Every year, the Jaipur Literature Festival seems to get bigger, better, brighter. You’ve covered the event for half a decade now and though you cannot claim to have been part of the scene when only 13 (or whatever fantastically low number is quoted by the organisers every year) people turned up to listen to authors in its first year, you too have seen the JLF change, become better organised, and, especially, acquire a greater sensitivity to which discussions could produce the unexpected comments on caste or religion that immediately incense the thin skinned folk of this wonderful nation.
Acquiring this sensitivity is a skill that the organisers at JLF seem to be perfecting with practice over the years. That’s great. No one wants to kill a cash cow with a milk extractor that crushes its teats. As a sadly sensation seeking journalist, though, you couldn’t help yearning for the presence of those writers who read out from The Satanic Verses, for those crazy protestors who handed out pamphlets against Salman Rushdie, for the activists who screamed their lungs out against Ashis Nandy’s complex comments about caste. The sad part about studiously avoiding controversy is that too much caution can make an event teeter on the abyss of boredom.
Then, just as you began to think that nothing at JLF 2016 would make your hair stand on end, the event was saved from being anodyne by the closing debate entitled Is Freedom of Speech Absolute and Unconditional. Featuring Kapil Mishra of AAP, writer Salil Tripathi, JDU MP Pavan Varma, writer-activist P Sivakami, the unlabelable Suhel Seth, journalist Madhu Trehan, and the-freshly-anointed-with-a-Padma Bushan Anupam Kher, the cracker of a debate had most of the crowd, which punctuated the proceedings with frequent chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ and endorsed Kher’s every Ayn Randesque comment, voting volubly against absolute and unconditional freedom of speech. If the crowd at this literary festival is representative of the way India thinks, we are in for some tight-lipped times.
So hide your cuts of beef, folks, get comfortable with the beeped out bits on television, don’t say a dangerous word on social media, and quickly, very quickly convert to Rastafarianism, or Zen Buddhism, or Animism, anything that sets you apart from the mob; because the mob has made its views known even at the premier literature festival in the world.
This way madness lies.
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