I was on the train to Chennai. Expecting it to be dull, I had taken a book of short stories (Interpreter of maladies). I thought the reading would last the entire journey but unfortunately, as it was quite interesting, I completed it in four hours. Most of the other passengers were either sleeping or eating. There were four more hours left and I was bored to death. The gentleman who was sitting opposite to me was reading a magazine ('Outlook', I think). I eyed it surreptitiously now and then. If it were a younger guy, he would have thought I wanted his attention or something :D When the gentleman asked me if I would like to read the magazine, I smiled at him and took it with a quickness that was close to grabbing! Having at last found something to read, I buried my face in its pages ignoring the alluring ‘krrk mrrrk’ sound the guy next to me was making in the process of eating his murukku. And that was when I found the ad for The Hindu’s Lit For Life, a literary festival. I was travelling to Chennai for a personal work and had planned to be back by the weekend. Since the festival was on the weekend, I rearranged my plans and attended the festival. It was the first time I was going to any literary festival: it was both invigorating and educating. Here are a few nuggets of the three day fest that amused me the most (not in order):
- The conversation between Naomi Wolf and Barkha Dutt was filled with the right proportion of anger and hope. When Barkha asked the women in the hall to raise their hands if they had been manhandled at least once, almost all women there raised their hands. Wolf seemed to be shocked to know that women are manhandled so casually in India
- Being a feminist myself, I enjoyed the sessions that discussed the state and empowerment of women. In one of the sessions where Wolf was divulging some interesting information on the connections between a woman's capacity to achieve and vagina, I pinched myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream and I was still in India. Though we women have a long way to go for this kind of a free talk, we can be happy that we are on the right track
- There was a session by Tamil women poets on how a woman’s body is used as a site of violation and recovery. It was one of its kind: the poets looked soft and humble, but their talk was entrenched with knowledge and experience
- There were talks on travel writing and history as well. I heartily enjoyed the sessions by/with the veteran travel writer Colin Thubron. He read out a piece from one of his books on the journey to Kailash. I felt as though I had been transported to that chilly land from the hall. Then there was this piece about a doctor who studied tongues. This time I really laughed my head off! He is a veteran indeed!
- There was a session on the conflict zones in India. The award winning journalist Rahul Pandita dealt with the topic of why militants had no religion, with an unbiased yet assertive deft. Easterine Kire’s argument of why the army men posted in the North eastern region, generally considered the enemy of the locals, had nothing to do with the plight of the locals and that they were suffering as much as the locals to help their family back at home, was a moving account
- In one of the sessions on creating impact as an author, Anita Nair broke into a fight with Ravi Subramanian over calling a book a “Product”! During the question session, a woman in the audience rightly asked: “What is the purpose of this session?” It was left unanswered :P
- Each time he spoke, Jim Crace held the undivided attention of the audience through his simple wits and bold truths. When he was talking of the plight of writers, I heard myself nod and say ‘How true!’
- Kamal Hassan’s session on policing in cinema was jam packed. He spoke with an intelligence that was in an absolute blend with humbleness, a trait of a true artist that he is
- Abraham Verghese’s story of how he had known in his bones that he wanted to become a doctor by reading a novel (I guess it was ‘Of Human Bondage’) and how he writes novels to inspire great things in people was amazing
- The best part was the reading session by the authors of the shortlisted books. Each book was unique in its own beauty. My favourite was ‘Another man’s wife’. Anees Salim bagged the award for his book ‘Vanity Bagh’
Am I a nitwit??!!:
- Most of the people attending the event were either rich or famous or invariably both
- For a person like me who is used to Tamil jokes (by that I mean, jokes that are more visual than wordy), I didn’t understand why people around me were laughing their head off for the English jokes that were more or less only wordy. But to be in the flow, though I didn’t find anything funny, most of the times I laughed my head off too :D
- Most of the writers (not all though. Thankfully!) started their career as a journalist
- During lunch, I was sitting on a bench along with an old foreign couple. A serene looking gentleman approached the couple and enquired if they were having a good time. He was a familiar figure, but I couldn’t get his name. I must have been absently staring at him, for he turned to me and smiled widely. I smiled back and looked down at my plate. Only after leafing through the brochure later, I realized it was T.M.Krishna, the great Karnatic singer
- I’ve always had an eye on Jute-Silk sarees; but they cost four times or more than a normal one; so until now, I haven’t owned a Jute-Silk. In the fest, 9 out of 10 people wearing sarees wore a Jute-Silk and it looked awesome no matter who wore it. What’s more?! I’ve added it to the top of my wish list
- On the first day, there was no rice for lunch. I had to choose among pizzas, chat, totally dry looking sandwich and some rolls. The rolls were mostly non-vegetarian; being a vegetarian, I had only 2 options: mushroom roll and cheese mushroom roll. I hate cheese; so ordered mushroom roll but was served the cheese one. The explanation being: ‘no change’. Ofcourse! My 100 rupees vanished in 10 mins!
- During an interview of T.M. Krishna, a bearded person came and sat next to me. For every sentence Krishna spoke, this person nodded in approval, laughed heartily and clapped vigorously and once even murmured ‘What a human being! What a blessed human being!’. I eyed him suspiciously and moved to a seat two rows below for the next event. On the third day, there was a session by the writers of the shortlisted books. I was shocked to see that bearded person on stage; it was Amandeep Sandhu. And then I got confused: was it he or someone looking similar? In a literary fest, you’ll never know!!!
- While I was roaming around during tea time the first day, I spotted the brochure on the empty registering desk. I wanted to have one; so I approached the table and had just kept my hand on one of them when two volunteers (students from SRM University) rushed to the seat behind; one pushed another, and sat down. They looked at me with such urgency that I thought they mistook me for a shoplifter. I asked them: “Shall I take one of these?” The guy who was at the desk replied quick, not bothering to hide his annoyance, “Ya of course!” Confused, I turned to leave, but then I understood: behind me were two beautiful girls. The moment I moved aside, they were all honey and sugar. Men!!!
- In one of the sessions, an audience asked a question that needed some thinking on the panelists’ part. When none of the panelists opened their mouth for a minute, the moderator said: “Ok, lets take it as a comment!” :D
For most of the three days of the festival, I had gone by myself and being by myself gave me a chance to engage in my favorite pastime: observing people. Once I had my lunch, I went up to the balcony, leaned comfortably on a pillar and observed people. Literature is one of the first forms of art from time immemorial and art is a strong and effective medium of education. There are books that have helped rewrite history, that have helped liberation and bring peace. Seeing the Jute silks, the diamond studs, the BMWs, the sun glasses raised over the heads, I believe literature as of now is only for the rich and the intelligent. For a man in an empty stomach, literature means nothing! Someone who doesn’t own a decent dress cannot even enter such events. Literature has a long way to go as an art, as an art to make impact on a human being irrespective of his financial background. Cinema has done it; literature has yet to do it. We shall sincerely hope it happens and contribute whatever little we can to make it happen.
That said, experience is what enriches the soul. I am terribly happy to have had the opportunity to attend the fest: it has been an enlivening experience for me :)
Thanks for readingJ
Have a nice dayJ