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Rushdie Haunts Jaipur Festival

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Sport & Culture

Rushdie Haunts Jaipur Festival

Salman Rushdie decided against attending the Jaipur literary festival. But his presence is still felt everywhere.

The Jaipur Literary Festival has turned into an ode to Salman Rushdie. His absence has had such an impact here that no session seems to take place without mentioning the Indian-born British author. Indeed, for the first time in India, some excerpts from the controversial book The Satanic Verses were read out publicly on the first day of the festival.

Indeed, the whole festival felt like it began on defiant note. In a session titled “Freedom of Expression,” the author Amitabh Kumar read out a passage of the book, which was banned in India in 1988. Hari Kunzru, an Indian-British writer who was chairing the event, appeared to allow Kumar to read.

This tone of dissent over the pressure on Rushdie to stay away was clear through much of the first day. “Salman Rushdie is one of India’s greatest writers and in a more just world, his arrival here would have been heralded by people in the streets throwing rose petals in front of him rather than this nonsense,” said William Dalrymple, one of the directors of the annual festival. 

Sidharth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu, also lamented the capitulation of the Indian government and its inability to stand by individual freedom of expression.

The renowned Diggi Palace (now a hotel) that hosts the festival has become a home to the voices of modernity that speak against religious bigotry. The sumptuous Rajasthani food served in the large dining hall might have satiated the physical hunger of the participants here, but it didn’t ease their frustration. One writer sat next to me, who has been covering the festival for the past six years, told me that this year’s event had effectively been “hijacked” by Rushdie.

But the Indian government isn’t alone in receiving criticism here – the media has also been blamed for hyping the small but vocal minorities of intolerance. Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam, for example, feels that the small voices get “amplified” by the constant reporting of their statements.

Despite their triumph in having Rushdie not attend, the fanatics may actually have come off worse, as they have merely energized young people especially to express their support for liberalism and sanity.

Sanjay Kumar blogs at Indian Decade.