(Published in the Business Standard, January 23, 2007)
“Mr Rushdie,” said the girl, “What was your first reaction to the fatwa? Was it a) hurt b) shock c) anger or d) like in Amar Prem, did you think, ‘kuch to log kehenge’?” She had beaten everyone else to the mike as Salman Rushdie concluded the best-attended session at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Diggi Palace this Sunday.
Even Rushdie, who’d handled Barkha Dutt’s questions with élan, was flummoxed. “I can assure you,” he said carefully, “that Amar Prem was not what came to mind when the fatwa was pronounced against me.”
Rushdie was the big story at Jaipur’s third—and most ambitious—literary festival in as many years. He dropped in at Jerry Pinto’s readings from the book on Helen, the legendary cabaret dancer, and watched videos of her wriggling to ‘Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo’ with evident pleasure. He dealt with great charm with autograph-seeking schoolgirls and rather less charm with intrusive journalists.
Asked why he’d been so hard on the Indian army in Kashmir when they were only following orders, he was blunt: “Because ‘only doing my job’ was not an excuse in Nuremberg.” He dropped tantalizing hints about his next book, which is partly set in Fatehpur Sikri. He was casually incendiary on the subject of Islam, dismissing the burkha sharply: “It’s not such a good idea to put half the human race in a bag.” As the flashbulbs went off outside and a dozen mikes were thrust in his face, I thought of what he’d said about authors in the 18th century, when Robinson Crusoe was printed in big bold letters and Daniel Defoe in much smaller print: “The books could go out and be famous, the authors could stay home and write.” Not any more.
The festival billed its stars as “Kiran Desai, Rushdie and 25 more!”, though it was really the “25 more!” who provided some of the best moments at what’s been India’s most relaxed, most enjoyable lit fest so far. Intellectuals deplored the absence of serious discussion, presumably the kind conducted by six-member panels; the rest of us said a silent Amen and went off to have fun. William Dalrymple did his Mughal thing—dastangoi and readings from The Last Mughal–against the backdrop of Amer Fort. It was beautifully done, even though Delhi’s finest, who have attended anywhere from one to four similar readings in the last year, had to work hard to banish a slight sense of déjà vu.
“I can dream in all three languages—English, Hindi and Pahari,” said Ira Pande during a discussion of Diddi, her book about her mother, the Hindi writer Shivani. “Hindi, Marathi, Bengali—these languages will always survive. It’s the little languages that we’re losing, like Kumaoni, which has different words for smells, just as the Eskimos have different words for snow.”
The next day, Amit Chaudhuri pointed out that the history of so-called “vernacular” or our languages often emerged from accidental rather than natural turns. He spoke of O V Vijayan, writing in English until he went back to a village and discovered, in that writer’s words, that the village became his teacher, of Michael Madhusudan Dutt discovering his “Bengali” voice by accident. Later that evening, two writers, one from India and one from Pakistan, would fight a pitched battle on the subject of Urdu and Hindustani: the language wars were leaking into cocktail party territory. And the halls were just as packed for Seemantini Raghav’s beautifully pitched reading from the works of her father, the late Ranghe Raghav, as they were for rising stars on the English horizon like the young poet Tishani Doshi.
Outside, authors armed with manuscripts stalked unwary publishers and agents. “Madam, have you seen Mr Oddbin?” said one. “Mr Oddbin? No—I don’t think I know him.” “Yes, yes, Mr Oddbin. Arundhati Roy’s publisher? You were talking to him earlier,” he said accusingly. “I have something special for him. Other authors write trilogies, no?” He extracted what looked like the Complete OED from a large bag. “I have written a fourlogy.” I glanced over to where David Godwin was chatting with friends, and felt a sudden pang of pity for the UK literary agent. “I think he may have left for Delhi,” I said, lying through my teeth. The man departed in search of fresh prey.
As the evening chill set in over the lawns of Diggi Palace and we moved into the cheerfully kitsch main hall, poetry ruled. Keki Daruwalla, Jeet Thayil and Jane Bhandari read from the works of the late Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar, and for a while, Bombay’s poets came alive in Jaipur. The next day, Urdu poet Sheen Kaaf Nizam read to a huge audience, though some of them were there to hold seats in anticipation of the Rushdie reading. A few bucked the trend: “Won’t you stay for Rushdie?” one connoisseur of poetry asked another. “Oh, does he also write shayari? No? Then I’ll take my leave, thank you.” Rushdie is, of course, a big story. For almost everybody.