Martyr v martyr, message from the extreme write

Published - December 05, 2015 11:10 pm IST

For some years now, the best way to get free publicity for a literature festival in India was either to invite Salman Rushdie or pretend that he would be attending. The media love controversy-in-anticipation. You might get the same half-a-dozen talking heads saying the same half-a-dozen things, but you couldn’t unbuzz the buzz that had been set off.

Now the Bangalore Literature Festival has discovered another route: intolerance as a marketing tool. Vikram Sampath is a serious biographer who has tapped into the Intolerance Market with wonderful results for himself and his festival. It is difficult to sympathise with writers who pulled out after agreeing to be part of the festival; at the very least that is unprofessional and sheer bad manners. Javed Akhtar suddenly remembering pressing appointments when he was scheduled to inaugurate the show is laughable.

Equally risible is Sampath’s decision to play the martyr and step down as director. It was unlikely to bring the writers who had declined earlier rushing back, but Sampath has come up smelling of roses. In this martyr versus martyr engagement, some writers were probably looking for a halo because they had no awards to return, while the director was clever enough to play it to his advantage. It will be interesting to see what impact all this has on the BLF itself. Controversy is the trusted path even an established festival like the one in Jaipur has taken often. It is cheaper than advertising, and has a greater reach too. It might even briefly dominate the water cooler moments in offices, displacing cricket and Deepika Padukone.

Television has had its Voltaire moments – “I do not agree with what you say but will defend…” etc – through the BLF controversy. Writers who pulled out because of “intolerance” were being intolerant themselves, as has been pointed out. But we live in a black-or-white society, so Voltaire might be too subtle for some.

That is why it was a wonderful gesture by prominent Bangaloreans like Ram Guha to step into the breach. Guha is not a Litfest regular, but a point had to be made. Bangalore deserves to have a proper Litfest – the BLF has some way to go before it can be spoken of in the same breath as some other festivals in the South – but from now on, writers around the country, and possibly abroad will not need to have it explained to them when invitations are sent out. Sampath and the media have ensured that. There might even be serious sponsorship next year.

Someone once calculated that there are 67 literature festivals in the country. As an invitee to many of them, I am uncertain if the majority really makes a difference. Jaipur is stunning in its scale, of course, and Kovalam is intimate and charming. Most are good fun, a place to catch up.

Bangalore did not get on the litfest map till now. And for that we have to thank both those who tolerate intolerance as well as those intolerant of tolerance.

Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu

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