“India is now a country of literature festivals. Last year, I was in Chandigarh over a weekend that actually featured two competing festivals, each busy poaching the other’s stars to come to their parties,” so says a columnist in a national daily.
The city’s literature festival boom is getting a notice on the national level on the social media, even if it is not exactly flattering. Why just the city, the entire country is in the grip of hyper literary activity in the pleasant winter, literally covering east, west, north, south. Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have their share, too, and the buzz right now from across the tempestuous Pakistan border is of the Karachi and Lahore lit fests. The writers are the new stars on the rise, with some of them being in great demand from one festival to the other. The trend has caught so much that the stars of the silver screen add the extra glitter to literary extravaganzas.
Much in demand across the country is the romantic, silver-haired poet, Gulzar, whose verses have the power to wow his large number of fans, both men and women. The articulate Javed Akhtar is the second in demand, with a fine command of Urdu and a flourish to recount the untold stories of the Mumbai cinema. There are others, too, who give a touch of glamour and draw numbers, like Anupam Kher, self-styled supporter of the Modi government, rewarded with Padma Bhushan, although he is still making a din about not being granted a visa for the Lahore Lit Fest that takes off later this month.
Writers, too, are penning biography after biography of film directors, actors, singers and so on from Guru Dutt to Shotgun Sinha. But this season, a controversy has travelled here all the way from London, that writers should get a speakers’ fee, too, when so much is spent on much else. The whole thing started with best-selling British author Philip Pullman’s resigning from the patron’s post of the Oxford Literary Festival in the UK in protest against the practice of not paying writers. Pullman said: “The principle is very simple: a festival pays the people who supply the marquees, it pays the printers who print the brochure, it pays the rent for the lecture halls and other places, it pays the people who run the administration and the publicity, it pays for the electricity it uses, it pays for the drinks and dinners it lays on: why is it that the authors, the very people at the centre of the whole thing, the only reason customers come along and buy their tickets in the first place, are the only ones who are expected to work for nothing?”
Pullman’s stand found support from many famous British writers on a matter of principle rather than the fee amount. Many have even called for boycotting all festivals that do not pay the writer. Following valid argument from organisers that writers were given a platform, validation and a free holiday among their peers from all over the world, the organisers at Oxford are planning how to pay writers for their 2017 festival.
In the Indian context, this controversy is yet to find takers. However, the lone writer who has a fee attached to his presence is Amitav Ghosh of ‘Sea of Poppies’ fame. So he is away from all festivals, much as the organisers would like to have him. It is another matter that like Arundhati Roy, he is not excited by lit fests. And come to our City Beautiful, writer’s fee is not even thought of but it would not be a bad idea if Chandigarh set the precedent making a modest budget for a speaker’s fee, to be noticed for something better than poaching each other’s writers for partying.