Amid raucous cheers from thousands of admirers, television superstar Oprah Winfrey praised the contrast of calm and chaos in India at the region’s largest literature festival fast becoming a global cultural gala.
Considered one of the world’s most influential women, Winfrey lived up to her billing as the headline draw at an event boasting literary giants such as Tom Stoppard, Michael Ondaatje and Richard Dawkins, charming the crowds on Sunday morning.
“I came here with an open mind, and it has been expanded . . . It’s the greatest life experience I have ever had,” Winfrey said at the annual Jaipur Literature Festival in India’s north-western state of Rajasthan.
“You feel like you’re in the centre of something bigger and greater than yourself.”
Hundreds of eager visitors jostled against barricades at the back of the main stage area as Winfrey began speaking. Security guards struggled to shut the main entrance gates as angry admirers tried to push their way inside.
“It’s like being in a video game. I don’t know which way to look,” Winfrey told crowds on her arrival in Mumbai. “It’s a bit chaotic, but there’s an underlying calm, a flow, that you all seem to understand. India is a paradox.”
The 57-year-old has caused a media storm in India, with news channels and front pages filled with stories of her touring the city of Mumbai with the Bachchans, Bollywood’s first family.
On Sunday she drew huge cheers as she appeared on stage in a traditional Indian churidar kameez smock.
“I will take with me a sense of calmness and a genuine respect . . . people don’t talk religion here, they live it,” Winfrey said.
Her appearance was seen as a welcome distraction from the Salman Rushdie furore that has overshadowed the five-day festival, after the author cancelled his planned visit due to reported assassination threats against him.
The talk-show host and interviewer’s Book Club turned little-known authors into global stars, with 59 of the club’s 70 selected books making the US Today Top 10 best-sellers list.
Winfrey told the festival that in 2008, after witnessing the completion of her mission to get then-Senator Barack Obama to the White House, she stuck a picture of a woman riding a camel on her pinboard, that said “Come to India”.
“It was important for me to go to slums, but not show the worst of the worst, but show that people can live in poverty and still have hope and meaning in their lives,” said Winfrey, who also called for Indians to work to eradicate discrimination against widows in society.