The boom in litfests, and what’s missing from Indian book culture

 (Published in the Business Standard, October 8, 2012)

“Hyderabad, Kovalam, Shillong, Goa, Bangalore, Kolkata, Bombay—two festivals—Chennai, plus Jaipur, plus the ones in Delhi.” When publishing insiders discuss the map of new literary festivals in India (not counting Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Karachi and Dhaka), a slight wariness lines their voices.

The boom in literary festivals reached its peak this year, and it is now possible for a writer or a publisher to spend an entire season shuffling between book launches and festivals without ever having to go home. The upside of this is that it gives publishers something to do with writers, and it gives writers a sense of being productive human beings, instead of a parallel species who skulk around the house wearing pajamas in between writing 23 words a day.

But at some point, the phrases “hamster wheel” or “travelling circus” will crop up. Now that every major city seems to have, or covet, its own literature festival, you have to go beyond the tired newspaper question of whether litfests are a Good or a Bad thing. Perhaps the bigger question is to ask what’s missing, and why litfests are supposed to fill all of these absences.

Unlike some of the larger and busier festivals, the Kovalam festival brought to mind the ancient Chinese model of holding literary gatherings in a garden. While the proceedings—the conversations and the impromptu poems, the skills of each storyteller—were often recorded in fragments, it was understood that the value of the gathering lay not in performance, but in the offstage, chiefly unrecorded exchanges. (One game, for instance, required the assembled writers to sit by the banks of a river—artificial or real—and bring cups containing wine out of the waters. Any writer who missed would have to make up a poem on the spot, as punishment.)

Tomato rasam and filter coffee replaced the wine, mercifully, but as with those ancient Chinese gatherings, the most interesting conversations at Kovalam happened offstage—discussions between the writers NS Madhavan and Benyamin, pressing questions from students on the craft of writing. What these conversations, at Kovalam and at other festivals, frequently demonstrate is not only book hunger, but the hunger for more outlets for the reader than just bookshops or festivals.

Many readers use the question-and-answer sessions at literary festivals as mini-writing workshops, asking for feedback, or asking complex questions about craft and style at these venues in the absence of proper workshops or creative writing classes. (One small flicker of possible change: Amit Chaudhuri and Marina Warner will lead an eight-day creative writing programme next year in India, in collaboration with the University of East Anglia, rare in a country that has no tradition of creative writing courses.)

Festivals and the Flipkart effect have changed two things: the visibility of writers, and the way in which readers buy books, after the online retailer made it easy for Indians to order and pay for what they wanted. I’m still a festival skeptic—any committed writer knows that writing is a private, unglamorous act, and it’s easy to mistake the bustle and flurry around these events for actual work or writing.

But over the weekend at Kovalam, another absence came into sharp focus—the lack of book clubs in India. For many of the small knots of readers scattered around the grounds of the Kanakakunnu Palace in Trivandrum, festivals were the places where they discovered new reading and unknown authors, which is what a good book club should do.

The book club movement in the US started small—an early book club, set up in the 1920s for readers from rural America who had little access to books, had just 4,000 members. An essay in A Passion For Books, an anthology of writings about bibliophilia, tracks how this rose over the Second World War to about 900,000 members; book clubs in the US now have millions of members. India has just two or three book clubs for English-language readers, and even the larger ones wouldn’t run to more than a few hundred members, if that.

Literary festivals can spread the word, but they can’t sell the word the way book clubs were once able to, in countries as disparate as the US, Spain or China. (The influence of book clubs started to drop as countries developed more bookstores and larger ebook-readerships, neither of which has happened yet in India.)

This might explain why the Indian litfest calendar is so busy. Many of the newer festivals are driven by a kind of linguistic pride—a literary festival is one way to make well-known and well-loved regional writers visible to readers from outside a particular state.

And then, festivals are expected to compensate for the many other absences; the missing libraries and book clubs, the lack of writing courses, the absent or often poorly stocked bookshops. The problem is that no mushaira or literary festival, no matter how electric the performances on stage, can do more than paper over all the gaping holes in Indian reading culture.