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What's all the buzz about Oprah and Salman Rushdie going to India?

The Jaipur Literary Festival has become Asia's biggest literary festival, and the fact that some of the biggest names in the book world attend highlights India's growing appetite for good reads.

By Aarti BetigeriCorrespondent / January 22, 2012



Jaipur, India

Oprah's here - but Salman Rushdie is not. 

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The fifth annual Jaipur Literature Festival has for a few years now attracted more and more major literary and cultural figures from across the world, including, this year, talk show host and reading evangelist Oprah Winfrey

For five days, the festival, which started Friday, is taking over Jaipur, a city in central India. The festival has gotten so big that no sooner had the dates been announced – last year – then did nearby hotels get slammed with bookings. The rate at which the festival is growing in popularity highlights how much the book industry in India has grown.

The Jaipur Literature Festival had relatively humble beginnings: Its main purpose was to put literature, both in English and local languages, on the radar for Indians.

It seems to have worked.

Now, the festival is widely recognized as a destination for thinkers and writers. Publishers come to scout for talent and writers come looking for book deals. And hundreds of thousands of eyes are on it and watching the books that are discussed there.  

It’s recently been described as “the Oscars” of the literary world.

“Of the many literary festivals in India, Jaipur is the big one. It’s the one to go and be seen at,” novelist Samit Basu told the Wall Street Journal.

To say it gets crowded is an understatement. In 2008 there were 7,000 attendees; last year an estimated 60,000 people came to see and be seen and even more are expected to attend this year.

India’s English-language publishing is relatively small but growing industry – a study by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry last fall pegged the market at $1.4 billion and reported it was growing about 10 percent each year.

Among the local writers, an invitation to appear is an indication of having made it: Look out for Jeet Thayil, Anuradha Roy, and Gurcharan Das.

Oprah arrived in Mumbai earlier last week and spent time with the first family of Bollywood – actors Aishwarya RaiAbhishek Bachchan, and their baby girl – before heading north.

Addressing the festival today, she said three things have struck her about India so far: "Its chaos, the underlying calmness and love, and the fact that everyone seems to know where they are going.” She also dabbled in US politics, predicting the President Obama would win reelection in November.

US journalist Katherine Boo's book on life in the slums of Mumbai, “Behind The Beautiful Forevers,” is one of the most anticipated books, and sOprahe’s slated to be on hand.

Other notable authors appearing include Ben OkriDavid Remnick, Jamaica Kincaid, Fatima Bhutto, Lionel Shriver, Amy Chua, and Teju Cole.

But Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses which earned him a fatwa in 1989, has announced he will not attend, saying intelligence services have told him that underworld dons in Mumbai have hired assassins to "eliminate" him. He may yet appear via video link instead, which is continuing to kick up controversy in India.

"While I have some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence, it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival in such circumstances; irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers," said Rushdie in a statement. 

It's unfortunate for festival-goers, many of whom were keen to see Rushdie live in the flesh in his homeland, but something tells me there will be plenty to keep them occupied. 

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