do you think about when you think about India?

Do you think about its wildly divergent geographical areas, its complex history, its rich literary traditions, its contributions to art, architecture, music, mathematics, technology, and the sciences, its importance in world affairs, its popular culture? Or do you think about the caste system, holy cows, call centers, indigenous customs, yoga, or violence against women?

As recently as 2014, when I thought about India, I thought about poverty.

In 2014, my first trip to India was centered upon my reasoning was that there was a moral and ethical imperative to see abject poverty up close. I had no historical or contemporary understanding of the country before going, except for the overwhelming and confusing information I read in my guidebook—and what I perceived to be its major aspect, poverty, a perspective partly formed, no doubt, from Western media’s need to portray riveting stories of those radically different from us.

In other words, I was a typical American tourist.

Indeed, when I arrived in India in the fall of 2014 for a small-group two-week tour, I was overwhelmed by the sights (families of five or more on one motorbike, ancient ruins, chaotic bazaars), smells (intoxicating spices intermixed with air pollution and the reek of garbage), sounds (honking horns, Muslim calls to prayer over loudspeakers, enthusiastic vendors), tastes (complexly flavored spicy, and sweet dishes), and touch (the crush of 1.2 billion people in an area a third the size of the continental United States).

Did I see the poverty I had come to see? Yes, and no. The poor are not hidden in India, as they seem to be in the West. But I also observed a historically and artistically rich, stimulating, oppressive, beautiful, ugly, breathtaking, tear-inducing, romantic, harshly practical, amazingly diverse country, with incrementally nuanced layers in between the many extremes.

My physical being, my emotions, and my intellect were simultaneously fired up and overloaded. I returned home completely overcome and obsessively intrigued by all I had experienced.

It turns out India is not just one thing. Or even just a couple of things.

India surprised me by expanding my understanding of the country and the world, and I wanted to know more.

It turns out that, with a little bit of research, I discovered more. A lot more.

I found the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).

JLF is the largest free literature festival in the world, providing a forum for attendees to observe and respond to writers, who, onstage with other writers, ask questions, theorize approaches, argue positions, and speculate solutions, about literature, India, South Asia, national and world politics, and so much more. It has been held for the past nine years in January, in beautiful Jaipur, India. I had just missed the JLF 2015 event.

But I was surprised and overjoyed to discover that the inaugural US Jaipur Literature Festival was arriving in Boulder, Colorado, in September 2015.

I promptly offered to volunteer in Boulder, inspired by the hope of being accepted as a volunteer in Jaipur, in January 2016.

My adventures in volunteering for both venues will be a blog post for another day.

For now, I will share this with you: You don’t have to travel to Jaipur, India, to enjoy learning about the literary, cultural, intellectual, and artistic wonders of India. You can join the Jaipur Literature Festival in Boulder, Colorado, this September 23-25, 2016, where authors from all over the world will engage your curiosity about India and the world.

I guarantee it: You will be captivated.

And more than a little surprised!

Tags: India, JLF, JLF@Boulder