I have limited experience of literary festivals — one in London, the other as a judge for the Hindu Lit for Life fest. So when my friend Shashi Sharma, novelist/ blogger/ businessman, visits in February for advice on how to start a lit fest, I confess ignorance.
I gather Shashi and two friends, meeting at a wedding, decided to contribute a lit fest to Dehradun. I hear later that Dehradun is upset that two South Indians are organising the festival. The counter to that is that two of their friends own properties there. The Vindhyas are the great cultural wall between North and South, which you cross at your own peril.
As Shashi persists for wisdom, my only suggestion is, do not invite star writers. They will suck all the oxygen out of it and leave other writers facing empty venues.
His partners too have no connection with the literary world. They have raised ₹5 lakh, and need only another 70! I wish him luck, and don’t expect to see him again.
A month later, Shashi returns with Ashwani, a Chennaite, a charming businessman, as eager for information as Shashi.
Fortune and the brave
The festival has a name, Delta, an acronym of Dehradun. It sounds more like a fighter jet than a lit fest. They have now raised 25 lakh and need just 50 more.
A major company has promised that money. As I have just completed my young adult trilogy, they invite me to Delta. I can’t refuse their generosity.
A few months pass. Delta is re-christened Valley of Words, Dehra being the valley, of course.
In July, Shashi and Ashwani return with Sanjeev. He is a high-up IAS officer, erudite, articulate and quite charismatic. His wife is a spirited woman who tells me the three men are crazy. Now, I’m elevated to chair the judging panel of English fiction. Another person will judge the Hindi. It will be a bilingual fest and I like that.
Sanjeev commands me to find others to judge with me, which I do. I email the team that we must have the books latest by August, as the date, set in stone, is November 17. They assure me the books will be delivered. For the Hindu lit fest, there were 250 novels to judge!
Come September, no books, not even a paperback. Publishers have not sent any books, so that event is cancelled. I am dethroned. Still, I am invited for my Young Adult novels. I don’t believe VoW will happen but the three, living in different cities, have pulled it off — just.
The company that had promised the ₹50 lakh backed out in October. It wanted Sanjeev to give them government contracts in exchange. He refused point blank.
Fortune favours the brave. ONGC, based in Dehradun, stepped in, along with Blue Star. It all works on whom you know!
VoW is on and the schedules arrive, changing almost weekly. My YA vanishes, in its place discussions on three novels and a non-fiction work. It is a fair exchange.
I’m also on a panel discussing Rajdeep Sardesai’s book. There are 150 participants, with discussions ranging across fiction (English/ Hindi), poetry (E/H), science, religion, arts, culture, military history and the environment.
The Southern doyens are Chithra Madhavan and Pradeep Chakravarthy. Rock musicians, ghazal singers, photography and philately exhibitions are also there to entertain us. I am awed, the three have pulled it off.
Singing into the night
There is a welcoming cocktail party, hosted by our harassed but triumphant trio. There are no star writers, clogged by admirers, and our hosts introduce us to each other. Behind their hard work are the volunteers — their wives and young Dehra men and women who look after every comfort, soothe egos and solve the hassles. We are all staying at Hotel Madhuban.
There are four venues, the main one outdoors on the sprawling lawns. Apart from bookstores, a large part of the lawn has stalls of self-help Himalayan groups, survivors of the floods, exhibiting handcrafted pottery, clothing, carvings. Even a stall with cow urine soap and other urine beauty products!
It is the sheer informality, a little chaos, too, that makes this festival so delightful.
It also feels as if we’re all on an island, Dehra the chaotic sea beyond the walls. The participants and the visitors share the same buffet out on the lawn for lunch and dinner, and that makes everyone available to talk and discuss books, poetry, whatever.
On Saturday, the young poet C.P. Surendran wants me to launch his new book. I have an hour to skim this talented writer and spend an hour on stage, talking; then he, I and fans in the audience read his poems.
It is so spontaneous and we lunch together afterwards. There is a preponderance of military men, as Dehra is their favourite retirement city.
At one breakfast, three of them discuss in detail the newest machine gun’s accuracy.
My venues keep changing and I have to track them on the board at reception in the mornings. On the first evening, Dehradun’s famous singer, Bobby Cash, is the after-dinner entertainment. He sings into the night and guests and writers dance to his music. The next night is ghazals.
By the last night, all those I talk to have really enjoyed the festival. It is so offbeat! I hear the three organisers are no longer talking to one another. They do talk to me, regaling me with the infighting, politics, raising the money and dealing with the massive egos of some writers and bureaucrats. A famous Dehra writer refused to attend as his pick-up car was 15 minutes late.
I spent four days in Dehradun and never had time to see the city. The three, when they recover and talk to one another, promise a VoW 2018.
Timeri N. Murari is a novelist and playwright.