Salman Rushdie was not present at the Jaipur Lit Fest. Even so, he managed to steal the show - notwithstanding the presence of 250 other authors.
What started as a five-day suspense over Rushdie's appearance at the fest, rapidly snowballed into a debate that swept the country.
From political sphere to drawing rooms, the issue spread like wildfire, and dominated the final evening of the fest in the front lawns of Diggi Palace -ironically for the protesters who thought even "seeing" Rushdie's face on screen would be a trial.Rushdie's video uplink was scheduled at 3.45 pm on Tuesday, but tension brewed since morning after Muslim groups threatened violence. Representatives of the Rajasthan Muslim Forum said if the programme was aired, "there would be consequences".
Finally a little after 4 pm, organisers Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale, William Dalrymple, Sheuli Sethi and Diggi Palace owner Ram Pratap Singh came on stage. Singh read out a brief statement, saying a large number of people are averse to the programme. "They threatened violence and it is necessary to avoid harm to my family, the property and to all of you."
"At the end of a fairly idiotic situation, we have to step down in a fight for freedom of expression," Roy later said, explaining the situation to the crowd that had gathered to hear Rushdie.
The issue was not just Rushdie's presence in person; for the protesters, even "seeing his face on screen was intolerable," Roy added.
So what had changed since 2007 when Rushdie had been a part of the festival?
"At that time he came and went silently," said Nazimuddin, a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami. "Why are the organisers bent on his presence, one way or another, when we have made it clear that it hurts our sentiment?"
The answer that reverberated from every sphere was "freedom of speech". Sangita Dutta, who teaches cinema at the University of London, said, "We just feed into the hands of fundamentalists. In a closed space, it was easy to create fear."