So much happened at The Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai: Animated discussions, delightful conversations, the air was abuzz with words and ideas, book signings, and drama. It was unique and utilitarian for the imagination.

‘Literature’ and ‘Festival’ are a seeming contradiction; one engages the private imagination of reader and writer, while the latter is a public platform. The disparity falls apart when the purpose comes to light: Literature is about diverse perspectives of humanity. What better coherent public space, manch, platform, forum to hear, discuss, and see imagination become a reality — the way a blueprint becomes an apartment to live in — than a Literature Festival?

And here is Phillip Pullman’s wise adage: “After food and shelter, the greatest need for any human is a story”. Story i.e. Literature.

So what makes for a Literature Festival? A variety of reasons: the politics of economy giving rise to leisure, and a ‘higher order of pleasure’. Its subscription is unquantifiable and that’s the quality most valued by the individual and the collective. A healthy competition between cities — as the Birmingham and Cheltenham Literature Festivals have shown — also enables a regional discourse among readers and participants to trans-global writing and their writers. It’s not solely about accessibility and making writers available across different regional festivals across Jaipur and Chennai, or Mumbai and Kolkata.

Programmers curate themes and writers specific to the contexts indicated by regional nuances and audiences; Naomi Wolf with Barkha Dutt answering questions on sexual behaviour and about Nirbhaya to Chennai men and women or advocating a closer look at bringing up children; Anuradha Kapur and Neelam Mansingh talking about the relevance of playwrights in the multimedia world; Taiye Selasi and Xiaolu Guo discussing literary trends with Parvathi Nayar; Colin Thubron, Jim Crace and Samantha Shannon on travel writing and the life of writing respectively — international and local writers too respond to regional contexts with verve while undoubtedly enriching their own work.

The fourth edition of The Hindu’s Lit for Life was a mosaic for appetites that were cross- cultural, cross-generational and weaving constructs of India’s cities as identity and location, new feminism, historical methods, industry change, wildlife, craft of writing. It culminated with the awarding of The Hindu Prize for Fiction 2013.

As an outsider within, it was great to see Chennai featured on the map of literature festivals. The anatomy of the city was enlivened by writers Aravind Adiga and Abraham Verghese in independent sessions talking of their past associations with Madras, and now addressing Chennai and its future. The Sir Mutha Venkatasubbarao Concert Hall seemed to embody both worlds. The auditorium had the capacity and the techspec for all that was programmed in it.

The tidy forays for refreshments ranging from fulfilling cravings for seriously southern coffee to book sales kiosks (mercifully quick in dispensation for signings) and the stage for the open-mike events attracted their respective groups. Book-signing spaces for writers to communicate with their readers in the circular verandah around the hall were among the tried and tested triumphing in logistics.

The walkways around the main auditorium offered ample space for discussion between sessions. That’s the real vibe in a festival where opinions are cast, arguments formed, and strangers become friends and friends agree to disagree after a spell of pouting. This was unique to the events that had local heroes; Hariharan’s interview of Kamal Hassan was dexterous in revealing myriad layers of film from imagination to production to the box office. Kamal Haasan talked facts about the industry seeking change — the absence of women make-up artists and the absence of freedom or choice in making the films an artist wants to make that has political content; either a biopic or as social realism. This had a new slant on ‘censorship’ and ‘certification’ and local politics.

It was not dissimilar in another form to the power of change and the responsibility that comes with it, as Paul Zachariah lucidly made the case for rewriting religious narratives. In seeking attitudinal shifts, the local compass point on sexuality was through the poems, and in translation, of Salma and others on the female body as a site of violation and recovery.

T.M. Krishna’s high-voltage presence brought out the essence of the Carnatic and a man who is iconoclastic about categories — classical/non — of music. Rapture: TMK sings a line with variations to a metronome from an app. Nuances and intonations that are sublime. Well Wired!

The programmed events at The Courtyard next door were stimulating and offered more scope for participatory discussion. Alas! simultaneous programming of events at the main hall and the courtyard created a conflict of choice. Hopefully for the fifth edition a new timeline could be the answer.

For funders/sponsors, publishers, distributors — those holding the purse strings — the final outcome is attendance. For writers and readers, the buzz is also dependent on numbers but, with literature festivals, it is also about keeping it at a human scale. The Hindu Lit for Life did both — it had a live audience to nearly full capacity at its venues and then had a virtual audience of 88,000. Best of all worlds, with live streaming and blogging.

To me, the success of a festival is the endnote; I borrow Kumar Shahani’s use of the subjunctive. The Hindu Prize for Fiction with readings from the shortlist was a countdown raising the mood of an imagined space actualised in fiction — the ‘finale’ revealed the prizewinner. The atmosphere was created by the judges and their readings of 125 titles. Communicating across vast distances over a period of half a year with criteria formed from a selection of perspectives. Vanity Bagh is a novel about hopelessness and brutality told with irony, I was reassured. On behalf of his committee of judges, Tim Murari delivered the process with characteristic sensitivity. In revealing the winner, Jim Crace kept the endnote ironic and profound — for those who didn’t win, writing a prize-winning book was to be a new goalpost, and a greater challenge to write the next novel for the one who did.

N. Ravi’s address indicating the unquantifiable pleasure of literature made this human scale and participatory festival unique and, I might add, utilitarian for the imagination. In spite of the arrival of Aciman’s and Rensin’s Twitterature (Penguin; 2009), it is good to know that literature festivals around the globe are multiplying at multitudinous scales and that books and their electronic avatars are here to stay with a passion beyond words.


Over to Delhi...February 1, 2014