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Friday, May 27, 2005

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Stimulate the intellect

Archana Venkatratnam

A forum that nurtures upcoming writers... over a cup of steaming kaapi.

A `post-it' note stuck on the tinted glass door read: `Caferati read meet here'. Inside the bright green, garage-turned-office of Rolled Up Sleeves New Media in Chennai, a motley group is seated on plastic chairs. They are all budding writers, and encouraging them on is Caferati.

This forum for wannabe writers organises get-togethers (called Read Meets), where individual works are discussed and critiqued, over a cup of coffee(a la the Parisian Café of yesteryear that produced many a gem in literary history).

Caferati, which is active in Mumbai and Delhi, hosted its first Chennai meet in April, in this city of abundant coffee, culture and literary pursuits, says Harish Vittal, coordinator of the Madras Caferati.

Recently, Caferati hosted a short-story writing contest on its Web site. Around 50 entries (out of about 500) were selected by a panel and this compilation will soon be published by Oxford Publishing and distributed by Crossword bookstore. However, the writing is not limited to short stories alone, and includes poetry, plays, prose, jottings, or anything that one is inspired to write; all entries will be posted on the Web site.

Sitting in on their latest meeting, we realise that the gathering is as diverse as the works presented: Narayanaswamy, a retired marketing consultant, who was simply curious to find out what was happening in his father-in-law's neighbourhood; Sivagami, who has been writing poetry since 1970; Pradeep, a business analyst; Anurag, who is on a sabbatical from work; Naveen and Vidya, who host a similar Web site called zine5; Nithya, who works in an advertising firm; and Harish, an investment banker. The forum host is Prasad, Director of Rolled Up Sleeves, who is an independent e-publisher. This is his first attempt to enter the print market. "The corporate e-publishing work I was doing till now lacked soul," he complains.

The rules of the Caferati session are simple: each person reads for 8 minutes and is given a feedback during the next two minutes. Criticism is important.

Vittal writes about an inspiration from a black-and-white photograph. Aarti's poem is on the `queue' system. Anurag's 30-second story reminds one of the impulsive crushes that people have. Sivagami gives soul to an iron box, while Pune member Maxi Babi's story — his style reminds one of P.G. Wodehouse — has everyone is splits. Sharmila reads from an ever-laughable Ogden Nash collection.

Though a little hesitant to criticise each other's works, this second meeting of the Madras Caferati, however, gives shape to future plans such as setting a theme and writing for it. Several interesting questions also come up: What makes for a good literary critique? Does an artist ever want to review his work? What does improvement mean?

As the meeting ends, the aroma of filter kaapi wafts in. Hurriedly, the members decide on the date for the next meet — June 10. Cheering loudly, the members then dig into their chocolate cake and kaapi.

Explaining their future plans, Vittal says, "We will create a database listing books owned by members. This will help us trade books with each other, online or in person. It will enhance our reading habit."

Where does Rolled Up Sleeves figure in all this? "These meets will help us find new talent for publishing," says Prasad, who is willing to launch a newcomer's work. "The home-grown English fiction market is exploding. We want to cash in on this, as we can't break into the market with established writers."

Does a meet like this really help him? "It does, on two levels. As an editor, I am concerned with the form and content of writing, which such meets expose me to. As a marketer I have to visualise how to package it for the audience. The feedback at such sessions help me gauge what people would like to read in print," he says.

What kind of work is he looking for? "A pan-Indian novel," he says. "Our culture today is a mix of Indian and Western ethos. This diverse cultural background is what I want to see in a writer's work." Prasad also plans to have an expert panel to evaluate the works. To encourage writers, he wants to organise contests involving prize money, and publication of the selected works.

An experienced marketer, he understands that the Internet can be an effective tool for the distribution of his books . "I hope to publish at least four collections of short stories. Right now, distribution seems to be a hurdle."

Prasad is hopeful that he can price his books above Rs 150 — the price at which fiction books of new writers usually sell. Of that, 40-60 per cent would be his trade margin. "As long as writers enthral audiences by creating pictures in their mind, they can maintain the balance between the art and commercial aspects of story telling," he says.

As one prepares to leave, the smell of coffee lingers in the air... and one already looks forward to the next meet.

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