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India’s Biggest Book Festival Warily Makes Room For The Hindu Radicals It Used To Conider Pariahs

Jan 31, 2017

Writers, journalists and publishers at the Penguin Random House India party on the sidelines of the recent Jaipur Literature Festival. CreditPoras Chaudhary for The New York Times

JAIPUR, India — Every year at this time, India’s beau monde rearranges itself in Jaipur for a spectacularly popular five-day literary festival.

There are Punjabi princesses in Jackie Onassis sunglasses, book club aunties in top-shelf homespun, parboiled-looking Englishmen, men of letters with Oxbridge accents and the occasional well-buffed South Delhi influence peddler. At night, they gather for cocktails in floodlit palaces. To be liberal, if not leftist, is as proper as a quilted handbag.

So it was a startling sight this year to see the Jaipur Literature Festival feature a panel by two leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the far-right group that gave rise to India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi.

The R.S.S., which maintains that India is fundamentally a Hindu nation, has been barreling toward drawing-room respectability for some time. Left-leaning Congress governments banned it three times in the last century, saying its ideas risked inciting violence against minority groups. These days state television carries its leader’s speeches live. But there are few invitations in Indian public life more coveted than one to appear at the festival in Jaipur, that Mount Olympus of panel discussions.

Even by Bengali standards, Mr. Seth, the author of the self-help book “Get to the Top,” is skilled at drowning out other speakers, deflecting all contenders with sonorous repetitions of “one minute, one minute, one minute” until they retreat into dejected silence. On Monday, he appeared on the panel “Manelists, Misogyny and Mansplaining,” next to a row of female writers who turned on him with gusto, asking why he kept interrupting.

He tried, haltingly, to discourage them from viewing this phenomenon through the lens of gender. “In Calcutta, we didn’t know misogyny or mansplaining,” he said starchily at one point. “All that we knew was the idea of ‘gentleman’ and ‘gentlemanly.’ ” Pressed on these terms, he fluffed himself up. “Yes,” he said, “gentleman is what we use. I’m sorry if it doesn’t stand up to the rigors of today’s understanding.”