Will he, won't he? The guessing game is over with Salman Rushdie, author of "The Satanic Verses", saying he had called off his visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival after intelligence sources told him that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld were out to kill him.
Salman Rushdie. Pic/AFP
"For the last several days I have made no public comment about my proposed trip to Jaipur at the request of the authorities in Rajasthan, hoping that they would put in place such precautions as might be necessary to allow me to come and address the Festival audience in circumstances that were comfortable and safe for all," Rushdie said in a statement read out by the organisers of the festival here.
"I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to 'eliminate' me," he said.
Sounding unhappy with the scare perception that has grown after his visit became an issue for Muslim fundamentalists in the country of his birth, Rushdie said: "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.
"I will therefore not travel to Jaipur as planned."
Rushdie's announcement robbed the festival of some of its hype. A protest planned by Islamic groups outside the venue in the morning protesting Rushdie's visit was called off at the last moment.
Rushdie's proposed visit to Jaipur had also acquired political overtones in view of elections in five states in India.
With elections in Uttar Pradesh, where around 20 million Muslims comprise nearly 18 percent of the population, the issue gained centrestage with the government appearing to give into pressure from fundamentalists for fear of antagonising the Muslim voters.
Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" has been excoriated by many Muslims across the world and in India on grounds that it contains derogatory references to Prophet Muhammad.
The organisers of the festival pitched for freedom of expression but had to reconcile itself to the absence of Rushdie, easily the mega attraction of the show.
Around 208 top line authors, 150 performers and nearly 2,000 people, jostled for space on the manicured lawns of the Diggi Palace in the pink city where the festival opened Friday morning.
Queen mother of Bhutan, Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuk, chief guest at the inauguration ceremony, joined the co-directors of the festival Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple and producers Sanjoy Roy and Seuli Sethi to set the stage for four days of literature.
"The right to expression sets us apart. Everyone stands up for this right," Roy said.
Dalrymple said the festival this year had drawn all genres of literary personas from leading playwrights, military historians to short story writers..."
The festival this year features celebrity Oprah Winfrey, leading playwright Tom Stoppard and novelists like Michael Ondaatje and Ben Okri and is hosting sessions on core literature, politics, subcontinent and frontline accounts from the Arab Spring and around Asia.
Besides, a bulk of the festival is devoted to Bhakti and Sufi poetry and Bhasa literature.
The queues at the venue were serpentine since morning and every visitor had to register their presence and pass through a three-tier security cordon to enter the venue.