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Almost Island is “anti-litfest” in its emphasis on serious literature

(From left) George Szirtes, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Allan Sealy at the Dialogues.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A few minutes into our conversation, I ask Sharmistha Mohanty what she’d call Almost Island. She hesitates, before turning to Rahul Soni, Associate Editor at Almost Island. “What would we call it, Rahul?”, she asks him, and shrugs slightly: “I’ve never thought about it.”

“I don’t know if there is a term for it,” says Soni. “An idea?”, he continues, uncertain. And then, a little more firmly, “An endeavour.” Sharmistha tries the word, sounding it out — “An endeavour. Yes, that’s a nice way to put it.”

Pursuit of intimacy

Almost Island turned 10 in 2017. For 10 years, Sharmistha, it’s founder, along with Vivek Narayan, her co-editor, and Soni have brought out the Almost Island bi-annual journal, published books and held an annual edition of the ‘Dialogues’ — a meeting between Indian and international writers — in Delhi.

The most recent edition of the Dialogues, held in December 2017, was attended by writers, translators and scholars like Allan Sealy, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Chinese poet Bei Dao, Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec, Joy Goswami, Manglesh Dabral, translator Margaret Carson, literary scholars Emily Sun and Jared Stark.

These discussions are no-frills, no-fuss affairs that feel almost meditative in nature and setting — the panellists and audience sit together at long conference tables, the discussions ebb and flow for hours sometimes, reaching depths few literary panels reach.

I ask Sharmistha if this structure, and this pursuit of intimacy, is intentional. “This is how my colleagues and I wanted it. We are after a very serious discussion — about form, about craft; about what I call the labour of literature. We are not about book launches or five-minute sound-bites.” In other words, Almost Island is no literature festival.

In fact, Sharmistha says that ‘anti-litfest’ is “the little soundbite way of describing” the Dialogues, though when they first began, she wasn’t looking to define them against anything. “I just thought that this is how things ought to be done when writers get together.”

So what do the attendees take away from these Dialogues? Sharmistha says that she can’t possibly name tangibles. “I think what poets and writers gain from discussions like these is very often intangible. And what they gain goes into their work, into their thoughts, into perhaps a new way of looking at forms. I know for myself and I know for my colleagues that some discussions have been in some way transformative for us.” She adds that considering the Dialogues are cross-cultural, international panellists also get to listen to Indian experiences.

For her, the fact that so many writers and thinkers keep coming back is proof enough of how the Dialogues affect them. I ask Allan Sealy about his experience — he first attended the Dialogues in 2006 and is a regular. “I imagine this is how Nalanda might have felt in its day... In a world of noise, often literary noise, your ear is committed to a kind of remote-sensing. Meeting such a group of fellow writers is like discovering intelligent life out there in the cosmos,” he says, adding that the sessions are “cloistered and monkish, yet international and informed, with an eclectic energy”.

A verticality

Monkish — Sealy’s choice of description is apt, and works, in a way, for the journal too. While available online to anyone who’d like access to it, the bi-annual journal is especially pertinent for those interested in serious literature.

“Some people might say that I’m very hard about the kind of literature I consider to be serious. You will notice that I’m not using the word ‘like’. There can be things that I don’t like, which are very serious, but I respect them,” says Sharmistha.

What, according to her, is serious literature? “I think if you want to create literature, prose or poetry, that is meaningful — it’s another thing if you want to be an entertaining writer, I’m not talking about that — there has to be a search for something. There has to be a depth, a verticality. There has to be innovation in the way you speak, in form. And there has to be something at stake.”

For Sharmistha, not much Indian writing in English qualifies as serious literature. “I think the English poetry scene in India is much more lively and genuine than the scene in fiction. Obviously I like the work of Adil Jussawalla and Vivek Narayanan. But there are younger poets coming up who seem to be doing some interesting things. In fiction, the one person I admire is Allan Sealy, for his innovations with each work and for his uncompromising attitude. There was a great writer who died in 2015, almost unnoticed — Vilas Sarang. I’m sorry to say I never met him. In Hindi, I do admire Vinod Kumar Shukla greatly, in Bengali I like the work of Joy Goswami.”

Sharmistha calls Almost Island’s 10th year a kind of watershed. “I think we need to think about what changes we want, in what new direction we want to grow.”

She isn’t entirely happy with the journal, she says: “I think it can get deeper in some way. And maybe we can have the Dialogues in a different place.”

The writer is Commissioning Editor, HarperCollins India.

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 4:29:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/almost-island-is-anti-litfest-in-its-emphasis-on-serious-literature/article23279876.ece

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