Jaipur Journal: A Political Jolt at a Literary Festival, but Courtesy Wins Out
The two R.S.S. men took their seats on a podium, where a minute before, an author had been asking rhetorical questions about the existence of beauty. How would the audience greet them: As India’s version of the Tea Party, giving voice to ideas that have taken on extraordinary force in the electorate? Or as India’s version of the Ku Klux Klan, propagating “extremism and bigotry,” as one author put it in a letter withdrawing from the event? In the end, arm’s-length politeness reigned.
“We are acknowledging that the intellectual nerve center has shifted, and the seat of cultural power has shifted, because no one was interested in inviting these guys before 2014,” said Supriya Nair, a writer and editor who has attended the festival for the last six years. In any case, she said, the shift rightward had already taken place in the larger society. “This is a last bastion,” she said.
The R.S.S., for its part, savored its moment. “R.S.S. was allowed entry into this space for the first time,” said Prafulla Ketkar, who edits Organiser, the group’s in-house magazine. “For whatever reason, now they are compelled to recognize the fact that R.S.S. is a force to reckon with, and one which cannot be ignored at panel discussions.”
Not everyone was handled with such delicacy. Among the festival’s designated victims was Suhel Seth, a ubiquitous man about town and one of Delhi’s master bloviators.
Even by Bengali standards, Mr. Seth, the author of the self-help book “Get to the Top,” is skilled at drowning out other speakers, deflecting all contenders with sonorous repetitions of “one minute, one minute, one minute” until they retreat into dejected silence. On Monday, he appeared on the panel “Manelists, Misogyny and Mansplaining,” next to a row of female writers who turned on him with gusto, asking why he kept interrupting.
He tried, haltingly, to discourage them from viewing this phenomenon through the lens of gender. “In Calcutta, we didn’t know misogyny or mansplaining,” he said starchily at one point. “All that we knew was the idea of ‘gentleman’ and ‘gentlemanly.’ ” Pressed on these terms, he fluffed himself up. “Yes,” he said, “gentleman is what we use. I’m sorry if it doesn’t stand up to the rigors of today’s understanding.”
At this, Bee Rowlatt, author of a book about Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th-century crusader for women’s rights, took the microphone and asked why he was onstage at all. The audience cheered. Mr. Seth, at this point, fell silent for several consecutive minutes, a fact so remarkable that an anonymous gossip blogger known as JLF Insider publicly invited Ms. Rowlatt for coffee.
Among the great draws of the Jaipur festival, of course, is that it is possible to be excluded. At a party thrown by Penguin Random House India, in a palace once occupied by a maharajah, guests were led through a gate where dancing girls whirled giddily on the ramparts and over a red carpet across an expanse of gardens, dark except for thousands of tiny flickering candles and liveried servants offering Champagne.
“We almost got run over by horses,” one partygoer said blandly, drifting off toward the gin.
JLF Insider observed a well-known journalist, young women in tow, frantically mining his contacts to get through the door. “It’s important,” the blogger said. “If you make the right impression with the right person, you will perhaps be in a panel next year.”
Indeed, there is a category of Delhi writers who spend much of the year angling for an invitation to speak, through assiduous attendance at other writers’ book launches.
Rosalyn D’mello, who had waited fruitlessly for an invitation for two years after the publication of her memoir, “A Handbook for My Lover,” wrote despairingly on Facebook about the experience, describing it as “so, so painful to watch so many random so-called authors, who seemed to be invited more because of their networks than any real talent.”
Her complaint seemed to penetrate a fourth wall, and William Dalrymple, a historian and one of the festival’s co-directors, offered her a spot on a panel. But the real gatekeeper for Indian writers is the festival’s other co-director, Namita Gokhale, the writer and publisher, and she is not easily moved.
“I never appease anybody,” she said. “If I don’t want to call someone I can be quite cussed.”
Mr. Dalrymple, who selects non-Indian writers, said he felt fortunate that Ms. Gokhale handled this part. “She is constantly avoiding people at Delhi parties, people who have written self-published memoirs and think they should be there,” he said.
Among those who did not appear was Raghu Karnad, the author of a well-received recent history, “Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War.” In a letter explaining his withdrawal as a moderator, he said that he had watched as right-wing politics suffused other popular literary festivals, and that inviting the R.S.S. was “beyond the pale.”
Mr. Dalrymple sounded genuinely sad at the mention of Mr. Karnad. He said the rise of right-wing politics had posed a dilemma for organizers of events like his, because India’s elite universities and publishing houses are so overwhelmingly left-liberal.
“It’s like captaining a slightly listing boat, that is kind of toppling to one side,” he said. He said the R.S.S., which was founded in 1925 in imitation of European fascist movements, had become too important to ignore in intellectual forums. The invitation did not convey any particular imprimatur, he argued, “because they run the country.”
“This is an organization that controls the ruling party,” he said. “To exclude this element would be to relegate us to a left-liberal bubble with ourselves.”
In the end, most of those cramming into the festival were neither haughty leftists nor right-wing polemicists, but ordinary people afflicted with book love. At a discussion on Hindu scripture, a man in a plaid scarf rose to ask, after a moment of hesitation, “What is the best way for an old man to try and learn Sanskrit, and enjoy it before he dies?”
And there were students, thousands of them, subsisting on 30-rupee cups of sweet tea. Some of them spent five days sleeping in the train station because they did not have enough money to rent a room, said Payal Rajawat, 20. For her part, she said, she craved the free-ranging discussion of art and literature, something not available at the Vivekananda Institute of Technology, which she attends.
“I am a totally freaky lover of language,” she said.
As for the inclusion of the R.S.S., Ms. Rajawat saw no problem. Like her friends, she celebrates the rise of Mr. Modi, saying he had elevated India’s standing to the point that “even America is paying attention.” One of her friends this year had rejected a Happy New Year greeting because he said it was a holiday imposed on India by Western colonizers. This line of thinking gave her an idea, which she suggested passing on to the organizers of next year’s literary festival.
“Mr. Modi is a mesmerizing speaker,” she said. “Believe me, ma’am, the whole world would come into this place.”
An earlier version of this article misstated, using information from William Dalrymple, the percentage of India’s population who voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014. It was 31 percent, not 75 percent.
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