Oprah, God and Obama

“Look! Oprah!! Today she come?”

The rickshaw driver thrusts the newspaper into my hands pointing to Oprah’s photograph on the front page, before manhandling his rickshaw towards the potholed road for my final ride to the Jaipur Literature Festival.

“You are very lucky to see Oprah! Now she is very old…” he continues as he cranks up the engine.

As we bump through the back streets of Jaipur for the last time I explain, as gently as I can, that it was in fact “yesterday she come”. Even worse, I have to admit, over the blaring horns and the put-put of the engine, that I eschewed the folksy wisdom of the “Big O”’s session in favour of astute insights from the beautiful Fatima Bhutto in a session on the future of Pakistan.

His face falls in disappointment.

“I see.” There is a long pause. “Oprah is not your cup of tea,” he adds with more than a hint of disdain.

Once again, conversation terminates abruptly. The twenty minute ride to the Festival is completed in stony silence as the driver tries to work out how I could have passed up such an opportunity.

The scientist and the Engineer

While for some Oprah’s substantial presence was the highlight of Jaipur 2012, it was the Rushdie affair that overshadowed proceedings right up to the last session. The organisers, in an attempt to win back some credibility after their earlier capitulation, proposed a video link with the controversial author for the final day. But even that was too much for the Islamists who once again threatened violence. One of the organisers told me he’d been told that he wouldn’t leave Jaipur alive if the video link went ahead.

In reality, by the end of Day Five, the worth (or otherwise) of Rushdie’s presence had largely been forgotten. The focus had shifted. Much of the festival had become overshadowed by a meta-debate about censorship and religion. Rushdie had provided the fuel, but it was Professor Richard Dawkins who decided that a full blown fiery assault was required on behalf of the scientific tradition.

In the final debate (hastily arranged to mollify those waiting for Rushdie to appear looming down from the big screen), the author of “The God Delusion” came out all guns blazing. The panel included Dawkins himself, orange-clad Hindu Swami Agnivesh, radical Islamist and Jamaat-i-Islami member Salim Engineer, and respected poet Javed Akhtar. The subject: “Has Man replaced God?”

“There is NO GOD,” Dawkins thundered. “Forget it! Get on with your lives. There is NO GOD.”

You might think that this categorical assertion would be infinitely more threatening than Rushdie’s work of fiction (which by all accounts is pretty impenetrable anyway), but Engineer, relishing the platform he had been given, thought otherwise. He seemed strangely OK with Dawkins’ atheistic assessment if the world. He could handle that; Dawkins was plainly living in a different world, he thundered back, but Rushdie’s crime was far worse – he had had the temerity to insult Islam. His unlikely protestation that “”We have not stopped him [Rushdie] from coming here, we are no one to say that,” received jeers from the boisterous international literati in the crowd.

As the jumbled and incoherent debate closed, it all seemed a sad reflection on the state of India and its politics. The Government’s advice and decisions were certainly not motivated by sensitivity. Neither were they much to do with fear. Rather the decision was made with one eye on votes in the upcoming State elections. This is a country where every political action is blatantly calculated in terms of the ballot box. Rarely does the political machine think beyond that.

India will stumble on, but in appeasing the violent and threatening behavior of a highly vocal minority, the politicians have done the country no favours. On the streets meanwhile, where the various communities that make up India continue to coexist without any real problems, there’s genuine puzzlement at why Rushdie should ever write such a thing in the first place. Rushdie’s not the issue for ordinary people. The inability of Indian politicians to effect real change is.

The best bits – Get outta here!

It was sad that the news about one man, who wasn’t even present, dominated the reporting of an event that had so much more to offer.

Personal highlights included Tom Stoppard’s biting cynicism expressed in his brilliant one-liner that “an excess of order often creates a sort of imbalance” and his assessment of the movie business as “the process of turning money into light and then back into money”. Also William Dalrymple’s preview of his next book, on the first Afghan War, which is set to be a terrifying indictment of the inability of 21st century politicians to comprehend the basic lessons of history.

The journalists from the New Yorker Magazine were out in force too, promoting colleague Katherine Boo’s book “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers” which charts life in a slum by Mumbai airport (where the reality of the slum is hidden behind a huge advertisement for floor tiles with the words “Beautiful Forever” plastered in huge letters). There was something slightly prim about the buttoned-up approach to journalism demonstrated by this New Yorker mafia, so it was a great pleasure to hear Jason Burke from the Guardian prick their bubble with an impassioned defence of the “anarchy” of the British print media.

The most fun revelation, however, came from David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and biographer of Barack Obama. He told the story of the moment that Obama heard over the phone he was being awarded the Nobel Peace prize from White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs.

Obama’s response: “Get the fuck outta here!”

It’s nice to know that the President of the United States was as dumbfounded as the rest of us at an award that has no chance of standing the test of time.

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