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Literally speaking

Literary festivals have become as common as dirt. But there's no one who can raise questions that are relevant to the growth of Indian writing in English. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2011 01:47 IST
Farrukh Dhondy
Farrukh Dhondy
Hindustan Times

India, the new traveller's guides should say, is a land of festivities and book festivals. Each religion, region, sect and caste has its sacred celebrative days and the country, a beacon of humility and tolerance, sees a mingling of goodwill at these festivals. Hindu politicians readily accept invitations to Muslim Ifftar parties at Eid; Hindu, Catholic and even Parsi youths get stoned out of their heads and dance in the streets with the processions taking the 'tajias' and 'taboots' of the Muharram celebrations around the city streets to immersion by dawn in the crystal clean, lotus-scented rivers.

Almost every week of the year and several times a week in the cold months the several English language book publishers, capitalised in New York or London with Indian subsidiaries bury their Hachettes (sic) and join in festivals of literature. Unlike Diwali, Eid, Christmas or Baisakhi, these literary festivals are relatively new, though some of them, like the Hay Festival of Kerala, faintly echo the grassy themes of yore.

Like pilgrims to Gangotri, the public flocks to these festivals from far and wide. The devotees are many but, as in the shrines to which they flock, the gods are select and few. They occupy their podiums under different names. But in the end, as with the religious festivals, all the names merge into one, the name of the Supreme Being SB): Author.

As with the different ceremonials of the feasts, so also at the litfests the SBs are called upon to deliver their wisdom in several argumentative and discursive avatars. But in the end the message is one: buy my book! (or maybe two: Give me one of those literary prizes which have become as common as laddoos at Diwali).

As with pilgrimages to the temple idol, the visitation of the mob does the idol on the altar not much good beyond selling a few copies and having his or her photographs and brief misquotes printed in the newspaper that has been roped in to sponsor the festival of 'literature' (please note the surreptitious creep of inverted commas!).

The litfest is a very different affair from the book fair. There are speakers, events, podiums and prizes at these too. But as with boozing at a casino's bar, the serious business is taking place elsewhere. Deals are being cut.

My favourite story is that of my late friend Giles Gordon, a British literary agent who went to the Frankfurt Book Fair one year and stationed himself on a bar stool next to the most gossipy publisher he could identify.

"What have you got for us, Giles?" was the expected opener, as conventional as Indian railway passengers on a train heading to Calcutta asking each other where they are going.

"Your publishing house won't be able to afford it and it's very hush hush," says Giles.

A few sponsored drinks later he swears the girl to secrecy and confesses.

"Right here in this briefcase is the candid autobiography of Sean Connery — the deals, seductions, Scottish nationalism, Hollywood tangles, quarrels... dynamite. Say nothing to anyone."

By the end of the evening and into the early hours, Giles is accosted and invited for a drink or to a party by every major publisher in town. In the small hours he gets back to his hotel room and rings America.

"Mr Connery, you don't know me. My name is Giles Gordon, I am a literary agent and if you write your memoirs, I can get you an advance of $6 million."

Connery recognises the accent as that of a fellow Scot and says he has no intention yet of writing his memoirs, but when he does he will be in touch.

It is time to confess, dear reader, that I have not resisted the lure of the Indian litfest and have accepted invitations to several, including two this very month.

Though all the vanity and strutting at these festivals with the same coterie of gods (dare I quote any names of the repetitively gifted?) meeting in these contrived swargs are amusing and instructive, I have only heard the question I find centrally relevant to this burgeoning world of Indian writing in English posed once. And that in an article written by Hartosh Singh Bal, who challenged the criteria by which English writing is judged concluding that, apart from the whims of some people who run book festivals, there are none. At the recent Mumbai litfest, Bal shared a platform with Mark Tully, David Davidar and me.

The central idea that emerged, at least in my mind, was that the lack of critical response and debate, the total absence of criteria of what is good, bad, necessary, imitative, blatantly stolen, fresh, redeeming, skilful, pioneering etc will give us a consumer industry in books but no 'culture' of literature.

In the 19th and early-20th century, the British novel came into its own and served the vital function of defining the British character and even the subtleties of its social and political intercourse. There were also in the throng of writers the populist Marie Correllis who haven't endured as Thomas Hardy has. Their critical tradition, if asked, can tell you in several conclusive ways why.

Through the written works of Gandhi, Nehru, the early Nirad Chaudhuri, RK Narayan, Raja Rao and a handful of others, a descriptive uncovering of a nation and nationalism seemed to be taking shape. Indian publishing has come a long way since, but then so has Indian fast food. The Colonel Sanders and the Ronald McDonalds of the Indian literary scene can be seen at all the litfests peddling their goods and there is no one, literally no one, to discuss, raise the question or debate the nourishment or debilitating obesity therein.

The proliferation of Indian writing in English should produce a defining 'literature', but without a fearless, even idiosyncratic critical tradition it will contribute to our culture nothing more than video games do.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Nov 24, 2011 21:39 IST