Although he was not there in person, Salman Rushdie remained all pervasive in everyone's minds on the first day of the Jaipur Literary Festival.
The drama reached its peak during a session between Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar. All was going smooth till the two authors revealed their plan to protest against the government's response to the controversy by reading out from The Satanic Verses - Rushdie's controversial book.
In a supposedly liberated environment and in place which prides itself for its 'freedom for speech' it came as a surprise that the organisers themselves stopped it.
Though this was an expected turn of events, it only heightened the drama with people condemning the government's act.
This wasn't the first controversy of the day. Even as one entered the now familiar Diggi Palace, the enormous security elicited only one response, "Oh must for Salman Ruhsdie."
Police officials on duty stayed mum, while the festival regulars - the cosmopolitan aunties, the students, the foreign delegates and the press engaged in 'intellectual' scrutiny of the 'controversy', and authors secretly sulked at the Rushdie controversy for taking away their thunder or actively supported him.
Rushdie, though miles away immediately took to Twitter, ""@vikasbajaj: .@amitavakumar says organizers asked him not to continue reading from Satanic Verses." Willie, Sanjoy: why did this happen?"
"The whole issue has been blown out of proportion. If you don't like a certain book, don't read it, don't keep it in your house, why to get so agitated about it," Pakistani author Muhammad Hanif said.
While the organisers kept up the act during the opening as well as first half of the day, it was evident that they had to clear the suspense soon. After much anxiety, the organisers called a press conference and broke the "sad news" that Rushdie will not be able to attend the festival.
"For the last several days I have made no public comment about my proposed trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival at the request of the local authorities in Rajasthan, hoping that they would put in place such precautions as might be necessary to allow me to come and address the festival audience in circumstances that were comfortable and safe for all," Rushdie said in a statement issued by the festival organisers.
"I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to "eliminate" me. While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances; irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers. I will therefore not travel to Jaipur as planned."
Even at the end of the day, people were still discussing whether Rushdie would make an appearance through a video link.
Opposition from some Muslim groups erupted this month after Rushdie was invited to attend Asia's largest literature festival, and senior Muslim leaders called on the government to prevent the 65-year-old author from entering the country.
The British-Indian author, whose 1988 novel the Satantic Verses is banned in India, was due to speak on the first day of the five-day Jaipur Literature Festival but organisers removed his name from the schedule last week.
The publication of Rushdie's Satanic Verses over 20 years ago sparked a wave of protests and death threats around the world after Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini claimed that the novel's portrayal of the prophet Mohammad insulted Islam.
The vice-chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband seminary said last week that Rushdie should be banned from the country, accusing the author of the Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children of offending Muslim sentiments.
(With Reuters input)