-The Hanif Kureishi-Amitava Kumar session was a classic example of how matching the right moderator to the right writer can pay off massive dividends. The JLF had a little trouble with this, with Chetan Bhagat asking Anjum Hassan daft, condescending questions about how it felt to move from “the dressing table to the writing table”. It was clearly the Teen Deviyan and One Idiot panel.
Amitava, in contrast, had done his homework and knew exactly when to push Kureishi a little and when to step back. But the audience provided the best moments. He was asked: “As a Muslim, do you consider yourself an aberration?”
Hanif’s response, “That’s a great question. Hmmm… am I an aberration? All my life I have fought against authoritarian systems, and any religion is an authoritarian system. I don’t think of myself as a Muslim.”
And then an old gentleman asked the Question of the Festival: “Mr Kureishi, my grandson was circumcised. It was very painful for him. Do you remember your circumcision? Did you feel the pain too?”
“Thank you,” said Kureishi. “It’s been a long time since anyone took such an interest in my genitals.”
-My favourite audience reaction to the fest? Provided by a glamorous young fashionista in a Paris kitsch outfit and a truly gorgeous hat, who was seen exiting the Baithak tent at great speed. “Is everything all right, darling?” an equally glamorous editor asks. The fashionista grips editor’s shoulder. “Darling!” she says. “They’re talking about books in there!”
-Censorship works in strange ways. I’m chatting with a bunch of schoolgirls at the Full Circle bookshop. One of them buys the Tranquebar anthology of erotica, edited by Ruchir Joshi and Sister Jesme’s autobiography. As we’re talking, she brings out a Stephen King hardback from her rucksack, and slips the cover over Sister Jesme’s book. “My parents won’t let me read that,” she says. I look at the erotica book. “Oh, that’s all right,” she explains. “The other one is anti-religion, so….”
-Local substitutes have a strange and sublime feel to them, too. By day four, the festival’s running out of the Kinley and Bisleri bottles–as an aside, there has to be a better alternative to the plastic glasses, even paper cups would be less wasteful–and raiding local suppliers. “Roy!” booms an authorial voice as I reach for a glass of water. “Are you sure you want to drink that?” I look at the canister: pure, filtered water that rejoices in the brand name of PeeMee.
-“I have an idea for a book…” “Ma’am, is that Ravi Singh? (Penguin’s head honcho) I want to show him my first three chapters…” “So I’m writing this really great novel, I have 30,000 words down…” There’s a lot of hustling happening on the sidelines (and Ravi Singh, you owe me for steering the demented writer with the 1,200-page poetry saga about a suffering man who owns a cement factory but dreams of being a poet away from you) and as I see the book ideas, partial synopses and excerpts being thrust upon wary editors, I remember a quiet aside from Roddy Doyle: “I have never asked for an advance for a book that I haven’t completed.” Words to live by.
-Leaving on Republic Day; at the Clarkes Amer hotel, there’s an oddly touching flag-hoisting ceremony on the lawns attended by everyone from the managerial and housekeeping staff down to the darwans. It’s quite sweet, right up to the moment where we salute the flag–and a local band breaks into a very familiar song. Not Jana Gana Mana, but All Izz Well from 3 Idiots.