“To have a serious discussion on literature, the market would have to be literate. Filling such a gap in the mass market is a challenge, so the event manager demands altering the format to satisfy people who feel literate without actually reading. The only way to do this is to talk about topics tangential to literature – but not actually literature.”
SB VEDA <CALCUTTA>
Before I moved here, the Calcutta I experienced was a city in eternal winter, my parents bringing my brother and me along when our Canadian home was too cold for them to bear. Stuck with my uncle’s joint family in the North Calcutta neighbourhood of Amherst Street, I was cramped, uncomfortable, disoriented and mostly sick. So, books – some school, others novels – were my only escape; they were my companions in survival.
Then, as now, Calcutta was a city of contrasts. Despite the blackouts, I recall the lights of Park Street reflected in the smog, shimmering in the night’s sky as though the heavens had been painted by the tail of a comet. Daylight brought the sun and Bhetki fish fry, the odd trip to the zoo or Belur Math – but more importantly local books, the gulleys along College Street lined with them. Then there were the endless discussions over tea and coffee. First, I listened to the adults; later, participated in the Adda. Capped off with Boi Mela or the Book Fair, the Calcutta I enjoyed was almost exclusively a winter of words.
Much has changed since those pre-liberalization days of want and worry. The ubiquitous Ambassador car has given way to Maruti Swifts on one end, Benzes and Jaguars on the other. Though many publishers fled to Delhi amidst Calcutta’s Red-era bleakness, College Street is still a torrent of pages and people – and the season of books remains entrenched.
CALCUTTA’S LITERARY TRINITY
Today, no less than three literature festivals take place during a short span of 30 days beginning in the second week of January. First is the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, which is run by Oxford Bookstore. This leads to the 23rd-26th holiday, which has become the nesting time for the Kolkata Literary Meet (or Kalam), the season being bookended by the Kolkata Literary Festival, taking place during the International Book Fair as the Bengali month of Magh ends (usually) in early February.
While Winter of Words once belonged exclusively to Calcuttans, other cities are claiming the moniker. Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram – even Guwahati and Goa have literature festivals that draw in enthusiastic crowds. And then there’s Jaipur, which at nine days has become a landing and take-off point for over well over a hundred literary delegates (most of them writers) each year. It’s clear that even as post-liberalization boom industries like outsourcing seem to be leveling off, literature festivals are sprouting up like dandelions on Kentucky Bluegrass.
The question is – are more people actually reading? And, if so, what are they reading? And, these days, when film stars, politicians – and even Baba Ramdev qualify as delegate, it begs the question, what qualifies as literature?
First, let’s consider the quantitative question: The statistical group Nielson has stated that, indeed, book sales are up in India – and set to grow by 19% per year through to 2020. Education, however, dominates these figures attracting 94% of the activity. Of the remaining 6%, trade publications, the bulk lies in non-fiction, biography and popular fiction, though the success of Indian names in the literary genre means that the literary writer may have escaped the endangered species list for now.
That doesn’t mean the literature festival celebrates the literary. Increasingly, space is ceded to make such events more ‘interesting’ and ‘cool’. This is especially true in India where pulp writer Chetan Bhagat can get up in front of a crowd at Jaipur to show videos of his critics and make fun of them to thunderous applause. It follows that what qualifies as literary theatre has come a long way from the tame venues of bookstores and libraries. And such ‘progress’ shows no signs of slowing down.
The appetite for such histrionic performance explains why it is challenging to find a festival on books and authors that doesn’t rely heavily on filmy types, politicians, stand-up comedians, motivational speakers and other celebrities. Plus: it isn’t enough for writers to read from their works and interact with audience members, there must be song, dance, exhibitions and the like, for books are only the locus around which other artforms coalesce. And, in the era of Arnab Goswami, Rajdeep Sardesai (dare I say Karan Johar?) there must be some talk-show type ‘debate’ or discussion on the more sensational end of collective cultural dialogue. How else could dumbgazes be so surgically separated from the screens or smartphones?
There is an argument to be made that it’s all about commercial viability – and to promote literature, one needs the sizzle. Jaipur is a case in point: despite being a showcase for arts in general and having grown exponentially since its founding year in 2006, the festival struggles to make a profit. It is, after all, expensive to fly in delegates, the more high-profile guests demanding first-class fares (in some cases, appearance fees) and provide luxury hospitality and accommodations. The other festivals, which followed Jaipur, faced a similar dilemma. This has prompted them to cooperate, pooling resources and sharing expenses – for authors with new books out, the promotional budgets of publishers are tapped.
I’ve attended festivals and symposia at which literature is the sole focus; closed sessions for writers only with open sessions involving readings and audience questions. While the footfalls are more modest, to my mind, the intimate atmosphere is more engaging. These enriching experiences have tended to be organized in the not-for-profit sector or by institutes of higher education. But, whether organized by a for profit or not-for-profit, a lit fest is usually a money-losing proposition.
Enter the event-manager…
There is an argument to be made that razzle dazzle is a prerequisite of the progenitor of any modern arts or entertainment event: the event manager. These marketing professionals usually have some connection to the commercial side of media, and understand that name and profit are gained from attracting the widest possible section of the market. To have a serious discussion on literature, said market would have to be literate. Filling such a gap in the mass market is a challenge, so the event manager demands altering the format to satisfy people who feel literate without actually reading. The only way to do this is to talk about topics tangential to literature – but not actually literature.
And, with social media making a spectacle of our daily lives, the potential of a selfie with someone famous, holds much allure to many. So, bring in the celebrities – actors, musicians, dancers, politicians, even gurus and motivational speakers – because however connected to books the modern lit fest may be, a stage, these days, increasingly means only one thing in India: showbiz. Let’s remember, JLF is marketed as “the greatest lit show on Earth” – whatever that means, and that elder statesman of media, The Times of India Group has an event they call a ‘literary carnival’. If you’re sensing a circus theme here, you are not alone!
MARGARET ATWOOD AND AN ABSENT SALMAN RUSHDIE
My first literature festival as press was the Ottawa Writers’ Festival. I showed up early, and happened to be in the greenroom when Margaret Atwood appeared suddenly as though sliding in from another dimension and ordered a glass of red wine. I couldn’t muster the courage to talk to her – but was amazed when fans casually approached, copies of her books in hand, gushing and appropriating her signature. I was transfixed as readers talked to her about her works, and observed that while she had arrived weary, even grouchy, her face beamed as she connected with people who’d been affected by her words. ‘This is amazing,’ I thought. Later, I had as brief and uneventful a conversation with her but, like other fans, will remember the experience for the rest of my life.
The modern lit fest in India purports to take on issues – and they do – but ironically, they tend to shy away from the most important one for writers: freedom of expression. At the Kolkata Literary Meet in 2013 (one of two years when I moderated) the buzz had been about how Salman Rushdie had been banned from the city. He was due to make an impromptu (read that to mean planned) appearance but of the two big M. Banerjees clashing over this (the festival director and Chief Minister, both being M. Banerjees) Chief Mamata had won out – and Rushdie was banned from the city. Around the same timeframe, author and intellectual, Ashish Nandy was unceremoniously escorted out of JLF for a quote on corruption being an equalizer for disadvantaged communities having been taken sorely out of context by the fourth estate.
Somewhat shell-shocked, I wandered into the writers’ room when one of the participants I’d moderated earlier invited me to join in on a discussion she was having with a prominent Kolkata author and former Oxford University professor and a TV-journalist from Delhi. They were talking about Rushdie and Nandy. “Ah…they must be up in arms about the censorship,” I thought. I was aghast to find that they were criticizing Rushdie as an attention-seeker, and rubbishing Nandy as a contrarian Bengali intellectual (said the contrarian Bengali author, ironically).
The news anchor opined that Nandy deserved to be imprisoned for his deeply offensive words. At the time, I didn’t know that his remarks were taken grossly out of context – but I challenged the anchor saying, even if Nandy had said something inaccurate or biased or terribly offensive, didn’t he have the right to say it and be forced to defend his views from critics?
As many in the media do over here, she answered my question with a question: “What if someone in America said, ninety percent of blacks in America are criminals – what would happen to them?”
I responded that they’d be vilified in the press, people would likely take to the streets in protest – but they wouldn’t be hauled in front of a judge or put in jail. She didn’t buy it. Turns out, I, too was wrong: knowing what we all know now about American politics, I should have said, if someone said ninety percent of blacks were crooked, they probably could make a decent run for the White House!
Frivolities aside, the discussion prompted me to become involved in co-founding this magazine to give voice to my opinions, however unpopular they might be. It’s worth noting that Rushdie had been banned from JLF the prior year (apparently for safety reasons). The co-organizers, both being writers, made the call to muzzle him. Mamata Banerjee, then in opposition, vowed that she would never let Rushdie speak at a literature festival in Kolkata if elected Chief Minister. It turned out to be one of the few promises on which she hit a grand slam home run!
In 1988, writers (mostly non-Muslim, by the way) had been among the first to urge then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to ban the Satanic Verses when it came out. Something of this ethos, that it’s alright to put a lid on ‘offensive’ speech (in fairness, facilitated by the laws of India) is reflected in the dynamic of lit fests in this country.
The momentum of certain memories has carried me away from a central question: are literary festivals good for literature? In this, I must return to the smaller venues, touched upon earlier at which authors were required to read, questions were confined to the content, and personality didn’t enter into the fray.
AKHIL SHARMA AND JEFFREY ARCHER
I recall two readings at different fora thousands of miles apart – not only in distance but also in the work of the authors – that illustrate the value the literary celebration, rather well.
Indian American author, Akhil Sharma, at one reading in the UK proceeded to read and then dissect from his then new novel, Family Life. Breaking up the reading with commentary, he spoke about his technique and then discussed how his real-life background mirrored the story; he also talked about his motivations and the struggle of writing the novel. (This was a public session; he went deeper in the closed writers’ session.) It was such a clean rendition – and that too, sans moderator – that one was left both satiated and wanting, more importantly, informed.
Sharma’s work being literary fiction and (then, anyway) not terribly well sold could not be any more different than that of mega-seller Jeffrey Archer’s – and yet, Archer proceeded to do almost the same thing as him at another event, which I attended in India – but with a twist: he wrote something new, ostensibly, on the spot, and then proceeded to dissect the process. Regardless of what one might think of Archer or his work, one has to admire how seriously he takes his own process. And that’s the point: these occasions at their best illuminate the reader on a particular aspect of a story or body of work – or the way in which an author approaches writing. It needn’t be literary but it should be about content and craft and offer insights unavailable elsewhere. The potential is there to create a paradigm-shifting experience for a reader. It’s just sad when such opportunity is squandered in pursuit of sizzle.
It is with the search for insight on behalf of the reader and out of loyalty to this city’s Winter of Words that I have reached out to writers in the past. This year’s Kolkata Literary Festival will feature two writers whom I connected to organizers.
It hasn’t always been so successful. When I met the inestimable JM Coetzee, at a literary conference in the UK, his Nobel Prize and two Bookers having by then been fused to his name, I asked him if he’d consider coming to Calcutta for one of its festivals. Mr. Coetzee, who’d chatted with me after I gave a reading, was not terribly enthusiastic. He explained that he’d been to Jaipur, and organizers tried to appeal to his serious nature but that all the other activity at the festival detracted from this. In the end, he considered the experience to be literary tourism rather than any actual exploration of literature. When I took this reaction back to one of the organizers of a lit fest in Calcutta, she fired back a text: “Tell him we can do something highbrow just for him!”
The first time I heard Vikram Seth read, it was at the National Library of Canada, after A Suitable Boy came out. He was riveting: theatrical, funny – and very insightful. Two decades later, he followed a session I’d moderated at a literature festival in India. His immense intellect seemed restrained that day, preferring as he did to play to the audience.
A young girl who’d come with her parents asked him if he could speak to them as she was averse to going along with their plans to marry her off in arranged fashion. Ambling into the crowd, he planted himself beside the girl’s parents and then proceeded to counsel them on the benefits of allowing their kids to love as they wanted. That afternoon, he seemed more Oprah than author. As the masses lapped up the performance, I felt something viscous crowning my esophagus. Still, somehow I forced myself to gulp down, and stood up along with all the others when it was time to give a standing ovation…
Ultimately, a discussion of literature, its forms and craft, by those who hold the pen, contains within it, ample space to create the experiences that both avid readers and the literary curious seek. I’m put in mind of writers like the late great Robertson Davies for whom reading was theatre – one could simply close one’s eyes and experience his storytelling transport oneself through power of word, voice, intonation and expression to Deptford or any other setting in his works. There was enough ‘show business’ in Davies’ readings to keep audiences captivated. By using other elements as ‘crutches’ organizers are selling the audience short. The event managers need to give the audience more credit than to dumb down the programmes. And, there is no need to stretch to find ‘creative’ themes to fit a programme or even a single session. Better just to let writers tell their stories, and the stories behind them. Organizers, the marketing pros, sponsors – they just might find that’s quite enough. It surely is for this city’s Winter of Words.
I’m tempted to start this section, legend has it…
The dawn of the literature festival in India, at least according to most, was heralded in by the gregarious British author, William Dalrymple when he co-founded the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2006 – but people have short memories.
The oldest celebration of books was actually an improbably practical outcome a Calcutta Coffeehouse Adda in which certain young publishers brainstormed about how they might create a forum where book lovers of all stripes could be exposed to the widest range of books, coalescing to browse, hear authors speak, exchange ideas – and most of all, buy books. They envisaged a mela modeled on the Frankfurt Book fair. The following year, the Publisher’s Guild was formed; in 1976, the first Calcutta Book Fair took place.
Some four decades later, with the title changed to reflect the current civic nomenclature, the International Kolkata Book Fair has grown into the largest non-trade book fair in the world.
The book fair or Boi Mela as it is better known in local vernacular has for long contained many of the elements of the modern literature festival with readers getting the opportunity to meet authors who would be in town to launch their books or come as part of the theme country delegation, and discussions were organized around both the literary and specific subjects.
Notably, in 1988, Mahasweta Devi, spoke at Boi Mela at a time when she was a left-wing subversive, telling the stories of migrants and indigenous peoples. Not long before her death in 2016, she had become an elder in the left movement, and by then had received not only the Sahetya Akademi award but also India’s highest honour, the Padma Vibhushan. But at Boi Mela, she was a writer speaking her mind, and it would be a sign of things to come.
Today, Boi Mela also contains a separate literary festival appended to the fair at which the more commercial and stage-managed elements grab the attention like the crash of a falling stack of hardbacks. It’s a compact festival but increasingly garnering higher profile delegates. Still, authors continue to launch books during the general mela – and discussions are organized throughout.
What has remained at Boi Mela is a space for books as almost state within this state – where the only qualifications for citizenry are literacy and the desire to read. The space offers the opportunity to browse, read, walk, eat, drink and carry on the conversations that typify Bengali culture: the Adda. This, after all is at the heart of any literary festival, the chance to read, meet literary types – and most of all, word away a day about words.
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