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Mighty words indeed

Toda musicians at the inauguration  

The recently concluded Ooty Literature Festival (OLF) was the beginning of a plan of putting the hill station firmly on the country’s literary scene. Held over two days — September 16 and 17 — it kept me on my toes, not literally but figuratively.

You could not have asked for a better place to hold the event: The Nilgiri Library’s history dates back to 1867. At the OLF, content was the emperor and that too a gender-neutral one. Ambai, MT Vasudevan Nair, Vijay Nambisan, Theodore Baskaran, Mansoor Hussain Khan, Arundhathi Subramaniam and Sir Mark Tully were just some of those who participated.

Every speaker said something that set me thinking. Here is my personal favourite: ‘Growth is the largest religion of this planet and growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.’ Mansoor Khan addresses the unbelievable fallacy surrounding the need for exponential growth in his book, The Third Curve.

MT Vasudevan Nair replied, rather succinctly, to a question of whether he is open to criticism. His words? Just two: “Why Not”. Followed by a smile that spoke volumes.

Speaking of eloquent smiles, almost none could match the stage presence of Ambai. Candid and realistic, none of her astounding statements was made to shock the audience. In fact she had the audience roaring with laughter.

When translating a work, she says, she could not find a suitable Tamil word for ‘orgasm’. So she left it as it was but when asked why there was no equivalent word for orgasm in Tamil, she said, “How can I answer this? Perhaps Tamilians do not have orgasms.”

Again, a member of the audience asked her about the right time to expose children to the things that she talks about — alcohol, smoking, freedom of choice, things that children are traditionally not exposed to. Pat came the reply, “Well, I don’t know, some adults themselves should not be exposed to these things.” Her child-like laughter boomed up to the rafters.

The obvious synergy between Sir Mark Tully and his partner Gillian Wright made their session amazing. Here was another first for OLF; this was the very first time that Gillian has interviewed Sir Mark. She has “shouted at him many times” but never interviewed him. We got to hear Sir Mark reciting a Hindi nursery rhyme and his profound statement of how “secular fundamentalism was just as bad as religious fundamentalism.”

Poets held sway and so did translators. There was time for publishers and eco-warriors. I cannot even begin to describe Tarun Chhabra’s passion for the indigenous Toda community. Here is a dentist who sat on the stage fuming at the way the Todas have been treated. The audience got him to sing a traditional song that celebrates the unique relationship between a community and Mother Nature.

I am not a fan of poetry but when Arundhathi Subramaniam stood up in her statuesque poise to read a few of her poems I sat up and soaked in the gentle river of words. Listening to her and to Vijay Nambisan’s crisp delivery made me think of how mighty a word can be.

There were so many writers and speakers but the one thing that came through at the end of the festival was that it was all about content. As C.V. Ranganathan said, “This is heady stuff”.

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