What litfests mean to writers and readers | Opinion
The season of literature festivals (litfests) is on us. From Itanagar in the Northeast to Kerala in the south west, in big cities and in small towns, novelists, poets, academics, and journalists, writers of all sorts and kinds, gather to promote their books. Some authors speak about their writing, some take part in discussions, some are interviewed.
Interviewers don’t always have an easy time. At last year’s litfest in the hill station of Kasauli, I watched veteran journalist, Prem Shankar Jha, try to prevent cricketer-turned-politician, Navjot Sidhu, turn an interview into a monologue.
Writers sometimes come under fire from interviewers, too. At the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) a few years ago, writer and politician, Pavan Verma, attacked the journalist, Saeed Naqvi, ferociously, for questioning India’s secularism. In his book Being the Other, Naqvi suggested it might have been better if India had become a Hindu nation at Partition.
The litfest movement in India springs from the pioneering JLF. Starting as part of another festival in 2006, and becoming a stand-alone event in 2008, JLF has grown into the world’s biggest literary festival. There are now Jaipur festivals in Britain and America, too.
At the other end of the litfest scale are the small festivals in far away places. You can’t beat them for hospitality. I had the privilege of taking part in the first Ooty (short for Udhagamandalam) and Itanagar festivals. In Itanagar, we authors danced at the ball laid on by the deputy chief minister. In Ooty, we had the privilege of staying in the historic club where the rules of the game of snooker were first formalised.
Unlike in Britain, the litfests here are free. Jaipur has often been urged to charge for entry to control the crowds, but has rigidly refused to consider that. In India, litfests are also holidays for authors. We are accommodated for the whole festival, fed, watered, and entertained. In Britain, I have arrived at litfests, spoken, and departed immediately after signing books.
Are litfests anything more than social events for authors and free entertainment for the public? Do they, for instance, sell books? Ravi Singh, the founder of the publisher, Speaking Tiger, told me recently that sales at the better known litfests, particularly in big cities are significant, but in other festivals, they are less so.
But it demeans litfests to regard them simply as marketing devices for publishers. They provide a platform for less well known writers. They encourage translation, too, often having sessions discussing the skill which is so important and necessary in multilingual India. Authors who write in Indian languages take part in litfests, but I have to say, these festivals are dominated by literature written in English.
Above all, litfests perform the very important function of promoting reading. It is particularly important to promote that habit among the young, and they seem to be attracted to litfests. In this visually-saturated era, when many think that television has killed books and radio, it’s important to keep both of them alive to stimulate our imagination. Radio and reading both do so because they don’t have pictures, and, so, readers have to imagine pictures for themselves. That is why we broadcasters claim the pictures on radio are better. They are, after all, the listeners’ and readers’ personal pictures. A former head of BBC Radio once said to me, “There is no threat to radio so long as we don’t start putting pictures to it.” Because readers and listeners have made the effort to imagine the pictures, they remain in the memory too. Who forgets the stories read to them as a child?
But while we have litfests to encourage reading, radio in India is in a sorry state, or at least speech radio is, mainly because of the government’s restrictions on it. It is absurd that radio alone should be censored.
The views expressed are personal