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Our revolutions: the great Indian JLF

26 January 2012

10:48 PM

26 January 2012

10:48 PM

‘We don’t want to get our morals from our holy books,’ said Richard Dawkins at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) earlier this week. Some among his audience might have taken offence if
they were listening, but they were too busy persecuting India’s most simultaneously celebrated and vilified writer-in-exile, Salman Rushdie.

When I spoke to festival director William Dalrymple two days before opening day, he anticipated some kind of a showdown between the ‘liberals inside and the angry beards outside’. And so it came to
pass, as the eternal clash between Indian ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ played out on JLF’s stage. A week later, four JLF speakers who protested Rushdie’s banishment by reading from his
banned book, The Satanic Verses, had been advised to leave; even his impish image via video link was denied entrance; the organizers were being criticized for backing down and discord had
broken out within the global literary community. And so, the festival ended on a dolorous, if spirited, debate-filled note).

This distracted from the festival’s other wonderful merits. Talents ranging from Michael Ondaatje and Tom Stoppard to Tamil writer Charu Nivedita and relative unknown Shubnum Khan provided a
vast store of interest. Steven Pinker gave a bravura performance in his lecture on the forensics of violence, explaining how atrocities today pale when compared to earlier ones. Debut novelist Teju
Cole, literary stalwart Ben Okri and writer Taiye Selasi spoke of the real, many-faceted Africa. Striking prison memoirs by Iftekhar Gilani, Anjum Zamarud Habib, and Sahil Maqbool were discussed by
an unusual panel. Lebanese writer Hanan Al Shaykh and British-Arab actress Houda Echouafni brought Arabian Nights‘ English adaptation, The One Thousand and One Nights, to
vivacious life. (For a full festival program and to watch videos of sessions; for eminent literary critic Nilanjana Roy’s pick of favourites).

A session on journalism as literature was one of my personal highlights. It featured a rich confluence in Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, New Yorker editor David Remnick, author of
much-awaited Bombay slum narrative, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo, Guardian and Observer South Asia correspondent Jason Burke and rising Indian journo Samanth Subramanian. Towards
the end, Gourevitch spoke eloquently of how journalists must use their imagination to anticipate what might be, and push boundaries to source the larger reality.

The east-west dialogue at JLF is valuable. International ideas are being brought home, while new ones are being created here in India; this is the festival’s undeniable attraction. Before, we
Indians went outside — to Paris, to London, to New York — for culture. Now, ideas make their way here.

The question is, of course, which ideas. ‘India is becoming such an important place, it’s wonderful to be at JLF, to see this enthusiasm,’ remarked twinkly-eyed Raja Shehadeh, one of
Palestine’s finest chroniclers. ‘What’s important is to see which way the big changes here go.’

The festival itself is changing. Advancement on every front has given rise to many cottage industries and tangential enterprises. As writers read and singers perform, connections are forged and
faces put to emails, in a way that no other event in this country achieves. Jewelry is sold as tattoos and deals are inked, and all kinds of petitioners find their way into the arena. And, on a
parallel social track, runs the frenetic JLF party circuit (wickedly reported in this piece),
with all its fest-nesting and fest-flinging.

Too commercial, say JLF’s detractors. But many writers enjoy the multiple juxtapositions real life exerts on this literary event. ‘It is nice to see such a fuss made over writers and books,
particularly at a time when there’s so much doom and gloom about the industry,’ said Samanth Subramanian. ‘Easily the best thing about JLF, for a writer, is to feel like a rock star for a rare
moment. JLF is a festival in every sense – one may sometimes be overwhelmed at times, but the wisest move is to get into the spirit of it and ride along.’

Through JLF, we are reminded we need to engage with the outside world as well as marinate in the inner one. ‘You spend enough time at your desk’, says Tolstoy biographer Rosamund Bartlett. ‘It’s
wonderful to be engaging with the public here. Our festivals in England are nothing like this; JLF is international in a way that it isn’t there.’ 

Despite the frenzied crowds (more than 127,000 attended) and the Rushdie maelstrom, JLF 2012 still achieved in many ways what it sets out to do each year: celebrate a global literature and culture.
This year, there was a slight dilution in the quality of some sessions, some festival veterans were heard grumbling. Moreover, some were events physically impossible to attend, due to the sheer
numbers the weekend and Oprah engendered — a separate venue for ‘mainstream’ sessions should perhaps be an option in the future, several publishing professionals commented. When, in the
middle of all of this, the spectre of rabid intolerance spread over the festival, some of the fun evaporated. But while dialogue may have been halted this year, it is at meeting points like this
that it will be advanced.

Just last year, we were arguing about whether a long-term white Delhi resident should run our country’s premier
literary festival (though we cheer for Indians abroad to assimilate and achieve in their adoptive countries). This year, we’re arguing whether one of our most high profile Indian writers should get
to speak at the same festival. Somehow, this might just represent progress. We’ve moved beyond one argument, into another no less contentious, sometimes exhausting one; but at one level, something
has been discussed, digested and dealt with, if not universally.

‘There is an openness to the discussions that happen here,’ stated mystic singer Parvathy Baul, as we shared the final ride out of Diggi Palace, merry scene of festival mayhem. ‘I go to many
festivals around the world but there’s a warmth here that you don’t find elsewhere.’ Indeed, as we celebrated Tuesday night, there was a sense that despite the political drama, the infighting, the
bickering, it is this all-inclusiveness – welcoming everyone, even the Rushdie-bashers – which will save the festival, and help us consider just what exactly the great Indian way forward means

Here is a
petition to urge the Indian Prime Minister
into lifting the ban on The Satanic Verses.

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