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Of Gods and Men: Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 Day One

23 January , 2012

Hari Kunzru’s new book, Of Gods and Men, played second fiddle to the excitement caused by his stirring reading, late in the day, of an excerpt of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, still banned in India and still causing controversy by the arrogance of clerics who are unlikely even to have read the text. Gods and Men, however, clearly became the theme of the first day of the festival.  As Kunzru pointed out, those who doubt are never the ones who line up the unbelievers in their cause against a wall to shoot them, doubt being a pivotal theme of Rushdie’s works. The organisers felt compelled to try to stop the readings, both Kunzru’s and those which inevitably followed, arguing that arrest and imprisonment were unlikely but possible consequences as well as the potential closure of the Festival itself by those who have no doubt.  Instead, a Gandhian spirit prevailed and as a slightly nervous Amitava Kumar declared, the salt must be plucked from the marshes. Draconian laws can seldom be undone without the courage of actions ‘to defy bigots’, and so Kunzru defied them, having to flee India early the next morning to avoid the legal wrath that may have followed.

Politics, thus, hovered right across the first day of these engaging literary debates. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, raised eyebrows amongst a packed audience as he strayed surprisingly far from the theme appointed to his conversation, ‘The Disappointment of Obama’. Remnick, whilst clearly outlining his policy disagreement with many of Obama’s obvious failings on Guantanamo, Palestine and the environment, stressed that he did not feel let down by Obama, when compared with all the Presidents of his time.  Obama, he said, had won the Nobel Prize just for not being George Bush. Predictable cheers from an audience draped across lime green seats below a blue and white block-printed Mughal tent.

But the all-knowing gods were hanging around these literary men and women all day, starting with a stirring rendition of the Sikh Gurbani from Madan Gopal Singh in a scholarly line up designed to exam the poetic vision of the Sikh Gurus. That spirituality also took on a political edge. Singh radically interprets the term ‘Bhav Khandana’ (Teri Aarti huye) as having a gendered identity, a female spirit or God, an idea derived from the Sanskrit roots of the term, which he says he regrets sardonically that no one else buys.  Controversy was hanging around the fringes of Diggi Palace all day, it seems.

And so, to Mohammed Hanif, whose afternoon session felt like a soothing afternoon cup of tea, deflecting with humour  some rather bizarre questions about his symbol as sex god in Pakistan, a country where one’s choice of God lets the law discriminate, often with violent repercussions, around you. Perhaps little wonder then that Hanif chose to write about the country’s beleaguered Christian community in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, a human and amusing take on what he describes as a “humble little love story”.

 Of Gods and Men, then. Jaipur, Day One.

20th January 2012.

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