The stupor gave way to sudden imaginary bulbs glowing above my head as I read the following –
“The two-day event starts at 10 a.m. with human rights activist Binayak Sen delivering the K.C.John Memorial Lecture. ”
“10 a.m.” stood out in bold as I glanced at the clock that said 9:35 and between the time I looked back and forth at the write-up and the clock a couple more times, an exciting train of thoughts had warmed up and was stirring up a racket within my brain , debating between the heavenly pleasures of lazing around on an off-day morn and dashing off to listen to the man I’ve been reading about for a while now. To my surprise , the second option won and with “Binayak Sen” ringing in my mind , I rushed through the morning rituals and was out of the house in no time . Time - 9:55 a.m
“Were the literary people and general intelligentsia sticklers for punctuality? Or were they like politicians who were always late? Since they were always criticising politicians, chances weighed more heavily towards the former.” Thoughts ran amok at 10:15 a.m. while I waited in an auto rickshaw stalled at a traffic light, my own two wheeler being so old and badly out of shape that taking it out was high risk for self and other wayfarers. At the entrance to the palace grounds , the huge gates stood open and my rickshaw winded up its curvy path passing overheard banners that announced the 5th Annual Kovalam Literary Festival ,a bolt of excitement shooting through me – the first event of the sort I was attending! “Will there be real authors ? That’s what the write-up promised “,I thought rubbing my hands in glee.
A TV camera crew sped past in an SUV ,more lined the way and a few people with microphones and coiled wires in their hands stood scattered . As I got out of the auto , I saw important-looking people alighting a white mini-van and talking pleasantly among themselves , none very Indian looking .Hiding any traces of nervousness, I walked to the Multi Purpose Auditorium ,familiar from many college fests ,hoping the all important lecture wouldn’t be over by then. It hadn’t and neither had the proceedings for the day begun at 10.30 a.m. as people milled around patiently, the gathering dominated by news people and I wandered over to the book sellers arranged beside the venue. Tables of neatly stacked books stood gleaming as sunlight bounced of shiny book covers from the huge open windows behind them, manned by polite people wearing official tags. The collection was not huge but had all the titles that had come out recently, was popular and being talked about – in short they were just the thing for a bibliophile with a wish list.
The titles from the ‘Recent’ section of my wishlist jumped out at me and in no time I had quite a stack in my hands .Reminding myself of Flipkart and the handsome discounts they offered , I let go of some of them from my stack and was left with two books I couldn’t bear parting with – the Kerala Literary Academy Award winning Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham’, freshly translated into English under the name ‘Goat Days’ though I bought the Malayalam version and ‘Around India in 80 Trains ‘ by Monisha Rajesh – a brilliant first book by the author who toured India on its rail tracks and brings us a delicious desi travelogue. A beautiful small hardbound pink book titled ‘Rumi’ caught my eye and I was trying hard to suppress my smile reading the beautiful first poem in it when I overheard bits of a conversation from right behind me . A petite small white woman in a frock said in heavy accent ,” I quite love this book’s cover. Isn’t this your new one? And what about this here ? “. A white man in a black kurta with silver hair replied cheerfully ,”No ,not that .But this is mine ,and this is mine and this is mine .. “, pointing to stacks of books of different titles ,the third time pointing to the stack from where I had picked up “Rumi”. I looked at the book cover again . Rumi ? Hardly . The full title of the book read “Rumi:A New Translation” and the author was Farrukh Dhondy !
Presently , there was a tap at the microphone and an announcement that things were about to get started . I moved into the audience section and took up seat where I could get a good view of the stage ,while the auditorium filled up quickly with TV cameras with zoom lens on high tripods ,big microphones, news people with scribble pads, young people who looked like students of literature or journalism ,and stereotypical images of literary people – women in cotton saris with oversized bindis or wearing salwar kameez ,sporting Diana cut and men in long kurtas - fleshy ,gleaming people with sharp eyes and beak nose. I wondered how them who talked about non-conformity and swore by originality, had the same dress sense ,wore chunky jewellery and heavy kohl ,and sported cloth hand bags . Perhaps , lit fests were to authors what red carpet premieres were to actors and they were merely propping themselves up for the viewing pleasure of readers and journalists .
I shifted focus back to the stage as the guests came on the dais for the first event –
Fifth Annual K.C.John Memorial lecture by Dr.Binayak Sen. ‘Are the poor getting poorer’ .In discussion with Ilina Sen and Vrinda Grover .
Dr.Binayak Sen,the human rights activist who worked in the naxal affected areas of Chattisgarh , spoke softly and declared the topic redundant as it was a foregone conclusion and that the real situation in India was that of famine settling in slowly but steadily over the years .He quoted statistics on India’s alarming levels of malnutrition both among children and in the adult population. He also talked about the need for food security and the plight of facing food shortage on the one hand while food rotted away in govt storehouses on the other.He spoke without passion but in an even tone,with supporting facts, like a man of science .He concluded his speech by welcoming the many Israeli writers attending the fest ,but reminded them that the people of Palestine deserved justice.
Ilina Sen ,his wife and an academic who currently heads the Department of Women’s Studies at the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University (MGAHV) , spoke next and took the discussion one step further from food security to food sovereignty . She spoke of how the system of producing food in one part , storing somewhere else and then transporting it and delivering it to people in entirely different parts of the country was inefficient and bound to fail . Food sovereignty will enable communities and local populations to meet their food needs themselves and was the way to answering the disturbing shortage of food faced by large parts of the country .She also talked about the abundance of local farming knowledge that indigenous people had which was getting ignored by the authorities in their scramble to promote high yielding seed varieties which demanded high fertilizers and how these traditions needed support and nurturing .
As that informative and socially conscious session came to an end , I hardly had the mind to leave though I was overstaying my own time limits and the next event was announced -
The Evolving Indian Novel : Farrukh Dhondy , Timeri Murari , N.S.Madhavan,Nilanjana Roy , C.P.Surendran .Anchored by Suresh Menon .
There was no delay and the speakers promptly came on stage . After a brief introduction by the anchor , the writers were invited to read from their books to the audience and it started with Nilanjana Roy .The name was familiar to me through the good reviews she had garnered for her first book in The Hindu’s Literary Magazine –‘Wildings’ , a tale on the cats of Nizamuddin in Delhi. A pretty lady with a prettier voice, she read out rather sweetly from her book and the short passage about a cat’s thoughts and description of the settings was interesting. Next to read was Timeri Murari , the author of the much acclaimed ‘The Taliban Cricket Club’ .He preferred to read standing up , adjusting thick glasses and read slowly in heavy British accent like a professor to his students . The protagonist was a girl who had played cricket in India a long time ago and was living in Afghanistan now under the strict Taliban regime- Rukhsana ,the journalist .The Taliban had just announced their decision to promote cricket in Afghanistan and men were going to be screened for it .If they were selected , they woud be sent to Pakistan for proper training and then would have to return to the country to teach cricket at home and also play cricket for Afghanistan’s national team. Women , of course , will not play . The passage ended with Rukshana’s brother Jahan saying that this was their one chance to get out of the country , his cousin mourning ,”But we don’t play” , to which he replies , “We don’t , but she does”. He went back to his chair amid loud applause and I made a mental note to try and get hold of this book.
Next to speak was C.P.Surendran , a dark bespectacled man who reeked of arrogance . He checked with the audience if he could be heard properly and complained that he hadn’t been able to hear any of the previous readings . He announced he was known for causing offence to other people, the passage he was going to read might offend and to just “put up with it”. In his mind, he must be the high priest of the unsung art of offensiveness,I thought . I did not catch the title of the book but the passage was of a drunk woman getting raped in a local train by a drunk man . The very act tottered between consensual and forced as the woman was drunk and even when she protested, her protests were not strong enough for the man to need to apply any extra effort on his part . The passage went into a detailed description of the organs involved, the sequence of unfurling of events ,the sounds and sensations , and brought to life a very graphic depiction of the scene. He must have expected the audience to shift uncomfortably in their seats at the brazenness, but as I looked around, people hardly batted their eye lids, leave alone look ashamed . Defeated , he retreated .
Farrukh Dhondy took up stage next but was unarmed with any of his books , so he expounded on ‘Evolution of Indian Novel‘ and opined that too much was getting written and published because of the mad race among publishers and novel in India was becoming something akin to Bollywood. N.S.Madhavan continued insightfully about the same subject and said that the medium of novels was dying a slow but natural death .He compared the novels at the beginning of their evolution to the current ones , saying the early ones which included Russian literary novels where treasure houses of the authors’ original thoughts and how this was replaced by mere conversation and no grand thoughts in today’s novels. He also made another interesting comparison between writing in regional languages and Indian writing in English – In the entire Malayalam section of the Trivandrum Central Library , there would be hardly two coconut trees but in Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ ,there would be ten coconut trees every twelve pages – he observed. By far, N.S.Madhavan had been the most riveting speaker and garnered the loudest applause from the audience .
While the readings were underway , I had noticed a skinny dark girl wearing a delegate tag .She looked familiar but there was no way to find out who she was. I checked my copy of ‘Around India in 80 Trains‘ for the author’s picture to confirm my suspicion , but the book did not have one .The proceedings on stage had pulled my attention back and I left it at that .Promptly after N.S.Madhavan’s talk , I gathered my stuff and hurried out ,having over stayed by an hour and a half and headed home .’Aadujeevitham‘ being prised out of my possession by a very relentless dad , I settled down with the second new buy of the day and boy , was I absorbed ! Monisha Rajesh had written a sparkling, witty travelogue riding the Indian railways, good naturedly pointing out India’s idiosyncrasies with delicate understanding . On Sunday night I casually googled the book , by now addicted to it , and the results threw up the familiar face of the dark girl again ,whose firsthand account was more like a girl friend’s narration of her travel tales to me now. Whether to throw up my hands in desperation over the missed opportunity of getting a much-loved book signed by its much-loved author ,or smile contently at getting the opportunity of at least spotting an author for the first time ever in my life – I still do not know !
PS: Monish Rajesh , your first book is an absolute blast . It’s a must-read , people !