Event The second day of the Bangalore Literature Festival had animated discussions on the demands of children’s and South Asian writing, marketing, and bestsellers

As South Asia celebrates more than 60 years of freedom from direct and indirect colonial rule, and the issue of a separate south Asian identity is being discussed, a panel at the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Fest held discussions on The South Asian Voice: Writing for ourselves. The session was moderated by Laxmi Murthy. The panellists included the editor of Himal magazine, Kanak Mani Dixit, Sri Lankan author, Ashok Ferrey, Pakistani journalist turned author, Babar Fayaz; Bangladeshi author, Faraz Ghuznavi and Pakistani film critic Mira Hashmi. The discussion dealt with the colonial influences on writing in English in South Asia. Kanak Mani Dikshit talked about the need to question the establishment on all issues and called for an end to dumbing down of English writing. “We should ensure that lines describing dal as lentil soup must be avoided. We should not talk down and must write for our people as well, not the western audiences alone.”

Babar Ayaz, author of the book, What’s Wrong With Pakistan said, “It is very important, especially when you are writing non-fiction about South Asia, to question the establishment view. We must not be bound by our national identities. I feel that writers such as Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul are western authors, who write for western audiences.”

Faraz Ghuznavi talked about her journey into writing in English. “I feel that what we should ensure while writing about South Asia is to bring out the positive facets as well.”

Ashok Ferrey talked about the manner in which the focus on writing for the masses was devaluing the language. Mira Hashmi quipped that she wrote for people who appreciate good cinema. “I feel that film writers write for people who enjoy movies and also will like to know more about the various facets of filmmaking.”

Money talks

In recent years, the literary debate in India has mainly concentrated on a battle between bestselling commercial authors such as Ashwin Sanghi, Chetan Bhagat and literary fiction represented by writers such as Shashi Despande and many others. How does one classify as a bestseller? Is the current generation a best-seller generation alone? That was the crux of the discussion that saw the participation of Ian Jack, a journalist and authors Shobhaa De, Ashwin Sanghi and Shashi Despande. Shashi said, “When we are talking about bestsellers, it is important to know which books we are talking about. Any book can be a bestseller. I have never thought of serious marketing. You write a book to the best of your ability and leave the rest to luck.”

De contended, “No one wants to write a dud. I think the notion that bestselling authors cannot write well is ridiculous. It is a little like the debate over good and bad art. Who gets to decide? Some books turn out to be a phenomenon. No one starts off thinking about writing a bestseller. The content is decisive. The best marketing cannot save a bad book.”

Ian Jack quipped, “I feel that no one can save a bad book. Marketing is also very important in the publishing industry, more so with the rise of the internet. I feel that at times, literary fiction is overrated. A P.G. Woodhouse could never have won a booker.”

Ashwin Sanghi said, “I feel luck plays a vey crucial role in determining the success of the book. Marketing a book is also very important. You need to try all tricks in the trade.

Despande said, “Good books can be bestsellers. I think the language must be sacrosanct and must not be destroyed. Marketing must not be the only thing that should determine book sales.”

The power of imagination

Writing for children can be one of the most challenging tasks authors face. But adman-lyricist and now scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi put it pretty succinctly when he spoke of what kids will be willing to read. “Kids are ruthless. If they are not interested in your writing, it means you're not interesting enough.”

He was responding to a question from a parent-turned-writer on what one should be writing for kids, and the market for children's writing. Poet-filmmaker Gulzar too responded with, “First start writing. The market will come to you if you're good enough.”

While it may sound harsh, it didn’t come across that way when the two poets spoke at the Bangalore Literature Festival’s second day. Because it was all said in goodwill, because the audience was just willing to imbibe any advise given by the veterans, and because the occasion and atmosphere was festive. It was the launch of Gulzar’s Ali Baba Aur Chaalis Chor, a dramatised version of the classic, as part of the Potli Baba Ki Kahani series published by Scholastic India. “Kids these days don’t get enough stories that are ready to be staged. That’s why this book is written as a play. It also introduces them to their culture early,” observed Gulzar. A young student made a brave attempt on stage to read lines from the book in front of an overwhelmingly large crowd, which cheered him on. Joshi too read from the book.

The venue was brimming over with enthusiasm, children, eager parents, and teachers. Gulzar and Joshi engaged the audience in an easy conversation on the special words parents create for children, how mothers down the ages have always “lied” to children promising they’ll grow tall if they drink milk, about the need to adapt folk tales in today’s lingo.

The discussion moved to a parents’ concern about lack of enough indigenous Indian books, bad translations, and having to inevitably turn to English literature for kids, and the nagging worry about kids stuck to gadgets.

Joshi accentuated on the need of tapping in on the trend of kids playing constantly with iPads and iPhones, saying, “Literature shouldn’t depend entirely on paper. Narratives are what matter, and they should, and will, survive.” We should get our children to go beyond the standard fare of 20 cartoon characters, he said when someone spoke of kids getting their mythological and cartoon characters mixed up, giving the example of Chota Bheem. “It’s a parenting issue. How you raise your kids matter when it comes to their perception. You must nurture both reality and imagination in a child.”

Gulzar too took this thread of thought, when a parent commented on the ever-greenness of his songs like “Lakdi ki kaati” and “Jungle jungle pataa chala hai chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai”. The beauty of these songs lies in the fact that you’re not giving the kids information, he said. “Kids are playful. To get them interested, you should let them sing, dance, give them something to play with.” Joshi concluded definitively: “You need to leave something to their imagination.”