I am sitting at the Jaipur literary festival here in Boulder, Colorado, watching the fascinating parade of humanity pass by. The Jaipur Festival is the world’s largest literary festival, based and founded in Jaipur, India, but now expanded to locations around the globe. Boulder has, for the last five years, been its American home.
This is not like a standard literary festival. Its vision and purpose is higher. It is based on the belief that if we share ideas, words, beliefs, and time with each other, we are creating the clearest path to a world of mutual understanding and peace. In other words, it is driven by the belief that words have power, and it gathers together writers from around the world to share their words with audiences in the cities where it presents events.
The JLF, as the Jaipur Literary Festival is known, brings its own large contingent of folks from India, such that the halls and venues are as full of visitors from the Indian subcontinent as they are of the sun-drenched, impossibly fit Boulderites, not to mention the writers from around the world. To mix with Indian families, some dressed in traditional Indian garb, others in the same Gap and Nike clothes as the Americans; many towing children, laughing and conversing in both English and their native tongues, is a pleasure to be around. They have brought a feel of everyday Indian life here to Boulder, and it is a joy to behold. I was pulled aside for a social media interview and asked how the event felt. Almost without thinking I said that the Indian people brought a gravitas to the festival that I haven’t encountered at other festivals, just by the timbre of their characters and way of interacting. My phrase was, the festival has “gravitas with a smile,” and the media people thought the phrase was so apt that they said they might well use it in their promotional materials.
But it is true. As with any gathering where one is, if not in the minority, and least not the dominant presence, you feel the power of other ways of living and being. Just as walking the land in any place brings knowledge up through the soles of your feet, being in a gathering of people who live their lives differently offers you knowledge in ways that is hard to quantify but impossible to deny. It got me thinking about an article I was reading on immigration.
The author was a strong advocate for humane policies of immigration and was citing examples of good people caught in the cruelty of our current American immigration system. The examples were poignant and heart-rending, and in absolute opposition to our Monster-in-Chief’s claims of storming hordes of murders and rapists. One line in particular caught my attention. Almost every migrant journey, the author observed — whether authorized or unauthorized — is a story of war, work, or love. And it got me thinking: is this truly not the way it is? Hard working folks looking for a chance at a new life for them and their children, someone who fell in love with an American and came here to be with him or her, or a need to flee from war, declared or undeclared, that put their lives at risk. Think of it: what would make you give up the life you live, however paltry and compromised, and set off to another country with no money and no language, but only hope? Few of us would have the courage to do it. But this is what most immigrants confront when they make the difficult decision to leave home.
Yes, of course, there are the flash-bang stories of bad guys and criminals that the media is quick to grab, and I’m not in the business of arguing about the legitimacy or representational accuracy of those anecdotes. But I am here to say that just the quick brush with the richness of the Indian culture is a stark reminder that we diminish ourselves if we let the anecdotes of fear, driven by venal political concerns, define our understanding of “the other.” Simply put, we need “the other”. They make us who we are, replenish the American spirit, give new energy to the American dream, and offer us insights into other ways of seeing and being.
Our strength as Americans is not as simple as our diversity. It is in our willingness and ability to absorb the truths of other cultures. We grow when we allow ourselves to embrace the new, and embracing the new means embracing the unknown.
We Americans have always been good hearted, monolingual, and jingoist. We remain monolingual and jingoist in varying degrees, but our good heartedness is under seige. If we lose this we lose our openness and our capacity for growth and reinvention. We lose the best of who we are.
This festival reminds me of the best of who we are, because I am around people who see the world differently and express it in their ways of greeting, speaking, sharing, and caring. And they, for their part, are hungry for the ebullient optimism and sense of openness and youth that is typically American and as fully expressed here in the mountain sunshine of Boulder as probably anywhere else in America. This momentary community is truly a moveable feast. If we chase others from the table, we soon will destroy ourselves by fighting for the table scraps that remain when we close the doors and windows of our minds and hearts.
A little Indian kid just came walking by me, cocked his head, and stared at me. I gave him a smile and he broke into a big grin and ran off to catch up to his mom and dad, speaking excitedly in his own tongue. He didn’t strike me as a potential murderer or rapist, but he did look very much like the photos I’ve seen of the little kids being held in cages at our border.
May these times soon pass, and the goodness of the human heart take precedence over the cruelty and fear that seem so terribly present in the world around us.