This is rare. I’m so livid that I don’t actually know how to start. I also wrote “know” as “no” just now. It really is all going to hell.
Earlier this month, I cancelled my tickets to Jaipur. I was going to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) but ultimately I decided against it because I felt fest-ed out (there have been a spate of fests since end-2011 and, for once, I was on the same track as the hipster intellectuals of this country. Rejoice!). The next day, Salman Rushdie said he would be attending JLF.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a blind, er, soft spot for Rushdie. Which is code for, I love him. Of course he’s written some nonsense (who hasn’t?) but that doesn’t matter. When he gets it right, he’s one of my favourite storytellers and he’s brilliant enough for me to ignore the occasions when he doesn’t get it right. I’ve followed Rushdie around in New York, like an East German spy; I’ve eavesdropped on his conversations… like I said, soft spot.
When Rushdie’s name was added to JLF, I felt like an idiot for cancelling my tickets. I wailed a little. Then I told myself to grow up. In any case, I comforted myself, Jaipur would be too crowded for me to stalk him properly.
It seems naive now, but I didn’t take it seriously when the first angry growls came from a band of irate Muslims. After all, it has been DECADES since The Satanic Verses. Apparently that’s not long enough for Darul Uloom Deoband to either forget about the book or read it so that they know what they’re snarling about. The Deobandis demanded the Indian government not give Rushdie a visa to visit the country. Rushdie tweeted he didn’t need a visa to come to India ( with his Person of Indian Origin card, he doesn’t need a visa). The Law Minister, sensibly, said that he didn’t see why the government should forbid Rushdie from entering the country. The bearded baying by Darul Uloom Deoband became louder and then, boom, Rushdie was no longer part of JLF. His conversation with Hari Kunzru, originally scheduled for 20th January, is no longer on the website.
Here’s what the The Times of India tells us. The Rajasthan government “persuaded” the organisers of JLF to ask Rushdie to call off his visit. According to the official statement released by JLF, Rushdie “will not be in India on 20th January due to a change in his schedule. The festival stands by its invitation.”
How’s that for a turkey stuffed with high quality bullsh*t?
I’m not sure whether the Rajasthan government should get the award for Wimp of the Year (I know it’s only January) or JLF’s organisers. Rajasthan, with 60% literacy, is expected to burn because Salman Rushdie will attend a literature festival. What is the point of having a bureaucracy, police force and government in general if you can’t maintain law and order in the state and let something as uncontroversial as JLF run unimpeded? Why is the government pampering the insecurities of an illiterate, ignorant set? And really, Rushdie would be in Jaipur for three days at best. How useless is an administration when it can’t guarantee security to a high-profile visitor for three measly days. So much for the state police saying “There will be foolproof security and foolproof law and order.” Over recent months, it’s become obvious that this current administration doesn’t care much for freedom of expression. Placing the gun on the shoulders of the JLF organisers and getting them to pull the trigger, however, is a new low.
Which brings me to the other candidate of Wimp of the Year: JLF. First, the JLF’s organisers tried to hide the fact that they couldn’t resist the Rajasthan government’s strongarming tactics and made it seem as though Rushdie is the one who changed his plans at the last minute. Rushdie has had a “change in his schedule”, has he? Could it be a change that JLF asked him to make that change because it couldn’t give the Rajasthan government a middle finger salute? And then, in an effort to seem like they’ve held on to their integrity, JLF stated that it was standing by its invitation. Which means what, precisely? That there will be, as some are whispering, an unscheduled Rushdie sighting at the festival? Whether or not that happens, when you invite a writer, announce his presence in your itinerary and then remove all mention of that event after a controversy, you’re not standing by your invitation. That’s like adulterous fornicators saying they’re “just friends”.
So now veryone is outraged at the government and appalled by the Deobandis. The intelligentsia will complain about how the Deobandis have not read any of Rushdie’s writing, how it’s impossible to fight Rushdie’s opponents because they don’t acknowledge one’s fundamental right to express a contrary opinion, etc. etc. All valid points (one articulate articulation of outrage is here). All glossing over the fact that JLF is not a simple victim here in this fiasco but an accomplice. It’s a literature festival didn’t stick up for the writer. It didn’t even have the integrity to make it public knowledge that its arm was being twisted. A few articles later, everything will settle down to normal. There will be an exodus to Jaipur this weekend where some well-coiffed outrage will be expressed over cocktails and snacks. JLF will have hundreds of thousands of visitors and it will be a huge success. Money will pour in for next year’s hullabaloo in Diggi Palace.
I wish just a few of the intellectual heavyweights attending JLF would say that they too are changing their schedule because they don’t feel comfortable attending a festival in a country that can’t ensure the security of a participant for three days. Of course that won’t happen. No one wants to give up the adulation, excitement, air-kissing and parties of a well-funded festival that is expecting in the range of 100,000 visitors. Give or take one controversial person of Indian origin.
Not that I matter in any way, but right now, I’m glad I won’t be at JLF. I’d change my plan even if I was given a free ticket.