Will he or won’t he? Rumours about Salman Rushdie’s presence at this year’s Jaipur literature festival (JLF) are flying thick and fast following initial reports of a “scheduling” problem after the vice-chancellor of Uttar Pradesh’s Darul Uloom Deoband seminary re-re-re-raked up the old controversy over The Satanic Verses. It is quite possible that Rushdie, the magician that he is, suddenly pops up like a rabbit from his own hat to confound his critics and admirers.
Namita Gokhale, a co-director of the JLF told The Hindu: “We believe that the literary space should be kept free and the Festival maintains its invitation to Salman Rushdie. Beyond that I cannot comment at the moment.” Rarely free of hype and intense media interest, the Jaipur Literature Festival, Asia’s largest, opens on Friday with a stellar mix of writers, poets, playwrights, intellectuals, hacks and literary celebs both high and low brow including names like Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Richard Dawkins, Michael Ondaatje, Oprah Winfrey, Chetan Bhagat, Annie Proulx, and Deepak Chopra.
“The essence of the festival I would say is its diversity. The Edinburgh festival for instant focuses on one specific theme or subject. That’s not our approach. We have four or five themes and our strength lies in their diversity, in the fact that we are wide open, comprehensive with different kinds of literatures, both fiction and non fiction. We’re talking about the history of the tulip! We have some very literary figures and some very popular writers. That’s the sort of exciting mix we want to give those who come. Namita Gokhale does all the programming around Indian languages while I bring in the international authors but we work very closely together,” William Dalrymple, the JLF’s other co-director told The Hindu over the telephone.
Journalists and journalism, the state of India’s democracy, the Arab Spring and writing in the new Latin America are also on the agenda, with some of the sessions being moderated by popular television anchors such as Nidhi Razdan or Barkha Dutt. “The accent on journalism, the economy and the India’s democracy has been dictated by the fantastic non-fiction coming out of India – Basharat Peer, Sonia Faleiro, Aman Sethi to mention just a few,” explained Mr. Dalrymple who admitted the JLF was trying to make up for past omissions by having several sessions on poetry. “That is one aspect we have tended to ignore,” he added.
Latin America however, gets a bit of a rough ride with the notable absence of names such as Daniel Alarcon, the Peruvian-American novelist whose books Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight have received rave reviews and sold extremely well. Alarcon also edits Etiquetta Negra, one of Latin America’s best literary magazines.
Hoshang Merchant and R.Raj Rao will be discussing homosexuality, gay and lesbian writing and gender issues. “There too we have not been up to scratch in the past. We have a very liberal audience mix and we are certainly not setting out to be provocative,” Mr. Dalrymple said.
For Namita Gokhale, the festival this year “is a bit of a departure because we have tried to put systems into place.” These, such as obligatory registration for all visitors may lead to a hiccup or two, she admits, but it’s an effort to streamline an event that gets bigger each year both in terms of the number of visitors and the participating authors with the accompanying media circus.
“This year we have tried to integrate different Indian languages and my dream is to have simultaneous translation available in the years to come in order to reach a much wider audience. There is also an accent on Rajasthan and an attempt to make connections – Daya Krishna, a philosopher from Jaipur has been studied in the United States and in Israel and it is these students who have made the session on him possible. The Hindi poetry session came about because of a software engineer called Lalit Kumar who has a passion for poetry. He runs a website called Kavita Kosh and the number of hits and submissions he gets is phenomenal. So the attempt is to focus more on programming, on the substance,” said Ms. Gokhale.