Report: The Kolkata Literary Meet 2024 - Hindustan Times
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Report: The Kolkata Literary Meet 2024

Apr 02, 2024 01:01 AM IST

With conversations about multilingualism, Bhakti poetry and performances by Naseeruddin Shah and Jacek Luminski, the event was wide-ranging and inspiring

The 12th edition of the Kolkata Literary Meet 2024, curated by Malavika Banerjee, had a lot going for it – compelling speakers, invigorating sessions, attention to detail, and a number of venues including Victoria Memorial Hall, Daga Nikunj, GD Birla Sabhaghar, Gallerie 88 and the Bengal Club to ensure wide participation from people living in different neighbourhoods.

Jerry Pinto and Shanta Gokhale sharing their translations of the poetry of Tukaram PREMIUM
Jerry Pinto and Shanta Gokhale sharing their translations of the poetry of Tukaram

The festival held from January 23 to 27 brought in speakers from various walks of life – poets, novelists, artists, translators, playwrights, chefs, scholars, literary critics, radio jockeys, musicians, designers, bankers, actors, filmmakers, lawyers, dancers, entrepreneurs, journalists, and diplomats.

I came away impressed by the event that encompassed conversations about queer literature, multilingualism, Bhakti poetry, women in sports, India’s textile traditions, decolonizing the English literary curriculum, children’s books, artificial intelligence, and travel writing. It had performances by Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Heeba Shah, Shubha Mudgal, Aneesh Pradhan, Sudhir Nayak, Anupam Roy, Sudarshan Chakravorty, Jacek Luminski, Anirban Bhattacharya, and Riddhi Sen.

Also, there is something utterly magical about Kolkata winters — cold in the mornings and evenings, a bit warm in the daytime, with the occasional drizzle thrown in. The beautiful weather certainly added to the festival’s charm.

Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah bared his heart about the hostile environment that he faced in England as a refugee from Zanzibar. Being an outsider felt alienating and it pushed him to make sense of the new land through the fiction he wrote. Soon he discovered that the novel was a wondrous form that allowed for depth and complexity. When asked to share words of advice for aspiring novelists, he said, “Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to undertake this business of writing, which can be very pleasurable and very frustrating, so I am not sure what to say. This is my only advice: Don’t give up. Just keep writing.”

South African writer Damon Galgut, who won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise, and American translator Daisy Rockwell who won the 2023 International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand — her translation of Geetanjali Shree’s novel Ret Samadhi — were the other literary giants who graced the festival. Galgut’s session on his book Arctic Summer, which draws inspiration from EM Forster’s novel A Passage to India, was particularly engaging thanks to moderator Ankhi Mukherjee, a professor at the University of Oxford.

Galgut also joined Gurnah and Mark Gevisser — South African journalist and non-fiction writer — in a session on contemporary African literature, moderated by novelist Sandip Roy, who got them talking about stereotypes in the publishing industry and changes that have taken place.

Jashodhara Chakrabarti and Jael Silliman in conversation about the book Shalome Rides a Royal Elephant The Story of the First Jews of Calcutta
Jashodhara Chakrabarti and Jael Silliman in conversation about the book Shalome Rides a Royal Elephant The Story of the First Jews of Calcutta

Rockwell joined British translator Daniel Hanh — winner of the 2023 Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature — and Arunava Sinha — on a panel about how translations introduce readers to new literary worlds. The three of them are collaborating on the South Asian Literature in Translation (SALT) initiative, which includes an institutional partnership between the University of Chicago’s Delhi campus and Ashoka University. Rockwell was on another translation panel with author Alka Saraogi, publisher Aditi Maheshwari Goyal and scholar Ved Raman Pandey. She held forth on the significance of her choice to translate only women writers as she was fed up with the absence of empathy she encountered in the way male authors in Hindi approached the interiority of female characters.

Author Perumal Murugan was there to talk about his 2023 JCB Prize-winning Firebird, published as Aalandapatchi in Tamil and translated into English by Janani Kannan. Author S Hareesh came in to discuss the 2020 JCB Prize-winning novel Moustache, translated by Jayasree Kalathil from his Meesha, which was written in Malayalam.

Irish novelist John Boyne spoke about writing his bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas because he grew up without being introduced to any Holocaust literature as a school kid. He learnt about the Nazi concentration camps in Europe through Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. In the session moderated by author Bijal Vachharajani, who writes books for children and young adults, Boyne addressed the criticism that this novel has received for alleged historical inaccuracies. He emphasized that novelists and historians are engaged in entirely different pursuits and that a novelist aims to render emotional truths rather than hard facts.

Sudha Murty, who writes fiction for adults and children, had the audience burst into thunderous applause when she said, “I was excited to come to Kolkata because this is a city of book lovers. I knew that I would be welcomed here as an author, not Narayana Murthy’s wife or Rishi Sunak’s mother-in-law.” She seemed unfazed by the Internet memes trolling her on an everyday basis, fully confident of her ability to captivate listeners with her storytelling even when she narrated the well-known story of how she wrote a postcard to industrialist JRD Tata pointing out the gender bias in automobile giant TELCO’s hiring advertisement. She was a young engineer at the time, and the advertisement said that women need not apply.

There were several other speakers including Gopalakrishna Gandhi, KR Meera, Shanta Gokhale, Amitav Ghosh, Raghuram Rajan, Sebastian Faulks, Asha Sahay Choudhry, Sugata Bose, Niladri Chatterjee, Devika Rege, Siddhartha Deb, Jerry Pinto, Radhika Iyengar, Anand Neelakantan, Sarnath Banerjee, Stephen Alter, Laila Tyabji, Appupen, and Deborah Baker.

Actor-turned-author Huma Qureshi came to the festival with her novel Zeba: An Accidental Superhero. “I have never known a woman in my life who is not strong. Strength comes in different forms. Just because someone is not career-oriented or not fluent in English does not make them weaklings,” she said, as she fielded questions from over 30 children who showed up for her session. They wanted to know about her writing process, her childhood, her strategies for multi-tasking, her remedy for writer’s block, and her approach to mental health. She stole many a heart with the warmth and respect that she extended to each one of them.

One of the children wanted to know how he should snap out of his despair when he felt really low. She recommended speaking to a trusted adult — teacher, parent, counsellor — but also asking for hugs because they can offer instant comfort.

A separate section on children’s literature called the Junior Kolkata Literary Meet hosted authors like Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan, Jael Silliman, Jasodhara Chakrabarti, Andaleeb Wajid, Hannah Lalhlanpuii, Tanu Shree Singh, Mandira Shah and Nandita Basu, among others.

The festival ended on a glorious note with Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal singing a bhajan attributed to 15th century poet Kabir: “Sadho, dekho jug baurana/ Sanchi kaho toh maaran dhaave, jhoothe jug patiyana/ Hindu kahe hai Ram hamaara, Musalman Rahimana/ Aapas mein dou lade marat hain, maram koi na jaana.” Kabir diagnoses hatred as madness that has inflicted people who kill in the name of God instead of going on a spiritual journey that will acquaint them with their own self and their connection to others.

She made her point without talking about how religious sentiments are manipulated in the run-up to elections. The audience, of course, understood because the music has its own way of getting to the heart of the matter.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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