The Jaipur Literature Festival suffered bipolar disorder this year. It celebrated soaring highs, when Oprah rocked into Rajasthan with her über personality and weathered embarrassing lows when Salman Rushdie backed-out of attending.
I wonder whether the festival has become too much of a good thing – a worthy event that is now so popular that its suffering from its own success.
It’s grown from a sleepy celebration of South Asian writers to a literary extravaganza spanning five days and hosting more than 60-thousand visitors and almost 300 hundred speakers.
After days of a public argument between festival organizers, government officials and threatening imams over whether Salman Rushdie should or should not attend the festival, Rushdie announced that he would stay away after security officials told him that hit-men from Mumbai were planning to “eliminate” him if he came to India. He released a statement saying that he could not risk harm to himself, his family or the festival.
It turns out that the assassins were bogus and that officials lied to Rushdie to keep him away and to placate the muslim community. There are elections in several states in India and the ruling Congress party is pandering to the muslim vote – which is why, some argue, the government fought hard and dirty to keep Rushdie away from the festival.
Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, was banned in India in 1988 because muslims believe that the book is blasphemous to Islam. A fatwa was issued calling for his death.
Four authors at the festival read passages from the book to protest Rushdie’s absence. Apparently it’s illegal to read aloud excerpts of a banned book and festival organizers asked the writers to sign a disclaimer saying that they acted on their own and not on behalf of the festival.
On Monday, evolutionary biologist and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins interrupted his session to read a statement supporting Rushdie and freedom of speech. He shared a story from the reign of Elizabeth I: Catholic officials wrote to the Pope to ask if it would be a sin to kill the queen since she was dismantling the church in England. The Pope gave his blessing for her death.
Little has changed in 500 years.
It was refreshing to have Dawkins on stage, defending his staunch atheism and hammering religion for turning faith into a weapon. One member of the audience asked whether it was not strange that Dawkins, who has attacked all the world’s major religions, was not an objectionable guest in Jaipur, while Rushdie was.
On the last day of the festival, organizers tried to uplink a video talk with Rushdie from his home in England, but that, too, was nixed by officials in Rajasthan who wanted to censor what he said.
All of this comes at a time in India when the central government is asking Facebook and Google to censor objectionable content. And just today, Indian officials in Washington filed a complaint with the US for something Jay Leno said on The Tonight Show. He showed a clip of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and called it Romney’s summer home. This pissed off the Sikh community here and they want the US to take legal action against NBC and Leno.
US officials noted that this was satire… funny, a witty take on current events.
Oprah stayed out of the fray and lightened the mood at the festival with her we-are-family flirtations with the crowd. She’s everyone’s best friend, whether in Chicago, Johannesburg or Jaipur.
Take away Oprah and the publicity surrounding Rushdie, and the festival was still much of what it was intended to be: a celebration of writing, books, film and ideas.
Sadly, this year drama over-shadowed the discourse.