Monday, January 23, 2012

The Rushdie-Winfrey Show

© Wikimedia Commons
Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie did not attend the Jaipur Literature Festival but his long shadow hovered over the largest literary event in Asia-Pacific on all five days. The annual festival, held at Diggi Palace in Jaipur, the capital of the northwestern state of Rajasthan (the Land of Kings) from January 20 through 24, was in the news for all the wrong reasons.

The controversial author was keen to attend the festival but backed out at the last minute because of a perceived threat to his life from the underworld and possibly Islamic radicals. The writer's decision not to attend the prestigious event came in the wake of an "advisory" from the central (federal) government which its counterpart in the state took up in earnest. It concerned a possible law-and-order situation arising out of protests that might have greeted Rushdie on arrival, possibly leading to more serious consequences for the writer.

The Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, whose party heads the coalition government in New Delhi, denied there was a conspiracy to keep the author away. His government's feeble excuse was that it hadn't written to Rushdie, one way or the other.

Yesterday, Rushdie, who has been in the eye of a literary storm since publishing The Satanic Verses—a book banned in India—twenty-four years ago, claimed that he was "lied to" on the plot to kill him, which, on the face of it, appears to have been a political ploy to appease the Muslim community and keep the vote-bank of the ruling Congress Party intact. This is not the first time.

The author of Midnight's Children, which won the Booker in 1981, showed his anger on Twitter: "I've investigated and believe that I was, indeed, lied to... Don't know who gave orders. I guess the same police who want to arrest Hari (Kunzru), Amitava (Ghosh), Jeet (Thayil) and Ruchir (Joshi). Disgusting."

The four writers, who were participating in the literature festival, were asked to leave after reading excerpts from The Satanic Verses, to show their solidarity with Rushdie. Several authors at the fest have now demanded lifting the ban on the book.

The controversy over Rushdie took the spotlight away from another high-profile visitor to the Jaipur Literature Festival—Oprah Winfrey—who was on a week-long trip to India in connection with her new TV channel, Oprah Winfrey Network.

© Hindustan Times
The talk show host, who is very popular in India, spoke about her love of books and how it helped her to become one of the most influential women of our time. "Reading is what I do for pleasure, what I do to relax myself," she told the eager crowd. "My ideal day is to spend a day reading a great book, and knowing I have another one to read... At school, I turned in assignments a week early to get another book. The other kids hated me."

Winfrey has some nine million followers on Twitter but it didn't stop her from expressing concern over the damaging effects of computers and social networking on reading habits. "I feel that, because when I am on it (Twitter), I feel I could be reading a book right now."

The literature festival had its lighthearted moments too. Like, when The New Yorker editor David Remnick was about to answer a question, a cow somewhere behind him mooed, prompting the American journalist to joke, "I deserved that!" Later, he told The Times of India, "A cow behind the tent made loud noises whenever I was asked a question. I don't usually get cows — I get hecklers." He also thinks Barack Obama is the best President in his lifetime of 53 years. Find out why here.

If you want to read more about the Jaipur Literature Festival, click here.


  1. It's such a shame when these kind of events, which could bring people together, are used instead to further divide folks.

  2. Charles, this isn't the first time. We've had books banned by those who haven't even read them. And then we are governed by people with no backbone.

  3. I had not heard of this festival. We just finished our Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka.
    Also, thank you for the links.

  4. Mystica, you're welcome. Speakers at the JLF, held annually, include some renowned writers from all over the world.