Is all well with our words?

From architecture and graphic art to blank verse and book bans, the Ooty Literary Fest takes a deep hard look at the world we inhabit

September 18, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Udhagamandalam,14.09.2018: Geeta Srinivasan  (middle)and Jerry Pinto(right) releasing the book The Engaged Observer by Shanta Gokhale at the Ooty literary festival in Udhagamandalam on 14 september 2018, also in the picture are (from left) T.J.Pinto managing trustee of Ooty lit festival and Shanta Gokhale.
Photo:M.Sathyamoorthy

Udhagamandalam,14.09.2018: Geeta Srinivasan (middle)and Jerry Pinto(right) releasing the book The Engaged Observer by Shanta Gokhale at the Ooty literary festival in Udhagamandalam on 14 september 2018, also in the picture are (from left) T.J.Pinto managing trustee of Ooty lit festival and Shanta Gokhale. Photo:M.Sathyamoorthy

Somewhere above and behind me are 40, 000 books, roughly half of them well over a hundred years old. I know that they are arranged on polished wooden bookshelves with mitred joints that are as old as the books. In front of me are poets and activists, graphic novelists and green writers, journalists and historians who share their thoughts on subjects as varied as environment, social media, surveillance and refugees. There is very little to beat the feeling of sitting in the Reading Room of the Nilgiris Library, one of the oldest in the country (opened in 1869).

Shanta Gokhale, playwright, critic, screenwriter, novelist and translator, is awarded the Ooty Literary Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. The 79-year-old plants a Spathodea sapling outside to commemorate the third edition of the festival and brings spark, humour, erudition and charm into every session she participates in.

She has mentored two other stars of the festival Jerry Pinto (Festival advisor) and poet Ranjit Hoskote, both of whom speak of her glowingly and with warmth. Shanta’s keynote address points out how the world has become a place of fear for thinkers and writers. And that becomes the leitmotif for the rest of the festival.

Shanta mentions the Watergate Scandal, Satanic Verses , the Emergency and Urban Naxals. In a later session, she urges, “Be free in your mind. Think freely. Whether you act on it is secondary. Writers have stopped themselves from thinking and feeling. If we continue to censor ourselves and our thoughts we will then only have fairy tales.”

Udhagamandalam,14.09.2018:N.Ram Chairman THEHINDU group in conversation with Sameera Khan on manufacturing consent in the time of Facebook at the Ooty literary Festival in Udhagamandalam on 14 september 2018.
Photo:M.Sathyamoorthy

Udhagamandalam,14.09.2018:N.Ram Chairman THEHINDU group in conversation with Sameera Khan on manufacturing consent in the time of Facebook at the Ooty literary Festival in Udhagamandalam on 14 september 2018. Photo:M.Sathyamoorthy

N Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Group and former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu , carries this thought forward in a conversation about tainted journalism, toxic social media and erosion of values in the Press. But there is hope yet, he says, if journalists reclaim their writing, re-establish credibility, become accountable and never stop questioning.

This is something Paro Anand does when she writes for young adults. Paro has had the distinction of being awarded the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar for children’s writing and having her books banned! But she writes regardless. “Teenagers live in a dark space. I write disturbing stuff for children, because I believe stories are a safe place to talk about difficult issues,” she says but adds that she always ends her stories on a note of hope and empowerment. She laughs as she mentions how her ilk is doubly marginalised — a woman writing for children. “We receive half the prize money and the President does not give it to us.”

Journalist and author of Why Loiter?, Sameera Khan, points out how gender discrimination also extends to public spaces. Why do women not have as much access to public spaces as men, she wants to know. And suggests that along with sensitisation drives and education, better infrastructure may also work wonders. “Have better lit roads and public transport and a more efficient police service,” she says. But Sameera also refuses to accept that women-centric matters are only about “doom and gloom”. She shares funny stories like the one about the bunch of women who made some men at the daaru ka theka very uncomfortable when they insisted they would sit with them and drink! Or of the woman who tucked in her sari and fulfilled a long-cherished dream of drinking tea standing at the roadside chaiwala’s. These are possible, says Sameera. “We just need to find our tribe and do our thing.”

In the hills, Green concerns are never far away. Environmentalist and author Pankaj Sekhsaria gives a stark presentation that leave some uncomfortable questions hanging unanswered. But no one is left in any doubt that catastrophe is not all that far away as we may think.

Ranjit Hoskote reads lines on the ocean from his collection Jonahwhale and poet and architect Mustansir Dalvi speaks of our cityscapes losing touch with the earth, literally where living quarters actually begin from the seventh of eight floors on skyscrapers, the lower portions all given up for parking. Srividya Sivakumar reads chilling lines of degradation of the human kind from her collection The Heart is an Attic. It is a poem called ‘Petition’ written a few days after the rape of Asifa.

The two days of talks, discussions, poetry reading and story telling wraps up, but not before book lovers head to the stall set up by Higginbothoms to buy books and have them signed by the authors present.

The Nilgiri Library

It was John Sullivan who wrote to the government in 1829 saying a subscription had been set aside for a proposed Public Reading Room in Ooty which is today the Nilgiris Library. Robert Chisolm designed the library and, in 1867, the foundation stone was laid. The motto of the library is Abeunt Studia in Mores meaning ‘Studies Pass into Habits’.

Originally a jail and a post office stood on this spot, says Geetha Srinivasan, the president of the Nilgiri Library. It opened in 1869 with 23 members. When the libraries of the East India Company were amalgamated, some books came to the Nilgiris Library in 1864. You can still see them here.

The recently restored library combines British architectural style with traditional building methods. The magnificent Reading Room looks chapelesque with its massive windows that allow in plenty of light. The original wooden rafters still proudly bear the weight of the roof.

What stories the polished wooden floors and shelves in the fabulous reference room would have to tell if they could speak! Old fashioned catalogue holders and tall step ladders hold the excitement of books galore. Each section has polished brass plaques with curvy letters that announce ‘Geography and Travels’, “Literature” and “Physical Science and Useful Arts”.

Some of the books retain their original binding with the library’s insignia. There are treasures there and thrills as one takes out The Life of Charlotte Bronte written by Mrs Gaskell. A black and white illustration of the Haworth Parsonage where the Brontes lived is guaranteed to give goose bumps.

Geetha Srinivasan, who is also an INTACH convener, says, “Heritage cannot be preserved in isolation,” and therefore the Nilgiri Library has grown to become a space for cultural activities including dance, music and, of course, the Ooty Literary Fest.

Behind the OLF

Managing Trustees: Titus Gerard Pinto, Yash Muthanna, Geetha Srinivasan, Greaves Henriksen

Committee: Meenakshi Venkatraman, Dr. Sheela Nambiar, Jaya Bakshi and Shernaz Sethna

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