Rushdie at the Jaipur Heritage Festival: Machine guns not required

The recent Jaipur Literary Festival was a runaway success, largely due to the presence of the Man Booker winner Kiran Desai and the superstar Salman Rushdie. Just don't call him a security risk, warns Suzi Feay
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The Independent Culture

Imight as well not have been in India at all. Taking a break from the hurly-burly of the Jaipur Heritage Festival, I turned on the TV in my hotel room to discover that the Jade Goody/Shilpa Shetty stand-off was headline news. There was no escaping Big Brother as clips were broadcast to an appalled nation. Newspapers took up the story, with seemingly every columnist on the subcontinent lining up to hurl brickbats at Goody and Danielle Lloyd. The commentators didn't at first seem to grasp that Goody is not exactly the flower of British womanhood. But by 21 January, Vir Sanghvi in the Sunday Hindustan Times was describing her as "a talentless scrubber". "This is the new India," he warned. "We don't take this kind of crap any longer."

Happily, racist scrubbers and on-the-slide Bollywood actresses (as Shetty is seen at home) were being jostled for space by something far more edifying. The writers attending the festival in Jaipur were getting headlines of their own. Salman Rushdie shared the top of the front page with Shetty and Goody; Kiran Desai wasn't far behind.

"Booker-mania grips Jaipur", said The Times of India. The bright yellow painted hall at Diggi Palace, the eccentric, captivating and slightly down-at-heel hub of the proceedings, was full to bursting for Desai's talk. There was intense interest in this poised but wary young woman who has, for the moment at least, traded the traditional role of marriage and motherhood for literary acclaim.

"Two years ago, there were 10 people in this room," marvelled the Delhi-based historian William Dalrymple, looking round the ranks of expectant faces in the audience. The next day, Rushdie's event was so oversubcribed that the overflow had to be accommodated in the garden.

It was Dalrymple who originally had the idea to graft authors on to the already flourishing festival of Rajasthani arts and culture, and this year he contributed to a spell-binding evening of poetry, song and music at the Amber Fort, reawakening the courtly spirit of the Moghuls. He remained a jovial presence throughout the three intense days of the literary festival, as did, slightly more unexpectedly, the artist Andrew Logan, conspicuous in brightly coloured clothing and smashed-mirror jewellery.

Literary events, whether in Hay or Hyderabad, seem to have certain features in common. There is almost always a microphone malfunction - Desai's took about five minutes to activate, which visibly tested her composure. Even when the mic is working, there will always be someone at the back testily shouting "Can't hear! Can't hear!" And when it comes to audience participation, I was amused to see that Indians are just as prone as Brits to try and disguise long, rambling, unanswerable statements as questions.

The paparazzi had to be swept from the room before the discussion, chaired by sharp-talking Barkha Dutt, who seemed to be India's answer to Kirsty Wark. Desai confirmed the fetching impression she made last October at the Guildhall when she scooped the Man Booker prize. Modest, charming and totally unhaughty, she frequently burst into giggles. "I don't understand how writers can write short books!" she gasped, talking about the seven torturous years it took her to write The Inheritance of Loss.

On the controversy the book caused in Kalimpong, where it is set and where she grew up, Desai pointed out with light irony, "there was criticism there - but only after the Booker." Of the award itself, she said: "You just can't be pompous about these prizes - it's a lottery." She frankly recalled the criticism of her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard: she was accused of "selling a fake India to the West". "Present-day India isn't really my subject," she confessed. Asked whether she would be taking up American citizenship, she replied tactfully, "I don't know the meaning of home - the book was home to me when I was writing it. I'm happy at my desk. The hours fly by. That's my life."

I wasn't the greatest fan of The Inheritance of Loss, but I was completely won over by the delightful Desai. I couldn't really say the same about the festival's star turn, Salman Rushdie. I hadn't realised he was such a superstar in India. Throngs of fans surrounded him. "Salman will be signing books only, not pieces of paper," announced Barkha Dutt, the chair, at the beginning of his talk.

Rushdie was as contentious, mischievous and combative as you could wish, cheerfully firing off salvos against the Koran (very poorly edited, apparently), wearers of the headscarf and believers in general. One-liners and provocations tumbled from his lips. (On the work of Samuel Beckett: "It's slapstick: tramps and shit and bicycles - very Indian humour!" When asked what were the happiest words in any language: "The End." On Jade Goody (she was inescapable): "a foul-mouthed, ignorant girl".

But I think he was unwise, in both the talk and the press conference that preceded it, to spend quite so much time slagging off the press. The main target of his ire was an Indian gossip columnist, but he managed to rubbish an entire profession. What did he object to? Being referred to as a "security risk". "As you can see, we are surrounded by men with machine guns," he said with heavy irony at the press conference, a line he liked so much he repeated it later in his talk. Dutt attempted to defend her profession, but Rushdie wasn't having any of it. Journalists are mostly liars, he said, to wild applause from the audience.

"Are there any that aren't?" asked a smiling, but clearly rattled Dutt.

"Very few."

She rallied: "How would you feel if you weren't written about?"

"Well, why don't you try it and find out?"

The audience cheered, but the episode left a sour taste in my mouth. Just a few days earlier, the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink had been gunned down in Istanbul, no doubt by people who also thought he was a "liar". Being a journalist is currently a far more dangerous profession than being a lionised and self-satisfied novelist. Rushdie's comments seemed like a spectacularly petulant response to a trivial article.

Over breakfast the next day, I got the lowdown from the ebullient Indian author Jerry Pinto. The paper Rushdie was objecting to made a point of commissioning hostile book reviews, and Rushdie had been the target more than once. But also: "They call him 'His Salmanness', and he really doesn't like that."

The funny thing was, we'd seen quite a bit of "His Salmanness" during the festival. His suite at the luxurious Rambagh Palace hotel was apparently "big enough to jog round". At "Holiwater", a multi-media extravaganza in the "step well", a kind of dry dam, at the Tiger Fort in the scrubby hills outside Jaipur, the rest of the audience dutifully filed in up to an hour in advance - but not Rushdie, who very deliberately picked his way through the seated crowd just minutes before the show began. "You know, he didn't need to do that," mused one of the festival helpers. "Everybody's looking at him now, though."

At the end of his talk, Rushdie relented a little and praised the foreign correspondents whose work he had drawn upon for Shalimar the Clown, set in dangerous Kashmir - it seems journalists will go where novelists fear to tread. Too little, too late in my view. Still, the success of the festival and the huge coverage it received was in a large part due to his undoubted star quality. Having set the bar so high, the festival will be hard pressed to find someone quite so compellingly outrageous next year.