THE BLOG
01/25/2012 06:05 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Salman Rushdie And The Jaipur Literature Festival

Bigotry. Intolerance. Censorship. Not words that you would normally associate with a literature festival, let alone one taking place in what is considered the world's largest democracy. And yet, over the last six days at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, they've dominated panel discussions, been whispered during readings, and littered furious debates around tea stalls.

Why? Because of a book banned in 1988. In the weeks leading up to the festival, a storm began to brew over the planned appearance of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses: albeit, a storm in a teacup. One cleric who had no idea that Rushdie was coming, muttered that he had "hurt the sentiments of Muslims all over the world," causing a mass leap onto the bigotry bandwagon.

Fanatics soon threatened violence if Rushdie came to Jaipur and police intelligence suggested that two assassins were en route to kill Rushdie -- intelligence that Rushdie now suspects was fabricated by the police. These are the same police who can provide security for Oprah Winfrey to speak at the festival, but can't pull themselves together long enough to protect a writer from their own country.

Now, I would bet my own life that those attacking Rushdie have never read the book -- it took me thirteen years and six attempts to get past the first chapter -- but over the last few days it became apparent that the book was also being defended by many who have never read it. Does this matter? No. All literature should be defended in the name of freedom of expression, as demonstrated by four writers who chose to read excerpts of the banned text during the festival.

I sat in on the session where Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi began to read from the book-that-shall-not-be-mentioned, and witnessed a murmur in the audience that swelled to huge cheers and high fives. The repercussions were potential arrests and imprisonment so all four hotfooted it out of the country. Were their actions correct?

Arguments flew back and forth that the writers were in the perfect place to mount an attack. After all isn't a literary festival a forum for discussion? Unfortunately India is not a country that suits Guardian readers, if you're on their land, you live by their laws.

But outside the festival, where can we protest? In the streets? By banging on politicians' gates? Rest assured the police would then be perfectly capable of moving into action. As a starting point, journalist and literary critic Nilanjana Roy has put together a petition to repeal the ban on the book, which can be signed here.

For all the furore, the festival marched on undeterred with fabulous writers like Tom Stoppard, Katherine Boo, Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri and Teju Cole pulling in crowds ranging from earnest school children gawping in the front rows to three old Texan ladies whose favourite session was on cricket. Lionel Shriver, like lightning in a bottle, skulked around the festival wearing red mittens, a pair of Oakleys, a small rucksack and a sly grin.

"I've got a reputation as a cold-hearted, difficult, humorless bitch," she quipped, then went on to ignore a press conference whose organisers told her she had no time for a book signing.

"No, the press can wait," she scowled, then gestured to her audience, "you guys can't."

After listening to journalist Aman Sethi discuss his new book A Free Man, I swung by the onsite shop to pick up a copy and emerged with a stack of others. That's what Jaipur does to you. You hear books, see books, finger their lovely covers, listen to their authors, join in the debates and leave with a suitcase bursting with new voices and old favourites. And Jaipur isn't just about books. Evening entertainment brings the crowds heaving to the barriers, particularly Duncan Bridgeman from 1 Giant Leap who performed with harpist Georgie Pope and local Rajasthani musicians, including a tiny boy with a huge voice, fire eaters and what looked like a pantomime horse.

It's a wonderful space with beautiful grounds bringing writers and their readers into contact in a way that is normally not possible. Richard Dawkins speared a potato wedge, grinned and told me that unlike Rushdie, he offends all religions -- though he was impressed and inspired, in a country built on religion, by the numbers that gathered at the end of his session to get their books signed.

Unfortunately on the final day, a scheduled video-link with Rushdie was cancelled after increased threats from fanatics who gathered on the front lawns in protest which leads me to make a plea to the Indian media: Don't run towards them. Don't photograph them and thrust microphones in their face. Don't give them a voice. If they wish to silence free speech, they don't deserve a voice either.

So now what? What's the future of the literature festival?

"The festival goes on!" says William Dalrymple, author and co-founder of the festival. "Back same place, same time next year."

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, I'll be bringing an empty suitcase next year.

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