Anil Dharker writes on staging Tata Literature Live virtually in COVID-19 era: 'Where there’s a will, there’s a litfest'
A literary festival is, above all, a gathering of people; where lovers of books and writers of books get together. How on earth, at least in this coronavirus infected world, could that happen?
Would we, or wouldn’t we? As I now find from the reactions of so many people, almost everyone thought we wouldn’t hold the Mumbai LitFest this year.
A literary festival is, above all, a gathering of people, where lovers of books and writers of books get together, where you listen to the voices you have only read, where you line up to get them to sign a copy of their book, and if you are lucky, get a selfie with them… How on earth, at least now, in this coronavirus infected world, could that happen?
It couldn’t and it could. After all, as the old cliché goes, where there’s a will, there’s a litfest. I remember now with some amusement, that in March this year when the lockdown was announced, we were sure Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest would take place at NCPA, Title Waves bookshop in Bandra and in Prithvi Theatre in Juhu as usual. After all, mid-November was a long, long way away, and which pesky virus would hang around for that long? By August, reality had begun to sink in, with a sprinkling of hope at the edges: we will do half and half, we said. A few writers on the stage, a few writers online and appearing on the screen, each auditorium open to fifty percent capacity. By late September, we bowed to the inevitable and decided that the litfest would have to be fully digital, but there was no way we would skip it for a year. Over the 10 years of the festival, Literature Live! and the Tata Group have developed such a strong relationship that it never entered my head that they might balk at it, or say let’s skip a year, citing the general state of the economy. Only people who organise events of this magnitude can truly appreciate the enormous importance of a sponsor who shares your values and if you will forgive the grandiloquent term, your vision.
All literary festival directors are different and at the same time the same.
They will be different because they are different individuals with their own individual likes and dislikes which will dictate the direction of their festivals; where they are the same is in their ambition to always get the 'great writers'. Think of the problem this creates: there are only so many ‘great’ writers in the world, and there are so very many litfests clamouring to get them! Rule Number One in life: nothing comes easy. Rule Number Two: Go to Rule Number One.
But we have been lucky so far. Anyone who has been a regular at the Mumbai LitFest will remember many of its memorable moments. For me it was an old and frail V S Naipaul, getting off his wheelchair to receive our Life Achievement Award, and the conversation on stage that followed with fellow writer Farrukh Dhondy. The talk flowed freely as it would between two old friends: we could imagine a cold winter’s day, both of them sitting by the fireside, with a warming drink by their side. But suddenly what would pass as a comfortable silence between friends, had become too long. And as a thousand breaths were held in Tata Theatre, we realised that Sir Vidia, the trenchant, unrelenting critic with his sharp tongue and his rapier like words, had tears running down his cheeks! Farrukh had spoken about one of Naipaul’s earlier novels in which the protagonist had been modeled on his father, a journalist in the West Indies. Father and son had a difficult relationship, and all the old memories had now come flooding in.
Other moments… Mahasweta Devi being wheeled in to receive our very first Lifetime Achievement Award at NCPA’s Experimental Theatre and the packed audience rising spontaneously to its feet… Girish Karnad, ostensibly giving a talk on his journey in theatre, launching a full-frontal attack on Naipaul, and on us, the organisers, for giving the Lifetime Achievement Award to the Naipaul who was bigoted ( so thought Karnad) … And Girish’s astonishment, when a couple of years later I rang him to say that we wanted to give the Lifetime Achievement Award to him! "But..." he spluttered in surprise...
Every year’s litfest brings its own surprises and revelations.
Hopefully, that will happen of its own, strong-willed, volition. I won’t even try to guess what form these will take. At the opening session, I will be in conversation with Ian McEwan, one of my favourite writers. His Saturday, set in a single day in London, has a personal resonance for me because the action is set in the area populated by the University of London’s main buildings, and as it was my alma mater, I know each street corner well. I imagine we will talk about Amsterdam and Atonement, one of which won him the Booker and one of which was made into a Hollywood film. But most of all, we will speak about his latest work, Machines Like Me — about robots being so lifelike that they begin to show emotional involvement, and also to assert their (pre-programmed) set of values.
The big coup was to get Sir Roger Penrose, the world’s foremost Mathematical Physicist. Soon after he committed himself to give a talk at our festival, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his seminal work (with Stephen Hawking) on Black Holes. Others attending include Martin Kemp, the world’s leading authority on Leonardo da Vinci; Raghuram Rajan, to speak about how to revive India’s economy; two sessions on cricket — one launching Ramachandra Guha’s new book The Commonwealth of Cricket, when he will be speaking to Rajdeep Sardesai (Rajdeep, by the way, was an Oxford Blue at cricket!). The second session features three people you would not normally associate with the game – Naseeruddin Shah, Shashi Tharoor and me! But let me tell you, we are not just passionate about the game, but know its history too!
Other book launches have been lined up: Tharoor’s new book on patriotism and nationalism, Farrukh Dhondy’s translation of the poet Rumi, Arshia Sattar’s Mahabharat for children and Arun Shourie’s formidable book on Death, and the way the inevitable was approached by some very famous people.
I could go on, but won’t because I want you to look at the website and discover for yourself what you would like to see and hear. What you cannot possibly miss is our annual debate, one of the highlights of the festival. This year’s subject is ‘India’s Democracy is in Danger’. It is, or isn’t it?
We call Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest a literary festival, but it really is an ideas festival which gives you food for the mind. Feast yourself!
Noted journalist and writer Anil Dharker is the founder and festival director of the Tata Literature Live Mumbai Litfest.
— The full schedule of this virtual edition of the Tata LitLive Mumbai Litfest is available here. The festival will be held over 16-22 November.
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At the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest, Howard Jacobson also talks about being "anxious" on finding that people do not laugh at what was considered funny 30, 10 or even five years ago, and that this censorship comes at the cost of creators' vivacity.
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