Sunday, April 16, 2006

Kitab fest - quick notes

I’ve been asked why I haven’t blogged/otherwise written about the Kitab festival. Short answer: I was busy being lazy while the fest was on. I had a very nice time at Kitab – was there pretty much throughout, on all the three days – but I wasn’t too concerned with being a good journalist. I attended most of the panel discussions, enjoyed many of them, even scribbled notes here and there, but I didn’t speak at length with the authors/participants in between sessions. And I generally took advantage of not having committed to covering the event for any publication.

In a way, this was what made Kitab so enjoyable for me: being able to stroll leisurely about one of my favourite places (the India Habitat Centre) in between the scheduled events, soaking in the sun (surprisingly the weather wasn’t unpleasant on any of the days) and conversation, meeting friends from the literary circuit, renewing old acquaintances, making new ones, just talking lazily – all the while knowing that it would take just 5 minutes to pop across to the American Diner or Eatopia for a quick sandwich. No obligations. The whole thing was…idyllic, and that’s a word I can rarely use for events of this sort, where I usually have to keep a lookout for possible stories or interviews. It was like being able to pick up a book and just read it from start to finish, without any fuss, without constantly making mental notes or thinking about what you’ll write in the review.

Also, on the first day and for the first half of the second day I was a little nervous about my own panel discussion: so I spent some time by myself, getting into a comfort zone with the auditorium.

Hence no detailed write-up. But here, mainly as a way of setting down notes for future reference, are some quotes:

- Many of us were impressed by the soft-spoken eloquence of Nadeem Aslam, author of that wonderful book Maps for Lost Lovers. At a panel discussion on whether globalisation limits the types of stories that writers can tell, Aslam had for company far more fluent, confident speakers like Shashi Tharoor and Rana Dasgupta: yet his little talk was the one that moved the audience the most. Aslam used the analogy of a small circle that contains a certain set of feelings within it: a mother’s feelings on seeing her child’s dead body, for instance. “The emotions here would be universal, the same for mothers around the world,” he said, “you’d be able to place them all within that circle. But when you move to the larger question of how the child died – whether in a road accident or perhaps an act of terrorism – you find that you have to step outside this circle to define different sets of experiences for people living in different parts of the world.”

- Later, participating in a discussion on Muslims in the media, Aslam articulated his dilemma post-9/11. “Before September 11, 2001,” he said, “if someone asked me was I a Muslim, I would have said: probably not. Because I don’t fast, or worship, or believe in God. But after the terrorist attacks on NYC, it became imperative to define myself in terms of my religious identity – if only to let people know that Muslims don’t only crash planes into buildings, they live peaceful, constructive lives too.”

- From the irrepressible Shashi Tharoor at the globalisation discussion: “Ultimately it’s important to realise [even while we marvel at the world having become a global village] that most lives are still lived behind national frontiers. Having largely spent the last century in making the world a safe place for democracy, hopefully we’ll now be able to keep it safe for diversity as well.”

- “I get the impression that Bihar is like India’s Alabama,” said Somini Sengupta, New York Times journalist. “Indians think of it in the way they fear others think of them.”

- The panel discussion “From snake charmers to call centres”, about new trends in literature and reportage from South Asia, drew a lot of tangential questions and comments from the audience. One gent was quite amusing in his indignation about Hindi film stars who answer questions in English even when being interviewed by Hindi news channels. Equally amusing was Rahul Bose’s ultra-defensive counter – that one mustn’t assume these actors are fluent in Hindi just because they work in the medium: “for many of them, English is a first language”. As Pavan Varma rightly pointed out later, this argument might hold good for Bose himself, but it scarcely applies to many Bollywood stars, given the quality of the English they speak.

- And in the middle of all this, a delightfully non-politically correct remark from Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, clearly fed up with accusations of writers not writing about the “real India”. “Small-town India is not my reality,” he snapped, “and I’m not planning to go there anytime soon.” (Incidentally, Shanghvi wore a shiny green shirt and a little grey tie, and carried a small briefcase. Very spiffy.)

- Most of us are still scratching our heads over how exactly American actress Goldie Hawn fit into an “Indo-UK literary festival”, but she was, as expected, the piece de resistance: by far the largest audience was present for her session on Saturday. Much jollity was experienced while listening to her account of driving through the villages of Rajasthan in the 1970s and “being invited into huts to share chapattis”, and how happy these poor people in Indian villages looked compared to all the rich people who roamed around vacuously in malls in America. Also her account of a profound spiritual experience in an ashram, where she “sank inwardly into myself, and then started giggling because it was such a wonderful experience”. (“I’m giggling inwardly now,” my evil friend Shougat stage-whispered.)

Will add to this later. Or never.

(Also read this.)


  1. Jai,
    I am a recent reader of your blog, a former Delhite, now in the US. Loved all of it, especially getting a sense of your intellectual work as a journalist. I am a prof. of english and often toy with the idea of returning to India to do some such thing. Thanks for the report on the kitab festival. And Goldie Hawn at a literary festival--we desis really are insane!

  2. Do add to this.

    We demand more.

    I feel pretty bad about missing the Kitab Fest. Had thought of dashing to Habitat to attend your panel discussion, if only to ask you What are blogs?.

    Liked the politically incorrect statement.

  3. Yes, please do share more... :)

  4. very very interesting
    i've bin spending the entire day today reading most of ur rants and njoying my boring moments in office immensely...