Report: Kolkata Literary Meet 2023
Refreshing conversations and weighty discussions transpired alongside each other at the 11th edition of the event
Writing a book is a laborious process but doing the rounds of literature festivals to promote it can be even more gruelling for authors who are subjected to the same questions repeatedly from uninspired moderators or audience members. A burst of spontaneity can spice up the proceedings, as I noticed at the 11th edition of the Kolkata Literary Meet that was held from January 21-26.
It was memorable because of some refreshing, unguarded and self-deprecating conversations that transpired alongside discussions on heavy-duty topics like the mental health of the urban poor, the history of humanity, mindfulness, writing during the pandemic, Sikhs in Eastern India, the textile and design heritage of India, democracies in crisis, and food as a unifier.
After a panel on the topic “Has dark humour edged the droll and delightful out of literature?” between Shehan Karunatilaka, Sandip Roy, Ben Schott and Malavika Banerjee, a man from the audience raised his hand and asked, “I am a wannabe writer and a stoner. Is it okay to get stoned and write?” Since Karunatilaka, Roy and Schott were a bit taken aback by the question, Banerjee paraphrased: “Does your literature require any herbal infusions?”
Karunatilaka blushing on stage was a sight to watch. He feigned surprise by asking “Why is everyone looking at me?” and went on to clarify that there is absolutely no correlation between writing and consuming drugs because there are all kinds of writers including sober writers, writers who go to the gym, and writers who have a yoga and meditation routine. He added that, in his pre-Booker days, as an adman with deadlines, he has gone through several nights of just coffee and cigarettes and achieved zero productivity despite the stimulation.
On another panel titled “A New Dawn for South Asian Literature”, which Karunatilaka shared with fellow Booker Prize winners Geetanjali Shree and Daisy Rockwell, he was asked by moderator Sandip Roy about the surprises that have come his way after the prize. He said, “I find it weird that everyone wants to talk to me. All my life, I have cultivated this air of being unapproachable because I like going to parties, staying in a corner and looking at people. I don’t get to do that anymore.” When these people enquire about his new work, he tells them that he hardly gets any time to read or write due to the volume of emails piling up.
Shree spoke about how she has been trying to wrap her head around the variety of taps that exist in the world. With every speaking invitation that has come her way, she has had to travel widely and experience new things. When all she wants is some water, it is exhausting for her to figure out how to use taps that are designed differently from what she is used to.
Rockwell used an analogy to describe her experience after the prize. She remembered an incident from many years ago when she was in Santiniketan on an official visit along with her boss, and they were expected to go the office of every department and have a cup of tea while meeting with them. Life after the Booker has also enveloped her in a number of formalities.
At another session titled “Dhwani Aur Goonj Se Resonance Tak”, Rockwell was in conversation with Poonam Saxena, Baran Farooqi and Yatish Kumar. This panel focused on translating from Hindi and Urdu to English. After Rockwell had let off enough steam about inaccuracies in translations by Jai Ratan – a prolific translator of yore – Farooqi gently reminded her, “Even our translations are going to be dated in say, 30 years from now.”
Such conversations can happen only in a setting where authors feel safe to let their hair down and speak frankly without the compulsion to offer pearls of wisdom every minute or keep the audience hooked with intellectual posturing. Perhaps the open, free-flowing exchange of thoughts was possible because most of the sessions took place in a charming public venue like the Victoria Memorial Hall, with its play of shade and sunlight, flowers and foliage.
Ghazala Wahab, Jerry Pinto, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee, Moin Mir, Vidya Dehejia, Akshaya Mukul, Damodar Mauzo, Anindita Ghose, Vikas Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Sampurna Chattarji, Gayathri Ponvannan, Nikhil Gulati, Gaur Gopal Das, Sarnath Banerjee, Devika Rangachari, Annu Jalais, Oscar Guardiola-Rivera and Barry O’Brien were some of the other speakers. The festival also included performances by Sonam Kalra, Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Shankar Mahadevan, Selvaganesh and Ganesh Rajagopalan.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who held forth on everything from capitalism to casteism and Karl Marx to Mahasweta Devi, made fun of herself for speaking endlessly when given the microphone and recalled Edward Said who used to tell her, “You don’t know soundbites.” When Andrew Sean Greer was asked if he would set his next book in India, he had a witty reply in store. “I am going to Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur with my twin brother Mike after this festival. I’d love to set my next book in India but the part that I am writing at the moment needs to be in a boat. But Rajasthan is land-locked, so I don’t know how to make it work.”
Even the audience seemed to be in a leisurely mood, taking the liberty to ask questions that had nothing to do with books. Javed Akhtar, who was in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabeer and Sangeeta Datta about his new book Talking Life, was asked to dwell on his public statements about how the Andaman and Nicobar Islands need to be developed as tourism hubs that would give Dubai and Singapore a run for their money. After saying that he can make only hawaai kille (imaginary castles) unlike the powers-that-be, Akhtar went on to talk about balancing environmental concerns with financial gains.
Sadly, some people misused their freedom of speech. After the panel titled “Queersapien” featuring Sharif Rangnekar, Saurabh Kirpal, Sumita Beethi, Sandip Roy and Andrew Sean Greer, one audience member called homosexuality “disgusting” and “perverse”, and expected a response to his comment.
Beethi said that she accepted the comment, Kirpal said he was reluctant to accept, and Greer said that he would like to move on to the next question. They handled the matter gracefully but the anger among audience was palpable. Some murmured to each other about how homophobes need to be thrown out of such places whereas others said that the very purpose of literature festivals is to foster dialogue among people with different mindsets. It is hard to reach a conclusion on this matter but it is worth thinking about whether safe spaces are echo chambers by another name or if they are genuinely able to work with differences.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer
The views expressed are personal
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