Letter from Jaipur


Arts & Culture


Last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival was exciting and boring at the same time—a death threat is exciting, but thirty death threats are boring; as Dostoevsky wrote, “Man is a creature who can get used to anything.” Salman Rushdie was scheduled to attend: Islamic groups agitated to deny him a visa, which he does not need in order to enter India, but never mind. It was suggested that instead Rushdie might address the festival via video conference: the government itself advised against this. Hari Kunzru, Jeet Thayil, Amitava Kumar, and Ruchir Joshi read aloud in protest from The Satanic Verses, still banned in India, but, after the gravity of their collective transgression had been brought home to them, they left the festival.

We know what comedy is: life is increased. Think of Rodney Dangerfield addressing the crowd at the end of Caddyshack: “Hey, everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!” And we know what tragedy is: isolation increases. I used to think that life was about winning everything, Mike Tyson once said, but now I know that life is about losing everything.

But what is India, with its boundless affirmation of life in general that befouls so many lives in the particular, with its joyous proliferation unto overcrowding, need, and misery? I did my small part, during my brief month there, to maintain those inequalities: Give me your shoes, I know you have other pair, you not need these, give them me, said a man as he tried to pull my sneakers off while a second man tried to pin my arms; and what he said was true, somewhere on the other side of the world I did have another pair of shoes, four shoes and only two feet; all the same, unhand me, my little friend, before I pick you up and throw you like a javelin.

I attended the 2013 JLF. It began in the same way. Ugly cartoons of Rushdie appeared in the papers: “If I say I’ll go to it, the Jaipur Lit Fest is all about me. / If I say I shan’t go to it, the Jaipur Lit Fest is all about me. / If I didn’t exist, the Jaipur Lit Fest would have had to invent me.” Pakistani diplomats were barred from visiting Jaipur, presumably as symbolic retaliation for a Line of Control incident, including beheading and mutilation of Indian soldiers, that had taken place earlier in January; Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif, scheduled to appear with Jamil Ahmad on January 24, was a no-show. Jaipur Police Commissioner B. L. Soni said the festival could go forward only on the condition that organizers promised no one’s feelings would be hurt; Timothy Garton Ash later said, “If no one’s feelings are going to be hurt, then we might as well all go home.” Muslim hard-liners forbade the participation of Kunzru, Thayil, Kumar, and Joshi, those who had read from The Satanic Verses the previous year; Thayil bravely attended, trailed by a personal security officer, and won the DSC South Asian Prize for his novel Narcopolis.

Let me tell you something about those “boring” threats of violence: they are much more exciting, in fact almost intolerably exciting, when you are not reading about them, safe at home, but instead are half a world away, being frisked and having your various metals detected. They are exciting enough to make you have to pee.

I can imagine one day moving to Jaipur; but I will not soon attend another literature festival in that city, or in any other. To be a writer off the page—to hold forth, to be a bore!

Tarun Tejpal said, “Be quiet, stop interrupting me, everyone is only here to hear what I am saying.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak began talking and I immediately fell asleep, as if by sudden enchantment; I woke and she was still talking, and I fell asleep again; I woke a second time, and Sir Christopher Ricks, onstage with her, was also asleep, with his head in his hands, and Spivak was still talking, by now laughing with delight about how boring she knows she is, which of course not only does not mitigate such an offense but compounds it.

“Isn’t she wonderful?” Probir Roy asked me, with fierce Bengali pride. No doubt a failure to appreciate Spivak’s vacuous profundity is evidence of my lack of sophistication. To my way of thinking, a university is like jail—sooner or later, you’re going to have to go, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but remember: your goal is to get out and never return.

Spivak had the peculiar good fortune of benefiting from the contrast with her still more egregious moderator Chandrahas Choudhury, who had opened their panel by asking Ricks if a good critic needs to be a good reader, or a good writer, or both, or neither. Your thoughts?

Wade Davis is a good writer, even if he himself would be the first to inform you of that fact. An unmatched monster of egotism, Davis, while ostensibly moderating an hour-long session on “The Art of Biography,” gave an interminable introductory speech about his own most recent book, hilariously titled Into the Silence. A woman seated behind me shouted, “Someone stop him! This is scandalous!” Scattered applause. Davis kept talking.

There were exceptions (the charming and patient Pico Iyer, the already-mentioned Ricks, the expert if suspiciously over-rehearsed Reza Aslan, the droll Tahar Ben Jelloun), but for the most part the festival was yet another in a series of reminders that people who are socially competent tend not to choose a career in which one sits for hours at a desk in solitude.

And then there was the Ashis Nandy scandal. I don’t think my opinion of a foreign country’s free-speech laws can be very interesting: India’s citizens face challenges I don’t begin to understand, and for all I know they have developed optimal policies for managing said problems. I do not presume to render a judgment, but I can offer evidence, for I was present in the audience at Nandy’s “Republic of Ideas” panel.

What Nandy said was essentially this: Corruption is the great hope for a more equal India. It is well known that our lower classes are the most corrupt—corruption among the upper classes, it should go without saying, is of a wholly other order of magnitude, and is destroying our country—but corruption among the lower classes is most widespread, because we, the elite, have crafted legislation such that the lower classes may not enjoy our rights and privileges. If they want to enjoy them, as well they should, then they must break the laws we have used to shut them out: they must become corrupt. Good for them. Only in this way will equality increase in India. This kind of corruption is the way to a better, more just future.

 This is what the Times of India printed:

A day after author Ashis Nandy said people from OBC, SC and ST [other backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes] communities were the “most corrupt”, its fallout was resonant at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday … Police had on Saturday registered a case against Nandy and festival producer Sanjoy Roy under SC/ST act [prevention of atrocities] and also under Section 506 [criminal intimidation] of the IPC [Indian penal code] … protesters continued pouring in at Diggi Palace seeking immediate arrest of Nandy and Roy… “We shall continue with the protest until Nandy is arrested,” said Roopchand Rehdia, district president, Jaipur unit of the BSP.

From another newspaper:

Sociologist and political commentator Ashis Nandy ignited the festival with what he said…Nandy tried to douse the flames with a clarification. But his comments, played in a spool on TV channels, spread like wildfire to far away Uttar Pradesh as well, where chief minister Mayawati exhorted organizers to throw Nandi out of Jaipur.

But that is not at all what Nandy said, except in the strict sense that the words “most” and “corrupt” are two of the many words he said: “It will be an undignified and vulgar statement but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the SCs and now increasingly the STs. As long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” One thinks of Wesley Addy lecturing Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly: “Listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I’m going to pronounce a few words. They’re harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean.”

Nandy soon apologized, and you might think that would have been the end of it. But no: yet again his apology had contained the magic words, which yet again scandalmongers could reprint shorn of context, and so off with his head.

“The case is open and shut one. Nandy was heard and seen by millions talking about SC, ST and OBC communities in bad light. Government should have arrested him before doing any investigation. I fail to understand what actually government intends to find out,” chairman of the SC/ST Commission, P L Punia, told TOI [Times of India] on Monday.

It seemed everyone had an opinion—an irresponsible, hysterical, uninformed “opinion”:

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said no one has the right to make accusation against a particular caste. He said the statement showed mental bankruptcy and only a person who has lost mental balance can say such things. “We will see what he has said and in what context. If he has said anything which is against the law, action will be taken against him,” Gehlot said.

 State BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] President Arun Chatruvedi [sic] also condemned the comment. “The statement is objectionable. Someone comes in a literary programme and then makes false allegations against a community cannot be accepted,” Chaturvedi said.

As the days passed and lies ceased to sell copies of newspapers, the editors began to experiment with partial truth: it had a certain attractive novelty value; perhaps someone, somewhere, might pay to read it. “That Nandy was actually making a point about upper caste corruption and the inequality that crushes the dispossessed was entirely lost on the outragers,” wrote the Hindustan Times—using valuable column inches that could instead have been devoted to reprinting Nandy’s complete remarks for all to see.

“Rich people,” Shyam told me as he drove to the next hotel, my thirteenth and final hotel of the month. “They are saying illegal to get into paper and on TV. He is knowing all the time is illegal. He is saying to get into paper. Publicity. And now being in paper every day. You are seeing paper?”

“You don’t think Nandy will go to jail.”

“No. No. Not go to jail.”

“You think he did it on purpose.”

“Every year. Every week! All the time!”

I did not attend the famous parties of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Instead I took an autorickshaw into town, looking for trouble. I made some friends, one thing led to another, and two days after the festival was over I was drinking lime soda at a wedding reception in Delhi next door to prime minister Manmohan Singh’s residence. The trip ended with a wedding: it turned out India was a comedy after all.

“Tell me,” said the editor-in-chief of Indo-European Affairs, “what do you think of Indian journalism?”

“Perhaps we might discuss some other topic,” I said.

“Give me your honest opinion.”

“Since you have pressed me on the subject,” I said, “for the most part it seems to me to be an easy way to make a living. A man just makes up anything he wants and they print it. The United States operates more or less along the same lines.”


“These papers are full of lies. It’s a disgrace.”

“Watch your words.”

“Next time don’t ask me what I think.”

“Give an example.”

“This Ashis Nandy scandal. I was there. He did not say it.”

“He did say it.”

“No,” I said.

“I tell you he said it.”

“I’m not an expert,” I said. “Far from it. I’m just a fool with a pencil. But I was there. Were you there?”

“I saw Nandy today,” he said. “Getting into a taxi.”

“Is he all right?”

“I told him I was with him,” he said, not answering my question. “I will not go to jail with him, of course. But I am with him in spirit.”

“Do you think he will go to jail?”

He shrugged. “The Jaipur Literature Festival,” he said, and he snorted. “Run by a Frenchman!”

“What Frenchman is that?”

“This William Dalrymple person.”

“Scottish,” I said.

“Not French?”

“Trinity College, Cambridge,” I said, “if I am not mistaken.”

“French!” he said.

“No,” I said, and he frowned. I had the sense he had not heard the word no often.

“Do you ever write about anything serious,” he said, “or only about literature?”


J. D. Daniels lives in Massachusetts.