From food to films to politics and revolutions to bestsellers, Lit for Life, presented by Hirco, in New Delhi had something for everyone.

A clear September Sunday morning at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi saw the organisers, panellists and attendees congregate for The Hindu Lit for Life presented by Hirco. Organised to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of The Hindu Literary Review, the festival will also host the award ceremony of the annual Hindu Literary Prize in Chennai.

The day began at the Stein Auditorium lawns with a buffet breakfast – Chef Nikhil Chib was at hand serving egg-cheese and ham open sandwiches. Chib, a onetime Wall Street investment banker, runs the popular Busaba chain of restaurants in Mumbai. Post breakfast, he accompanied the crowd to the Stein Auditorium to weigh in on matters of food in the first conversation of the day, titled “Are You Really Going to Eat That”.

Asparagus versus bathua

Writer Esther David moderated a spirited discussion on what we should eat, what our grandparents and forefathers ate, and why the big, ongoing changes in our food habits are not necessarily such a great thing. Nikhil Chib noted that the “Indian-Conti-Chinese” fare of the pre-liberalisation era has now been replaced by Thai, Japanese and Italian. “Are we going to become slaves to Aragula?” asked Manu Chandra, an executive chef at the upscale Olive chain of restaurants in Mumbai and Bengaluru. There is, of course, a high likelihood that the aromatic salad leaf popular in Italian cuisine features in his restaurants’ menu.

The dominant note was one of caution, of not letting go of traditional food and cooking habits. “Why do we prefer asparagus over bathua [the local spinach-like leafy green],” Chandra continued in the same vein. He then looked at the audience and challenged it: “How many people in this room eat bathua?” A respectable number of hands — say about twenty-five — went up, and Chandra seemed a little mollified.

David spoke fondly of the famous Bhatiyar Galli in her native Ahmedabad, famous for its biryanis and other non-vegetarian “mughlai” dishes that are part of a 600-year-old culinary tradition.

Ways to kiss and kill

Served up next was an appetizing conversation on the literary equivalent of fast food — popular fiction. What makes a book popular, asked moderator Angela Saini, the London-based science reporter and author of Geek Nation, an acclaimed book on scientists in India. Mukul Deva, author of many fast-paced thrillers, was ready with the answer: good setting, pace, good guy, bad guy and a woman. Anuja Chauhan, author of the bestselling The Zoya Factor, countered that a fixed formula was a recipe for boring books, but admitted to one guiding rule that she tries to adhere to — that every page in her book should have one “sparkling bit”, be it humour or romance or something else. The challenge for the writer, she said, was to present the familiar in a fresh way. “After all, there are only so many ways in which you can kiss someone,” said Chauhan. Deva had earlier made a similar point about writing thrillers, pointing out that there are only so many ways in which you could kill someone.

Pigeons, gol gappas and Mig 21

“I am a bad reader. I am ignorant. There is [in me] the darkness of not reading. But I like to listen a lot.” Not the words you expect to hear at a literary festival but then filmmaker Rakesh Omprakash Mehra won over the packed audience with his straight talking. Film writer and journalist Jai Arjun Singh seemed to have picked the thread from the previous panel when he quizzed Mehra about the new wave in Indian cinema — which includes his hit film “Rang De Basanti” — that has bridged the old divide between “popular” and “serious” films.

“I was born and brought up in Old Delhi; I would fly kites; play with pigeons, and have the best gol gappas in the world...In our school we had a Mig 21 in the compound that fascinated us...and during the Mandal agitation we went to protest at AIIMS,” Mehra said. These vignettes all figure in his films.

Bismillah

Aman Sethi, who covers the Maoist insurgency in Chattisgarh for The Hindu, talked about the Arab Spring and the conflict in Afghanistan with the Yemeni novelist Ali Al Muqri, the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner and Afghanistan-based radio broadcaster and imam John Mohammad Butt. Al Muqri introduced himself by recalling an old India connection — how he would skip school as a boy in Yemen to go watch Hindi movies.

Butt — a former hippie who arrived from England in 1969 and decided to embrace Islam and stay on — narrated a joke: An old Afghan man was stopped at a security check post and told that he will have to disrobe and be frisked. He protested against having to suffer this indignity, but was told that no one involved had any choice in the matter — he’ll just have to comply. Resigned, he untied his robe, parted it with both hands, and remembered God, uttering the word “Bismillah”. Immediately, everyone scattered and scrambled away from him. Amazed, he wondered what he had done. People told him that they ran away because they thought he was a suicide-bomber. Butt said that for Afghans reeling under 30 years of war, this joke was a coping mechanism; a way to talk about taboo topics such as suicide-bombing.

Surreal Delhi

Matching the surreal state of wartime Afghanistan was Aman Sethi’s account of biometric identification of beggars in Delhi. Sethi was moderating the discussion about the relative merits of fiction and non-fiction in presenting reality along with two Delhi novelists — author Rana Dasgupta and writer and journalist Indrajit Hazra. Beggars in Delhi, Sethi said, are often caught by the police and hauled off to something called the “beggars court”; their thumbprints are then scanned and filed for future reference, except that, as Sethi discovered, there was no mechanism to retrieve the digitally scanned thumbprints — the whole exercise was essentially pointless.

Inspired at twelve

Both playwright Mahesh Dattani and Sanjna Kapoor, who runs the iconic Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, recollected formative experiences from when they were 12 years old — experiences that nudged them towards a career in theatre. Kapoor recounted driving around Ireland with her grandparents — her grandfather was the actor-manager Geoffrey Kendal — in a blue Citroen car and performing different bits of Shakespeare in schools. “I would play Titania to my grandfather’s Oberon, and was falling in love with him!” she recalled fondly. Dattani contrasted Kapoor’s rich family legacy in theatre with his own childhood, growing up in a Gujarati business family in Bengaluru. When he was 12, the family went to watch a Gujarati ‘whodunit’ play — there was continuous chattering among the audience in the foyer, which carried over inside the theatre and continued well after the play began. “Then there was a gun produced onstage and there was pin-drop silence,” he recalled. “I was mesmerised; it shut up 500 Gujaratis!” It was a valuable lesson in the power of theatre.

The concluding session saw the young Member of Parliament Sachin Pilot and veteran CPM leader Sitaram Yechury take hard questions on politics after Anna Hazare from Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu; and then face even harder queries from the audience.

Rounding off the day were three short Bharatnatyam pieces performed by Alarmel Valli — the audience was rapt and mesmerised. Spotted in the darkened hall was Ali Al Muqri, recording every bit of the recital on his small mobile phone camera.

And then came the much anticipated finale — the announcement of the shortlist for The Hindu Literary Prize for Best Fiction 2011. Three of the five judges were present — writer Mridula Garg, the poet K. Satchidanadan and academic Brinda Bose — along with Manu Joseph, editor of the Open magazine, and winner of The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010 for his novel Serious Men. Garg explained the process by which they had chosen the seven shortlisted titles out of a total of 125 books that they read between them.

The day had something for everyone, from food to politics to films to the straightforward suspense over the shortlist announcement. If one day can pack in so much, one can’t wait to see what the two-day concluding session in Chennai on October 29-30 would throw up. Get ready for some scintillating stuff and be there…

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