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Writes of passage

In a literature festival, the only stars should be the writers. All other taaras should stay in another zameen, writes Namita Bhandare.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2008 22:27 IST

I yield to nobody in my regard for Aamir Khan as a fundamentally decent human being. I doff my (metaphorical) hat at his courage to follow his politics and I applaud from my heart at Taare Zameen Par (TZP) as a sensitive, socially-relevant film that every parent, teacher and thinking adult should watch.

Yet, even I have to question the wisdom of Khan’s opting to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival recently, not as a participant — because surely it was his right to attend an event that has free entry for all — but as a delegate.

<b1>Now Khan may be a fine actor and a sensitive director, but he’s no writer; not at least to the best of anyone’s knowledge although he does post occasionally on his blog. His conversation with Tehelka’s Shoma Chaudhury had little to do with books (though someone from the audience did ask what he had read in recent times) and more to do with films, particularly TZP. Quite clearly, even Shoma, a lit fest veteran, was aware of the awkwardness, beginning her conversation by wondering aloud what Aamir was doing at a festival that celebrates literature.

Predictably, the actor had a sell-out session held not at the hall of the Diggi Palace hotel where lesser mortals (Ian McEwan included) spoke, but in the lawns, decked out as if for a beloved bridegroom. Gem exporter Naresh Goyal was there with his family of eight, including his parents and children clutching autograph books. So, how many other sessions had he attended at the Lit Fest? What had been his favourite so far? Goyal confessed that he hadn’t had the time to attend any other sessions, but was planning to on the last day. Any favourite books? Oh, he said, he didn’t have the time to read.

To say that Khan’s session was a media circus would be an understatement. Local channels and national networks all scrambled to grab a soundbite everywhere he went, surrounded by burly bodyguards (he stayed on for dinner later that night, and even attended a session the next morning with Pakistani women writers, Shahbano Bilgrami, Kamila Shamshie and Moni Mohsin moderated by Urvashi Butalia), he was followed by cameras and fans, detracting attention from those who were the real stars of the festival — the writers.

Even that would have been tolerable but for a caustic comment Khan made amid much applause that he didn’t really have a problem with news channels as long as they were prepared to call themselves “entertainment channels”. Now it’s all very fine to sit on a podium, surrounded by adoring fans and take pot-shots at the news media (no paragons of virtue). But to turn the very venue to which you’ve been invited into a bit of a nautanki, even if inadvertently, and then take the high moral ground does smack of hypocrisy, doesn’t it?

Then again, why blame Khan if the news/entertainment channels couldn’t get enough of him? Why blame him for the adoring fans? And, surely, as Harsh Sethi of Seminar, pointed out, if Aamir’s presence could encourage a love for books then is that a bad thing?

My point is simple: Khan had to have been aware of the commotion that his very presence would result in. He should have had the humility to say that he was not qualified to be a delegate or a speaker. And I’m willing to take a bet with Sethi that nobody went back home that night to grab a copy of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, the book that Khan said he has most recently read.

The Jaipur Lit Fest has been around for just three years. It began in 2006 with a reading by Dalrymple — one of the organisers — in a hall with little more than a handful of people and 16 other authors. The next year, this festival was back, overcoming all odds (lack of sponsors, no sarkari support and just the will of a few determined people) with 26 authors — many of them heavyweights like Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Suketu Mehta. Remarkably, the Lit Fest had arrived. This year, the festival has seen some serious sponsorship money (including from two construction companies, D.S. Constructions and Hindustan Construction) and the participation of close to 80 authors including Khan’s colleague, Dev Anand who’s just out with his autobiography.

For the first time, the festival has been handed over to a professional event management company (Teamwork Productions says it will definitely have a hand in drawing up the author list for next year) and while it’s easy to understand that the organisers, William Dalrymple, Eleanor O’Keeffe and Namita Gokhale cannot possibly handle a festival of this magnitude, they’d do well to remember that professional event organisers are not necessarily attuned to the subtleties and nuances of a literature festival. Getting a huge crowd is easy enough if you’re going to invite filmstars. Who’s up for next year? Salman Khan? Sachin Tendulkar? Raakhi Sawant? They’ll all guaranteed crowd-pullers.

By inviting Khan to attend as a delegate, many of the Lit Fest’s well-wishers, including myself, believe that the festival is in danger of selling its soul. In a literature festival, the only stars should be the writers. All other taaras should stay in another zameen.