Intimacy. It is not a word you’d use to describe literature festivals anymore, given how big and chaotic they often are, with people sprinting between sessions, often unable to complete one before they move on to the next. But The Hindu Lit for Life (LFL), with its tight yet well-curated programming, has managed to strike the balance, giving everyone a chance to experience a good mix of speakers, while getting their books signed and even pausing for a good cuppa. Rachna Singh Davidar, programme director, says, “I believe that because we are a mid-sized festival, we are able to control quality to a much greater degree, and give our audience range and variety.”
The ninth edition of LFL is also broadening its horizon with new additions, like the prize for best non-fiction. “Earlier, topics of academic interest tended to circulate in a niche audience, but today non-fiction writing has become more accessible. There is growing awareness that non-fiction writing need not always be academic,” says Nirmala Lakshman, Festival Director and Director, The Hindu Group of Publications. “Given the excellent writing in non-fiction and all the excitement around it, we decided to introduce this category.”
A case for reading
The world over, literary festivals are casting a wider net, bringing academics, scientists, actors, sportspersons and thinkers on one platform. Organisers argue that this is necessary because books are not just an escape from the problems of the world, they help us make sense of them. As Daniel Handler, best known for his children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events , puts it, “My technique changes with every project, and surely the way the world is moving, it must have an effect on that — the way the torture scenes in The Grim Grotto would not likely have occurred to me were it not being revealed right then that the US was engaging in torture. I try not to close off the world, if only because it’s impossible. I believe literature makes its own case for reading.”
The Hindu LFL has a whole gamut of sessions: on the future of democracy, the #MeToo movement, the art and politics of dissent, mental illness, poetry, and ecology, to name a few. Speakers include Arun Shourie, the economist-journalist, British historian and journalist John Keay; Meghna Gulzar, whose latest film, Raazi , was one of the best-liked films of 2018; Audrey Truschke, whose work on Aurangzeb has thrown her in the eye of a storm; and VVS Laxman, whose career will always be remembered for his ability to score tough runs.
“ The Hindu has always been a custodian of democracy and these conversations reflect the paper’s values and ethos. At a time when the state is repressing voices, flirting with fascism, trying to curtail people’s basic rights, and with a new world order emerging, it is important to have conversations that highlight the dangers of all of it,” adds Lakshman.
Literary festivals are also coming under attack, for becoming more glitzy. This time, for instance, LFL features Bollywood’s Manisha Koirala and Shweta Bachchan Nanda. Does this focus on celebrities diminish the spotlight on writers? “We invite people from Bollywood and sports celebrities because many of them are going beyond their craft and writing about other issues,” says Lakshman.
“If you make a lit fest too narrow, there won’t be adequate interest. If celebrities can draw in a younger crowd, they will also benefit from being exposed to more serious writers and subjects.”
So what are the challenges in curating a fest that ties together the serious and light-hearted, and balances the local with the national and international? “The challenges are the same as always: you don’t always get every writer on your wish list, but he/she will probably be here later — as has happened with Daniel Handler, who was unable to make it six years earlier but is there this time,” concludes Davidar.
From January 12-14. The Hindu Lit for Life is moving towards becoming a zero-waste festival, in collaboration with Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha.
Food: Think local
Regional ingredients, techniques and recipes are fast disappearing, and sometimes even our current interest in going local isn’t enough to change the tide. Here’s where chefs and writers can provide an intervention. Tasting Trail, a session in Tamil, will see authors Perumal Murugan and G Subramaniam (above, who writes under the pseudonym Nanjil Nadan) move away from their works of fiction to talk about the cuisines of West and South Tamil Nadu. “Every region and community has very distinctive dishes and preparations,” says Subramaniam, who is working on a book, tentatively tiled Nanjil Nattu Unavu (to be published this year), that explores the cultural aspects of food. “Cooking is very simple, we made it complicated. Through anecdotes, history and recipes, I will document the food from Nanjil Nadu.”
Meanwhile, Thomas Zacharias, of The Bombay Canteen, will join fellow chefs Vikramjit Roy and Alfred Prasad, on the panel Food Safari. “I’ve cooked in many countries and kitchens; it is only when you travel and experience new food cultures that it hits you that there is so much more out there to discover,” says Prasad (top right), who is looking forward to completing his cookbook and opening his restaurant in London this year. Zacharias, on the other hand, has been travelling across India over the last four years, using Instagram as his digital diary. “I’ve visited close to 35 places and I’m still amazed at finding things that I haven’t heard of before — from guti aloo in Assam to a subtle Kashmiri rogan josh that I’ve introduced in our menu,” he says, adding we can look forward to more stories as he gets ready to travel to Orissa and squeeze in a food tour of Kerala.
Illustration: Art forward
Continuing to explore the diversity in the book world, this year LFL looks to the role of illustrations. In India for the first time, American author-illustrator Lisa Brown ( The Airport Book, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming ) will join a panel on illustrating for children. About the importance of the topic, she says, “One is providing mass market art, perhaps the first, and even only, fine art with which a child will interact. It is an awesome responsibility and a joy.”
Adult audiences can look to Manjula Padmanabhan’s illustrated talk about the beloved heroine of her decades-long comic strip, Suki. After successful stints in the Sunday Observer and The Pioneer , her latest incarnation is in The Hindu’s Business Line . “In that location, she needs to be a little more dignified,” jokes the author. Suki’s concerns are more existential and political today. “The world around us is a much less easy-going place,” she explains.
Health: Staying present
LFL shines the spotlight on holistic well-being, placing an emphasis on mental health. Psychiatrist (and Director of the Fortis National Mental Health Program) Dr Samir Parikh will participate in two panel discussions on the ‘silent epidemic’. “I am looking forward to a robust interaction about breaking the myths and stigmas,” he says. Author Gayathri Prabhu (top) — whose book The Untitled was recently shortlisted for the Sushila Devi Literature Award — will also bring her own experiences to the table, drawing from her memoir, If I Had to Tell It Again (2017), which talks about the mental health struggles in her family.
Meanwhile, ObGyn and author Dr Sheela Nambiar will present a workshop on fitness and well-being. In a separate discussion, she will also speak with actress Manisha Koirala about her cancer diagnosis and her experience writing about it in her book, Healed . If you are looking to stay healthy this year, nutrition expert Rujuta Diwekar’s blunt suggestion is to chuck diet trends. “They come and go, but the time tested food wisdom of our grandmothers stays ever relevant.” And finally, Joshua Pollock will share meditation practices from his recently-released book, The Heartfulness Way , which he says has had a “direct and positive impact on my emotional, mental and spiritual health”.
Anyone who has been around children will be familiar with their innate curiosity. The Children’s Fest will offer a space for young readers to interact with authors, talk openly on topics like mental health, hygiene and emotions, as well as use their imagination uninhibitedly. Here is what children and parents can expect.
Sharanya Manivannan: What’s in that Tree, Ammuchi?
When: January 12 @ 11.40 am - 12.30 pm
“My book, The Ammuchi Puchi, has a palette: delight, fear, sorrow, healing. We will talk about how Ammuchi tells Anjali and Aditya ghost stories, and they entertain each other. As it was originally published by Lantana Publishing in the UK, who team illustrators and writers from varied cultures to tell stories about children from around the world, we will also be talking about diversity and the co-creation process with Argentinian illustrator, Nerina Canzi.
Joeanna Rebello: Treasure-hunt at the Train Station
When: January 12 @ 12.40 pm - 1.30 pm
“We’ll be travelling (ticketless) to several stations around the world, including St Pancras in London, Grand Central Terminal in New York City and Atocha in Madrid. Each station has a fascinating history, architecture, and stories. St Pancras, for example, has a six-foot beehive on its roof!
Neha Singh: I Need to Pee, You Need to pee, We All Need to Pee!
When: January 13 @ 11.10 am - 12 pm
“This session will be a safe space to talk about natural bodily functions that are usually taboo. I feel kids want to talk about stuff that has so far been codified or hushed; they find it liberating in a most organic way.”
Shabnam Minwalla: Spectabulous Stories
When: January 13 @ 10 am - 11 am
“I’ll be introducing participants to Nimmi, the protagonist of a new series of middle-school books that I’m writing for Speaking Tiger. The books are light-hearted but discuss issues that trouble children — friends, peer pressure, dealing with difficult teachers. Other than storytelling, we will do some creative activities together, like making up new words, drawing and writing.”
Bhakti Mathur: Naughty Krishna, Brave Hanuman, and Tirupati Tour - With Amma!
When: January 14 @ 10 am - 11.15 am
“Mythology is inherently appealing to kids. As a mother of two hyperactive young boys, I know this. But the biggest reason that I find myself going back to them is that the stories serve as a wonderful parenting tool, to highlight values such as courage, determination, perseverance and generosity.”