Litfest Gawkers: Who cares about Rushdie when we have Oprah
Salman Rushdie's canceled appearance generated a lot of media noise but the sad truth is that it made little difference to most of the attendees.
"I can't help wondering what is the point of these literary festivals," murmurs a friend, as we watch Ben Okri reading from his latest book. I wave at the large audience assembled to watch him on the lawns and say, "This, this is the point, right? All these people watching Okri."
"That's only because there's more space here. They can actually see something," she shrugs, underlining a well-known but rarely advertised reality about litfests: the best-known speakers get the lion's share of the audience, leaving the rest to languish in near-empty venues. Worthy sessions like Rajasthan Ek Khoj attract barely a handful of attendees, even as the tents housing Gulzar, Amish Tripathi or Chetan Bhagat are packed to the gills.
The proliferating book festivals – and certainly the grand-daddy of them all, Jaipur – has increasingly become a form of literary tourism. Far too many people come just to gawk at the stars. The organisers may be excited about landing a Michael Ondaatje, but most of the attendees are like the woman who sat next to me on the flight. When I asked her who she most looked forward to seeing, she replied with a big grin, "Oprah!"
When I try talking up Ondaatje, her smile turned polite.
"I heard a couple of guys discussing Jaipur. And one of them said, "Forget attending the sessions. It's really about the parties," grumbles the same friend, "It's like a vacation for half of Delhi – this is their little annual jaunt."
The shallow end of litfest culture is all the more striking in a year when bigger issues like freedom and democracy have come unexpectedly into play. Salman Rushdie's canceled appearance generated a lot of media noise but the sad truth is that it made little difference to most of the attendees. Of course, they would have been happy enough to catch a glimpse of the man – he is a celebrity, after all – but they still had Bhagat to look forward to, and, of course, Oprah.
There's been plenty of finger-pointing in the controversy over Rushdie's canceled appearance. In a recent storm of tweets, Rushdie accused the Rajasthan government of inventing the terrorist threats that kept him away. On stage, S Anand took to task the "pusillanimous" organisers for cracking down on any attempt to read from Satanic Verses in protest. On the other hand, at one of the JLF after-parties, a well-known editor described the authors who'd already done the deed –Hari Kunzru, Ruchir Joshi, Jeet Thayil, and Amitava Kumar – as "foolish and irresponsible." Then there were the usual liberal voices – on stage and off – who condemned the government for failing to protect the most basic of all democratic rights.
But no one took to task the eager hordes who flocked here this past weekend. Why was there not even a murmur of protest among this supposedly book-loving crowd? Not one black badge of solidarity?
"There isn't a rooted support for free expression in this country," said one writer over dinner. Perhaps it's because we think its rude to be unpleasant, disruptive or provocative. It's this precise squeamishness that leads Chetan Bhagat to say – without being booed – of Satanic Verses, "Just because you have the right to say something, it doesn't mean you have to say it. Why be hurtful?"
Yet the right to free speech exists precisely to safeguard offensive speech – the other kind doesn't require protection. And what use is a right if it is never exercised because none of us want to be "hurtful"? And who gets to decide what is "hurtful"? These aren't academic questions when all it takes is a brief reading of a banned book – done less to provoke than to express solidarity -- to provoke the wrath of our overweening state.
But none of these questions matter in a society that treats books – the reading and writing of them – as a hobby, or worse, a status marker. It's why pulling some novel off a university syllabus or even banning it outright is seen at best a minor offense. Sure, a bunch of jhola types will get worked up, but most of us just move on – right after we illegally download the book from the internet to see what the fuss is all about.
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