High heels, Prada bags, Charles & Keith ankle boots, wines by the bottle, highly visible cleavages and a private jet or two. It could be the Cannes Film Festival. Or the World Economic Forum in Davos. Or the Mumbai Fashion Week. But it’s the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Gone are the Sahitya Akademic days when you had a literary event where the author sat before a smattering of cotton sari-and kurta-clad folks with their jholas. The late afternoon or early evening affair was a reading or a panel discussion followed by tea at the twee India International Centre in Delhi or the Bombay Gymkhana. If the budget allowed, there would even be samosas and sandwiches. The term ‘book event’ itself would have been frowned upon — at best, it was a ‘literary evening’ — and media presence, if any, would be limited to a few pen-pushers writing reviews for the Economic and Political Weekly.
Today, any self-respecting author will at least see to it that his publisher — or the PR company he has hired — will get the TV cameras taking it all in (a few sound bites will do, thank you), for which, of course, you’ll need a suitable chief guest or star panelist. If you’re in Delhi, chances are you’ll try and wrangle Shashi Tharoor; if you’re in Bombay, Rahul Bose should do the trick. Wine and whisky with trayfuls of mobile canapés should lubricate the evening launch.
The lit zone is the new hot spot. If earlier it was Rohit Bal taking his shirt off that caught your page 3 eye, now it’ll be William Dalrymple dancing like a big dervish (thankfully with his kurta on) doing the trick. There’s a new influx of babalogs and Beautiful People in the earlier boring world of book events. The truth is, even the writers look smarter and prettier these days. With a dash of Brechtian ‘temporary suspension of disbelief’, you could be at a Taj hotel attending not the launch of the winter collection of Tarun Tahiliani but at the launch of Rana Dasgupta’s new novel.
Move over fashion week tarts’n’farts, the Lit Hurleys are here. Take Ayesha Thapar. Here’s a Delhi socialite who’s seen at every fashion week party, club opening night and art gallery bash. Now, she’s reached the book event too. Reaching the front lawn of the Jaipur Literature Fest’s venue Diggi Palace, she exclaimed, “Oh God, all the riff-raff’s here!” Had she spotted Romi Chopra, Sunita Kohli or Gauri Keeling? Maybe it was fashion designer Poonam Bhagat that she had spotted there.
A two-minute anthropologist classifies the new women at lit events (‘Lit Clits’) into two categories: 1) The Bag Ladies with their Guccis (BLGs) sending flying kisses to each while avoiding being crushed by the ‘oof’ people; and 2) The Indigo Sari Ladies (ISLs), who with their grey hair, ‘sensible’ shoes, draped-on-the-arm shawls and ash-hanging cigarettes were scurrying from one talk to another, complaining that chairs should be reserved for people above 55.
The buzz at literary events has also changed considerably from ‘ooh-aahing’ about a smart one-liner from VS Naipaul to the tweets and purrs about Orhan cosying up to his crypto-dipso girlfriend Kiran. And who was that woman exiting in an autorickshaw with Pakistani novelist Ali Sethi? (‘But dahling, isn’t he gay?’) Now you can even gush about the dedication to the Life Literary of Bina Ramani (‘No one thrilled Bina,’ quipped a smartie in hot pants) if you find the Delhi socialite sitting next to your feet — as she did, putting her derriere at great risk, at an over-crowded session in Jaipur).
With the folks who buy Tissots at the DLF Emporio mall, brown bread from the Taj, and books only if they’re launched at Le Meridian having invaded the book world, instead of questions like, ‘Did you read the new Patrick French?’ the posers are usually along the line of “How did you come?” (The reply was: “I came in Narula’s plane.”)
Rachel Tanzer, publicist, Random House India, finds Delhi’s book launches boring. “In New York, you can have a launch on a subway, on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Empire State Building’s rooftop, or in the Bloomingdale’s loo,” she says, “To ensure a hit, a launch must be celeb-filled.”
It isn’t only Hachette India that launched Amit Varma’s My Friend Sancho at the swanky Agni bar at The Park last year. Some years ago, Penguin India launched Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide at the same venue, with the dance floor packed with the literati turning glit. It can even be downright uncouth to go down the ‘traditional’ route if you’re launching the new book of someone like Arundhati Roy. At the launch of her collection of essays on the (rotten) state of Indian democracy and the (evil) Indian State, The Shape of the Beast, tradition was roundly ignored at the trendy Olive Beach restaurant: no book reading, no question-answer session, no panel discussion; just a little speech, followed by the author mingling with the wine/scotch-glugging guests decrying the ills of the System.
At last year’s Hay Festival in Thiruvanthapuram, ‘literary’ was just a breezy adjective. Sting — the PRs insisting that the pop star’s presence was an “utter surprise” — walked in wearing Jeetendra-white with someone the chi-chi crowd figured was his wife. “Trudie Styler reminds me of one thing only,” said Divya A, a curly-headed art student, with a giggle. “But let’s not go there…”
But should those, still chewing on their pens while reading their JM Coetzees and Vicky Seths, find all this glamour and glitz despicable? Whatever be their angst, books and writers are being talked about by people who till now wouldn’t have been caught even looking up the two words in a dictionary. So if all the air kisses and pretty authors and the plonk are bait to get them closer to a book, why not? Maybe one day they may even read one.