The who’s who of the literary world have begun their descent in Jaipur to mark off the 12th edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival that begins later today. The five-day literary extravaganza will go on till January 28 at Jaipur’s historic Diggi Palace.
The 12th edition will play host to two Pulitzer Prize Winners — Andrew Sen Greer (Less, 2018) and Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, 2017) — and to other authors including André Aciman, the movie adaptation of whose book Call Me By Your Name earned rave reviews and an Oscar nod in 2018, Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, and others. Yann Martel, Jeffrey Archer and Alexander McCall Smith are also scheduled to speak.
On the Indian front, in addition to JLF directors and regulars such as Shashi Tharoor, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Upmanyu Chatterjee, and Vikram Chandra will take part in discussions.
Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan will deliver the keynote address in a few hours on “The Role of Science in Today’s World”.
#MeToo and feminism
The 2018 edition of the festival saw a discussion on “#MeToo: Do Men Still Have It too Easy?”. This time around, noted feminist Germaine Greer will talk beyond her seminal feminist text The Female Eunuch. Celebrated British classicist, Mary Beard, will also participate in the festival. Indian feminist and founder of feminist publishing house Zubaan Books, Urvashi Butalia, will offer perspectives on gender.
In light of sexual harassment allegations that surfaced against him in December 2018 and on January 20, 2019, well-known sculptor Subodh Gupta will give the festival a miss despite being scheduled to speak at two events, NDTV reported. All references to him, except a report on a 2014 appearance, have been scrubbed from the official JLF website. He has, as seems to have become the norm, denied all the allegations.
It remains to be seen if the #MeToo movement, which has gained momentum in India in the last few months, will have any tangible impact on the discussions that are had.
Now a staple in every literary calendar, JLF was organized for the first time in 2006 by William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, who now serve as the festival’s co-directors. Sanjoy K. Roy of Teamwork Arts serves the festival’s producer. However, Dalrymple will miss this year’s festival in order to attend to family affairs in the wake of his father’s death earlier this month.
Since 2006, JLF has steadily grown larger and is now touted as one of the biggest literary festivals in the world, and the largest free literary festival. Last year, it was reportedly attended by more than 5 lakh people.
A parallel literary festival, Bookmark, kicked off yesterday. In its sixth iteration, the South Asian publishing conclave plays host to editors and CEOs of India’s leading publishing houses. It will end on January 26, 2019.
In addition, musical performances by artists such as Usha Uthup, L. Subramaniam, and the Roohani Sisters are scheduled for the evenings.
JLF’s repeated trysts with controversies
In an effort to remain accessible, and yet maintain, at least initially, a certain level of intellectualism, the festival has repeatedly fallen afoul of larger conservative Indian expectations. The most prominent amongst those was about a visit that never happened.
In 2012, Salman Rushdie, author of the famously known Midnight’s Children and infamously known The Satanic Verses, was scheduled to speak at the festival. He had already visited the festival in 2007. However, he pulled back citing protests from top Muslim organisations (The Satanic Verses has been banned in several nations, including India, for blaspheming against Muslim faith) and intelligence inputs that put his life at risk. Security was obviously amped up at the festival.
Shortly after the 2012 edition opened, one of the producers read a statement from Rushdie:
I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to eliminate me.
While I have some doubts as to the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the festival in such circumstances.
Even at that stage, Dalrymple announced that Rushdie would participate through a video link. However, after right-wing groups continued their protests and threatened to disrupt the festival, the video conference was also called off.
Later at the festival, four authors — Hari Kunru and Amitava Kumar, and Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi — read out excerpts from The Satanic Verses at two different sessions. And what ensued followed the now familiar script. Law and order became and issue, and the four authors had to beat a hasty retreat.
Later, in an article for the Guardian, Kunzru explained why he and Kumar chose to read out from the banned book: “I wanted to give a voice to Salman Rushdie, a writer silenced by a death threat, not offend anyone’s religious sensibilities.”
In 2017, Taslima Nasreen similarly offended Muslim organisations when she that criticism of Islam was the only way to establish secularism in Muslim nations. Her panel, titled “Exile”, did not list a speaker’s name, presumable to avoid any protests.
However, her appearance and statements led to protests from the Rajasthan Muslim Forum and other Muslim organisations outside the venue. As a result, the JLF organisers were compelled to assure that they would never invite Rushdie and Nasreen to JLF in future.
In 2013, Ashish Nandy sparked furore in another vein. At a session titled “Republic of Ideas”, Nandy said, “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive.”
There were nationwide protests against the sociologist whose work had been marked by pro-Dalit arguments for more than 30 years. An FIR was filed against Nandy and festival producer Sanjoy Roy under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by Rajpal Meena, state president of the National Union of Backward Classes, SC, ST and Minorities.
In a subsequent press conference, immediately after the controversy broke out, Nandy, while explaining his comment, doubled down on his argument and said, “I said that if people like me or Richard Sorabji [who was a fellow panellist] want to be corrupt, I shall possibly send his son to Harvard giving him a fellowship and he can send my daughter to Oxford. No one will think it to be corruption. Indeed, it will look like supporting talent. But when Dalits, tribals and OBCs are corrupt, it looks very corrupt indeed. However, this second corruption equalises. It gives them access to entitlements, allows the underprivileged to partake of the loot. And as long as this equation persists, I have hope for the republic.”
Nandy left Jaipur soon after, skipping the rest of the festival.
In 2018, despite potential for controversial remarks in the wake of Padmaavati furore, the festival steered clear of any controversies. Such was the surprise in the media that PTI’s headline read, “Jaipur Literature Festival concludes sans controversy” while Quint’s read, “Jaipur Lit Fest concludes, focus remained on creativity, not controversy”.
Here’s hoping for another controversy-free year where literature, not controversy, plays the protagonist.
Aditi Agrawal is a senior sub editor at Qrius
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