Forty seven sessions. More than 70 authors and panellists. Five short-listed books. And a grand ﬁnale in which the winner’s publisher was showered with confetti. The Hindu Lit for Life fest came to a close in Chennai on Monday.
From poignant pictures of the Bhopal gas tragedy to unusual pictures from the jungle; from the art of writing religious narratives to the challenges in writing for children; from celebrated works of poetry to various forms of prose; from gender and sexuality to engaging with our past — the Hindu Lit for Life this year had something for everyone.
The fest began with Arvind Adiga talking to David Godwin about his childhood in Madras. The discussion that followed on the new Indian woman was popular with the audience. The session on South Indian literature stood out with its choreography and conceptualisation.
The auditorium spilled over when National award-winning poet Gulzar recited poems on a range of topics. Even before he could step out of the hall to sign his new book, a long queue had already gathered near his table. As soon as he sat down, a boy in front of the queue opened his bag and brought out six books to be signed. “You inspired me to write poetry,” he said, crying. “Bahut logon ko aise hi bigaad diya maine,” Gulzar smiled.
Political activist Naomi Wolf’s discussion with journalist Barkha Dutt explored the tabooed topic of sexuality before it steered towards the safety of women in India. Audience members actively participated in the discussion with many asking uncomfortable questions on the topic. The fact that such questions can even be asked reflects the extent of freedom in this country, Wolf said. Wolf’s non-fiction work The Beauty Myth was sold out right after her talk.
Authors also held forth at parallel sessions in the courtyard of the venue. “I want to go for both sessions,” a girl told me on the second day. “This is just not fair.” On the second day, the crowd came back — excited to listen to Carnatic star T. M. Krishna talk about his book to Gopalkrishna Gandhi. As the session progressed, copies of his book dwindled on the shelves of the bookshop outside. The next session was the much-awaited talk by historian Romila Thapar on the historical traditions of modern India. N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Limited and Publisher of The Hindu, introduced the speaker, sharing the story of how the historian made the unequivocal choice of obtaining a degree in history over marriage. Thapar addressed a crucial question: Did ancient Indians have a sense of history? “We have to search for how the past saw its past as a parallel study to see how we see the present,” she said to an enthralled audience.
A discussion on mega cities Calcutta, Bombay and Madras as sites of hope or despair, among festival curator and The Hindu Director Nirmala Lakshman, writers Amit Chaudhuri and Naresh Fernandes, and architect Pushpa Arabindoo evoked a lot of interest. Discussions on crime fiction, politics of women’s writing, the search for identity, and fantasy also assumed centre stage on the second day. Travel writer Colin Thubron recounted surprising tales of his travels. “I saw monks screaming at a footballer while watching a match on television, I thought they’d be meditating!” he said. William Dalrymple, walking back and forth on stage, presented his book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. Detailed and anecdotal, Dalrymple’s talk was received with loud applause. Writer and physician Abraham Verghese spoke of his work, which rose out of his passion for his chosen profession.
Meanwhile, workshops on theatre, writing, movement and yoga drew enthusiastic members to the basement of the venue.
After much jostling on the morning of the final day for a glimpse of Kamal Hasan, the afternoon saw literature enthusiasts gather to listen to four of the five short-listed authors — Sonora Jha, Amandeep Sandhu, Manjul Bajaj and Manu Joseph — read excerpts from their books. Jha’s reading from her book Foreign was about a farmer selling his kidney in Vidarbha to get money. Sandhu read a chilling passage from the Roll of Honour, of how a young boy’s memory of a gun kissing his forehead constantly revisits him even many years later. Bajaj read snippets from Another Man’s Wife and Other Stories; the excerpt on the movements of a dancer was especially sketched beautifully. Joseph’s characteristic dry humour in The Illicit Happiness of Other People had everyone, particularly those from Chennai, in splits.
Ironically, the fifth author, Anees Salim, though not present, ended up bagging the Best Fiction Award for his book Vanity Bagh. The award was presented by two-time Booker finalist Jim Crace, who said encouragingly: “For every hundred people with a story to tell, only one writes a book. For every hundred who starts writing a book, only one completes it. For every hundred who complete it, only one manages to get it published. And for every hundred who publish it, only one gets good reviews. There is a winner but there will be no losers today.”
The fest especially attracted students this year. The bookshop outside the auditorium was perpetually crowded; determined audience members were often found trying to sneak into the authors’ lounge for more personal interactions.
After the grand award ceremony, when everybody left, I lingered around for some time. I watched people bring down boards, stack chairs hurriedly in tall piles, close food stalls and pack books in cartons. Outside the auditorium, a harried-looking woman was attempting to tackle a crisis at home, over the phone. Her son, perhaps around seven or eight, stood next to her, holding a copy of one of Valmik Thapar’s books. He sighed impatiently. Seeing that his mother showed no signs of leaving, he walked up to a bright corner along the pathway, sat down, tore off the plastic cover on his book and opened it. “You take your time, ma,” he called out. “But I cannot wait to start reading.”