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Hear it from them: Author Rosemarie Somaiah in a storytelling performance at the Literary Festival 2016 in Hyderabad. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Hear it from them: Author Rosemarie Somaiah in a storytelling performance at the Literary Festival 2016 in Hyderabad. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf   -  The Hindu

Place to be seen: Selfie-lovers can catch authors right after their talk sessions or book signings. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Place to be seen: Selfie-lovers can catch authors right after their talk sessions or book signings. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras   -  The Hindu

Whodunit? The 2016 edition of the Crime Writers Festival, an event which sees the usual suspects—local and international thriller writers—gather in Delhi every year. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

Whodunit? The 2016 edition of the Crime Writers Festival, an event which sees the usual suspects—local and international thriller writers—gather in Delhi every year. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

Word spreads: Actor Soumitra Chatterjee (standing) and Bengali writer Samaresh Majumdar (seatedleft) at a Kolkata litfest. The country annually hosts more than a hundred literature festivals across cities big and small. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Word spreads: Actor Soumitra Chatterjee (standing) and Bengali writer Samaresh Majumdar (seatedleft) at a Kolkata litfest. The country annually hosts more than a hundred literature festivals across cities big and small. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty   -  BusinessLine

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The Indian winter is crammed with litfests, as the country’s ₹26,100-crore publishing industry comes of age. As authors and autograph-hunters gather in exotic locales for days of literary pow-wow, it can all get a bit too harried for the average bookworm. A veteran shares his essential list of litfest dos and don’ts

Early February this year, I was totally thrilled to be at the fabled book fair of Kolkata for the first time. According to legend, a bunch of enthusiastic young publishers dreamt it up in the mid-1970s at the old Coffee House in College Street. It was a first-of-its-kind book celebration in India and has, over the years, grown so much that it is now said to be one of the biggest literary events in the whole world.

As I entered the Milan Mela grounds, where the fair was being held, I found four big halls to my right, crammed with the stalls of publishers and bookshops. Right before me was a sea of pavilions housing museums, cultural organisations, book displays from foreign countries, as well as snack stalls where the famous Bengali lemon tea was constantly boiling, while artisans sold their handicrafts off the ground. Much of this activity has apparently been a part of the festival since its inception, but there was also something rather new as I turned to the left: famous writers speaking in a tent in the corner.

Taking a cue from the rising popularity of Indian litfests, the 11-day book fair has added on a three-day literature festival as a bonus to its visitors — turning itself into one of the youngest litfests in the country. This year I got to listen to authors such as Ashok Vajpeyi, Barun Chanda and Kunal Basu, and one of my favourite travel writers, Bishwanath Ghosh. When popular young pulp writer Durjoy Datta took to the stage, the tent was suddenly packed with screaming girls filming his every word and gesture with their mobile phones.

In between sessions, I strolled around the grounds, located just off the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, where the fair nowadays has a purpose-built home. It was traditionally held in the centre of Kolkata on the vast Maidan, but complaints from environmentalists, combined with traffic jams, forced it to relocate a decade ago. Also, some time before that, in the year when the deconstructionist thinker Jacques Derrida was the inaugural speaker, the fair caught fire (for no fault of Derrida’s) and books worth lakhs of rupees were destroyed. Kolkatans joked about the “deconstruction” and quick “reconstruction” of the fair, but the fact remains that the new location is safer.

After the move, there were apprehensions that people would not go out of their way to get there, but it seems the audience has actually increased. The police make special arrangements to accommodate traffic to and from the mela, and there are also shuttle buses from the central Park Circus. One of the organisers, Mahesh Golani, told me that an estimated 20 lakh visitors attended the fair this year, pointing out the long lines entering through the gates with empty bags, while another parallel queue was moving in the opposite direction, bags loaded.

Golani is a member of the booksellers’ guild and he told me a story about a fellow who kept returning to his stall to browse a glossy book on the sculptor Michelangelo, priced at ₹8,000. The staff thought he might be a thief, since he looked scruffy, so they kept a watchful eye on him. On the last day of the fair, however, the man returned with a bag full of five- and 10-rupee notes, which took an hour to count — the exact price of the costly book. It turned out he was a farmer who had always dreamt of being a sculptor, and so had been saving for years to buy the book. Humbled, Golani offered him a discount.

However, the book fair isn’t only about literature. There’s the food too: sinfully deep-fried prawn pakoras, quail biryani, Kolkata’s iconic kathi rolls, Tibetan momos, puchkas and, of course, Bengali sweets.

As I stand there with a roll sticking out of my mouth, an elderly bespectacled Bengali gentleman jumps me, clad in a freshly ironed kurta, and offers me an almost toothless smile. He declares that I must be Goldie Hawn. I point out flaws in his logic — but he doesn’t believe me, no matter how much I insist that I’m not American but European, and a man rather than a woman. Besides, most Hollywood actresses are health freaks who wouldn’t be seen eating non-veg rolls anyway. It turns out that the gentleman doesn’t understand English, but just keeps pointing at me, grinning, and repeating: ‘Goldie Hawn’. Then he whips out an autograph book and requests that I sign it.

I do the needful. He is excited. It isn’t every day that you get Goldie Hawn’s autograph in Kolkata.

Littérateurs in the cold

Winters in India are full of litfests crammed with celebrities and autograph-hunters, so I’m often bingeing on book talks from November to February — on an average I catch a dozen litfests from south to north each year.

This might seem like a lot of literature consumed, but considering that India annually hosts more than a hundred litfests, I barely skim the surface.

Some western countries have more — the UK, for instance, apparently has a litfest a day on an average, or about 350 a year. But Indian litfests tend to have the biggest audiences anywhere in the world and are a rapidly growing phenomenon, especially considering that a decade ago there were barely any. Maybe the rising popularity is connected to the fact that the publishing industry has been growing massively. India is currently the sixth biggest book market in the world and the industry is estimated to be worth ₹26,100 crore.

Most cities nowadays have at least one litfest each — so whether you live in Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Hyderabad or Pune, you will have one just around the corner. Chennai has not only a couple of general litfests, but also a quirky poetry festival, which has included readings in fast-food restaurants and fashion boutiques. Bengaluru’s newest is a poetry festival in a five-star hotel, while another litfest earlier this year focused on ‘city writing’ and a third was for young readers, organised by young readers. Want a book and a beach? Try the Goa Arts and Literature Festival or any of the litfests in Kerala. At last count, Mumbai had four a year, including the streetsy one that is part of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and where literature, street art, and shopping go together. Apart from its general book fairs, New Delhi hosts the annual Crime Writers Festival, which celebrates genre fiction by bringing together local and international thriller writers. If you’re looking for a more picturesque place in which to enjoy book talks, head off to the hills — Jammu, Kumaon, Ooty, Mussoorie and Shillong all have their own litfests. In Assam, there’s a translation festival. Or if you’re interested in literary criticism, try Chandigarh, where leading book critics elect the writers they want to be in serious conversation with.

You may wonder if all these festivals have been set up to make money from us bookworms? No, most of the festivals are free of charge; some benevolent sponsor will pick up the tab. Believe it or not, free lunches used to be part of the scheme at many fests. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that the complimentary meals are being restricted to speakers and delegates. Bogus book-lovers had started coming en masse to stuff themselves silly and, in some cases, shamelessly raid the open bars. So these days, at the Jaipur litfest, for example, general visitors can buy a special delegate pass that gives access to the authors’ lunch area, which is an excellent opportunity for bookworms who want to hang out with littérateurs.

What do the writers think about all this? Save for one or two antisocial oddballs, most seem happy to mingle with readers, fans and other people at a litfest or two. But for those who have a new book out and need to promote it at the maximum number of litfests, the winters can be an ordeal. One novelist complained, only half in jest, that he hadn’t had time to launder his underwear because he hadn’t been home since the hectic festival season started.

This trend of litfest mania can be traced back to the unprecedented success of the Jaipur Literature Festival. In its first edition, nine years ago, it attracted a handful of people. This year the footfall at Diggi Palace, where the festival is held over five days in January, was around 3.3 lakh, and the so-called “Woodstock of Literature” has spawned smaller editions of itself in the UK and the US. One major reason for its popularity is that it brings together the biggest contingent of great writers from India and abroad, often including Nobel, Pulitzer or Booker winners. It has a fanatic following. I met one dude who air-dashed from Bengaluru just for a day to listen to his favourite author (who was making a rare appearance) and air-dashed back to work. I too had my fan-boy moment when I happened to walk past Alexander McCall Smith and say ‘hello’, only to end up having a long chat on detective fiction in India, which he was very curious about. At Jaipur’s railway station at night, students who travel in from all over to partake of the free festival but can’t afford hotel rooms, bed down on the platforms to sleep. In Jaipur airport, on the day after the festival, passengers cough up exorbitant excess luggage fees to be able to bring home all those author-signed copies.

If you bump into an author — which is rather likely at any litfest — but can’t remember exactly what he or she is famous for, the phrase that always works is: “Loved your latest.” Every author would like to believe that their latest book is their best. And if that doesn’t cut the ice, then you can just insist that he or she is Goldie Hawn.

Survival guide

The line separating them is blurred, but book fairs and litfests differ in the sense that a book fair has a focus on showcasing and selling books, while a litfest focuses on authors speaking — and the only books on sale will be those by the speakers. Litfests rarely cost anything for the attendee, but in order to control crowds many have started ticketing specific events (such as writing workshops with limited seating capacity) or expect you to register online, so do check the rules before turning up. Many book fairs charge an entry fee — though the one in Kolkata doesn’t.

Try to arrange accommodation close to the venue, so that you can sneak away for a bit of rest now and then, and also offload books if you ended up buying too many. If the festival is very popular, it may be good to plan your visit in advance: book your room for the following year’s Jaipur Literature Festival when you go there this winter. You can always cancel a booking if you change your plans, but it is harder to get a good hotel on short notice.

Carry a sturdy bag — or even better, a small rucksack — to stuff books into. Your medical kit should contain headache pills; antacids and imodium; glucose to boost energy levels; throat lozenges, nose and eye drops (it gets dusty at outdoor events).

As many litfests are held outdoors it can get chilly, especially in January, so carry a shawl to the early morning or evening sessions. Shoes ought to be comfortable rather than fashionable, as you have to stand a lot in queues to enter venues, at the book signings, and in the line at the tea stall or toilets. High-profile sessions are inevitably crowded, and you may end up standing in the back row.

A camera with a powerful zoom is a good investment if you want portrait photos for your book blog or Facebook page. Usually, the best time to take selfies with famous authors is immediately after their talk sessions or book signings, while they’re still in their professional roles. For example, Pico Iyer told me that just after he gets off stage is the perfect time to bother him, when he anyway expects to be mobbed. It is a less good idea to pester authors for selfies when they’re off duty, as they might be busy picking their noses.

Catch at least a couple of sessions with lesser-known writers; rest assured they too will say interesting things (or they wouldn’t have been invited in the first place) and you will enjoy the pleasure of a good seat near the stage. Maybe you’ll also end up discovering a new favourite writer, instead of hearing the same old celebrities repeating what they say in every interview.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru

Published on November 04, 2016

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