Notes from the Field

O and Sal: The Jaipur Literature Festival in Two Names

January 25, 2012

Oprah Winfrey looked nervous. Making her way across the stage, she stopped to smile for the herd of photographers and then quickly sat down in her chair. Waiting for the applause to die down, she folded her hands in her lap.

This was Oprah’s first visit to India; the press has tracked her every move as she traveled across the country filming an episode for her new show, “The Next Chapter.” Among her stops: a visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, held in the Northwestern State of Rajasthan. The festival features five days of readings, panel discussions, and musical performances. In just seven years, it has become the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific region, attracting more than 60,000 people annually.

Jaipur Literature Festival

Author Deepak Chopra speaks at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Attracting more than 60,000 people annually, the festival is the largest in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo by flickr user Havelgotastory4u.

I thought I could sense curiosity and discomfort pass across Oprah’s face as she waited for her discussion, “O: Oprah in Jaipur,” to begin. When I landed in India seven months ago to begin my year as a Luce Scholar and writer-in-residence at the Sanskriti Foundation, I, too, had mixed emotions. Although I had experience living abroad, that hadn’t prepared me for the chaos, for the throb of life in India. Oprah said of her first impressions of India, “It’s a bit chaotic, and then I realized there’s an underlying calm, or flow, that everybody else here gets the flow, and that as a foreigner, you have to get in and move with the flow.”

As a writer, I spend most days alone, hunched over a laptop, so the festival was a welcome break. The festival offered the chance to hear from renowned writers like Booker Prize-winners Michael Ondaatje and Ben Okri, and best-selling Indian writer Chetan Bhagat. And I won’t lie: I was looking forward to seeing Oprah.

While Oprah had previously remarked to the media that this was her “first and last trip to India,” she told the festival audience that that wasn’t the case: “You can’t. You have to come back again, and then you have to come back again.” Before coming to the literary festival I often worried that I had not yet written a short story specifically about India. Oprah’s assertion that once isn’t enough helped me re-frame this concern. I should have known this on my first day: I’ll have to keep returning to India, again and again, to find its pulse and its place in my writing.

Oprah was not, by any means, the most talked about person at the festival. That distinction fell to Salman Rushdie, of course, whose 1988 novel The Satanic Verses garnered a fatwa from Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and remains banned in India today. Rushdie, who lives in New York, attended the festival in 2007 amidst some protests, but this year was forced to cancel his visit due to reports from police officials that his life was in danger.

Rushdie’s absence was mentioned at nearly every panel I attended. Four writers – Ruchir Joshi, Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru, and Jeet Thayil – read from the still-banned Satanic Verses in protest. Afterward, festival organizers encouraged the writers to leave the festival and Jaipur or risk arrest. Criminal complaints were filed against the writers the next day. The Rushdie frenzy subsided when festival organizers confirmed that Rushdie would be joining the festival via video conference at 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday. But when the time came, the owner of the festival venue climbed on stage and announced that Rushdie wouldn’t be seen. Authorities had indicated that protestors – who were said to be sitting among members of the audience – were threatening violence if the video conference went as planned. Festival organizer Sanjoy Roy told the audience that the organizers were “being made to step down in the fight for freedom of expression” and Rushdie’s forced cancellation was a disgrace for India. Before he could continue, he began crying and left the stage.

A few minutes of nervous silence settled in the audience after Roy’s departure. A group of festival panelists decided to host an impromptu debate on Rushdie’s exclusion. Once the debate began, it was easy to pick out the protestors from the festival-goers; the protestors stared grimly ahead and did not clap when a panelist called the cancellation of Rushdie’s visit a “win for bigotry” or lauded the writer. There weren’t a lot of answers, but there were lots of questions, and lots of talk of literature, religion, and free speech and what this means for the future of India. Everyone on stage and in the audience knew that the stakes are high and that the answer isn’t easy. The question of free speech and religious rights is one that India will have to keep returning to, again and again, long after the Jaipur Literature Festival has ended.

Mackenzie Smith is a 2011-2012 Luce Scholar and writer-in-residence at the Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi, India. She can be reached at mackenzie.evan.smith@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

View all posts by Mackenzie Smith

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