By Madhusree Chatterjee
Jaipur, (IANS) Outrage and resentment were the dominant emotions on the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival here Friday as writers, intellectuals and fans cried foul over Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie calling off his visit in view of threat to his life following protests by Islamic groups opposed to his visit.
Pakistan-based writer Mohammed Hanif, the author of “The Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “The Lady of Alice Bhatti”, said the “controversy over the ‘The Satanic Verses’ has been blown out of proportion and it should not have happened”. Addressing the media, writer William Dalrymple said “the whole episode was the result of Chinese whispers.”
“At least 262 authors are here to enjoy. Salman is a writer of enormous depth. It is a great tragedy that he is not here,” Dalrymple said as writer Namita Gokhale said she was “personally very disappointed that Salman Rushdie was not coming”.
“I hope and believe that we will have him here another year,” Gokhale said.
Eminent poet and lyricist Gulzar, who was at the festival, said, “It is wrong to muzzle free speech”. “Whoever is responsible for this politics will pay. I regret that Rushdie could not come to the festival,” the lyricist said.
Novelist and playwright Kiran Nagarkar, who has also faced political gag for his play “The Bedtime Story”, lamented “the constraints on the freedom of speech in a democracy”. “I know the feeling,” the writer said.
Rushdie had kept the media and the organisers of the festival busy throughout the day.
Around noon, the writer in a statement called off his visit to the country citing threat to life. He said the intelligence agencies had warned him that “paid killers from the Mumbai underworld were on their way to kill him”.
A controversy erupted in one of the literary sessions, “Of Gods and Men”, when Kashmiri novelist Hari Kunzru and Amitav Kumar were caught reading passages from “The Satatnic Verses”, a controversial book by Rushdie which has been banned since 1989.
They were reading excerpts from Rushdie’s book to debate about man and spirituality. The organisers intervened and stopped them from reading the excerpts.
“It was wrong to stop them from reading the book. We understand that he was not allowed to come, but why can’t someone read from his book,” Fareeda Ali Khan, a Jaipur-based NGO activist, who had attended the session, hit out.
In a statement issued late in the night, the organisers of the festival said it had come to their attention that certain delegates “acted in a manner during their sessions today which were without the prior knowledge or consent of the organizers”.
“Any views expressed or actions taken by these delegates are in no manner endorsed by the Jaipur Literature Festival. Any comments made by the delegates reflect their personal, individual views and are not endorsed by the Festival or attributable to its organisers or anyone acting on their behalf. The Festival organizers are fully committed to ensuring compliance of all prevailing laws and will continue to offer their fullest cooperation to prevent any legal violation of any kind,” the organisers said.