Report: Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2024 - Hindustan Times
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Report: Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2024

Apr 05, 2024 09:26 PM IST

With sessions on biographies, climate fiction, feminist publishing, fantasy fiction and women’s empowerment, the festival provided much food for thought

The 15th edition of the annual Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, curated by Anjum Katyal and Maina Bhagat, provided attendees with much intellectual fodder. Scheduled from February 9 to 11 this year, the programme was spread across Allen Park, Oxford Bookstore, and Alliance Française du Bengale in the Park Street neighbourhood. There was also a session at the Tollygunge Club.

Bestselling author Anuja Chauhan, whose latest novel The Fast and the Dead is a murder mystery set on Karwa Chauth night. (AKLF2024)
Bestselling author Anuja Chauhan, whose latest novel The Fast and the Dead is a murder mystery set on Karwa Chauth night. (AKLF2024)

Bestselling author Anuja Chauhan, whose latest novel The Fast and the Dead is a murder mystery set on Karwa Chauth night, spoke about why the genre appeals to her. “It is not just a who-dunnit. It’s a how-dunnit and a why-dunnit. Digging into people’s motivations and figuring out all that’s going on in their head is a lot of fun. I like that kind of psychological excavation,” she said. “I enjoy pulling a rabbit out of a hat neatly in the end,” she added.

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Chauhan was also excited to discuss her previous novel Club You to Death, now adapted into the film Murder Mubarak directed by Homi Adajania. The author revealed that, before writing this book set in a posh Delhi club, she had a rewarding chat with AS Dulat, former head of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and also the former president of the Delhi Gymkhana Club. “He told me: ‘Add this, add that!’ It was fun listening to him. There was no RAW-shaw in our conversation!” she said.

Meghna Pant, author, The Man Who Lost India, a dystopian war novel about an imagined India-China war in 2032. (AKLF2024)
Meghna Pant, author, The Man Who Lost India, a dystopian war novel about an imagined India-China war in 2032. (AKLF2024)

Meghna Pant spoke about The Man Who Lost India, her dystopian war novel about an imagined India-China war in 2032. “Historically, war literature has been predominantly male-dominated, with a focus on combat, heroism, and masculinity. Women writers stay away from this subject because they’ve allowed patriarchy to get inside their heads,” she said. She revealed that 12 years ago, a male author had told her that women cannot write war novels. Pant wanted to prove him wrong, and she has.

The novel owes much to the author’s maternal grandmother who once told her a story about the 1962 India-China war. “Naniji spoke about how women like her threw their jewellery at passing army trucks and how Nanaji brought government gold bonds to aid India in the war. This sparked my interest in the indelible scars that war leaves on families, individuals, lovers, artists, entrepreneurs, people like us – bringing us together and tearing us apart.”

Mehak Goyal, author of the poetry collection, Failure to Make Round Rotis, was another robust feminist voice. “From the confines of arranged marriages to the conflation of guilt with femininity, from the discomforts of menstruation to the indignity of catcalling, poetry has allowed me to explore these topics with metaphors, depth, and precision,” she said adding that her book has sold 3,000 copies in three months – a feat for volumes of poetry.

The festival had sessions on food writing, biographies, climate fiction, feminist publishing, romance novels, fantasy fiction, women’s empowerment, children’s literature, and science fiction too. “The science fiction influences which I draw upon belong to the sub-genre within sci-fi called speculative fiction, best exemplified by Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and HG Wells, and which later mutated into harrowing Eastern Bloc sci-fi of The Strugatsky Brothers and Stanislaw Lem,” said actor Vivaan Shah whose novel, The Forsaken Wilderness, is set in the Himalayas. He is also inspired by the “weird fiction” of Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, and HP Lovecraft that looks for fantastical and bizarre elements in everyday life.

Author of A Yellow Sparrow, Santa Khurai (AKLF2024)
Author of A Yellow Sparrow, Santa Khurai (AKLF2024)

One of the most interesting sessions had Manipuri transwoman Santa Khurai in conversation with transgender social justice activist Anindya Hajra from Kolkata. Khurai’s memoir A Yellow Sparrow was translated from Manipuri to English by Rubani Yumkhaibam. “My translator is my best friend. She is from the Pangal community, an indigenous Islamic community in Manipur. We have known each other for a long time,” said Khurai who also spoke about completely trusting her translator. “People from mainland India find it really difficult to understand our ground reality, and it is very frustrating for me to translate everything into Hindi and English all the time,” she said, adding that since the Northeast is racially and culturally diverse, it is unfair to expect her to represent its entire LGBTQIA+ community. “There are ethnic differences even among trans people in Manipur. We are not a homogenous group.”

Given the recent surge of interest in translated fiction from India among publishers, literary agents, award juries, university departments, and grant-making organizations, it was fitting that the festival had several panel discussions featuring translators including Arshia Sattar, Jerry Pinto, Kalpana Raina, Tanveer Ajsi, Maharghya Chakraborty, Prasun Roy, Lopamudra Maitra, Jashodhara Chakrabarti, Urbi Bhaduri and Niladri Chatterjee.

Roy, whose translations of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Bengali short stories appear in a book titled The Devil’s Teacup and Other Ghost Stories, threw light on how extensive travels through forests and the countryside as well as traditions of goddess worship in Bengal became sources of inspiration for Bandyopadhyay’s writing. “He was an extremely well-read man and his understanding of religious entities, tantra and mantra, belief in the supernatural comes out through intelligent use of many elements from them in his ghost stories,” she said.

Translator Tanveer Ajsi (AKLF2024)
Translator Tanveer Ajsi (AKLF2024)

Raina and Ajsi’s translations of Hari Krishna Kaul’s Kashmiri short stories are part of a collection called For Now, it is Night, for which they collaborated with two other translators – Gowhar Fazili and Gowhar Yaqoob. Kaul, who was Raina’s uncle, taught Hindi literature in various colleges affiliated to the University of Kashmir. He was forced to leave the valley in 1990 during the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. “When he was exiled from Kashmir and lived in Delhi, he lamented the loss of his readership. That pained him deeply,” Ajsi said, adding that this anthology shows what Kashmir was like before the 1990s. “What is lost to history is sometimes retrieved through fiction,” he said. Ajsi also expressed the hope that this book will get readers from outside Kashmir to see it not just as a piece of land enmeshed in conflict but as the home of people with a unique culture. “Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits are often pitted against each other. This is an anthology where three Kashmiri Muslims have translated the work of a Kashmiri Pandit writer along with his niece. We want people to view Kashmir through a humane perspective,” he said.

Journalist Kunal Purohit reading from his debut non-fiction work, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars (AKLF2024)
Journalist Kunal Purohit reading from his debut non-fiction work, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars (AKLF2024)

The festival also took on contemporary political issues. Journalist Kunal Purohit spoke about his debut non-fiction work, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars, which has detailed portraits of pop stars who use poetry, music, social media, comedy and books to garner support for right wing political parties. He was struck by the fact that “people from different strata and walks of life, as well as people from various nationalities” came to listen. “Kolkata has long been known for producing intellectual giants, so I wasn’t surprised to encounter an engaged audience, asking sharp questions and interested in understanding the counter-narratives to Hindutva pop,” he said.

Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, whose book, The Watershed Year: Which Way Will India Go?, released recently, warned the audience that the BJP “will relentlessly pursue its agenda to create a Hindu Rashtra.” Presenting views from the opposite end of the political spectrum was TV journalist Rahul Shivshankar, who spoke about Modi & India: 2024 and the Battle for Bharat, which he co-authored with Siddhartha Talya. “The greatest guarantee against a communal or theocratic state is our open and tolerant culture, he said adding that this is why “persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan want to come and live here.”

In sum, the annual Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival definitely stood out for prioritizing substance over style and content over packaging.

Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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