While the thousands who attend the annual JLF cannot compare to the millions who flock daily to the two-month Kumbh Mela, which takes place every 12 years, the Jaipur event has become the most attended literary festival in the Asia-Pacific region. Last year it drew more than 120,000 people.
And the Jaipur event trumps even the Kumbh Mela when it comes to the controversy it stirs. Now in its sixth year, the JLF has become a hotspot for literary giants from India and abroad, and a stage where regional tensions play out in the public eye.
The event came to international prominence last year with the invitation of Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie, a maligned figure in the Muslim world ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988. Radical Muslim protests led him to cancel his visit to the festival last year.
The event raised further ire when four Indian authors read passages from the banned book during last year’s festival. A similar brouhaha occurred this year as Muslim and Hindu groups brought their own political agendas to the festival.
Some Islamic organizations called for a ban on the participation of the four Indian writers who read from The Satanic Verses last year. Meanwhile, Hindu groups demanded that Pakistani delegates be barred from attending.
In an interview with the Guardian, Sajid Sehrai, an Islamic scholar who prior to the festival organized a meeting in Jaipur where clerics called for the banning of the four authors, said Rushdie was "a criminal who has committed a heinous crime against all Muslims".
In the end, however, the government and event organizers managed to keep the tensions out of the limelight.
For starters, only one of the four authors, Jeet Thayil, was even invited to this year’s event. Besides Thayil, whose novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize, the protesters must have mistaken the identity of another writer. "This is what India is all about,” an event organizer told the Guardian. “There's always someone offended by someone.”
Rushdie may have skipped the JLF again this year, but is now in India to promote the movie Midnight’s Children, based on his novel of the same name. His looming presence in India has cast a shadow over the festival. Compared with last year, the JLF is under tight security.
Aside from religious tensions, some have observed that this year’s festival has lost some of the momentum that it gained last year. On January 24, the festival’s kick-off day, only one event drew a full house, helped by the presence of the Dalai Lama. A large number of local Tibetans were in the audience.
To make the event more attractive the JLF has made an effort to invite prominent women writers to participate in the festival this year, with some sessions devoted to women and sexuality. This focus caters to the prevailing mood in India, which has recently been focused on issues of gender and violence against women.
The effort to shine a spotlight on important local issues and writers is a mark of progress for the festival. Only time will tell if the same openness will one day be extended to Rushdie and others of like mind.