(Published in the Business Standard, March 5, 2007)
A few days after the Kitab festival for writers ended in Bombay, I’m catching up on the gossip. Most of it is about who ended up getting the bad hotel room with the leaky bathroom and who ended up in bed in the bad hotel room with the leaky bathroom and the complaining writer, that kind of serious literary conversation.
I’m struck, though, by the number of writers who have either festival ennui or festival enthusiasm. The ones who have festival ennui are usually the ones who have just released a new book and have been doing the rounds of Hay-on-Wye, Hay-in-Cartagena, the new Galle literary festival (“great parties”, is the general verdict), Jaipur, Melbourne, Toronto
They have the air of seasoned explorers, emerging from the rain forest of literature with advice about how to avoid media pythons, the malarial interview (where you speak in a kind of delirium that lasts until you see what you’ve said the next morning in the paper) and other hazards of the festival life. The festival enthusiasts are the ones who’re comfortable leading the life of rockstars on a long world tour, sans the groupies and the psychedelic drugs.India’s a newbie on the festival circuit, still at the stage where we do our best to adapt the famous Indian Seminar style to the new party-till-you-drop literary subculture. “I’m appearing on a panel at a literary festival about whether panels at literary festivals are a waste of time,” said one bright young critic. “It’s all very meta.”
I felt bad for missing Kitab in Bombay and the far more heavyweight Women's Writing Conference, running in parallel in Delhi with authors from Gloria Steinem to Esther David, Kamila Shamsie and Taslima Nasreen in attendance. But over the next few days, as friends filled me in on what had happened, it felt as though I’d been there despite myself.
Where I’d been, instead, was online, pondering the virtues of the virtual author tour. Thanks to sites like YouTube, and the video-sharing community, Second Life, a “virtual world” built by “real people”, and festival sites like Hay that offer free podcasts, readers worried that they might miss out on the writing world have alternatives. Unless, like me, they download not too wisely but too well.
It started innocently enough. I dropped by Second Life, lured by the prospect of attending a cyber poetry reading. It took me a while to figure out the right avatar—suitably nerdy, slightly ink-stained, but equipped with far more tattoos than your columnist has in her real life. I found a seat beside a Spock avatar and a mermaid-fey whose name involved Moonbeams, which should have served as enough warning.
The problem with cyber poetry readings isn’t the atmosphere, which is actually more fun than the usual bookstore-gallery-auditorium space; it’s the quality of the cyber-poetry, which is just as depressingly amateur as in our real, humdrum world. I left in a hurry, and headed off to the Hay site to listen to David Bodanis read from his book on Voltaire’s hot love affair, which was much more fun.
It wasn’t long before I was hooked. The real world was all about illness and yet another “Whither The Indian Novel” session. Online, though, there was Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion, cleverly shot so that I felt as though I was right there, part of an audience composed equally of atheists who love Dawkins and god-fearing Dawkins-haters waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike him down. Or there was “warrior woman” Maxine Hong Kingston doing a duet book reading with a Gulf War veteran.
I showed up—virtually—at the Dodge Poetry Festival to join an audience of hundreds in a tent listening to Taha Muhammad Ali reading his poem, ‘Revenge’. I listened to Salman Rushdie reading at the Jaipur Festival from The Satanic Verses with a strong sense of deja vu before it occurred to me that I had actually been there, done that. So far, few authors have figured out that they can now avoid airports and hotel rooms if they create an avatar and get it to do the hard work, but sooner or later, they will.
The problem with hosting your own virtual literary festival is simple: avoid opening too many tabs at the same time. I spent a dizzying half-an-hour torn between the lures of the American poet Charles Bukowski, graphic novelist Neil Gaiman reading one of his poems for a change, an interview with Stephen King, or Toni Morrison speaking on 9/11.
And then enlightenment dawned. Unlike Kitab or Edinburgh, Hay-on-Wye or Jaipur, virtual readings have a singular advantage—you get to pause, rewind or fast-forward your authors at will. If only we could do this in real life.