Jaipur, Rushdie and the Big O

January 26th, 201212:38 pm @

Checking the form guide at Jaipur.

Jaipur – in Sanskrit it means “where luvvies meet”. Maybe. I wasn’t able to check as Wikipedia was down in protest when I looked so I had to guess. The modern repository of all knowledge wasn’t the only one protesting. The literati at the Jaipur Literature Festival had their collective backs up after Salman Rushdie was forced to abandon plans to attend due to threats from Islamic extremists.

As ever, the extremists’ beef was over Rushdie’s penning of The Satanic Verses – their fear clearly being that a 23-year-old book of fiction can threaten the existence of a 1,400-year-old belief system. Or perhaps they just had nothing better to do that day.

In response, Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar used their session on the first day to read sections of “The Book” – which the “World’s Largest Democracy” has seen fit to ban. They were promptly shushed by festival organisers then advised to leave town, lest the police in the “World’s Largest Democracy” arrest them. Freedom of speech at a literary festival? Not in “The World’s Largest Democracy”.

Astoundingly, despite a repeat reading of sections of “The Book” later on, both Islam and the “World’s Largest Democracy” were left exactly as they had been the day before. Well, perhaps looking just a little less tolerant.

The monster that it’s become means seeing a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival is nigh on impossible. Despite the crush, I managed to catch a bit of a session on writing about Africa, a lecture on the decline in violence (ironically) as well as one championing the enlightenment (I was positively bathing in irony by this stage).

Between sessions – or when the crowd was too thick to get within earshot of the speakers, I amused myself by spotting fashions at the festival. There’s a certain trick to getting the “literary festival chic” just right. There needs be a certain dishevelled eccentricity, which can be rather more difficult to pull off than it would first appear.

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Hats were big this year, especially the Panama style for older gents, while the younger hipsters opted for those mini-Fedora thingys. My favourite was a purple Fedora, which added a Tom Baker Dr Who to proceedings. Crumpled and ill-fitting blazers were also de rigueur, preferably in a light colour, making the wearer look like they’d stumbled from the bar of a county cricket club after the annual dinner and dance. For those wanting to effect an air of Downton-esque landed gentry, tweed jackets were the obvious choice. Unfortunately it was less Edwardian country gent and more like wanting to have a word with Ted about the drainage in the lower fields.

Sunday brought Oprah – and the hordes – to the festival. In fact, the crowds to see the Big O were so big, they closed the gates to the festival. We’d been warned the night before that they may close them by about 8.30am, but given that the thing didn’t kick off till about 10.3oam, we thought this just a touch unlikely.

Clearly, we underestimated the pulling power of Oprah. When we arrived at 10am there was already a crush of people at the outer gate, as well as a couple of thousand lined up patiently – and pointlessly – waiting to get in. Fortunately for me, I was on the right side of the gates and couldn’t gain access. And so it passed – the literary festival got Oprah, but not Rushdie. If the fanatics want to bring down Western civilisation, they’re on the right track with this strategy.

Abandoning the hordes, I paid a visit to the Jantar Mantar, an 18th century observatory built by Maharaja Jai Singh II. The stunning architecture of the devices, with their stark geometric lines, were worthy of Le Corbusier. They were as much works of arts as they were astronomical instruments. Overlooked by the City Palace and Amber Palace, it’s one of Jaipur’s highlights and was a refreshing break from the festival.

Jaipur observatory - far from the madding crowd.

Once the O-crowd had disbanded I figured it was safe to return to the grounds and mooch about before joining the other weekend-only festival-goers and return to the capital. But even after the Delhi social set had jumped into their 4WDs and headed north, the festival was still causing a stir.

A planned video link with “The Author” caused yet more consternation among the intolerants as they feared that a Skype session could undo nearly one-and-a-half millennia of worship. Having seeded the crowd with thugs ready to cause trouble they forced to owner of the venue and organisers to decide that discretion was the better part of valour and abandon the talk.

Freedom of speech?

Not in the “World’s Largest Democracy”.

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