About 17,000 people had entered the festival grounds by late morning on Sunday, the 22nd of January, and more were arriving. The festival was being held in the Digi Palace hotel premises. Their big Durbar hall was the smallest of the talk venues. The front ground could accommodate a couple of thousand, sitting standing and perching on the roof of the hotel to get a view. There were two other talk venues the Moghal Tent and the Baithak. All of them were bursting at the seams. There were people standing behind the chairs, sitting on the floor, and in the aisles. Yet more wanted to get in but were being turned away in the interest of safety. They would just wait for the current speaker to finish and take their chance to get into the next one.
All this zeal was to hear the authors talk about their books, their lives, and their views. The authors were not just Indian, but Pakistani's, Bangladeshis, Burmese, Sri Lankans as well as from China, England and the USA. The selection of subjects and speakers was just as diverse. New authors as well as super stars like Oprah Winfry took the stage, delivered talks and responded to questions. Subjects selected were also equally varied, history, art, culture, religion, nature, wild life, folk lore and many other themes. What was impressive was the number of people who took a serious interest in the proceedings. The vast majority of those who came were young and had just started their careers but had the appetite for intellectual stimulation and enquiry. Women outnumbered the men! All of them were well behaved, and there was no pushing or heckling. The audience listened to all the speakers with respect whether they agreed with their point of view or not.
The audience was predominantly Indian. There were some foreigners who lived in India, mostly from the UK. However about one third of the speakers were foreign. Pakistan had a fair share and Aysha Jalal and Fatima Bhutto were very well received. In fact any subject related to Pakistan or Islam drew large crowds and the books sold well. After each talk the authors would move to a table in the book signing area, where they would sign the books bought by the audience. I overheard an overjoyed woman showing her young daughter the signatures of Fatima Bhutto and a photograph of her shaking Bhutto's hand! Predictably the largest gathering was for Oprah - who was interviewed by BurkhaDutt - the star reporter of India. Oprah is a master at speaking about a subject very intensely, yet saying nothing.
"I am - because we are!" She said with great vehemence. "I am - because we aurre!" She repeated, with the American twang.
She declared with such intensity that we were all left groping for some deep truth that was about to be revealed. Then she elaborated, telling us that her popularity and success was due to the fact that over 14 million viewers watch her show! I suppose she wanted to say; I owe my popularity to your naivety! Salman Rushdie had been invited and had planned to come. However the Muslim community of Rajasthan and the deobandis in particular objected violently and promised trouble if he came. It was therefore decided to withdraw his invitation. In any case his book "The Satanic Verses" is banned in India. Despite his cancellation the newspapers were full of speculation. Will he arrive without announcement? Or will he organize a virtual presence through video conferencing. Both the Central and the Rajasthan governments advised the organizers against it. Most papers commented that the Congress was pandering to the Muslim vote, as three state elections are coming up where Muslims comprise a sizable minority- about 17% of the total vote bank. On the other hand supporters of free speech were against stopping him from appearing. In any case he is an Indian National - and therefore cannot be legally denied entry to India and to go wherever he wants.
Thapar showed some fantastic movie clips of Tigers in Ranthambor. One very unusual one showed a tiger attacking an alligator - he said it took 18 hours for the victim to die. There were simple food stalls selling Rajasthani style tea - lots of milk and sugar in a disposable earthen cup for ten rupees and a plate of "papri," yogurt, chanas and bhallas ladled with imli chat for twenty rupees. At the other end of the scale the major publishers had parties in the luxurious hotels all over Jaipur. And some of the hotels of Jaipur really are luxurious. The two large palaces of the Mahrajas, The Arambagh Palace and the Jai Mahal Palace, which are now hotels, are on a much grander scale than the palaces of the Nawabs of Bahawalpur. They have been restored to their full glory, with sparkling chandeliers, shimmering marble floors grand staircases, dazzling fountains in manicured lawns spread over acres and acres of gardens. The finest food and drinks were served to trendily dressed men and women out to party. In the meantime the average guest at the fairgrounds was being treated to varied musical programs. These ranged from qawwali to folk and jazz. People danced for joy, sometimes even on top of their chairs! Everybody had a great time.
Jaipur has many "haveli" hotels as well. These are restored grand mansions which have been turned into hotels. There are courtyards, stained glass windows, balconies, and terraces - all painted a dull pink to match the sand stone walls. The insides are ornate, and the traditionally dressed staff complete the illusion of life in the India before the Raj. The whole city is either in red sandstone - or painted to look like it. The narrow streets are bustling with cycle rickshaws, jewelry and handicraft shops. Occasionally an elephant will saunter down the road carrying a howdah of the better healed visitors. The tourists love it and throng to Rajasthan especially during the winter months. The "Lit Fest" is now the high point of the tourist calendar.