Are literary festivals becoming a fashion in India?
"YOU mean it's a book fair?" No signs of amusement were betrayed. To add to this was an exasperated organiser at a recently held literature festival in Delhi, "people much rather flock to fashion shows than listen to words making sense." Something in the air tells me trends are beginning to reverse. The Indian psyche is quite willingly beginning to accept new parameters of "festivals" — the glow of lights will come from words lighting up lives, cultural chatter colouring our thoughts, ideas bursting from splashes of "humanity in print". So if you are petrified at the thought of a dusty room filled with stuffy intellectuals wearing khadi kurtas or terry-wool suits and pretentiously discussing the oft beaten "post-colonial" burdens on Indian English Literature or Romanticism in its post-modern dark existence, take heart, literature festivals are exciting and stimulating for the mind. You come away having gained.
Katha Asia 2006 focused on cities and cultures of myriad peoples, held together by stories and story telling traditions. The Africa Asia Literature Conference at Neemrana stressed on recreating the continent, transcending barriers of language, cultures and the burden of identities. "You are compelled to define `self' through the eyes of others — the Blacks through the Whites, women through men, or as set against the majority. The `otherness' of the self, the split self, the hybrid self — finding your `self' through the various cultures is like negotiating with the third space", said Satchidanandan. The writer experiences all these conflicts of class, gender, culture, language; it impacts creativity. Is our poetry then a last dreamy song sung in haste? Kofi Anyidoho (Ghana) asked us to "listen carefully, you will hear many silences, several muffled voices, the oceans separated me from my self — here I am condensing time, reuniting space..." The Indo-UK combine at the Kitab Fest threw up views on literature's life enforcing concerns. From snake charmers to call centres, where is Indian writing in English heading? Fed up with the criticism of not writing about the real India, Siddharth Dhanvant Sanghvi said, "small town India is not my reality, and I'm not planning to go there soon." "We are creating linguistic half castes, there is a social disjoint even as we perceive the effervescence of Indian literature in English, we have to be more inclusive and not create a rarified, inclusive world, without the bhasha writings," said Pavan Varma. A lot of food for thought gets thrown up at such meets. The Jaipur Virasat Literature Festival brought authors and readers in touch with each other, to bond and feel the pulse that ticks inside the mind of a writer. "The existence of such events explains the vibrancy of people's thoughts and the openness with which people receive and imbibe the same. Their purpose in an ideal world is to bring into focus, concerns of people who genuinely believe they have something to say and more often than not, articulate the thoughts of the silent majority," said Pramod Kumar, organiser, Jaipur Literature Festival, January 2006. A literature festival promotes a city as a destination, but this is the by-product and not the reason for such festivals. These events are inspirational, as people are motivated by thoughts and ideas of famous figures. Writers meet each other socially, on panels, a lot of personal relationships arise. The warmth of the winter sun in Jaipur had Pavan Varma, Hari Kunzru, Tarun Tejpal, Shobhaa De, Namita Gokhale, Vivek Naraynan, Mamang Dai, Anita Roy and others fall into bonhomie and laughter, while each felt they could really talk to each other. Unanimous opinion being, "festivals like these put us in touch with each other and our readers at an intimate level." It was not unusual to see a group engrossed in discussion with Hari, Vivek and Tarun, before and after their readings. "Once they are out there, stories are everyone's property — to be used, torn apart and changed. Look beyond the Panchatantra and move on to something Indian and fresh, something that matches the pace of today's life," said Anita Roy.
"Young aspiring writers find in such festivals an opportunity to meet their role models, people with a literary bent of mind get to hob knob with authors, publishers use festivals as marketing tools, the results may not be tangible, the impact of such events becomes apparent only over a long period of time," said Danish Hussain, a theatre actor. A `chance' introduction to the work of an otherwise `not-known-to-you' author can be a powerful motivating factor to buy and read a new book. Books have been known to effect change in people and it is people who eventually change a country... At Neemrana, I noticed the ease with which one could sit back and relax with literary giants like Ashis Nandy, U.R. Anantamurthy, Sachitanandan, Gulzar, Sudip Sen and most African and Asian authors. An informal poetry reading session with poets like Ashok Bajpaye, Gulzar, Sudip was like music for the soul. During Kitab, the India Habitat Centre buzzed with more discussions being held outside the auditorium, with authors, editors, journalists lounging comfortably on low parapets. With Nadeem Aslam (of Maps of Lost Lovers fame) gently asserting, "Before 9/11, if someone asked me if I was a Muslim, I would have probably said no. Because I don't fast, pray or believe in God. But now I feel it is imperative to define myself in terms of my religious identity, only to let people know that Muslims don't only crash planes into buildings but live peaceful, constructive lives too." "Authors love doing festivals as they can exchange the loneliness of their word processor for fans who give their feedback and adoration. Unlike film and pop stars, scurrying away form their fans, authors bask in the attention as it is often so rare," said Geordie Greg of Tatler. The literary scene in our country is just beginning to take off. There are about 108 literary festivals in the U.K. throughout the year — the Edinburgh Literature Festival has a gargantuan line up of 550 authors and 650 events. "Many channels open up, it's a positive side of globalisation. People come together in a space for the like-minded and not-so-like-minded, they talk a lot, throw up ideas. In Britain, the level of debate in the British papers is a bit bland, literature festivals have taken on that role," said Catherine Lockerbie, Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival. For those who have attended the few in India, lit fests are a time when it is raining inspiration, fantastic tension, star value, rivalry sparks that offsets public angst. Where paradoxes like love for books meets the terror of books. The age group 16 to 25 years should be the target. To get them to grasp the richness of life's myriad experiences through the written word, to take make them fall in love with books should be the aim. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org