Fresh from winning the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Jeet Thayil writes about his experience returning to the Jaipur Literature Festival following the dramatic events of last year

The 2013 Jaipur Literature Festival began with a talk by the Dalai Lama. All religions are the same, he said, because they preach love and trust. For some among the thousands who were packed into the front lawns of the Diggi Palace, the Lama’s remarks seemed like dreams spoken aloud, or the thoughts of someone who lives on the moon, or sarcasm, or a kind of impenetrable joke that could be understood, but only by later generations. Because, for days before the festival opened, religion had threatened to shut it down. Right-wing Hindu groups had been protesting the participation of half a dozen Pakistani authors. The Pakistanis should be banned from Jaipur, they said, because Indian soldiers had recently been killed in firing along the border. At the same time, right-wing Muslim groups protested the participation of four authors, including myself, who had read out from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses at last year’s festival. They said the authors should be banned forever from Jaipur. The protests were reported daily on the front pages of the national press, and it seemed then that at least one part of the Dalai Lama’s fantasy was accurate: religions were indeed similar, but only because they were based on the opposite of love and trust.

As it happened, only one of the four authors from last year was invited to this year’s festival and that author happened to be me. This time the state government responded the way it should have last year: it refused to back down, and it refused to tolerate threats or bullying from the right wing. On my way into the city—a six-hour journey by road—I received several calls on my cell phone from senior officers in the Rajasthan Police. They had deputed a plainclothes policeman to escort me during my stay in Jaipur; they wanted to ensure that I connected with him as soon as I arrived. I was ambivalent about the idea. Having spent much of my life wary of the police on several continents, it seemed to me an unlikely scenario to now be in league with them. Also, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the week in the constant company of a policeman. It would be the end of privacy, the end of anonymity and spontaneity. And it struck me that reading from Rushdie’s novel had had more than one unexpected result: it gave me a taste, a slight, second-hand taste, of what it must have been like to live his life for so many years.

The policeman, Pradeep Kumar, was waiting at the hotel. He was a serious man in his early thirties and his weapon was concealed under a windcheater. We introduced ourselves, awkwardly, exchanged numbers and made plans. The next morning we went together to the festival venue for the opening event. For the rest of the day he accompanied me to panel discussions, private meetings, radio and press interviews, lunch, drinks, and so on, through the usual circus that makes up a literary festival. Together we negotiated the thickets of crowds at the Dalai Lama’s talk and at the outdoor area where lunch was served. After the second or third panel, he turned to me and broached the topic that had been forming all day in his mind. Can I ask you something, he said. Of course, I replied. He said: Is this what you do? You talk all day about books? Yes, I said. He said nothing more, but his expression of disbelief mixed with pity told me everything I needed to know.

About the author

Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. He is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). His debut novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. He currently lives in New Delhi. Narcopolis is now on the shortlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, which will be announced in March. 

Additional information

To find out more about Jeet Thayil being awarded the DSC Prize 2013, please see this link.

To find out more about the Jaipur Literature Festival, please see this link.

To find out more about Narcopolis from Faber, please see this link.

English PEN trustees Salil Tripathi and Kamila Shamsie write about the importance of resisting censorship and intimdation at South Asian literature festivals. Please see this link for the article.