(03 February 2012) — Even as the gods of the literary world descended upon the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 (JLF12) last week, it was The Satanic Verses that continued to bedevil organizers 24 years after its publication and cast a pall over the prestigious event.
Salman Rushdie, the author of the controversial novel which many Muslims deem offensive to Islam, had initially been invited but was forced to stay away after extremist groups threatened violence even at the mere mention of his name. Four writers who defiantly read passages from the banned book on stage were disengaged by the organisers. And a video address from London by Rushdie planned for the last day of the festival was eventually cancelled after local police warned that the city could descend into violence if it proceeded.
The decision by the organisers, who described the five-day festival as the ‘mahakumbh of the word‘ — a metaphor for the confluence of ideas and expression — was derided by many as a capitulation to bigots.
It also left those participating in the festival questioning the very idea of banning something.
“You can ban a book if it is not appropriate for the society, but how can you ban the author of the book?” questioned Javed Akhtar, one of India’s most popular lyricists.
But beyond the controversy, the festival meant to “celebrate excellence in Indian and international writing” was by far the largest since the annual event began on a tentative note in 2006. This year’s eclectic crowd of over 122,000 were introduced to literary giants and celebrated intellectuals like Tom Stoppard, Ben Okri, Michael Ondaatje, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker — a far cry from its inaugural edition five years ago in a hall with a handful of attendees and 16 authors. The following year saw an improved turnout including Rushdie, which in light of this year’s scandal, seems ironic.
But the festival’s major turnaround came in 2008, when organisers, the Jaipur Virasat Foundation, appointed a professional event management firm to oversee it. The results were dramatic and immediate. That year brought in substantial sponsorship money and the participation of close to 80 authors. Author Miranda Seymour even anointed it “the grandest literary festival of them all” in The Mail.
It never looked back after that.
The sheer logistics of the present edition, which took 18 months of planning and had to undergo last minute changes for security reasons, were revelatory. In addition to the massive audience, 250 authors and around 2,500 delegates from across the world formed a special invitees list.
“Apart from dealing with issues related to authors, administration, visitors, 600 accredited media personnel from across the globe and 300 freelancers, there were times when meetings with the police and intelligence officials went on till 3 am, with the single objective of ensuring everyone’s security,” said Sanjoy K Roy, producer of the festival.
All that hard work showed, as the festival dubbed as “the greatest literary show on earth” by Newsweek editor Tina Brown provided glowing moments when poetry intersected with polemics, science sparred with spirituality, rationalists shared space with mystics and freedom of speech challenged the self-serving ideas of politics and bigotry.
Encouragingly for the literary world, the sessions were supported by as many as 24 corporate giants, including Google, Bank of America and India’s Tata Steel.
Giving a great boost to the festival and indeed to authors, the two bookstores at Diggi Palace, the mainstay venue of the festival, sold US$120,000 worth of books over the five days.
All of that ensured that the most important guests of the festival — the authors — were left impressed by the experience.
“I feel so happy here. The Indians are so open to the beauty of words,” Argentinian writer Pola Oxoriac said at the festival.
Kamin Mohammadi, London-based Iranian writer and journalist, echoed the Argentine’s words. “It’s an absolutely unique, spectacular show. It’s amazing how literature can connect with people,” he said.
On the flipside, with the festival’s burgeoning growth, some veterans of the (still very new) festival complained that it was losing its original spirit and intimate charm, where chance encounters and conversations with giants of the literary world were the order of the day. They believed that was getting drowned in the sea of attendees at the festival.
And with authors like Umberto Eco, Ariel Dorfman, Michael Palin, Elizabeth Gilbert, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Bill Bryson, Monica Ali and Jhumpa Lahiri slated to attend the festival next year, the festival promises to only grow bigger.
While this year’s Rushdie controversy may have brought embarrassment to the organisers and blemished international perceptions of Indian literary attitudes, the fracas may well serve to strengthen the festival’s brand before its next chapter is written a year from now.
Hell Knows No Fury…
On January 24 2012, the last day of the festival, a large number of Muslim activists appeared at the venue and proceeded to the back of the lawns where a huge crowd had gathered to hear the video address by Salman Rushdie, the author of the controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, which many Muslims deem offensive to their religion. According to some reports, the cleric in charge told his followers that if anyone was killed that day they would die a martyr.
English newspaper The Times of India reported one activist saying that “rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie”, while the Muslim Manch representative Abdul Salim Sankhla was quoted as saying: “We will not allow Rushdie to speak here in any form. There will be violent protests if he speaks.”
At the same time, some of the other activists were asking school children to get out of their seats and intimidating festival guests with threats of violence if they showed support for Rushdie’s video address.
Five minutes before the start of Rushdie’s video talk from London, the organisers of the festival were called to the security control room by the Jaipur commissioner of police. The organisers were told that “there would be violence in the venue and worse outside” if they didn’t call off the video address. The commissioner did not rule out the probability of police having to resort to shooting violent agitators.
The video address was later cancelled. Rushdie reacted via Twitter, saying, “Threat of violence by Muslim groups stifled free speech today. In a true democracy all get to speak, not just the ones making threats.”
Other Notable Authors in Attendance
Michael Ondaatje | Booker Prize-winning writer of ‘The English Patient’
Ben Okri | Nigerian novelist whose ‘The Famished Road’ won the Booker prize
Richard Dawkins | Oxford geneticist and anti-religion polemicist
Amy Chua | Yale law professor and the world’s leading ‘Tiger Mom’
Steven Pinker | Harvard psychologist and prominent intellectual
Tom Stoppard | British playwright, humourist and advocate of dissidence
Jamaica Kincaid | Caribbean whose works are noted for their semi-autobiographical style
Joseph Lelyveld | Ex-journalist famous for a controversial book on Gandhi and his love life