The first Pune litfest was a first for me too; it's the first literary festival I’ve ever attended. I read obsessively; on the bus, before going to sleep, in the bathroom (yes, I admit it!). Still, I always feared that I might be out of my depth at something as grand as a literary festival. But being at PILF made me realize that a good lit fest has something for everyone. This one did.
If you wanted a glimpse of regional literature, the Art of Translations was for you. It had Shanta Gokhale, Makarand Sathe and Jerry Pinto talking about translating Indian regional writing. Each of them said they experienced relief when they took up translations: Shanta Gokhale said she took to it to ‘exercise her language’. (Let not this humility fool you. These are some of the best writers today, whose work personifies perfection. They would never cheat their reading public, however facetiously Makarand Sathe claimed to have ‘cheated all my life’!)
If you harbor writing aspirations, what could be better than tips from these folks? The organizers, in a stroke of genius, had a ‘conversation’ between Kiran Nagarkar and Jerry Pinto, leaving them free to chat. It turned into an impromptu lecture on ‘How to Write’. Some quotes:
JP: Re-read what you write as if you were someone you don’t like. Writing is not considered valuable in this country; no publisher is dying to publish your work.
KN: The only time publishers bother is when some bloody bugger takes an advance of 1.5 million pounds and then does not deliver! (Who do you think he's referring to? Wink, Wink!)
JP: Writing what someone else wants for no reason other than that it is what someone wants, is like the Sex Work of writing.
KN: A writer has no choice but to write. You write because you’re a fool, because you’re a bloody masochist!
But once you’ve written, will you be published? Writers labeled ‘highbrow’ and publishers argued over what should be written, published and promoted. The question: should publishers (and writers) cater to taste, or promote taste? Vaishali Mathur from Penguin mentioned a session with popular authors where readers joyously told their favourite (‘lowbrow’) writers that theirs was the first book they’d ever read. Annie Zaidi countered by mentioning her upbringing in a place that had a single library which did not give her access to too many authors, only the most popular ones, so those were the only ones she had a chance to read. She argued for greater visibility for writers whose writing challenges readers as opposed to the 'popular' ones that, as Altaf Tyrewala said, merely ‘provided solace’. As he claimed: “When I read my first Salman Rushdie book, it took me 6 months.”
What about the ones who’ve carved a niche for themselves? In terms of number of attendees, there was no doubt as to who were the winners: Shobha De and Ashwin Sanghi. These are both writers who know how to package themselves. (And why not? As Shobha herself would say.) Shobha oozes success and confidence (along with that well-maintained exterior) – a heady cocktail. Ashwin, whisky-loving and self-deprecating, was also the most quotable of all the panelists I heard. He is both a writer and a businessman, making him the best-equipped to dismiss the whole highbrow-lowbrow debate in a few succinct sentences: Why argue over what people are reading? At least they’re reading!
A few quibbles, though. The event had an entry pass I knew nothing about beforehand – it wasn’t mentioned on their webpage. And it wasn’t cheap– Rs. 250 a day. No impoverished book lovers need apply, obviously. Some events were rescheduled, others cancelled, such as ‘Marathi Goes Global’. (For readers like me who read primarily in English but are curious about the treasure trove that is vernacular literature, a talk like this would have been the Marathi literature guru we never had.) And why didn’t the ‘highbrow’ v/s. ‘lowbrow’ debate have a few authors who are ‘lowbrow’ too? Why send publishers into the arena as their alter egos? What was everyone so scared of? What’s wrong with a little dhishoom-dhishoom?
Plus, I do suspect that certain sessions were scripted beforehand. Disappointing, if so.
But these are minor faults. Overall, it was an amazingly instructive and rich experience. I would recommend litfests to everyone who has the chance to visit one, if they’re lucky enough to stay near a city that has one. If you’re not; well, what is IRCTC for?