Why we must visit lit fests: a modern fable by Siddhartha Sharma

Siddhartha Sarma puts the petri dish of literary microbes at fests ‘or whatever’ under scrutiny
The author recieving
Bal Sahitya Akademi

They all assemble at such events, and joyously create what can only be properly compared to the great Donkey Fair, ironically also held in Jaipur

A very close friend was at the Jaipur Literature Festival last year. Amid a sea of breathless publishers, wannabe lit giants and general groupies, the conduct of one man stood out.

He had a panel discussion to himself, but unlike several others who took the stage and either endured imbecilic questions about themselves or talked about how awesome they were, he merely announced rather quietly that he would read out a small section of his previously published writing. He did that, took no questions, and quit the stage. People were puzzled. Where was the glorious self-talk? Where were the deep and alleged insightful narrations of an author’s life? Where was the normal aggrandisement? It was, everyone thought, decidedly rude of him.

Later the same day my friend was standing near the door of another venue, listening to yet another tiresome interaction. The man slipped in quietly, listened with a half-smile on his humourous face to the pontifications of some random poet, and slipped out as anonymously as he had been drifting through the festival.

That man was J M Coetzee, one of the few supremely deserving Literature Nobel laureates in the last two decades of ig-nobelity (they missed Greene and got instead a chronicler of a second-hand civilisation).

His conduct was, as mentioned, unusual. Usage of the word ‘festival’ for such events, particularly in an Indian context, naturally implies literature is similar to burning a mythical demon king or celebrating the antics of a blue-skinned teen. It naturally has to have copious discussions on the sidelines by people wholly unassociated with literature on such key issues as what clothes to wear to it and what food to sample, as in all other Indian festivals. It naturally has to include much networking by people desperate to get published or who need more names to drop afterwards. It naturally has to include a lot of heat and dust.

There are several categories of people who visit such events. There are those, like my friend, who want to see what the fuss is all about and return convinced that one visit is enough for a short and fraught human life to properly endure without further trauma. There are those who, instead of trying to learn more about writing from the few giants that do visit, spend their time running after all manner of publishers trying to wrangle a contract or something. There are the wide-eyed groupies (mostly students), in there for the gawking at supposed celebs. There are the jaded publishers, out to display their wares, all of them secretly aware of the futility of it all and wishing they could be somewhere else and preferably drunk. There are the gliteratti, that interesting breed of mixed species who turn up at virtually every book launch and form their little cabals for self-promotion or whatever. They all assemble at such events, and joyously create what can only be properly compared to the great Donkey Fair, ironically also held in Jaipur.

If such events had any redeeming value in their contents alone, that would be a different matter. But most of the writers are not of so high a caliber that matters of significance can be learned from them. Most are only on stage because they have expressed willingness to being asked questions. Of the few really good ones, including those lost souls from abroad, the key to extracting the most from them lies in the questioner. There are any number of examples of panel moderators who virtually hijack the proceedings or otherwise ask such a series of inane questions that only make self-respecting listeners wince. What anyone can gain from such interactions is lost on everyone.
So, why should someone visit these events? Because one certainly must. Authors, particularly the really great ones, do not write just because they have a story. They do not write for the publishers and certainly not for the supposed clout. They do not write so they can later analyse their work in front of a slack-jawed audience. They drift through life, observing mankind in its bedecked finery, in all its faults and foibles. They write because they must, but mainly they are chroniclers of us. They are the unseen, the unknown, the invisibles who flit among us and put us all under the superb microscopes of their intellect.

Why we must certainly visit such events is the same reason Coetzee stood invisible near that door and smiled last year. He was placing the people there under his sight and trying to understand them. As yet another microbe, I suspect that petri dish must have been a bit of a disappointment for him.

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