Rushdie & god: Jaipur Lit Fest ends on sombre note

New Delhi, Jan 24 (IANS) God came to the rescue of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival Tuesday evening. The spirits were marginally lifting during a lively debate about man and god at the close of the festival after a day of high drama that saw the cancellation of a video address by Salman Rushdie, the writer of ‘The Satanic Verses’.

It was almost a re-run of era of the ‘fatwa’ against Rushdie by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini a year after publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1989.

‘Trishul nahin, talwar nahin, kaam ke adhikar chahiye (We don’t need tridents or swords, we need work), for the poor man, god is ‘roti’ (bread),’ the symbolic rallying cry by social worker Aruna Roy of National Advisory Council at a curtain-call debate, ‘The House Believes That Man Has Replaced God’, echoed the mood.

‘There is nothing called god, we make him according to our own convenience,’ argued adman and commentator Suhel Seth.

The audience broke into applause momentarily beating the blues that had set in after the scrapping of Rushdie’s video address Tuesday afternoon following protests by Islamic groups.

‘There are better things to think of than banning Rushdie from Jaipur,’ 70-year-old S.K. Rathode, a former government official, said. He was at the venue to hear Rushdie speak about his book ‘Midnight’s Children’ on video.

Rushdie continued to haunt the hundreds of youngsters, mostly high school and university students, who had flocked to the venue at noon to hear Rushdie for the first time.

It was around the same time a group of protesters stormed into the venue and threatened to disrupt proceedings ‘if Rushdie’s face was seen anywhere on the screen in public’.

The administration was in a tizzy trying to reason with the protesters with the help of the police commissioner of Rajasthan. But the protesters refused to listen to logic. At 3.45 p.m., the organisers and the owner of the Diggi Palace Ram Pratap Singh appeared on stage on the front lawns of the festival and announced that the conference had been called off.

A collective moan of grief went up from the audience. But they refused to disperse and stayed back to hear the concluding debate in a show of solidarity.

The Muslim clerics and leaders of minority organisations who were at the venue left only after the debate began after they were reassured that the organisers would not pull off a last-minute coup.

The venue hosted a queer mix of policemen, a dozen odd Islamic clerics, who prayed in the afternoon in a courtyard inside the palace, at least 10,000 people between 18-35, nearly 1,000 journalists, more than 200 authors and 500 guests and workers.

‘It was very sad. This is not the way democracy functions,’ Ashraf Malik, a young Jaipur-based businessman, told IANS at the end of the festival.

‘The debate about man and god was exciting but the absence of Salman Rushdie robbed the festival of its shine,’ Kavita Singh, daughter of a small-time erstwhile royal family, said.

A student of a private residential school in Madhya Pradesh, Singh was at the festival for five days to prepare a project report.

‘We are all angry about a book that only a few have read. That is intellectual delinquency,’ said journalist and anchor Shoma Chaudhury said.

But knowledge about the content of ‘The Satanic Verses’ took a backseat in the hype that had built itself around Rushdie and sharp reactions he had elicited from Islamic groups.

‘It is not a victory for them, but it is a setback for us,’ Sanjoy Roy, producer of the festival, said. For Roy, it had become a personal crusade for the last three weeks.

By 8.30 p.m., the venue wore a deserted look as construction workers pulled down the marquee and hauled the chairs away.

The festival which began Jan 20-24 hosted 265 writers in 96 back-to-back literary sessions across four days. It featured some of the top writers and intellectuals from across the world. Early estimates by the organsiers said the festival drew nearly 75,000 people over four days.

Salman Rushdie, who had attended the festival in 2007, was supposed to be in Jaipur for the inauguration Jan 20. But he dropped his plans fearing threat to his life. His name was subsequently dropped from three sessions he was to take part in at the festival.