Writers, editors, publishers and cine personalities descended on Chennai last weekend, and the audience couldn’t have enough of them. Parvathi Nayar on the collective celebration of the word at The Hindu Lit for Life conclave on October 29 and 30.

“A historic occasion” is how Director of Kalakshetra Leela Samson described Lit For Life at the inauguration of Chennai's first literary festival organised by The Hindu — quite the apposite term for an event that's been waiting to happen for so, so long in a city that cherishes the written word.

Nirmala Lakshman, Director of The Hindu – whose belief in literature has kept the paper's Literary Review going strong for 20 years – hopes the debut and future iterations of Lit for Life would serve to “entertain, inform and challenge things about the world we inhabit and the mindspaces we occupy.” A purpose that the Festival pursued through some 11 sessions related to books and words, two workshops and a laugh-out-loud evening with standup comedian Vir Das.

About audiences

It's the audiences who really make a festival, commented novelist and publisher David Davidar, the festival's chief guest, at an informal chat outside the venue. Davidar said he was struck by the audience participation, the enthusiasm, the people who stayed on from session to session – which suggested a promising sense of ownership. Admissions were free and it was an inclusive festival for all Chennaites.

Audience participation had its lighter moments too. A lady beside me, for instance, who visibly slept her way through the session in progress but snapped awake for question-time to complain bitterly about certain audience members who managed to hog the mike. She proceeded to ask her own question that, to my complete astonishment, was a good one, suggesting that some sort of osmosis had taken place while she slept.

“The best part of The Hindu lit fest for me was watching the who's who of publishing spending time with young people between sessions, patiently answering questions, handing out their cards, being encouraging,” observed Krishna Shastri Devulapalli newly-minted author of Ice Boys in Bell-bottoms.

The publishing session itself - featuring hotshot publishers Urvashi Butalia, Ravi Singh, Karthika V.K. and Saugata Mukherjee – was informative and engaging even to those not squirreling away manuscripts-in-search-of-a-publisher. However, for those who do, here's a tip: Karthika gamely opened the doors to receiving steamy bodice-rippers, expressing her desire to discover and publish a good erotic novel.

Now, that's free ticket to voraciously read erotica as research. “Read obsessively. What makes you a writer is that you read a lot,” advised author Mohammad Hanif in an earlier session. Hanif came through as drily witty, and not one to be compartmentalised in terms of identity, saying “I'm a Punjabi who lives in Karachi”.

Superstars, cinema

Freeze Frame with Balu Mahendra, Anjum Rajabali, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, and K. Hariharan was a conversation that caught fire – something that can happen when those who are good at what they do, get together to talk about what they do. Mahendra likened the process of a story transformed into a screenplay into a film to that of the soul's journey, ie the essence is what carries through. Hariharan spoke of an amazing learning lesson, when, excising all cinematic self-indulgence, he had to convert a 90-page script into a 90-minute film. Rajabali said he observed a two-minute silence when handing over his screenplay to the director, a token of respect for the death – and eventual rebirth - of his story. Rao had the audience chuckling when he defended his hero's right to break into song when seeing the princess of his dreams; the drama of the moment demands music, not a cavalier “Hey princess how are you?”

A song is an expression of joy and the chorus lines in our movies represent a multiplication of that joy, said writer/actress/cinematographer/reviewer Suhasini in another session on cinema and writing. Suhasini was a super-trooper, stepping in at the last minute to replace A.R Rahman, and more than holding her own as star performer. An equally entertaining raconteur was Shabana Azmi, who introduced her mother Shaukat Azmi's book Kaifi & I, a memoir of her life with the celebrated poet Kaifi Azmi. Shabana's anecdotes about her parents' colourful lives made them tangible presences onstage. Given its personal insights into the vibrant political and cultural landscape of the time, the book has apparently been selected as a text by 14 US universities.

Writers in conversation

Travel writing was the landscape traversed by Latha Anantharaman and Rahul Bhattacharya. Anantharaman spoke poetically of the irritant experienced by the outsider returning home as the grit in the oyster needed to produce a pearl. Bhattacharya talked of travel as a series of encounters and the tensions of simultaneously being a participant and voyeur – ie knowing even as you “experience” that it will become the written word at some stage.

The playing field for Bhattacharya, Shashi Tharoor and Mukul Kesavan was a topic close to the Indian heart: cricket. Kesavan elaborated on the emergence of “the cricket novel” over the past few years – with Netherland, Joseph O Neill's compelling tale of a Dutchman playing cricket in America generating much debate. Tharoor suggested that cricket has indeed produced great literature – but not necessarily in the arena of fiction. While Bhattacharya coined one of the nicest terms of the festival, “cricket nerdery”, that encapsulates the obsessive passions of those who follow the game.

Bama Faustina, P. Sivakami and Susie Tharu discussed Dalit writing, the power of words to heal and to cure, and the distinction between the two. It was a charged session with Bama saying, for instance, “the pain that I am talking about is pain of someone else telling me how human I can be”; i.e, the fates of Dalits have historically been held in other hands.

Personally, I had the pleasure of engaging multiple hyphenates - surgeon/novelist Kavery Nambisan and poet/novelist/educator K. Srilata - in a session titled The Scent of Paper. The talented authors described how they juggled their schedules to find the time to write, and shared evocative readings from their books.

Some honest talk

Rahul Bhattacharya was the man of the moment: he participated in two very well-received literary sessions, and went on to win — by unanimous vote — the Hindu Literary Prize for Best Fiction, 2011 for his novel The Sly Company of People Who Care.

Interviewing him prior to the win, his focus was on getting the sessions done well, the Prize seemed a distant goal. Some excerpts: “Writing is not a performing art, it is a silent game and a long game. In the past, I was not drawn to literary festivals, either as a reader or writer because I think of both as private activities. Also I used to be very shy. Now I do enjoy the contact that literary festivals permit with writers whom I may not have met otherwise and with the readers — it is warm, honest, and the audience interaction is my favourite part; still, I am not a festival junkie.”

“The place of the festival does influence the conversation, having experienced various settings ranging from an intimate reading for about 15 people at an artist's loft in New York to festival tents in Singapore to the rather more grand setting here at the Hyatt in Chennai.”

“Festivals do take up time and energy. It's not that I prepare too hard (for thematic sessions at festivals) but it does preoccupy me, and I do feel I should do some reading related to the sessions.”

“It's slightly easier for me to talk about (The Sly Company) now, there is some distance. But in the immediate period after you write it, it's tough; it's like its been purged from you and you are drained.”

“Literary prizes are welcome, even though they are very much a case of the winner takes all; it would be good if they could somehow honour more than one winner. Being shortlisted does help, it gives the book a bit more visibility; I'm not on Facebook, neither do I use social media.”

“Future plans? I want to start working on a book, stay in the world of literature.”

A suitable finale

There is a reason that the best literary session is kept for last, i.e. Vikram Seth's presentation of his new collection of poetry The Rivered Earth due to be released at the end of the year.

Seth, charming and very good-humoured, explained the book consists of four libretti — ‘Songs in Time of War', ‘Shared Ground', ‘The Traveller' and ‘Seven Elements' — written to accompany music by Alec Roth. In a sense they are also travel poems, inspired by countries such as India and China, as well as settings such as the Salisbury house where English poet George Herbert lived and died.

It was an astonishing presentation, multilingual for a start — mostly English but peppered with a soupcon of Hindi and Chinese — and accompanied by Chinese and Islamic calligraphy as well as gorgeous music. The presentation featured the sung word, the recited word, even, in a final gleeful burst of uninhibited energy, the performed word. If Seth's presentation style has changed considerably since the last time I heard him read at a festival tent in Adelaide, the audience reaction hasn't; they remained enraptured. The verses reminded us why Seth appeals; he plays intricate games with the language at one level, but on another, things are pared down to its essence with the kind of simplicity that is breathtakingly hard to achieve.

The Hindu Lit For Life 2013 - Title Sponsor VGN, Powered by VIT, Bookstall Partner Landmark.

Radio partner - Chennai Live 104.8 FM

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012