A frequently heard argument in favour of book festivals is that they provide a venue for writers to meet the reading public. Although appealing, this argument is based on a flawed premise in that it assumes that attendance is equivalent to approbation.
This, however, according to Ghosh, is not really worth it.
Through the last century, the relationship between readers and writers was largely impersonal. The reader related in the first instance to a book, not to its writer; and writers, for their part, did not confront their audience directly in the manner of musicians, singers, actors and so on. This was, I think, one of the reasons why writers were able to take greater risks in hurling defiance at society at large.
The situation has changed dramatically in recent years. The internet, as I have good reason to know, has made it possible to subject writers to great pressure through mass-mailing campaigns. Face-to-face encounters add yet another dimension to this: to be called upon constantly to provide answers is inevitably to become answerable. If this process continues unchecked, its impact on the freedom of thought and expression may be greater than any explicit policy of repression.
The old, impersonal relationship was, in other words, also a form of protection, a first line of defence, not merely within public spaces but also within the writer’s own head.
Despite the deployment of enormous resources neither Denmark nor Holland were able to prevent attacks upon artists under threat; in the US a woman who put up a website that was offensive to a religious group was quickly forced to go underground. These countries are heavily and efficiently policed: what are the chances that a country like India would be able to provide effective protection?
Whether the threats to the Jaipur festival were invented or real I am in no position to judge. But one has only to open a newspaper to know that certain situations in India are inherently combustible. What then would it have taken to ensure order in Jaipur and Kolkata? One battalion? Two? Or should festivals now invest in creating private security forces in the manner of mining companies? And what would this say about the relationship between writers and the public?