A peek into the literary sessions at the first ever Bangalore Literature Festival…
Everybody on the panel had their own reasons to take up their works, mostly an extension of their professions. Hence, when Sunil Sethi, the moderator of the session “Biographies and Memoirs” at the BLF tried to pin it down to a rags to riches story, most panellists – Ajoy Bose (author of Behenji, a political biography of Mayavati), Tavleen Singh (her latest book Durbar was launched), Bhawana Somaya (writer of Amitabh Bachchan and Hemamalini’s biographies) and Vikram Sampath (biographies of Gauhar Jaan and S. Balachander) – refused to agree with his analysis. There were clearly more reasons – a fascination for their subjects and the many things that they became representatives of. In fact, it was also sociological.
“Mayawati is self-made despite a mentor like Kanshi Ram. She proved that she didn’t even need a mentor. It’s an incredible achievement, and the story of Dalits in India is the most unusual story,” argued Ajoy Bose, saying that his was a story of ‘connections’. “Amitabh Bachchan is an interesting persona with a huge body of work. As someone who was following all this closely, I felt it was important to record it,” said Bhawana.
Both Tavleen Singh and Ajoy Bose have women as their central characters. Was it an advantage to know them personally? “I was a fly on the outer edge of the inner set. And that was an advantage,” said Tavleen Singh describing her proximity to the Gandhi family. But Ajoy Bose had no intention of revealing to his subject that he was writing a book. “They would have made sure it’s a party pamphlet.” Contrarily, Bhawana Somaya put her manuscript together and sent it to Amitabh; he didn’t ask “for a single word to be changed.”
Vikram’s was a story altogether different. “I found innumerous letters by her sitting in a box in the Mysore Palace archives. This diva of recorded music in India was pleading for mercy. To believe that she died in penury disturbed me,” said the writer, who travelled the length and breadth of the country driven by human interest. “It’s amazing how tawaif singers have been obliterated from national consciousness.”
Pinning down ‘creative’
At the “Srujana Sheelathe - Creativity in Writing” session at the BLF, some of the biggest names in Kannada literature came together to - we were told - present their thoughts on the topic. Moderated by noted film critic Manu Chakravarty, the panel featured U.R. Ananthamurthy, K.S. Nissar Ahmed, Chandrasekhar Kambar, and Vaidehi. In his opening remarks, Chakravarty contended that creativity in the act of writing took more than one form: one that was less acknowledged, he said, was what he called the epistemological, political aspects of writing — it is “not only about craft, but knowledge and political choice”.
The poet Nissar Ahmed, who is perhaps well-known to the general public for songs such as “Nityotsava” - the “unofficial state anthem of Karnataka” - laughingly recalled his engagement with the idea of a “popular” writer. “I used to write such ‘gambheera’ (serious) poetry - and then I was compared to Rajkumar,” he laughed. “But then I realised it was praise, not criticism.”
He also broke into reciting Ghalib’s poetry once or twice, much to the crowd’s delight. In his remarks, U.R. Ananthamurthy chose to criticise modern ideas of ‘development’ — pointing out that roads and flyovers do not translate into better lives; and that spending on education is not high. Perhaps the two most lively and engaging responses came from the next two writers. In a spirited speech, Vaidehi, a Sahitya Akademi Awardee, pointed out that ‘feminism’ has always been present, and wasn’t invented in recent centuries; women’s struggles had always been ongoing, even though they aren’t always represented in history. When she sits down to write, a number of stories that she has heard, come to her, she said.
Chandrasekhar Kambar had the audience in splits with his accounts of his childhood home, on the banks of the Ghataprabha river.
They would often see bodies floating down, and would invent stories about what might have happened. His stories would be such that they would come back to him by the afternoon!
We were eager to hear about the individual creative processes of these accomplished writers: the everyday and banal aspects of writing, and how they dealt with them — that didn’t come across. Time constraints meant writers had to be rushed through their sessions, as well, with no conversation between themselves.
Being a good sport
Despite the session getting rescheduled because moderator Boria Majumdar’s flight got hideously delayed, “Playing the Write Game” was not plagued by any sort of inertia. Things got off to a cheerful start with the launch of Boria’s book Cooking on the Run: An Average Indian Man’s Encounters with Food. Boria set the ball rolling when he asked if one would be politically correct while writing about sports and sportspeople.
Shehan Karunatilaka who has written the mesmerizing Chinaman candidly commented “I was writing fiction, I was looking for gossip. I was making up a story about a drunk and cricket.”
Boria asked cricket writer Vedam Jaishankar how difficult it was to write Rahul Dravid’s biography. Vedam said he has followed Dravid’s progress since he was a child and Dravid “has never put a foot wrong”.
Boria talked about the Indian habit of deifying personalities. He drew a comparison with Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open which did well because it was open about Agassi’s life.
Shehan said, “In the subcontinent, the tabloid culture is not as evolved. I had lawyers look at Chinaman to see if I could get into trouble. The lawyers said libel is difficult to prove, it is good for sales and to go to court for libel, a man would have to own up to being the hard-drinking womaniser in the book!”
Vedam commented there is an unsaid “lakshman rekha” that one doesn’t cross. Other panellists — athlete Ashwini Nachappa and manager Vinod Naidu brought their perspectives on sports writing to the table — on the stories that need to be told but aren’t, and if sports reports were taken seriously and the effect it would have on the sportsperson as a brand.
It was a fascinating window into the world of stunning victories, crushing defeats, the pinnacles and pitfalls of fame.
I write, therefore…
“Writing has freed my memory of the difficult life so I can recall it without pain. In a way it is fair to say I write, therefore I am,” concluded Biman Nath as I took my place before the great stage. The confusion of re-scheduling coupled with the insistence of ‘the show must go on’ forced me to miss all of Manju Kapur’s and most of Biman Nath’s talk on “Experience, Memory and Stories”.
The rest of the panel included Kavery Nambisan, Anita Nair and author Usha K.R. who acted as moderator. Kavery, who is an author-doctor started to try and explain why she was a writer, “An ache to create,” she supposed, “I still have no answer.”
“Experience starts from the time of birth — sounds, hunger, warmth, love, achievement — experience is made up of all these factors. It is the mix of the desire to do something and the regret of not having done that,” said Kavery. She went on to illustrate what she said by reading an excerpt from her book The Hills Of Angeri.
According to her, writers are able to use memory more faithfully, “No writer is aware when they draw from memory or experience; it is fused together. Memory, experience, imagination, intuition…and writing involves all of it,” she said.
The moderator didn’t question or encourage dialogue but simply introduced Anita Nair who said, “I came to writing as a chronicler of memories.” A sheltered life and a middle class background are not the best ingredients for a creative career but as she started to chronicle the story of her village, the memories of her family members at some point she realised that the memories were great but she had to draw from experience, “I didn’t want to be a keeper of history, I was going to write a novel.”
She read an excerpt from A Better Man, a paragraph where imagination crept in and plundered memories. Anita spoke of drawing upon the relationship she had with her grandmother, which was entirely imagined, for Ladies Coupe.
“I put myself in the shoes of my character.”
For Mistress, what she called a roadblock because she knew very little about Kathakali she spoke to Kathakali dancers, asked their stories, pried their secrets, delve into their lives, used the power the writer has to extract their stories.
Keywords: Bangalore Literature Festival