So when was the last time you read the word “sexy” in an Indian government document? I did, this week, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest-ever, where India was the guest of honour this year. The National Book Trust was in charge of organising the Indian part of the event in collaboration with several ministries, and it pulled out all the stops, with stylish brochures, presentations and even a dazzling cultural extravaganza. The bill for the Indian taxpayer: Rs 20 crore.
One does not know whether that was well spent. But the production of documents was slick, the information well written, and the kilograms of press kits about the fair circulated to journalists, mercifully, were not riddled with Indian government jargon.
The announcement about one of the interesting sidelights at the event, the Bollywood dance workshop, promised it would “teach elements of dance from well-known Bollywood films put together into an exciting, frantic, sexy choreography.”
Celebrity author and United Nations diplomat Shashi Tharoor found a good break at the book fair, flying in straight after pulling out of the race to become the next United Nations Secretary-General. Tharoor, backed by India and No. 2 in the reckoning, withdrew after it became clear that he would lose to the frontrunner — South Korea’s Foreign Minister Ban-ki Moon. Tharoor had a medley of readings and discussions planned and the U.N. question invariably popped up from the international press. But he handled defeat with grace, saying everyone needed to strengthen the hands of the Korean leader, and called the Frankfurt Book Fair his immediate “Plan B”. The Fair was the biggest in its 58-year history, with 7,272 exhibitors from 113 countries displaying 3,82,000 titles. But, to many Westerners, it seemed like the Great Indian Wedding. Apart from the Western-outfitted Indians, women in gold-brocade saris and men in traditional dhoti-kurtas dotted the corridors.
Chatter in Hindi echoed in the hallways. A huge Indian restaurant was packed to capacity, its wafting fragrance drawing hundreds of mainly Western customers who waited in long queues to grab a bite between business meetings. The fair was the great leveller, setting loose a strange kind of socialism of book publishers. Leading Indian publishers, many of them kings at home, lugged their books, set them up and sat lonely at small tables in rows of counters. Except, of course, for Pramod Kapur of Roli Books, the fair-savvy publisher who had a beautifully done-up large stall, a packed party and a billboard (featuring a book on brands popular with maharajahs) that covered half the width of a building.
Many back home complain about sport-illiterate politicians being sports administrators. Nuzhat Hassan, director of the National Book Trust, has interestingly been a police officer all her life. Hassan, a Deputy Commissioner of Police in New Delhi until last year, switched genres to take over her position in February 2005. While being a policewoman is certainly not a disqualification for a person captaining India’s biggest ever global literary event, some Indian authors wondered whether it is ample qualification.