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Inscrutable India: Jaipur Literature Festival’s Baffling Bazaar of Culture and Commotion

By posted at 12:00 pm on February 13, 2012 5

The line to see Oprah stretched far down the highway. At the entrance to Diggi Palace, the front of the queue fanned into a thick crowd spread across several police barricades. A row of khaki-uniformed officers stood blocking the entrance. I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd, made eye contact with some police officers and waved my press pass. “Press, okay,” I heard someone say. “Okay?” I said, jumping over the barricade. Perhaps I’d misheard: A group of officers moved towards me, berets and rifles at alert.  It was my second day in Jaipur.

I arrived at the Jaipur Literature Festival a day late. After flying into India from New York, the plan had been to spend a day sightseeing with friends in Delhi — despite many India trips over the years, it had been more than 20 years since I visited north India — before taking an early morning train into the Pink City just in time for day two of the festival. This plan turned out to be a something of a miscalculation. Though I’d been following the controversy around Salman Rushdie’s invitation, I didn’t realize that the real drama of the “the greatest literary show on earth” (in Tina Brown’s words) would play out just hours after the festival opened.

Up until the day before JLF began, there were rumors that Rushdie — who reportedly had been dropped from the official program due to “a very real threat of violence at the venue” — planned to make a surprise appearance. Then, on the first day of the festival, Rushdie issued a statement: “I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me,” he wrote. “While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances.”

coverTo voice their disapproval of the circumstances of Rushdie’s absence, four writers, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi, read from The Satanic Verses — a book that has been banned in India — in their sessions later that day. They were subsequently advised to leave the festival, and the local police opened an investigation into their activities. There were still four days of panels left.

What was left to discuss? Anything but Rushdie. On guidance from the event organizers, everyone from Shashi Tharoor to David Remnick was talking around the debacle, momentarily alluding to it — knowingly, coyly — but never quite addressing it or the full array of issues it raised on India’s thorny history with censorship, religious fundamentalism, democratic and bureaucratic processes (and Salman Rushdie himself). It was a strange predicament for a symposium of ideas to find itself in. “So many awkward Rushdie references,” I scribbled in my notebook after day three. That’s all they were, though — fleeting references, fleetingly observed.

The show must go on! the organizers seemed to be saying. And, with 200-some authors still lined up to speak, it did. Lively on-stage conversations abounded. High-profile ones did too. Amy Chua debated economic policy. Teju Cole riffed on why it wasn’t necessarily only African writers who inspired him to become a writer. Oprah advocated for women’s rights. Fatima Bhutto discussed the future of Pakistan. Akash Kapur meditated on India’s changing rural landscape. Yet the topic of Rushdie continued to remain largely untouched, and a nagging question lingered in my mind: What kind of real intellectual discussion could go on in a setting that had proved itself so hospitable to self-censorship? When you gathered a hundred-thousand writers and book-lovers and then stripped away the opportunity for a truly free public exchange of ideas, what was left?

At a glance — and, as evidenced by my own exertions to see Oprah in a sari — the answer seemed to be: quite a bit of excitement, and quite a lot of people.  All day long, throngs of festival-goers filed through Diggi Palace. When they weren’t frantically crowding into the next session (securing a seat in any session was a herculean task; I gave up on several panels because I couldn’t find any place to position myself within earshot of the stage), attendees bought lunch, drinks, books, and snacks and sized each other up. College students flirted with one another over cigarettes. Small children chased authors for autographs. Expat journalists and writers mingled. Graduate students sipped chai from clay cups. Sassy aunties traded notes. It was, for all appearances, a happy bazaar — if not strictly of ideas, then, broadly, of culture.

The show went on — and what a carnival it was! — but it was impossible to fail to notice what was missing from the festival. “A panel entitled Creativity, Censorship and Dissent” — sponsored by Google — “made only glancing reference to Salman Rushdie in a list of other authors who have been similarly persecuted,” India Today reported. “After a brouhaha following readings from The Satanic Verses … the silence spoke volumes.” In that silence, the boisterous advertising that littered the whole affair seemed louder and all the more off-key. Panels were listed with their specific sponsors noted by name (a panel on “Reconstructing Rumi” was, poetically, sponsored by the maker of heavy-duty construction equipment). The young literati sported cute tote bags (“The Bag of Small Things” and “A Suitable Bag”) issued by Penguin to mark the publisher’s 25th anniversary in India.  Food stands selling pakoras, paninis, dosas, daquiris, chaat, and chocolate cake were around every corner. Sitting under a Tata Steel beam listening to one more author make one more emphatic marketing pitch for Katherine Boo’s new book (a title that enjoyed a “deafening publicity blitzkrieg” at the festival, as The Hindu put it), it seemed to me that — in the absence of any higher ideal — the pressure to purchase had become an organizing principal.

coverI wasn’t the only one questioning the festival’s priorities. At an extravagant 25th “birthday” bash thrown by Penguin at The Raj Palace — think tulle canopies floating above a regal courtyard and mini gulab jamuns served by bowing turbaned waiters — an open bar encouraged widespread theorizing. One Delhi-based writer (a panelist himself) told me he suspected the festival organizers had deliberately leaked news of Rushdie’s invitation months in advance as a publicity stunt. They knew they’d provoke hard-liners, he said; that was their intention. I had trouble imagining that the festival’s organizers were so naïve or cynical about India’s history of free speech controversies — or so ready to use a much-celebrated writer and friend for purely mercenary purposes — but it was an interesting explanation for someone so close to the eye of the storm to make. I was reminded of a simple argument put forward by Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India: “Indians, no more than their counterparts anywhere else, are not virtuous, moderate, principled, or even especially tolerant people: they are deeply self-interested.” India is a capacious and often confusing place — for “insider” and “outsider” alike — so it didn’t seem far-fetched to suggest that the forces motivating the Rushdie fracas were even more complex than they appeared.

“But it is that self-interest — ” Khilnani goes on, hopefully, “so apparent in the conduct of the political elite — which encourages them to make compromises and accommodations.” Indeed, major compromises had been made to keep the festival alive, and through that compromise, many writers and readers had been connected. But in this case, there had been a significant cost.  Although the energy and sense of possibility in Jaipur far surpassed anything I’d encountered at, say, the New Yorker Festival in Manhattan (or even the beloved Brooklyn Book Festival), Jaipur Literature Festival’s inability to send a clear message about the value of free speech was dispiriting.

Take, for example, the cagey statement issued by JLF’s press team after Kunzru’s, Kumar’s, Thayil’s, and Ruchir’s readings:

This press release is being issued on behalf of the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival. It has come to their attention that certain delegates acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers. Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival.

William Dalrymple, one of the festival’s organizers, has since vocally defended how the JLF team handled the fuss. “I for one hope I am never again forced to choose between putting at risk all the principles upon which literary life is based, if I was to cancel an appearance by Salman, or knowingly igniting a major religious riot if his appearance went ahead,” he wrote in The New York Times, “and so putting at risk the lives of everyone who had come to the festival — including the authors who were our guests, and lines of school children in their blazers and elderly couples with their sandwiches and flasks of chai who had come to hear them.”

Lines of school children! Elderly couples with flasks of chai! Yes, it was a good thing the young and old alike had been able to safely partake in the delights of literary life in vibrant Jaipur. On the plane home, though, I found myself daydreaming about how very different my own earliest encounters with the world of books had been in India, on childhood trips to see my grandparents. With my American pastimes on hold for the summer, I’d plant myself under an oscillating fan and read. Some of those books transported me back to the U.S. and others rushed me away to new faraway lands but many took me deeper into the India I was slowly, haltingly, coming to understand and love. When the supply of books in my suitcase ended, there would be a trip to the bookstore, and after that, to the local lending library, where I’d find still more books to burrow into as hours, days, and weeks passed by. Outside my window, a world of activity whirled on — much of it, due in part to my age, gender, and foreignness, still beyond my comprehension and reach. Inside, alone, I quietly read.
image courtesy of the author





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5 Responses to “Inscrutable India: Jaipur Literature Festival’s Baffling Bazaar of Culture and Commotion”

  1. Inscrutable India « Mythili G. Rao
    at 11:43 pm on February 13, 2012

    […] Head over to The Millions to read my full essay,  “Inscrutable India: Jaipur Literature Festival’s Baffling Bazaar of Culture and Commotion.&#… […]

  2. Oprah in a Sari | Grierson Huffman
    at 5:28 am on February 15, 2012

    […] Millions has Mythili G. Rao’s report from the Jaipur Literature Festival. What was left to discuss? Anything but Rushdie. On guidance […]

  3. Alain RGrillet
    at 2:07 pm on February 15, 2012

    Does it even bear noting that this article’s headline (probably written by a millions editor, and not the author) is straight-up Orientalist tripe? Inscrutable India, land of colorful (albeit baffling) bazaars and ripe mangos and spicy spices and dusty dust and inscrutably inscrutable scrutables? Land of eternal mystery!

    The article basically avoids all such nonsense, which makes the title even more baffling.

    It (the article) does, however, fail to inform the reader about much that happened at Jaipur other than the Rushdie kerfluffle and some posh parties. Check out the rich schedule here: http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/festival_program/ . It’s full of quite amazing events, none of which were called off.

  4. Mythili
    at 12:05 am on February 16, 2012

    Hi Alain, Article author here – I actually suggested the headline (so I was feeling a bit colorful! Perhaps I should stick to writing articles rather than headlines). I also attended a lot of those other events, and as I mention in the piece — many were quite good. But the shadow of Rushdie was truly overbearing, and the posh parties were impossible to ignore. The net effect, as I tried to convey, was pretty baffling.

  5. Bryan Basamanowicz
    at 11:56 am on April 14, 2012

    “it seemed to me that — in the absence of any higher ideal — the pressure to purchase had become an organizing principal.”

    Wow! What a depressing way to fill a theme vacuum.

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