Five days at the Jaipur Literature festival can leave you feeling like you've snorted unmentionable substances and woken up the morning after in a bathtub with the ghost of GB Shaw declaiming selections from his most ponderous plays in your ears. Much has been written about the mood at JLF - how
plebs can trail after celebrated authors, how aspiring writers can thrust their manuscripts at literary agents in the loo, how it's the Kumbh of the literary world where Binayak Sen in his austere kurta suit could clink glasses with Shobhaa De in a psychedelic kimono.
Lately, it's also been the venue that provides crackpots a shot at instant fame. Even before the festival began, the Hindu right-wing muttered about not allowing in Pakistani writers; the Muslim right-wing squawked about leaving out those who had read out selections from Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses last year. Popular Pakistani writer Mohamed Hanif didn't show up - though that could have been because he's bored of making audiences laugh year after year. Other Pakistani writers MA Farooqi and Jamil Ahmad participated unhindered while Jeet Thayil, who had read out from Rushdie last year wandered about accompanied by a burly policeman. "I feel sorry for him; he's been listening to a lot of talk on literature lately," said Thayil, who won the $50,000 DSC prize for his novel Narcopolis.
For a while, it looked like the lunatic fringe had decided to spare the JLF, that everyone could happily continue to troop from session to session, enriching their minds and irritating venerable figures with inane queries during question time. Zoe Heller's paper clip tattoo and Pico Iyer's spectral connections with Graham Greene were the subject of conversations at dull after-parties where everyone clutched dry-day virgin mojitos. Who knew the fest would have to contend with a religious holiday and a secular one back-to-back? Things would have continued in that bland fashion if Ashis Nandy hadn't decided to jolly things up a bit with his comments on OBCs.
We Indians don't do nuance very well, something Nandy should have learnt by now but perhaps hasn't, sheltered as he has been by the halls of academe, and everyone from Twitter's raging mob to Mayawati bayed for his blood. That Nandy was actually making a point about upper caste corruption and the inequality that crushes the dispossessed was entirely lost on the outragers.
On the sidelines, philosopher Michael Sandel got an audience to wonder if rape was a crime that merited a harsher punishment than other forms of physical assault. The argumentative Indian man who usually dominated sessions with his monologues maintained a guilty silence as woman after woman bashed patriarchal attitudes, egged on by the knowledge that her dulcet tones would ring out on BBC radio a few weeks from now.
Then, just when you thought the festival was done with controversy, Jeet Thayil read out a portion of his novel, a section that uses colourful language to describe every type of Indian. On cue, every type of Indian was outraged and accosted the author demanding apologies, excisions. You're waiting for the television channels to get into the act, for the online petition to have the book banned. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
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