Tata Literature Live 2017: Four days at the Mumbai LitFest
Everything you needed to know about what happened at the eighth edition of Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest
The sun was so bright it was impossible to make out what good was happening in the world on the other side of the window. My thoughts were thoroughly occupied with second-grade notions of death, and more specifically, how this plane would inevitably go down. Engine failure, a disgruntled bird, a Colonel William Stuart-type character, the possibilities were endless. I was seated in the emergency exit row, so there was the added responsibility of redeeming a plane-full of sinners if it came to that. I also happened to be listening to Phil Collins’ 'In the Air Tonight', and you how that song goes.
The deep meditation was broken with what sounded like someone stepping on the tail of a cat as the speakers came alive and the top gun announced that there would be a slight delay and we'd be landing in about half an hour. The gentleman of the straight world persuasion next to me let out a 'For god’s sake'. Now the thing is, even with the delay, we were on target to land about five minutes earlier than the given time. And it came to me — all the reasons. The reasons for the end of my love affair with the city I was now headed to, the place where I had once spent the best years of my life.
I wondered what was I doing exactly? The plan was to breach and blend into hostile territory once again, and write. Write about writing. Write about those fleeting thoughts that someone has managed to put into words before they slipped between the fingers, and while I was at it, also mop up the diarrhoea of noise which comes as part of the package. If I wasn’t hyper-excited about it, I wasn’t regretting it either. It’s honest work, cleaning up.
The landscape seemed thick with smog from up in the air and on the ground, it was heavy with humidity. For the umpteenth time, once again, it was time. The next few days were spent in trying to blend in, and not sweat. The task was the eighth edition of Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest. The bounty: a paycheque to clear my internet bill and a safe return home.
The big day was here and so was my prerequisite headache before assignments. The afternoon sun glinted off the waters of the Arabian Sea, on the shores of which lies the Tata Theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), the festival venue for the next four days. The event promised an array of discussions, lectures, interviews, performances and thousands of blobs of skin and bones. There was another venue for the event north of the city, the Prithvi Theatre, but some other poor devil was on it.
First order of the day: securing the press pass. I wasn't expecting things to unravel so soon. There was an army of volunteers waiting at the entrance. All smiling, all dressed in black. There was an air of confusion at the mention of the pass. I was sent to three different counters before I scribbled my name on a piece of paper and was handed a square of plastic without any verification. As I asked around for the venue of the opening ceremony, a young man in black informed me with much sincerity and apologies that the ceremony was taking place 15 km north of here, in Dadar. Of course, it wasn’t. It was taking place a few metres from where we stood. I didn’t protest or correct him, or inquire about what he was doing with his life. I wanted, one fine day in the future, someone raising a hand to stop all conversation at a party, and saying, 'Want to hear a crazy story?'
Here I should tell you about some of the nicest people in the world. They are called the NCPA employees. Bless their souls.
The opening ceremony took place in the impressive Tata theatre. Showered in golden light sat a crowd of a few hundred. I was late by a couple of minutes for obvious reasons. Self-congratulation was heavy in the air and so was an almost gleeful anticipation for the debate just after the opening speeches. As the organisers wound down their speeches — mostly concerning the Tata group’s contribution towards various arts and NCPA’s role in promoting the same — it was time to give the audience what they wanted. Namely, India’s literature festival circle sweetheart, Shashi Tharoor.
The sense of déjà vu was so strong, in my headache-induced state I wondered if this was all a dream. The debate had been dubbed and promoted by the festival organisers as an intellectual #slugfest between Tharoor and Oxford historian Peter Frankopan. They were to debate who got the better deal from the British Empire, the Indians or the Brits. You could tell Frankopan saw right through the act. He knew he didn’t stand a chance.
There was no slugfest, barely a debate at all. All it was, was Frankopan repeatedly conveying that he wasn’t defending the Empire, and rapturous applause from a Thursday afternoon crowd every time Tharoor flicked his hair to the side.
a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterisation and ludicrously improbable situations
Moving to a cosier venue — NCPA’s Little Theatre — a panel of Glenn Lowry (director of New York's Museum of Modern Arts for over 20 years), Homi Bhabha (professor of Humanities at Harvard) and Matthew Teitelbaum (head of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) deep dived into the role of culture in times of conflict. The panel, chaired by Anil Dharker (the festival director), discussed the role of an artist not just in time of a conflict, but in the larger scheme of things in a society, how one approaches art and how it can be made more accessible.
I kept wondering about Dharker’s routine diet of news, as he moderated the session with the sole purpose of provocation. His questions and opinions were quite deliberately designed to frustrate the panellists and the audience. But there was a decent exchange of ideas among the panellists — ranging from the role art plays in resisting the powers that be to the courage required on the part of the artists in doing so — in the end, as clearly, the collective brain force was strong with this one. Everyone on the panel wore glasses.
Now if you were wondering what became of Frankopan, he chose instant redemption. A lecture on understanding history from the perspective of Persia being the centre of the world, rather than Europe, was delivered. This time around, he was the sole receiver of the applause from an impressed audience.
Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnis, Thomas Friedman, British philosopher and author AC Grayling, and American political scientist Uday Singh Mehta were also on the roster for the day to discuss to the increasingly depressing prospect of living in a post-truth world.
Both the philosophical and the practical aspects of the topic were scrutinised. The role of the more conventional, as well as social media was brought into question with a fair warning given out about what things might come to if the majority of the population is comfortable with their ignorance on how news and media are consumed. My nightmares had a little something extra special about them that night.
Headaches gave way to a whooping cough (and all the attendant taboos associated with it at a public event) on day two. I covered up for it by ensuring I didn’t make any eye contact.
The post-Tharoor Friday saw a dramatic dip in the morning crowd. The air was cool, the venue a portrait of calm. For the first time since I landed in Mumbai, I didn’t regret leaving my Swiss Army knife at home.
Journalist and author Mark Kurlansky took to the stage to deliver an intriguing lecture on paper. That’s right, good ol' paper. Kurlansky, who has dedicated entire books to topics ranging from salt to codfish, discussed parts from his latest, Paper: Paging Through History.
Tracing paper’s origins in China and the subsequent spread across Asia and Europe, the author emphasised the role it has played throughout history. From sustaining revolutions to preserving religious texts, Kurlansky’s story of paper was the story of human progress, of bureaucracy and politics, of salvation and enlightenment.
Now I should confess that Kurlansky had intrigued me even before the festival kicked off. It wasn’t that he is the author of over 30 books or that he's written a lot about commodities. It was his picture that was used on the festival website. It was taken by the influential Hungarian/American photographer, Sylvia Plachy. Just look at that photograph, then think about the best life has had to offer you, and despair.
Once again, Friedman took to the stage. This time, to deliver a talk on the dramatic increase in the part technology had played (and continues to) in our lives over the past few years and the urgent need for us as a society to step back and evaluate where we are headed.
According to Friedman, one does not need to run away, but rather embrace technology in a manner which puts one in sync with the changing landscape. How technology, or artificial intelligence more specifically, can be designed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and skills. According to him, the only thing that will save us in this time of absolute technological power at our disposal is our core values, morals and a commitment to build healthy communities.
At one point, someone from the audience tried to extract, what one can only call, an apology from Friedman (or perhaps corner him) for the NYT’s cheerleading of the Iraq invasion. He was having none of it.
Next came perhaps the most awaited session of the day. With a palpable buzz around the venue, it was time for one of the most celebrated poet, lyricist and screenwriters of the country — Javed Akhtar — to take the stage for a poetry reading and the launch of his new book.
Akhtar wasted no time in belting out five Urdu poems before sitting down for a conversation with Dharker. He remembered his time working in Bollywood with few anecdotes, discussing topics ranging from dialogue writing to our ability to trace the socio-political history of the country by observing the portrayals of villains in movies over the years.
The response from the crowd throughout the session resembled that of a sitcom which takes the use of audience cheering and applause sound effects to its logical extreme. There were even cries for the session to go on forever. Logic, for a change, prevailed in the end.
Saturday belonged to one man and one man only, Kiran Nagarkar. This was the first time I’d seen the man in person, and impressions were made. To kick off the first day of the session, the Indian author introduced his German counterpart, Ulrike Draesner, with the sincerity one wishes to be introduced with, in a day-dream scenario.
The two were there to discuss the impact different cities have had on their writings. Draesner, who grew up in Berlin, described the incredible weight she felt of the recent history of her country and her own complicated family as came into her own. Her love for the city of Berlin also helped shape her ideas about history, culture and society’s attempts at repairing the damage caused by the atrocities of generations past.
Nagarkar went on to discuss the idea of a city being one’s home, rather than one's home being part of a city. He also made clear his absolute dismay towards where his city, Mumbai, was headed. “I want my home back,” is how he put it.
Nagarkar came off to me as a man I would have idolised in my youth. Idealistic, opinionated, skilful with his writing, humble and modest. But at that moment I could only admire his conviction in living up to those virtues for so long in his life.
Up next was an awkward session involving Indian author Allan Sealy; poet, novelist and musician Jeet Thayil and American author and satirist Gary Shteyngart. The topic of discussion was if there is an invisible line a writer must not cross. Although the discussion explored intriguing topics like state censorship, self-censorship, usage of offensive language in writing, the future of satire in Trump’s America, distortion of historical facts, etc; the session was filled with awkward silences, mostly due to the last-minute change of the moderator and the panel’s casual disregard towards helping the situation out.
There were plenty of jokes and laughs, but not enough substantial arguments. One can only hope the next time such a topical discussion is arranged, there would be more to take away for the attendees.
As if by some miraculous laws on compensation, up next was an intimate conversation between the English novelist, biographer, and critic Margaret Drabble and Indian author and journalist Jerry Pinto.
Seventy eight-year-old Drabble talked about her 19 novels over the years (the first one published when she was just 23), what inspired her during different stages of her life and her writing process. Pinto, as ever, had done a meticulous job researching on his interviewee, which made for a free-flowing conversation providing an insight into decades of work.
However, it was hard for me to concentrate at times. The thing is, whenever I see Pinto, my mind immediately jumps back to a couple of seconds suspended in time: In my younger and more impressionable days when I was a journalism student, he had come to our college to give a special lecture. The class was in awe of him, his vast reservoir of knowledge on books and languages, his oratory skills, his humour. Then at a certain point of time, without warning, he lifted his shirt and flashed his round belly. No one was prepared for that. The kind of things that stay with you... But I digress.
Drabble also talked about — in her exceptionally composed manner — her love for thriller novels (Lee Child's Jack Reacher among them), how she prefers poetry over prose in this stage of her life, her belief in the concept of redemption and the unlikely prospect of a 20th novel.
The day came to a close with a much-awaited book launch of not just one, but two books — Nayantara Sahgal’s When the Moon Shines by Day and Nagarkar’s Jasoda.
Nagarkar talked at length about Sahgal’s book and its importance at this point in time. Sahgal, who returned her Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015 in protest of increasing intolerance and supporting the right to dissent in the country, further talked about how the current socio-political environment inspired her narrative.
Then came something I will carry with me for a long time. Nagarkar read an excerpt from his book. When he was finished, the audience was literally stunned into silence. Not a soul twitched when he immediately opened the session for questions from the audience. A stunning (perhaps a bit too literally) end to the day.
Cast of characters
S**t, you can shoot me, but you can't kill me.
— Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris, Training Day
In the three days past, after some meticulous observations, I came to a few conclusions. No matter where you are in the world, you will come across certain people who fit into certain brackets of behaviour. The following is an attempt to characterise the same.
— Do you know who I am?
These are the people, mostly in their late-fifties who like to stand in front of a ticket counter and demand tickets even when there are none to be had. They want it “arranged” for them. It doesn’t matter if a poor bugger who stood in line misses out on a ticket — because they deserve it. These are the people who will sit in reserved seats and then abuse a teenager in front of a packed hall for asking them to get up. You know who I am talking about. Chances are you have been at the receiving end once or twice, wondering if it would be better to die young than become this as the spit flies off your face.
— Douchebag Hulk
Now, this guy is not a douchebag because he is tall and big and wears a tight tank top. He is not even a douchebag because of that spiky hair. He is a douchebag because of the douchebaggery he pulls off. He will answer questions asked by the audience on behalf of the panel, uninvited, of course. Then will get into an argument right there in the middle of the session if the one who asked the question puts forth his desire for the question to be answered by the panel. He will, once again, sit on the reserved seats and then act like he doesn’t what know you are talking about when asked to bounce. He will ask you to hold a seat for him, and if you refuse, you'll be abused. If you comply, when he returns, he doesn’t want to sit there anymore.
— The Dragon
This is a person whose sole purpose in life is to tell you in excruciating detail how mind-bending the session that you just missed was. He needs to tell you this over and over and over and over again. Your protests along the lines of — you get it, it’s fine, nothing can be done now — is exactly what fuels his dark place. Don’t do that. Just walk away. That does a quite a bit of damage.
— Let me just tell you something
These people usually sit in front of you. And they need to discuss things right there in the middle of a session. They are built glare-proof. That does nothing to them. They need to share opinions, mostly consisting of, but not limited to, 'Did you hear that? What did I tell you? That’s right! Oh my God!' Sometimes, by some glorious coincidence, these conversations last exactly the same length of time as the session. To the second. That’s just crazy. And if you ask them to shut up, they look at you like you are guilty of stealing an ice cream from a toddler.
— Question time
These people take the prize. Their secret power is making observations and comments during the Q&A time. I don’t need to expand much on them, you know who they are.
The last day of the festival. Finally, I could see the light.
First up was a truly fascinating presentation and discussion on the future of museums in the digital age. This was the kind of a session which actually changes your perception of how things work. On the panel were Eike Schmidt, director of Uffizi Gallery in Florence; Eugene Tan, director of Singapore's National Gallery; and Tristram Hunt, director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. The session was chaired by Tasneem Mehta, director of Mumbai's Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
The three directors each gave a presentation introducing their museums and subsequently describing their current social media or digital strategy. This strategy ranges from something as basic as having an Instagram account for the museum to making 3D scans of artworks available online. And lots more. The opinion that social media or the availability of information online are tools which can be integrated with the working of museums to provide an enriching experience to visitors, as well as to people who are experiencing artworks in front of a screen, was unanimous.
Up next was a straight talk by Marcus du Sautoy, professor of Mathematics and Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Marcus discussed parts of his latest book, What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge. The lively session saw the author demonstrate his theories regarding what we can or cannot know about our future and the workings of the universe through practical demonstrations with the help of a dice, a couple of pendulums and a box of uranium (not really). The 52-year-old ended up receiving perhaps the longest round of applause of the festival.
Finally, it was time for the Tata Literature Live! Awards. The ceremony took place in front of a packed house as nine awards were handed out. Actor-playwright Girish Karnad was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award for his outstanding contribution in the field of theatre.
In his speech, titled Playing on Twenty Tongues, 79-year-old Karnad talked about languages and the difficulties in translating plays. A peculiar topic, I thought, to choose for the occasion. “As a Kannada playwright, I have an identity. I know my audience, my language. As an Indian playwright, immediately my identity becomes fluid. It changes from one part to another,” he said during his speech.
And with that, it was over. Four days of words and upset stomach. If I think back, most of it is blur already. There are faces, crowds, few moments of genius. But I do realise the importance of such endeavours. Importance of words, ideas, debates and community. In the time we find ourselves, they are the oasis.
Will I do it all over again? Of course not.
Epilogue — Goodness doesn’t pay
The following unfolded during the award ceremony. Many people wanted to get in and the 14 reserved seats for journalists were already occupied. Those of us who remained unseated were asked to follow a volunteer who found us places to sit. As I moved over to the one indicated to me, my bottom almost touching the cushion, I heard: "Find somewhere else to sit". I looked up and there was another “journalist” (in quotes because how they were handing out the press passes). There were two seats left and when I pointed at the other one, I was met once more with: "Find somewhere else to sit. We are together." This kindergarten argument referred to a man lingering in the background, slightly embarrassed by what was happening.
But the lady had her mind made up as to who was getting to sit. I responded with my own little "Why don’t you find somewhere else to sit?" My voice was low and I was already moving away, but it must have been the sudden reconfiguration of my face muscles because there was a look of horror and shock on her face. Perhaps, she didn't expect any protest at all. Who knows? I moved away and in some time, was accommodated elsewhere.
I was genuinely surprised at her reaction. Was I the bad guy here? Should I have just quietly walked away? Now I like this man Marc Maron. I like what he does and his concept of making amends or just making things clear. Bad behaviour and all that.
So, lo and behold, when I was waiting for a cab outside, the same two walked past me. Was there really a god? I moved in quickly, saying: "About what happened inside, I apologise if I…"
Here is a lesson for you all — always go with your first instincts. Turns out, she was not a very nice person after all. Who knew?
She cut me right off, saying, "You know, you should really think about what you say." My already dying protest of "But I’m just… this is not an apology… just a clarification..." were hit with an icy, "I’m not in a mood for this". As she walked on, the man accompanying her lingered, once again a bit apologetic and embarrassed. I felt like shouting something back but also hated to put him in such a position. So I turned back. Mildly fuming, exceptionally amused. Because now I had an ending to this piece. What a petty breed writers can be.
The air from the sea was cool against my face as I focused in order to remember every last detail of the exchange — this metaphor for my time in this city.
Until next time.
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