Monday, January 19, 2015

The Hindu Lit for Life Festival in Madras

Hindu Lit For Life, Day One, Jan 16th.

9.40 a.m. We, my sister Geeta Doctor, her grand-daughter and I, got to the venue a few minutes late. The inauguration was already underway. The auditorium was full -- that was already heartening: the day after Pongal and Madras was ready to attend a festival of Literature! Of course, there was also a shadow hanging over the whole event, on account of Tamil author P. Murugan's decision to "die" as an author, as a result of harassment from social and political forces.

10.00 a.m. The first session for the day was between Eleanor Catton (New Zealand), winner of last year's Man Booker Prize and Parvathi Nayar. We were told that Catton, 28 years old, is the youngest Booker Prize winner and her book (832 pages) is the longest to win. She was endearingly unaffected about her tremendous success. The audience was extremely appreciative and receptive. The lady sitting beside me, for instance, nodded enthusiastically at regular intervals. When asked to comment about youth and literary eminence she had a very good point to make: Mary Shelley was even younger, when she wrote "Frankenstein"! So youth can sometimes be relative to the age in which we live.

11.05 a.m. There was a slight overlap of sessions. My sister Geeta was the moderator and her two panelists were Ritu Menon and Nayantara Sahgal. Two important issues were the focus of the session -- freedom of speech issues and Sahgal's unique family history, the deep bonds she shared with her famous cousin, Indira Gandhi and the special hardships that accompany the privileges of such a position. It was a warm and personal talk, made a little stressful for me and my grand-niece (G's grand-daughter) because we both knew that Geeta has been quite unwell for the past several days with a chesty cough and breathlessness. But, trooper that she is, while she was on stage, though she apologized for her "sexy morning voice" -- she managed not to cough once. The audience clapped several times for Sahgal especially in reference to the need to stand up for our rights to freedom of expression.

Then the three of us left the venue to go home for lunch -- and for G to rest up, because as soon as she was off the stage, she was coughing again. Home happens to be five minutes away from the venue, so we didn't have far to go.

The atmosphere inside and outside the hall was mutedly celebratory: there was a wonderful mix of people, young and old, academics and raw young readers. I was very touched, for instance, to meet a couple who had travelled all the way from Calicut to attend the Fest. She is a lecturer and when she came up to me, it was to say that she teaches my play HARVEST in her college and had told her students that she hoped to have a photograph taken with me. They had wanted to know if she would have one with Chetan Bhagat! For me to meet even one person like this and to have a picture taken with her makes everything worthwhile.

 Geeta is very well known in Madras so it was no surprise that she had many friends to greet but I was happy to notice a number of my friends too -- Alagu Muthu (Meyappan in school) from my school in Kodaikanal, Karthika V K of HarperCollins, Salil Tripathi from long ago Bombay days, Renuka Narayanan from Delhi/Target days and Ranvir Shah my only patron-n-friend combo (with a wink and a thank you). Rachna Davidar was of course an integral part of the Festival and it was good to meet Nirmala Lakshman, festival curator too. Behind the scenes there are scores of young volunteers but the person who I and my co-panelists interacted with was Lata Ganapathy, festival coordinator.

2.30 p.m. I returned alone to meet with the members of the session I would be on. Karthika was the moderator, with Janice Pariat and Nina McConigley, both young writers, well reputed, with recent short story collections to their name. We met in the Authors' Lounge, where lunch was just being cleared away. Janice is from the Northeast, but looks very much a global citizen with her hair in a short bob and a slender slip of a figure. All three of us were on the look-out for Nina, but it turned out that she hadn't heard about the Authors' Lounge! Anyway. Our session got off to a good start, post lunch and with no jitters. Our subject was The Art Of The Short Story and we were all happy to talk "process" with one another and with the audience. Karthika is the ideal moderator because she kept us at our ease and she knew our work well enough to be able to keep us talking.

Afterwards there were yet more friends to meet -- in particular Radhika Menon of Tulika, friend and publisher for me, Irwin Allan Sealy and his wife Cushla.

There were more events and also a party in the evening at Sharon Apparao's gallery, but I made my excuses to get away for the day. I plan to spend much of tomorrow at the venue, attending sessions as a member of the audience.


Hindu Lit For Life, Day Two, Jan 17th.

10.00 a.m. A Voice of One's Own: Dayanita Singh in conversation with T.M. Krishna. It was like watching an exhibition match between two gifted artists, each known for a particular art and also for their strong views and active participation in other arts. Singh is a photographer and Krishna a musician and they talked about breaking through and past the boundaries of such one-dimensional definitions. They were both extremely articulate so it was good to listen to them but I would have preferred to have seen/heard their art. I like Singh's work and have watched her evolve over the years -- she is provocative and daring and I always look forward to seeing more -- but I haven't heard Krishna, so it was (for me) a bit like listing with only one functioning ear. Not their fault at all, of course!

10.50 a.m. The Deeper Truth of Fiction: David Davidar in conversation with Irwin Allan Sealy (India), Eleanor Catton (New Zealand) and Damon Galgut (South Africa). There was a pleasing seriousness and depth to the way the three novelists responded to the questions posed to them by Davidar. It is very attractive to listen to people who are secure and confident in their own skin and in their work that they can talk about it in an honest and unaffected way. Sealy spoke about continuing to write regardless of how his books perform in the marketplace and Catton (Man Booker Prize winner) talked about knowing how lucky it was to have a publisher who believed in her. Galgut, who has been short-listed for the Booker twice talked about being always conscious of being an outsider in some sense to the country of his birth. They talked about the necessary presence of non-fiction within fiction and the many ways in which they wrote almost-truths within a fictional framework.

12-ish: I had lunch with friend and publisher Radhika Menon at a nearby eatery called OX AND TOMATO -- a dinky little place serving "conti" (that's chef-speak for Continental) food. We talked shop over fish and chips, and firmed up plans for my next illustrated book. Since I am much too uptight to reveal details about work in progress naturally I can say no more! But it will involve the same small orange cat who starred in "Where's That Cat?" getting lost again.

2.30 p.m. The Hindu Lit Prize ceremony. The hall was packed and (I think) all 6 finalists for the prize were present. However, before the prize-winning to get underway, N.Ram of the Hindu group of newspapers made an important announcement about a resolution regarding the need to defend Freedom of Speech in India. This was of course in reference to the Tamil author P. Murugan and the way in which his voice has been silenced -- first by social and political pressure and second by himself, by his public declaration that he was "dead" as a writer.

After the resolution was read out and formally seconded and passed, two prize-giving ceremonies took place. The first was for the Prakriti Poetry Festival contest and Ranvir Shah, the creator of the Prakriti initiative, introduced the audience to the prize, showed a brief video presentation about the poets and different moments during the various levels of the competition, followed by the young prize-winner being announced and coming up to receive the prize. (I'll post the winner's name in a subsequent edit because the Prakriti Prize wasn't part of the Hindu Lit Fest brochure).

Then it was time for the lit prize. We were given a quick tour of the six authors who had been shortlisted: Shovon Chowdhury (The Competent Authority); Shashi Deshpande (Shadow Play); Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey); Anita Nair (Idris: Keeper of Light); Ashok Srinivasan (Book of Common Signs); Deepti Kapoor (A Bad Character). And then with little further ado, Justice Leila Seth, (80+ and wearing a flame orange sari!) announced the winner, ASHOK SRINIVASAN. Very charmingly, when he came up to receive his award the heavens overhead opened and showered him with sparkling confetti. He looked up and around himself, blinking a little and smiling.

The judges were K. Satchidanandan, Tabish Khair, Arunava Sinha, Malashri Lal and Githa Hariharan, all present on the stage and looking rather pleased at their selection. It IS unusual for a collection of short stories to win, so it was a happy moment for all short story writers -- Janice Pariat, sitting next to me, gave a soft gasp of pleasure when the winner's name was announced "How nice! Short stories!" she said.

8.00 p.m. Dinner and drinks at the Taj Coromandal. The hotel was bursting at the seams -- there were two mega-weddings taking place -- but our event was by the pool and in one of the basement ball-rooms so we weren't really affected. I don't like going out at night so I had a nice long chat with Allan Sealy and his wife Cushla, had a Manglorean "sanna" for dinner alongside lamb curry and chutney, with a minute chocolate tartlet for dessert. Whisked myself away home by 10.15. *phew* How do society butterflies keep up with their hectic lives, I wonder? It's hard work, this social life!

Hindu Lit For Life, Final Day, Jan 18th.

10.00 a.m. U.R. Ananthamurthy: A Homage: I arrived just in time to catch the last few minutes of what seemed to have been a lively conversation between Shiv Vishwanathan, N. Manu Chakravarty and K. Satchidanandan. I came in just as an audience member rather angrily defended the late Ananthamurthy's memory by saying that the panelists had mis-represented him by suggesting that he was only interested in "gossip". Vishwanathan firmly defended the panelists' position by saying that in no way was Ananthamurthy's memory being defiled, as he championed the importance of gossip as a medium of social truth. It is surely a sign of a creative person's power that even years after his death, his name and reputation can provoke lively debate!

10.50 a.m. Writers Are Readers First: Arunava Sinha led a discussion between Amitabha Bagchi, T.N.Murari and [me], leading off with a reading by each of us from a 'favourite book'.

I had thought about this before arriving in Madras -- in part because I worried about having to carry a book with me for the sole purpose of this session -- in part because I didn't want to find myself reading some dry bit of prose that perhaps no-one else would find equally interesting. There's nothing as disheartening as to share something dearly beloved with others only to have them sneer at it.

I also felt very sure that the other two authors would choose some literary mega-heavyweights to read from. No doubt it's true of all cultures, but certainly it can be said of Indian writerly types that we do love to parade our credentials to being high-brow whenever possible. And even though many published India authors really are extremely well-read, have excellent memories and can truly quote accurately from all manner of literary masterworks, it's also true that very few amongst us willingly admit to lighter pleasures or ever present ourselves in a less-than-high-brow light.


I HAD to do something different, right? I also had to be true to the purpose of the session. I chose a passage that is indeed a great favourite of mine, from a book that I have loved and cherished from the time I was a small child ... that's right, I chose a children's classic.

When I consulted Arunava about my choice he agreed at once -- and he also told me what the other two had chosen. I was SO not disappointed! It was almost too perfect. I also asked Arunava to let me go last and he was kind enough to agree.

Bagchi went first and his choice was MARCEL PROUST. Murari's choice was GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ. Imagine my delight, then, when I was able to say that my selection was LEWIS CARROLL! From Through The Looking Glass. I chose that wonderful moment when the Red Queen tells Alice "... it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place"!

11.50 p.m. The Kite Flyers: author and skin-specialist Sharad Paul in conversation with Ranvir Shah. I was sitting next to the author's wife (just by chance), who was so utterly enthralled with her husband's presentation. It was quite endearing. I briefly wondered what it might be like to have a family member who behaved with such absolute conviction in me ... then had to give up, because my imagination refused to go in that direction! It is completely alien to my experience. Maybe it's something common to professional male writers? I'm guessing that most women neither receive nor would like to receive, that particular kind of total devotion from their spouses.

12-ish:  I was called away to be interviewed by Rajib Aditya of Author TV ( He had been in touch with me before I arrived in Madras and I'd spoken to him at dinner the night before. He spoke about his memories of growing up in Silhet, of being a young child during the Bangladesh war, of seeing scenes of battle from his doorstep. A thoughtful and interesting person, not a mere media-hound. It was a relief to discover that he was posting the interviews on the web, not broadcasting on TV. It was a brief and quite pleasant session -- I talked only about the short story collection called THREE VIRGINS because his format asks for each author to talk about one book. We were done in about 15 minutes.

12.30: Lunch was in the Author's Lounge for me this time and I had it in the company of Githa Hariharan -- we argued amicably about which one of us was the least-appreciated author, based on who had the lowest count of Lit-Fest attendance (of course I won, since I have only been to three before this one and never yet to Jaipur). We were joined by Ritu Menon and also Rachna Davidar just as I was wondering whether to sample the second dessert option(I did; it was a slightly soggy slice of bread-pudding but worth it nevertheless).

I went home after that and had a bit of a nap.

3.40: My sister Geeta Doctor and I returned to the venue, where she was a panelist at a Workshop conducted by Sharan Apparao on Art Appreciation. The other panelists were M.D. Muthukumaraswamy, Dayanita Singh, Anita Ratnam, Renuka Narayanan, Pradeep C- (not quite sure of the name; will confirm tomorrow) and Sadanand Menon. Each of the panelists presented his/her personal experiences as artists and/or curators of artistic experiences.

Several interesting points were made but I think it became clear that the allotted time could barely hope to graze the outer perimeter of the topic! Still, the audience listened attentively and produced a couple of very plaintive questions: (1) How can I help my 17-year-old daughter overcome her fear of engaging with Art? (2) What does it mean when an abstract painting featuring (for instance) a line and three dots is priced at Rs 15 Lakh? These may seem like very basic questions but they are very real and, for many people, the source of intense intellectual discomfort. Sadly, there wasn't time enough to answer them.

5.10 p.m. The Way Things Were: author Aatish Taseer in conversation with Ranvir Shah. Okay, so I've got to say this: Taseer is Tavleen Singh's son and he's also seriously good-looking. Seriously. Like Mel Gibson with a tan and a cool accent, sort of International Chic. So it was a bit distracting to listen to him talk about his book but Shah succeeded in dragging our attention away from the writer to focus instead on the writing.

The book sounds to be powerful and engaging and I do plan to FlipKart it when I get back to Delhi (it looked a little heavy to haul away in a suitcase). One of the questions Taseer fielded was about his experiences during the Sikh riots of 1984, which he wrote about in an earlier book. He said he was all of four years old at the time and his mother had gone to Amritsar, on assignment. He remembers being taken to his grandparents' home for safety; seeing the broken glass from where a friendly neighbour had smashed the identifying name on the gate; his grandfather sitting inside the house, facing the front door with a shot gun across his knees.

Powerful stuff.

And with that the Lit Fest ended for me. To celebrate, I bought a copy of Damon Galgut's book, In A Strange Room. I'm enjoying it and will write about it here when I'm done.


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