Jaipur Makes its Mark

The Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val drew both fan­fare and crit­i­cism. With a healthy em­pha­sis on re­gional pol­i­tics, the Fes­ti­val was not to be missed.

Southasia - - Contents - By Venkat Ananth Venkat Ananth is a Mum­bai based jour­nal­ist who writes on cricket, pol­i­tics and for­eign af­fairs.

Acer­tain air of un­cer­tainty hung low at the Diggi Palace Ho­tel in Jaipur dur­ing Jan­uary this year. Much of it was due to one man, Sal­man Rushdie, whose im­pend­ing ap­pear­ance and later no-show at the Jaipur Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val made for an in­ter­est­ing lead-up to the fes­ti­val it­self. His ab­sence was at the least a dis­ap­point­ment for those who had gath­ered in Jaipur, fans and crit­ics alike. How­ever, the po­lit­i­cal sand­storm that fol­lowed only in­ten­si­fied the de­bate over In­dia’s in­creas­ing lev­els of in­tol­er­ance, much against ev­ery­thing this lit­er­ary fes­ti­val stood for. The Congress-led UPA Gov­ern­ment, through its fed­eral col­leagues in Ra­jasthan, did ev­ery­thing within its grasp to not up­set a large chunk of Mus­lim vot­ers (18%) who con­sti­tute the po­lit­i­cally crit­i­cal state of Ut­tar Pradesh. In a volatile at­mos­phere with charged emo­tions (which led to four au­thors read­ing a few lines of The Sa­tanic Verses in protest), the Fes­ti­val was vic­tim to drama and mys­tery. How­ever, the show had to go on. The Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val wit­nessed its largest ever show­ing, with 60-70,000 vis­i­tors mak­ing their pres­ence felt at the Diggi Palace Ho­tel. While the po­lit­i­cal de­bate re­volv­ing around Rushdie re­mained a uni­form topic, global celebri­ties such as the in­ter­na­tional queen of talk-shows, Oprah Win­frey stole the show! On a maiden visit to In­dia, Oprah ap­peared in a tra­di­tional sari, ex­plored the sights of In­dia and at­tended the Jaipur Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val with zest and en­thu­si­asm. Con­duct­ing in­ter­views and speak­ing with ac­tivists around the coun­try and dur­ing the fes­ti­val, Oprah il­lus­trated her con­cern and in­ter­est in women and chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion and rights.

Some of the bet­ter dis­cus­sions at the Jaipur Lit Fest this time around, in­volved geopol­i­tics, keep­ing in mind the global changes that are cur­rently tak­ing place. The Arab Spring, not sur­pris­ingly, re­ceived a prom­i­nent men­tion through­out the event. The likes of Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent for The Econ­o­mist, Max Ro­den­beck, Egyp­tian doc­tor-turned-pho­to­jour­nal­ist Karima Khalil whose work show­cased some of her images of the rev­o­lu­tion, ex­iled Ira­nian au­thor Kamin Mo­ham­madi and Pales­tinian lawyer Raja She­hadeh, en­sured that a per­sonal yet po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tive was wo­ven around the dis­course of the rev­o­lu­tion in the coun­tries they rep­re­sented. Dis­cus­sions re­volved around the var­i­ous lev­els of re­pres­sion that peo­ple in Arab states face to­day. Democ­racy is a process and not an overnight event. Pa­tience from Western so­ci­eties was the need of the hour rather than un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions of sweep­ing changes.

Ed­i­tor of the New Yorker, David Rem­nick, of­fered a won­der­ful cri­tique

of Pres­i­dent Obama and Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, mak­ing for an un­for­get­table ses­sion. The var­i­ous sub-texts of the Obama nar­ra­tive, richly pre­sented in Rem­nick’s bi­og­ra­phy of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, made for a riv­et­ing ses­sion. The race fac­tor and its in­ter­play in the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of 2008, which Rem­nick reck­oned “Obama mar­shalled to his ben­e­fit,” trans­formed Obama into the first real “post-racial” politi­cian to be­come US Pres­i­dent. On this, Rem­nick re­marked, “A good ques­tion to ask is what would have been Obama’s po­lit­i­cal stand­ing if you were to strip race out of his life equa­tions. Oth­er­wise there was not a scin­tilla of dif­fer­ence be­tween him and the other Demo­crat can­di­date, Hil­lary Clin­ton.”

Rem­nick also high­lighted Obama’s long-stand­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for bi­par­ti­san­ship, an at­tribute he says, Obama de­vel­oped dur­ing his days as the Pres­i­dent of the Har­vard Law Re­view. Rem­nick said, “Obama’s cen­tral con­ceit --- that there are no red states sounds charm­ing but it’s not true. This is his weak­ness --- where he was con­vinced that he could be post-par­ti­san, not pos­tra­cial. This is the heart of his self-re­gard.” Through­out this ses­sion there was enough in­di­ca­tion to sug­gest that Obama’s rel­e­vance and im­pact as a politi­cian was here to stay de­spite con­tin­ued at­tempts by the Repub­li­cans to throw him out through vi­cious hate cam­paigns that co­in­cided with the emer­gence of Tea Party pol­i­tics in the Amer­i­can right. The dis­ap­point­ment with Obama was more about his ap­proach to­wards re­forms - lack of jobs, eco­nomic de­pres­sion and the two wars that the US has been fight­ing for more than a decade. Rem­nick did how­ever have some praises for the Pres­i­dent, “The se­ri­ous­ness, the thought­ful­ness, the in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty says he is re­spon­sive to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. This is as good as it gets when it comes to Amer­i­can Pres­i­dents. Dis­ap­pointed? Not if I’m be­ing adult about it.”

A ses­sion ded­i­cated solely to Pak­istan made for some en­gross­ing con­ver­sa­tion, with the likes of his­to­rian Aye­sha Jalal, Fa­tima Bhutto and au­thor Mo­ham­mad Hanif play­ing their rich part. Un­der the cloud of an im­pend­ing bat­tle be­tween the ju­di­ciary and the ex­ec­u­tive, Bhutto and Jalal were in con­ver­sa­tion with In­dian TV host Karan Tha­par. The emer­gence of Im­ran Khan as a main­stream politi­cian, the sup­posed flag-bearer of “change” and specif­i­cally, the in­ter-in­sti­tu­tional con­flict dom­i­nated the ses­sion. Was he fast be­com­ing a gen­uine al­ter­na­tive to the ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics in Pak­istan? Both Jalal and Bhutto didn’t seem to think so. Ms. Jalal stated, “I don’t see a ma­jor change. What we see is par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and politi­cians see­ing Im­ran as the horse to bet on, and this will hurt Im­ran, it will tie his hands.” Ms. Bhutto felt that Im­ran Khan wasn’t any dif­fer­ent from the other anti-es­tab­lish­ment, pro-army, pro-is­lamist char­ac­ters who dom­i­nated the Pak­istani po­lit­i­cal land­scape any­way. The Pak­istan Army, ac­cord­ing to Ms. Jalal, was the only in­sti­tu­tion that func­tioned in Pak­istan and would be the final ar­biter for years to come”, un­like In­dia where she be­lieved that struc­tures and in­sti­tu­tions worked well enough. Ac­cord­ing to Ms. Jalal, the very fact that the Army did not move in for a coup this time around, was enough in­di­ca­tion that they too want democ­racy to flour­ish and be given a chance to fail be­fore any dras­tic steps are taken.

Sev­eral other ses­sions made their mark too - with one of the most an­tic­i­pated au­thors of the fes­ti­val, New Yorker writer and au­thor of Be­hind the Beau­ti­ful Fore­vers, Kather­ine Boo, shar­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences of a fouryear-stay in a Mum­bai slum, called An­nawadi. Ses­sions care­fully dis­sect­ing the evolv­ing sit­u­a­tion in Myan­mar, with the likes of Thant Myint-u and Peter Popham (au­thor of an Aung Suu Kyi bi­og­ra­phy) fea­tured a dis­cus­sion on the pos­si­ble im­pact on In­dian for­eign pol­icy, given a heavy Chi­nese in­volve­ment in Myan­mar.

Fa­tima Bhutto

Barkha Dutt in con­ver­sa­tion

with Oprah Win­frey

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