Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Notes from the ToI fest

While I was at the Times of India Literary Carnival, I got an SMS from a friend wondering if there was anything genuinely wrong with the fest, given the criticism she'd been reading on social media, or if it was mainly kneejerk ToI-bashing. I hadn't been online much in the previous two days and didn’t know exactly what she was referring to, but this was my reply: “Nothing particularly wrong at all. Very professionally organised, sessions proceeding quite smoothly. There are of course irrelevant/banal things being said every now and again, but that happens at any such lit-fest.”

I’ve done my share of (considered, not kneejerk) ToI-bashing in the past and intend to continue whenever I think it’s required, but lots of credit must be given here. If anything, I thought the festival organisers may have sold themselves short by labelling it a “carnival” and stressing that it wasn’t meant to be just a serious literary event but a celebration of various things Mumbai loved. (Strangely, this candour failed to deter the breed of idiots who stand up and ask at the end of a session “Why have you invited celebrities here instead of writers?”, never mind that the “celebrity” on the panel is also the author of a dozen books.) The best sessions here – and there were many good ones – were every bit as serious-intentioned as the ones I’ve attended at any other lit-fest. (And the other lit-fests that take themselves more seriously can be just as carnivalesque in parts.)

– One of the highlights for me was the session that had Jug Suraiya interviewed by his wife Bunny ("Jug's Bunny", it was cheekily titled). A nice idea to start with, it was executed with restraint – no unnecessary in-jokes or distracting banter, just two people having an engaging, affectionate conversation about various things: the nature and ethics of humour (Jug: “The shafts of humour should always be pointed upwards. My legitimate targets are the people who are more powerful and privileged than I am. And if you don’t genuinely find yourself an absurd creature and worthy of ridiculing, you have no business being a humorist”); giving offence; censorship and liberalism; changing mindsets in Indian journalism (“When I first started working at the ToI 25 years ago, Girilal Jain was awestruck when he saw my byline in the New York Review of Books. That wouldn’t happen today”); new technology (“machines stop working when I come near them”) and the legacy of the Junior Statesman, which provided a means for young people around the country to communicate with each other and to be magazine "prosumers" decades before the Internet.

There were one or two nice personal asides too: at one point Jug mentioned that he had made a career out of pissing people off, including Jayalalitha, Amitabh Bachchan and others. “And me of course,” Bunny said, to which Jug replied, “But see, that proves my point about humour being directed upwards – you’re a much more formidable personality than I am!”

Jug is tremendously likable anyway, but one thing I find especially charming is his schoolboy-like habit of standing up, hands behind his back, to answer each audience question. Even when he’s being gently sardonic. (Asked if he was in a position to criticise writers like Chetan Bhagat and Shobha De for “taking liberties with the language” when he occasionally did so in his columns too, he replied: “There’s a difference between taking liberties with the language knowingly and unknowingly.”)

– It’s useful to remember that there are inherent weaknesses in the format of a time-bound public discussion with four or five people on stage (including perhaps a mix of reticent speakers and overconfident loudmouths – all of whom must share time and condense complex thoughts into quick sound-bytes): the participants might go off on a tangent, the panel topic might not be strictly adhered to, and even when it is, such a discussion is rarely going to have the depth of a long one-on-one interview or a talk given by an individual. But the quality of any given session ultimately depends on the panellists and especially the moderator. A nod to Jonathan Shainin who did a fine, professional job of moderating a session about journalists working on narrative non-fiction books – and an equally good job of keeping the audience honest during the Q&A. Anyone who might have wished to ramble on about his own life for 20 minutes instead of asking a straight question (this often happens at lit-fests) would have quickly been dissuaded by Jonathan’s warning – issued in an authoritative, evil-white-man voice – that he would NOT permit commentary, only questions.

– Journalism was a running theme in some of the sessions I attended. In the one moderated by Jonathan, Samanth Subramanian and Rahul Pandita (discussing their books Following Fish and Hello Bastar respectively) said interesting things about the ways in which literature and journalism intersect. Speaking about her book Death in Mumbai: A True Story (about the Neeraj Grover killing) Mumbai Mirror editor Meenal Baghel reflected on Janet Malcolm’s remark about the “moral indefensibility” of journalism. “There is something deeply troubling about what we do,” she said, recalling a time when she found herself practically chasing a distressed old man – the father of the murder accused Emile Jerome – down a spiral staircase in a courthouse, then stopping to ask herself “What am I doing?” And this quote from Vinod Mehta about journalists being in bed with politicians and businessmen: “You have to be in bed with one businessman – the one who’s running your paper.”

(More notes soon)


  1. It seems to have been a great event. We thought of going, with the big added incentive of getting to meet you again, but we have had too much going on lately. Oh well, hopefully there'll be something else as good in my future.

  2. Dear more notes,

    Please come soon.


  3. nice post Jai...liked this line by Jug a lot, "And if you don’t genuinely find yourself an absurd creature worthy of ridiculing, you have no business being a humorist" captured what makes a humorist nicely...

  4. Unmana: I might be coming across for the Kala Ghoda fest in Feb - perhaps then?

    Divya: thanks

    Pessimist Fool: yes, all the good funny men I know (professionals and non-professionals) have that quality of being able to step outside of themselves - so to speak - then look back at what they stepped out of, and have a good chuckle about it.

  5. Did we attend the same festival? I think there is a David foster wallace style piece (the one he had written about the lobster festival) waiting to be written on this one; the writers seemed in general too full of themselves; in the session you mention geeta anand was constantly looking at the other panelists; we could see only her hair; i attended that session ; did you see the number of people walking out ? most writers when they talk come across far inferior then when they write? I thought the topic for the Shainin session was a poor one? i mean it was such generalities ;one could predict with accuracy the next question and the answer; the discussion was so banal; did u see the ganguly session? it turned into a ganguly worshiping spree? what was the point of calling the author of Chinaman? it is high time the writers attending such festivals get a sense of prespective

  6. Crystal Clear Thinking: disagree about the "Literature from the newsroom" session (as you would've gathered from the post). I agree about the cricket session becoming a Ganguly-worshipping spree, but I think one would largely hold the audience responsible for that, given the enthusiastic responses to everything he said and the fact that all the questions were directed at him. (Also, he is a much more experienced public speaker than the authors on the panel, and naturally knew how to press the right buttons.) But you're also right that there was something quite unfocused about that session to begin with.

    most writers when they talk come across far inferior then when they write

    Bit of a generalisation there, but yes, I do know of many fine writers who aren't comfortable public speakers, and who are certainly far better articulating their thoughts in their writing than on a moderated panel. But why would you expect it to be otherwise? I'm constantly surprised by the number of people I meet at lit-fests who are disappointed by the "underwhelming" or "inarticulate" personality of their favourite writer, or who expect the "speaking voice" to be just as smooth as the writing voice.

    Anyway, my overall expectations for a high-profile literary fest of this sort are clearly lower than yours. Perhaps that comes out of experiencing Jaipur every year! (Don't know if you've been there, or how many sessions you've seen.)

  7. Jai : i like your reply to Crystal Clear Thinking almost as much as the post itself..

  8. I attended Day 2 & found "Karachi Noir" to be the best of the lot followed by "Is Lyricism Dead?". And yes, the Raghu Dixit gig at the end of the day was fantastic!

  9. Many thanks for the lovely write up on the session Bunny and I had at the TOI Lit Carnival. Jug

  10. I'd love to go for Kala Ghoda. I'd attended workshops two years and then didn't go at all last year. (In fact, saw you the first time at Kala Ghoda, three years ago, I think?) Let me see if I/we can make it. Will email you.