(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, April 10, 2006)
The first day of the Kitab festival, a group of students hover uneasily outside the Stein auditorium. “We don’t have passes…” one of them says uncertainly. “You don’t need passes. Just come on in,” they’re told.
By this Sunday, the last day of the festival that brought together Indian and British writers, publishers, magazine editors, journalists, politicians and the odd film star, word had gone around. Kitab, like the annual Katha festival and a handful of other literary conclaves, actually meant it when it claimed to be “for everyone”.
Four years ago, at the same venue—Delhi’s Habitat Centre—a very different festival of letters had taken place. It was a sarkari festival, put together with a lot of hard work and good intentions, and it brought together an astonishingly wide range of Indian writers from “home” and the diaspora. At least a score of India’s languages were represented, including English.
At the much smaller Kitab fest, I missed many writers—Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Shrilal Shukla, Kiran Nagarkar, U R Ananthamurthy, Sitanshu Yashchandra, M T Vasudevan Nair, Paul Zachariah, Githa Hariharan, Vikram Seth, V S Naipaul, Ved Mehta, Khushwant Singh, to name a handful. And I missed the buzz of that festival, too, with its multiple events being held simultaneously.
But Kitab had the three ingredients that the ICCR festival lacked, and these three were key. It made conversations happen. It allowed editors, journalists and publishers from outside India to meet their counterparts here, and perhaps get a slightly wider picture of the shifts taking place in publishing. And it was a festival that threw open its doors; unlike the ICCR festival, which was deeply unwilling to allow authors and readers to meet outside an invisible cordon sanitaire.
The conversations at Kitab had a way of carrying on long after the official sessions had ended. On the first day, William Dalrymple introduced his forthcoming series of books on the last four of the Mughal emperors, and read a section from the Bahadur Shah Zafar book, The Last Mughal .
It captured the shift, over just two decades, in interactions between the Indians and the British in India: what had been, in his view, a close and complex relationship moved in twenty years to a state where the “natives” and the Raj led separate lives. He mentioned the wealth of untapped material in India, the archives of unread manuscripts, untranslated documents; on a panel two days later, he would speak eloquently of the need for Indian writers to use that rich source material to write more non-fiction, more biographies.
The same day, two speakers referred back to Dalrymple’s lecture, speaking of the need to keep conversations between countries, peoples and hemispheres alive—and the growing need to ensure that these were not just one-way. On a panel featuring Claire Short, Rory Stewart and M J Akbar, it was tempting to analyse the American invasion of Iraq as an example of a failed, one-way conversation between two countries. Much later, C P Surendran pointed out that it wasn’t the will or the impulse to write non-fiction that was missing: if Indian publishers could afford to pay authors million dollar advances, he noted sardonically, the diaspora writers would move back home.
At a morning reading on Sunday, Amit Chaudhuri offered his tongue-in-cheek vision of the writer and the writer’s double: the writer is the person responsible for the work, and he has nothing to do with his double, who’s the one who goes out and writes papers, makes public speeches–and attends literary festivals. That afternoon, Rana Dasgupta offered another view of the writer, speaking of an encounter with an Indian journalist who was disappointed at Rana’s size. “I expected you to be bigger,” he told the author several times during the interview. It was the first time, said Dasgupta, that he had been confronted with a vision of the writer not just as a successful figure, but as one who must be physically robust, muscular: a vision of big men, writing big books.
By Sunday, the Habitat Centre had become, quite casually, a hub where people from the trade and authors and ordinary readers hung out. I missed a few things: more bookstalls, perhaps a space for the little magazines; I missed many, many people who should have been there. But for three days, Kitab had brought together disparate people and disparate themes. The discussions ranged from the Iraq war to Muslims in the media, from snake charmers and call centres to, self-referentially, the running of festivals. The writers may have ranged in size from small, slight or compact to lanky, large and big: the conversations, however, were suitably muscular.