A Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) happened over the last five days. Almost 300 writers came. They talked about the ethics of vegetarianism, the young Stalin, Gandhi vs Ambedkar's modes of protest, Africa and more. It included the likes of Ben Okri, Michael Ondaatje, Jamaica Kincaid, Ayesha Jalal, Gulzar, Tom Stoppard. That was one festival.
There was another festival that happened over those same days. Or rather a melodrama. It was called Waiting for Rushdie. It included the chimera of Mumbai mafia hitmen, renegade writers reading banned books, a videolink and the high commissioner of police.
That festival sucked much of the media oxygen, casting its shadow over everything else. But the miracle of JLF is that first festival also happened.
When the threat of marching hordes of angry protesters forced the cancellation of the videolink conversation between Salman Rushdie and Barkha Dutt, it seemed the end of this year's JLF. But then, just as per schedule, a book on the beauties of Jaipur quilts was released. It was a little surreal to hear about quilts after a heady debate on freedom of expression. Yet it was strangely reassuring in its own way. It was a reminder of that first festival that had stubbornly continued to happen despite the media circus of the second.
Had Rushdie spoken, it would have been a way for these two festivals to finally come together. But in the end, he did not speak and that controversy which had boiled to a head, strangely evaporated because it just felt unreal. It was a controversy about a book from two decades ago, about a man who did not come and a video link that did not happen. The marching hordes never materialised either. Neither, it seems, did the Mumbai hitmen. It seemed to all exist in some gray area for of all of us in the media who had to follow the ups and downs and twists and turns of a drama of absence.
Perhaps in that sense it was just as well that Midnight’s Child did not speak. It was not because it was a wakeup call to the liberal who never wants to get his hands dirty, as Tarun Tejpal put it. But because if he had spoken, it would have only been to prove a point. His presence had long ceased to be about the literature.
The festival of books could return to its books. Even books about quilting. The arguments about what this meant for freedom of expression will happen. If you ban a book, isn't that enough? Does that mean the writer is also banned? Why are we talking about this book anyway? Where does it rank in the hierarchy of issues of any community? That will all happen.
As I walked out of JLF, one of the protesters walked in front of me. His jacket had the slogan God Tussi Great Ho emblazoned across the back. As he walked out, the policeman asked him to return his day pass. He took it off from around his neck. That will be my abiding memory of the festival. The angry protester with his Jaipur Literature Festival with a pass around his neck. A pass to protest.
Democracy, tussi great ho.