The Bangalore Literature Festival was a comforting sign of the return to normalcy

It is possible that the 11th edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival saw bigger crowds, more enthusiasm and greater energy than any of the previous 10

Updated - December 09, 2022 12:22 pm IST

Published - December 08, 2022 11:21 am IST

Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka (R) in conversation with poet-novelist Jeet Thayil at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022.

Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka (R) in conversation with poet-novelist Jeet Thayil at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K.

The first time I went to a literature festival, the guests included Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Tom Wolfe, Anita Desai, David Lodge, Peter Ustinov, Harold Pinter. None of them became lifelong friends, but for a few brief moments when they signed their books for me or responded to my questions, they spoke as if we were indeed friends.

Writing is a lonely, individual pursuit — and so is reading. A literature festival makes it a community event. Most readers don’t want to know too much about writers; they are happy with what their books reveal. And most writers are happy for short sessions with readers (some see them as necessary evils); they would rather be writing than speaking. A lit fest satisfies both groups, each seeking validation in convenient ways. And then there is that illusion of friendship.

Watch | Highlights of the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022

The return of the lit fest has been both stealthy and noisy. It is a dichotomy that describes that most heart-warming of festivals — a community-funded one that is the Bangalore Literature Festival (BLF). It is possible that the 11th edition saw bigger crowds, more enthusiasm and greater energy than any of the previous 10. It continues to be both intimate like a home-cooked meal for two, and extravagant like an Indian wedding.

Youngsters stood out in a way they don’t at other festivals, asking questions, often provocative. Sitting in a contemplative corner in the author’s lounge, I was nearly trampled by the Sudha Murty fan club which accompanied her towards the book signing area. The lady herself walked with the air of a rock star used to such adulation. It was wonderful!

Author Pico Iyer at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022.

Author Pico Iyer at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Pico Iyer speaking on why we travel is a bit like Moses explaining the Ten Commandments with footnotes. The world is not shrinking, he explained, not in the way it should. “We are 200 cultures divided by a common frame of reference.”

Translations, Booker winners and more

Translation is the flavour of the season, especially after Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker Prize, and the BLF reflected that. Shree was a star at the show, even if few knew how this brave anti-establishment writer has been shunned in her native Uttar Pradesh and has had public appearances cancelled there with the weapon of those who would harass, the so-called Public Interest Litigation.

Dancer Mallika Sarabhai at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022.

Dancer Mallika Sarabhai at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

For many, the presence of Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka was reason enough to rejoice. Karunatilaka didn’t disappoint; his wit and gentle manners augmenting his brilliant prose. At a session on cricket-writing, he made the pleasing statement that he finds cricket writers far more interesting than cricketers. Karunatilaka was also interviewed by the poet and novelist Jeet Thayil, who has been on the Booker shortlist himself.

(L to R) Actor Honey Irani, singer Shibani Dandekar and actor Farhan Akhtar at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022.

(L to R) Actor Honey Irani, singer Shibani Dandekar and actor Farhan Akhtar at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2022. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

The usual Bollywood representation was there too, from Kabir Bedi and Farhan Akhtar to lesser mortals. Lit fests have to find the balance between quality writers and popular crowd-pleasers (when the two overlap, organisers break a coconut or any other fruit of choice).

How do you measure the success of a lit fest? Ravichander, described on the festival website as ‘Friend, Philosopher, Mentor and Ultimate Fundraiser of India’s only citizen-funded literature festival,’ has this metric, “Audience turnout across age groups; diversity of subjects and inclusivity (regional languages) in programming; sustainability.” The BLF ticked all the boxes. A lit fest initiated by authors Shinie Anthony and Vikram Sampat, and venture capitalist Srikrishna Ramamurthy, is today fit to be compared with any in the country.

Cricket gossip and book signings

Book signing is a bittersweet pleasure at most lit fests. Years ago, I sat stoically while a long line formed in front of the author beside me. Soon a small group began to gather before me as well. A couple asked me the way to the toilet. Some wanted to hear cricket gossip. But none had bought a copy for me to sign. I lacked the courage to say, “Buy my book and I will answer your question.” Scarred by that experience, I avoided signings for a long time. The bookstore at the BLF ran out of certain books with admirable frequency. I celebrated on behalf of my fraternity.

Thinking he was being insulting, someone once called me a ‘lit fest junkie’. True. What you remember years later is not the crowds or even the sessions. It is always the small things. A gesture, a quote.

At the BLF, for instance, a panelist responded to a question with, “That’s none of your f***ing business.” I will certainly remember that, as I will an assertion by an admiring scholar, “I think Pico has attained nirvana.”

The BLF was a sign of normality, accompanied by the comforting thought that there is enough citizen support, from the financial to the physical, to sustain it. It was also good to see Manu Joseph and K.R. Meera and Tabish Khair and Vivek Shanbhag and others in the flesh and not on Zoom where they had disappeared into.

The writer’s latest book is ‘Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read?’.

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