JAIPUR, INDIA // Amid raucous cheers from thousands of admirers, Oprah Winfrey praised India at the region's largest literature festival, which is fast becoming a global cultural gala.
Considered one of the world's most influential women, Winfrey lived up to her billing as the headline draw at an event boasting literary giants such as Tom Stoppard, Michael Ondaatje and Richard Dawkins, charming the crowds yesterday.
"I came here with an open mind, and it has been expanded ... It's the greatest life experience I have ever had," Winfrey said at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival in India's north-western state of Rajasthan.
"You feel like you're in the centre of something bigger and greater than yourself."
Hundreds of eager visitors jostled against barricades at the back of the main stage area as Winfrey began speaking. Security guards struggled to shut the main entrance gates as angry admirers tried to push their way inside.
"It's like being in a video game. I don't know which way to look," Winfrey told crowds on her arrival in Mumbai. "It's a bit chaotic, but there's an underlying calm, a flow, that you all seem to understand. India is a paradox."
The 57-year-old has caused a media storm in India, with news channels and front pages filled with stories of her touring Mumbai with the Bachchans, Bollywood's first family. Yesterday she drew huge cheers as she appeared on stage in a traditional Indian churidar kameez smock.
"I will take with me a sense of calmness, and a genuine respect ... people don't talk religion here, they live it," Winfrey said.
Her appearance yesterday was seen as a welcome distraction from the Salman Rushdie furore that has overshadowed the five-day festival, after the author cancelled his visit due to reported assassination threats against him.
The talk-show host and interviewer's "Book Club" turned little-known authors into global stars, with 59 of the club's 70 selected books making the USA Today Top 10 best-sellers list.