Many quiet delights at Jaipur Literary Festival
Banned books, secret assassins, defiant writers, glamorous locales: the sixth Jaipur Literary Festival, hosted in the stately Diggi Palace, began like something out of The Da Vinci Code.
The festival got off to a rocky start when the writer, Salman Rushdie, pulled out, saying he had been told that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld were on their way to kill him. Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses, has been banned in India since 1989.
In nearly every session during the festival, writer after writer - from Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri and atheist Richard Dawkins to Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif and Lebanese writer Hanan AlShaykh - condemned the threats to Rushdie. Meanwhile, four authors, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil, read parts of The Satanic Verses out loud on the first day of the festival. Organisers hastily stopped them from reading further, and later released a face-saving disclaimer, saying that the authors acted entirely on their own. The next day, all four left the city, and criminal cases have now been filed against each of them for reading from a banned book.
Not surprisingly, the debate over free speech hung over the rest of the festival, even as many authors and readers accused the organisers of having caved in too quickly. The best-selling Indian author Chetan Bhagat, a hugely influential figure in the country, angered many authors by saying writers needed to be careful about religious sentiments."Let's not make a hero out of people who do this. I am not in favour of a ban, but just because you can hurt someone's feelings, doesn't mean you should," he said.
By the second day, the festival had bounced back, with the glittery distractions of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. Hordes of frenzied visitors queued for hours to meet the talk show queen, many eventually turned away by police. One excited young girl carried a sign that read: "I have waited ten years for one minute of your time."
Oprah, like so many overwhelmed visitors to India, trotted out the usual panoply of clichés. "India is like a video game, but with an underlying calmness. There's a deep sense of karma," she said, before lavishing praise upon India's family values and religious devotion, much to the delight of the adoring crowd. Mr Chopra continued in the same vein to equal applause. "Do less and accomplish more, and ultimately do nothing and accomplish everything," he said.
Away from the big names, the festival still offered up many new findsfor the discerning reader. In a fascinating session on the ArabSpring, speakers ranging from Egyptian author Karima Kahlil - whose book,Messages from Tahrir, documents the protests in Tahrir Square - to Iranian writer Kamin Mohammadi, agreed on one thing: Arab countries need to be left alone to find their own form of democracy without western interference.
"There's a long, rocky road ahead," said Ms Kahlil.
In perhaps the most moving moment of the entire festival, the Indian conservationist and author, Valmik Thapar, angrily exposed India's shameful record in saving tigers - all 34 tigers in a local Rajasthan sanctuary were killed by poachers - before an audience that included the shocked queen mother of Bhutan. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New Yorker writer, Katherine Boo, also described her gruelling three-year battle tochronicle a Mumbai slum in her new book,Behind theBeautiful Forevers.
Among the festival's most entertaining speakers was the British playwright and scriptwriter Tom Stoppard, whose sharp wit reduced moderators to confusion and the audience to giggles.
"The worst criticism I ever received was when I overheard an audience member say, 'Next time, a musical, eh?'" said Stoppard.
New Yorker editor David Remnick came a close second in the wit stakes. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Remnick, is also the author of a biography on the US president, Barack Obama, and when asked why he supported him for a second term, he answered: "He is honest, intelligent and believes in science," tongue firmly in cheek.
Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymnof the Tiger Mother, charmed her sizeable audience by admitting to regretting some of her parenting decisions, then got her daughter up on stage for a mother-daughter love fest.
"US society offers too many choices," she said, to applause from a seemingly sympathetic audience. "If you allow a seven-year-old to follow theirdreams, they will just eat candy and watch TV all day long."
Rambling questions from the audience are part of the festival's tradition, but this year featured some particularly choice moments. As the somewhat forbidding Lionel Shriver was talking about herchilling cult hit,We Need to Talk about Kevin - the disturbing tale ofa mother whose son is a serial killer - one reader asked cheerily,"Is it autobiographical?"
"No, it isn't," barked Shriver. "It's often assumed that women writers can only produce disguised journal writing. We can make stuff up too, you know." Ouch.
In the past, the festival has been criticised for mostly featuring a certain type of Indian writer, those who write for a western audience but remain unread in their own country.
The journalist and author, Manu Joseph, recently wrote a scathing comment for the New York Times, dissing Indian writers "who are trying to sell the great Indian exotica to white people … tradition, poverty, wedding scenes, burning widows, rebirths and talking monkeys, among other things." And while there were plenty of those stories at Jaipur, there were also authors who are unashamed of writing for young Indians, in what can only bedescribed as "Indian English".
The best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, whose mythological trilogy on the Hindu god Shiva has sold over 200,000 copies in India, was unapologetic about writing popular, not literary, novels.
"It's hard to sell books like these outside India," said Mr Tripathi's publisher, Renuka Chatterjee, the chief editor at the publishing house Westland/Tranquebar. "But now we don't have to. There's a big enough market inside India."
The shining star of the whole festival was definitely the Sri Lankan author,Shehan Karunatilaka, who won the US$50,000 (Dh183,600) DSC prize for South Asian literature for his book Chinaman, a charming - and defiantly unexotic - ode to cricket. "I wrote this book for Sri Lankans," saidMr Karunatilaka, who dedicated his win to the Sri Lankan cricket team. "I didn't want to write one of those books about the tsunami, monsoons, or inter caste marriages. It would just have sounded fake."
Some locals seemed uneasy about the way in which the festival took over Jaipur. At a thinly attended discussion on Rajasthani literature, while crowds flocked to hear the more glamorous foreign authors, writers bemoaned the loss of local culture. "Where isRajasthan in this entire jamboree? Are we selling off our history?"demanded an agitated audience member.
Others, however, supported the festival's egalitarian spirit. "Rajasthan is a very feudal state, andthis is a space where everyone is equal," said professor Shalini Shekhawat. "I am not sure that literature is at the forefront -sometimes I think it's more a place to see and be seen - but it's still great that everyone, from VIPs to ordinary Hindi-speaking people, are queuing up for the same authors."
Come the weekend, it was apparent that the festival was choking on itsown success, with an estimated 120,000 visitors over five days. Suffocating crowds, often standing shoulder to shoulder, made itimpossible for all but the very earliest of visitors to get into the jam- packed venues. Many authors and readers simply skipped the sessions, and instead went sightseeing or to the lavish after-session parties.
Chatterjee, a regular at the festival, said: "It's great that the festival has got this far, but the organisers need to think about a different venue next year." Still, as she pointed out, "Where else can you hear Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri, and the entire top tier of the New Yorkerall in one afternoon?"
The wave of celebrities at this year's festival- many of them non-authors -also annoyed some writers.
"Why is she here?" hissed a prolific, award-winning novelist when Oprah entered. "She's never written a book in her life!" All the while Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar and actors Anupam Kher and Kabir Bedi were trailed by entourages begging for autographs and pictures.
The minister for telecommunications, Kapil Sibal, read out some mediocre poetry which attempted to rhyme "constituency" with "free".
"Don't give up the day job," muttered one disbelieving audience member.
And so, the festival ended as it had begun - in a cloud of controversy. A plannedvideo link with Mr Rushdie was cancelled at the last minute, as organisers said they had received word that Muslim groups planned a violent protest.
Sanjoy Roy, the producer of the festival, announced tearfully: "We have been pushed to the wall and bullied. We are disgraced."
Immediately following his emotional speech, a panel of writers, authors and public figures vowed to continue the fight for free speech.
The Indian journalist and author, Tarun Tejpal, said: "In India, nothing is simple. This is a setback, not a defeat. The battle for liberty will go on."
Kavitha Rao is a Bangalore-based journalist.