Lit fests are to this decade what fashion shows were to the last one

  • Seema Goswami
  • Updated: Jan 31, 2016 09:54 IST
Unfair fairs: Most lit fests have turned into tamashas, where books tend to get lost in a whirl of socialising and an epidemic of air-kissing. (Photo: Prabhakar Sharma)

If winter comes, can literary festivals be far behind? Of course not. One follows the other as surely as summer follows spring. And much like the heat of the summer, these lit fests – to give them the fond diminutive they go by in chatterati circles – tend to take over the world.

They are held in locations as far apart as Chennai and Chandigarh. Major cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai score more than one. But it is scenic locations like Jaipur that really rock, with literary stars flying in from across the world to participate in panel discussions, do some book readings, drink some bad wine, and with luck, flog a few copies.

I have done my fair share of schmoozing (what other, more elevated, souls call networking) at such events. And sometimes it has been entirely worth the effort. Listening to Ben Okri recite his poetry in the central courtyard of that splendid edifice, the National Museum in Calcutta, was a somewhat surreal experience. And seeing authors like Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood, whose writing you have worshipped from afar, in the flesh is always a pleasure.

Guilty pleasures: Seeing authors like Margaret Atwood (above) in the flesh and listening to Ben Okri recite his poetry can be a surreal experience. (Photo: Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times)

And yet, despite my passion for books and a serious reading habit that often leads me to ignore real life for the imaginative world of fiction, I end up declining many more invitations to lit fests than I accept. And there’s a good reason for that. With a few honourable exceptions, literary festivals have turned into tamashas, where books tend to get lost in a whirl of socialising and an epidemic of air-kissing.

In a sense, lit fests are to this decade what fashion shows were to the last one. People turn up to be seen and heard, nobody really cares about the main event, but nonetheless, they all scramble to be seated in the first row.

I guess that’s fair enough. Everyone finds entertainment where they can, and if lit fests are now the places to be seen and photographed at, well then the Beautiful People are bound to throng to them.

You know the kind I mean, don’t you? The women are manicured perfection, every hair in place, wafting around in chiffon and pearls or rigged from top to toe in Fabindia. The men are doing their best to blend in with the ‘literary types’ in their kurtas and waistcoats, pairing their designer blazers with well-worn jeans. And all of them are secretly hoping that one of the many photographers snapping away will get them on to Page Three so that their friends can see what well-read, literate types they are.

But these are not the only specimens you find at lit fests. There are plenty others who are much in evidence, as they flock from one session to another. Here, in no

particular order, are just some types you can be sure to come across:

* The Poseur: You can’t miss The Poseur even if you try. He’s the one who rushes to occupy the front row at every session. She’s the one who grabs the mic the moment the session is declared open, to make a speech masquerading as a question. You can recognise them by the librarian-style spectacles they wear, regardless of whether they need them or not.

* The Intellectual: He’s the quiet one at the back, taking copious notes in a tatty notebook. She’s the one quoting from books that nobody else has heard of, let alone read, in the belief that conclusively proves her intellectual superiority. Steer clear of them once the drinks start flowing, or (fair warning!) they will bore you to death with their existential musings and their Copernican theories.

* The Wannabe Author: This one is ubiquitous. No matter where you go, you will bump into him. If you are a publisher, he will hack you mercilessly for a book deal. If you are an author, she will unabashedly ask for writing tips, and pointers on how to get published. And if you are a journalist, you will be asked for an email id so that they can send over the manuscript for you to have a look at (just give me honest feedback, yaar!).

* The Selfie Seeker: He doesn’t have the slightest interest in books; it is, in fact, doubtful if he has even read one. She couldn’t tell William Dalrymple apart from William Boyd if her life depended on it. But both can tell who the most famous person is in every gathering, and they inexorably head for that hapless soul to press-gang him or her into a selfie (duck face entirely optional).

Duck hunt: The selfie seekers inexorably head for the most famous person in every gathering to press-gang him or her into a selfie. (Photo by Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times)

* The Freeloader: This one is a familiar figure. We’ve all seen them at fashion shows, book launches or, indeed, any other event that has an open bar. So, it is no surprise that they are out in force on the lit fest circuit, where the booze is always plentiful and free (thank you, kind sponsors!) and the canapés are substantial enough to stand in for dinner if you manage to scoff enough of them in the course of the evening. Thankfully, they can’t talk with their mouth full, so you will, at least, be spared all that cant about Kant.

From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016

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