Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2018: Nayantara Sahgal, Soha Ali Khan, Kiran Nagarkar enthrall audiences
The Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival had something for everyone, from discussions on cinema, the environment and even Lucknowi cuisine | #FirstCulture
Standing in the courtyard of the majestic Indian Museum on a chilly winter evening, I watched Usha Uthup perform 'We are the World'. All the lights were turned off, making the sight of the synchronised swaying of torches in the audience even more spectacular. Suspecting that the goose bumps I had were not entirely caused by the cold, I could feel my default sceptic setting switch off. Stirred by a feeling of solidarity and of being part of something larger, I settled in to listen to the discussion that marked the closing of Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2018 — India at 70: Towards Peace.
The panel, which consisted of Lord Meghnad Desai, Ashis Nandy, Nayantara Sahgal, and Kishwar Desai, moderated by Sanjeev Chopra, was packed with personal histories which humanised the narratives we hear in the news. A memorable moment from this session was when Nayantara Sahgal talked emotionally of knowing Mahatma Gandhi as a young girl and witnessing him breathe his last. “I promised myself I would never let him down. I hope I have kept him alive through my writing,” she said.
This was the culmination of four days of back-to-back literary programmes bringing together some of the most celebrated minds in the country to discuss everything from politics to the pleasures of leisure, under the umbrella theme 'India @70'. It was the varied and comprehensive nature of programmes which made this festival such a treat to attend.
There truly was something for everyone. For photography enthusiasts, there was the unveiling of Dayanita Singh’s critically acclaimed Museum Bhavan followed by an interactive session with Professor Swapan Chakravorty that explored the book as an artefact and a ‘museum of memory’. For lovers of cinema, the festival opened with 'Salaam Mira! Three Decades in Cinema'. This session, made all the more atmospheric by its setting in a colourful shamiana that was reminiscent of the set of Monsoon Wedding, saw Mira Nair in conversation with Chandrahas Choudhury. She was warm, candid, and full of funny anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories that had the audience hanging on to her every word, including how she kept up a steady supply of Gujarati farsan for Uma Thurman to munch on, on set.
Ecology and the environment was a subject of concern throughout, and there were several panels dedicated to sustainable living. What was unique was 'Nature Nurture: The writer and the environment', which brought together four distinctly different authors, Gillian Wright, Kiran Nagarkar, Prajwal Parajuly, and Sampurna Chattarji, and was moderated by environmentalist Bittu Sahgal. It was interesting to see a conversation about conservation taken out of its usual context. Instead, the theme explored was the impact of the environment on mainstream fiction writing. Kiran Nagarkar read a chilling excerpt from his book Ravan and Eddie. It described life in a Mumbai chawl in which water is in short supply, including a vivid depiction of a vicious fight that breaks out over it. Bittu Sahgal quickly brought us back to the reality of a future which will witness wars over water, explaining that in some countries these have already begun.
Readers who wanted to stray away from lofty themes could enjoy strolls, a sumptuous feast or just a good laugh. 'Travel and the Pleasures of Leisure' featured Robert Dessaix, Chandrahas Chowdhury, and Prajwal Parajuly, moderated by Sandip Roy. The best thing about this session was its languid pace and meandering conversation peppered with personal insights, reminiscent of sitting in a friend’s veranda on a sunny Sunday afternoon and catching up on her latest adventure. Taste buds were tantalised by the talk of Lucknowi Cuisine in the session 'Of Nawabs and Kababs' which had Sunita Kohli and Chand Sur in conversation with Shahenshah Mirza and leading food writer Pushpesh Pant. There was also Soha Ali Khan, who discussed her new book with Jayant Kripalani, and admitted that she quite enjoyed being ‘someone’s someone’ or ‘moderately famous’.
My personal favourite, 'Murder Most Foul', which brought together Basharat Peer, Advaita Kala and Abir Mukherjee, moderated by Sandip Roy, was darkly humorous, with Abir exclaiming “Where do I get my inspiration? I work in finance! I imagine killing my co-workers, and writing is cheaper than therapy.” Much like crime fiction, this session was an intriguing exploration of the thriller as an exposé of society, and an absolute delight for lovers of a good murder mystery.
Perhaps the most heartening thing about this festival was the representation of women’s voices. 'Crossing the Line' packed a punch with Aparna Sen, Mira Nair, Ratna Pathak Shah, Nandana Sen and Vishal Bhardwarj looking at women on the big screen who challenged rules and didn’t fit the stereotypical 'heroine' mould. Urvashi Butalia and Nayantara Sahgal shared their experiences as publisher and author respectively, on how women’s writing is shaping a new India. Many explorations were made through the myriad sessions and whilst the state of women and the nation weren’t always seen as positive, the underlying message that emerged was one of hope.
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