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There’s a big difference between going to the Jaipur litfest as a journalist and as a writer’s spouse. As the latter, all I had to do was to tick the sessions I wanted to attend—not as easy as it sounds at the Jaipur litfest, which offers 35 mind-watering options a day to choose from. Then make my way to the tent in time to grab a seat—a feat more or less as chancy as winning a lottery and leaving you with the same sense of undeserved bounty. Which is how I kept missing all the action on the Salman Rushdie front. On Day One, for instance, my lively fear of author readings kept me out of the two sessions where the action apparently was: readings by Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar, followed by more readings by Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi. How was I to know that while I was engrossed in listening to British playwright David Hare and literary prize jurists discussing how they picked their winning books, these four writers were busy throwing bombshells by reading from Salman Rushdie’s banned Satanic Verses?
In fact, even those who did attend the session didn’t have a clue that they were hearing extracts from the famed Rushdie rather than what they had come to hear until the authors themselves enlightened them. I heard of it only hours later, from that most reliable and pleasurable sources of litfest news: the cocktail circuit, where authors, publishers and well-connected journalists gather for the litfest’s major attraction—the after-hours party. This one was at Rambagh Palace, thrown by Random House for their authors attending the litfest. There was some buzz about two or three, or maybe even four, authors being cross-examined by the police, that the organisers were in a tizzy, and the litfest may come to an abrupt end, embroiled in a police case even before it had got rolling. But no one paid much attention: there were so many clever, writerly people looking forward to five days of talking and networking to believe that sordid things like politics and legal hassles could end this party forever.
On the second day, a Saturday, it was the same thing. The crowds were everywhere, anywhere they could get a seat—it didn’t seem to matter whether it was two Dalit writers in Tamil or Amy Chua, author of the best-selling Chant of the Tiger Mother, or Joseph Lelyveld or Amish Tripathi. Despite what the newspapers and television channels were saying, no one seemed to care much whether Rushdie was being kept out or his four supporters driven into self-exile. There was just too much going on: Chetan Bhagat, Steven Pinker, A.C. Grayling, Ben Okri, Prasoon Joshi, Gulzar and more than 50 other writers from India and abroad. At one point, there was a loud roar, like Romans at an arena. Standing on the terrace, waving, was Gulzar, in a white shawl. No trace of the Rushdie shadow except in the press room. The area reserved only for journalists was a welcome refuge, especially when my legs ached from standing-room-only sessions and the queues at the three public toilets got too long. It was here that I bumped into my less fortunate colleagues, cursing their bosses for sending them out hunting for the elusive “Rushdie story”. For them, it was like being at a feast they couldn’t partake of—so many interesting sessions and all they could do was chase after Rushdie’s off-and-on shadow over the litfest.
Grumbling had started among the writers as well. H.S. Shivaprakash, Kannada poet and translator, who had been invited to the litfest for a session on women mystics, broke into yet another briefing the organisers were holding at the writers’ lounge on the Rushdie crisis. They were explaining to the writers what they could say and not say about Rushdie at their sessions—protests were alright, but not readings from his banned book. “There are other things to talk about at this litfest besides Rushdie,” Shivaprakash interjected. “There are other forms of censorship that we want to talk about, like the Dalit writings.” Afterwards, he confided how sick he was of the absent Rushdie taking centrestage, “stealing the limelight from writers better than him”.
Tamil novelist, poet and playwright Charu Nivedita was even more cross. His session with Telugu Dalit writer Gogu Shyamala had been “hijacked” by the Rushdie issue, he claimed. The moderator, independent publisher S. Anand, set the tone for the session by reading aloud from Rushdie’s book. No one else had noticed, and Anand left the venue without being discovered, but Nivedita found it hard to forgive him for turning the focus on Rushdie from Dalit writers.
It’s a point of view that his new-found acquaintance, Carl Ernst, an American professor of Islamic studies and author of How to Read the Quran, empathises with. According to Ernst, Rushdie was asking for trouble from the beginning of this litfest. “He could have come quietly, as he did in 2007, as just another author, instead of asking to be announced on the programme. It might have been fun.” He is less severe, though, on the young authors who rose to Rushdie’s support. While admitting that they did “hijack the litfest’s agenda” and chose the wrong platform for their protest, Ernst adds: “They were chafing at the censorship regime.”
By Sunday, both Rushdie and his four supporters were overshadowed by something even larger: Oprah Winfrey. The session was scheduled for 11.15 am but crowds started pouring in to the venue by early morning. By 10.30, there was no standing room at Diggi Palace, and the police got jittery, fearing a stampede. They put up barricades, turning away the crowds begging to get in. It was a new record, even for the Jaipur litfest.
But by Monday, Rushdie was back in the headlines. Was there some “stirring of the pot”, needless “self-centredness” on Rushdie’s part in fuelling the drama with his repeated tweets and long-distance bravado? Opinion at the litfest was sharply divided. But on one thing they agreed: by his stubborn refusal to be silenced, he forced a public debate on an issue that’s rarely discussed and certainly has never got this kind of attention—freedom of speech and the state’s abject failure to protect it. It could well be the best thing that happened to the litfest, forcing its head out of the sands.