It’s hard to upstage Oprah Winfrey, but Salman Rushdie did it at the Jaipur Literature Festival,without even appearing.
Rushdie was due to speak at Asia’s largest literary festival, but threats of violence (real or invented) caused him not to come. At the last minute, a planned video speech was also canceled, due to alleged concerns over riots if Rushdie said things Muslims found offensive. Sales of Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” is banned in India.
Rushdie’s presence, or rather his absence, hung over the giant literary festival. Four authors who appeared there even read from “The Satanic Verses,” and later fled India.
Some managed to enjoy the festival despite Rushdie’s absence, praising the line-ups on specific days, like day four. Oprah was among them – she called her trip to India and Jaipur “my life’s greatest experience,” and talked about education, compassion and why she’s not married.
Pandering politicians were blamed for the Rushdie flap. India’s massive Uttar Pradesh state has elections upcoming. And the ruling Congress Party was seen as not wanting to anger its large Muslim minority. One site accused the Rajasthan region’s top politician of “turning chicken.” The Congress Party says it had nothing to do with Rushdie’s absence. But the son of the man who filed the suit that got “The Satanic Verses” banned commented that “Everybody knows these (muslim) votes have swung an election result in UP (Uttar Pradesh) one way or the other—at least in the last 20 years.”
Whatever the reason, many in India and around the world were outraged. One of the conference organizers was so “disgusted and ashamed” that he left the stage in tears, and The Times of India asked “How can we even call ourselves a democracy if a few fanatics are allowed to hold a nation to ransom?”
Others wondered about all the fuss. The head of the Indian Press Council called Rushdie a “substandard” writer who would be unknown if not for the controversy surrounding “The Satanic Verses.” Another site noted that Rushdie had attended the Festival in 2007 without incident, and speculated that this year’s controversy must have been good for him. Even a number of Indian Muslims felt he should have come. Some fear that the flap will hurt attendance at Jaipur next year, depressing what is a major tourist event for ‘the pink city.’
Perhaps the whole thing will provide grist for Rushdie, whose novels include “Shame” and “Fury.” The story of the video speech that was and then wasn’t sure makes for a good read. Check it out below and tell us what you think.