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“We Indians are real bandwagonwallahs,” says Anil Dharker

The founder and festival director Tata Literature Live! talks about India’s growing number of bibliophiles, bestsellers and lit fests, and what makes his fest the most lit one!

brunch Updated: Nov 04, 2018 01:27 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Anil Dharker,Tata Literature Live!,litfest
Anil Dharker started the Tata Literature Live nine years back and today it is one of India’s most prestigious litfests(Aalok Soni)

Anil Dharker is a busy man. The Tata Literature Live!’s 2018 chapter is just round the corner (November 15-18) and as its founder and festival director, Dharker is making last-minute arrangements. When we meet him, he is already rushing for his next appointment. But he agrees to do a quick shoot and interview.

“This is our ninth year and one would think we are having a smooth ride, but though with each year it is becoming better, it’s also more difficult,” says Dharker. “That’s because the pressures are the same. Getting funds is always a pain and getting good writers isn’t easy either. It’s becoming more challenging with so many festivals happening in India.”

Dharker has been to only two of these: the Khushwant Singh Lit Fest at Kasauli and the Jaipur Lit Fest. “From the Kasauli one, I learnt that a lit fest can work without big names and in a very informal setting. All you need is good speakers. The Jaipur Lit Fest is just the opposite. It attracts youngsters who just come to mill around in their designer clothes, and don’t have the slightest interest in literature or books.”

Live action drama

Organising an event of such magnitude is challenging and things can go south. Says Dharker: “In 2012, Girish Karnad was to give a talk on his life in theatre. That year we were giving the lifetime achievement award to V. S. Naipaul. Girish launched a full frontal attack on Naipaul, on me and the organisers for choosing him.”

“Farrukh Dhondy, a good friend of Naipaul, stood up to point out that Karnad was misquoting Naipaul. Girish shut him saying he is not taking any questions. It caused an uproar inside the venue.”

Later, Dharker saw the value of that ‘embarrassing hour’. “All TV channels were at the venue and the event got nationwide coverage,” he laughs.

The well-read and the woke

Are people reading more, or is a large part of the crowd simply hipsters looking to be woke? “It’s a mix of both. Last year we had a Zambian philosopher/author

A. C. Grayling. I’d first heard him and of him at the Hay Festival. I invited him to Lit Live. I thought people would not know him. But we had to turn down over a 100 people! I realised then that we are probably underestimating our audience.”

“The Kasauli litfest showed me that things can work without big names. In the Jaipur Lit Fest youngsters come in their designer clothes, and don’t have the slightest interest in books!”

The idea of what constitutes literature and books worth reading has changed in the last 30 years, adds Dharker. “Earlier, popular books were imported or pirated. We didn’t have local variants. People like Ashok Banker, Chetan Bhagat, Ashwin Sanghi explored this untapped market,” he says.

And then came what Dharker calls ‘the bandwagonwallahs’. “After the first lot, you have a slew of authors writing near-identical books and you come across books like ‘I had a girlfriend’, ‘I too had a girlfriend’, ‘I too had a girlfriend part 2’. It seems most have had enough girlfriends to churn out a series!” chuckles Dharkar.

A fine balance

The right panel is crucial to the success of any lit fest. In the zeal to cater to the popular taste, does the festival run the risk of becoming a crowd-pleasing exercise?

“Many regulars have told me that this is possibly the best one held in India. I dispense that with a pinch of salt,” says Dharker. “We’ve around 100 authors. Last year we had 17 countries participating. We’ve had Chetan Bhagat and Amish, as they are good speakers and a large section of the audience wants to hear them. If we have Soha Ali Khan or Kalki Koechlin, it is because they are interesting speakers.”

Dharker has got some of his favourites like Martin Amis, Germaine Greer, Margaret Drabble, to be part of his lit fest, but his all-time favourite guest remains V. S. Naipaul. “I might disagree with his views but he is a giant of the literature world. He’s turning the mirror to society and the reflection is not always pleasant. It makes you feel uncomfortable but it is also expressed in the most elegant way,” he says.

In fact, Dharker’s most poignant moment of the LitLive stage involves this grand old man of (toxic) letters. “He was very frail and came on a wheelchair. He was talking to Farrukh Dhondy. While discussing A House for Mr Biswas, a book inspired by Naipaul’s father, Naipaul abruptly went silent. There were tears rolling down his cheeks. Of course, Farrukh changed the subject. But I can never forget that moment,” says Dharker.

Sadly, some on his guest wish list, like Margaret Atwood, are too old to travel (she is 80!). And there are authors like Arvind Adiga and Haruki Murakami who don’t participate in lit fests at all!

Dharker feels non-fiction writers work better at lit fests. “Non-fiction books are topical, contemporary and often controversial and the immediacy to these gets the audiences involved,” he explains. “A Shashi Tharoor talking about Hinduism at a time when the Hindutva brigade is flexing its muscles is more topical and more interesting than a Martin Amis, whose book might have better literary value.”

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From HT Brunch, November 4, 2018

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First Published: Nov 04, 2018 01:27 IST