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.
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.
Barkha Dutt in conversation
with Oprah Winfrey