With all the festivals to go to, how does anyone find time to read?
Last year, I attended a small literature festival in Chandigarh. I participated in two sessions, one a conversation with the young writer Kaushik Barua, whose novel No Direction Rome struck me as being juvenile but entirely fresh, new. He had found a voice that I hadn’t heard before in English-language fiction being written by Indians. It is a privileged voice but not in the usual way of land and family wealth. The narrator is from the Northeast but lives in Delhi with his modest if comfortable family. He is well-educated and moves to Rome to work for an international organisation. He feels no great attachment to India; it is the country where he locates his guilt, where his family make their unwelcome demands on his time and emotions. Part of a global class of professionals for whom the world is an endless series of airport lounges and hotel bars, he is indifferent to Italy too, uninterested in the language and culture. It is a smug voice, self-satisfied and jaded, but I hadn’t heard it satirised by an Indian author before.
At the same festival, I participated in another panel about disappearing books pages in newspapers. I don’t know about the press in other languages but the books pages in our national English-language newspapers and weekly news magazines have been pruned into irrelevance—two or three short reviews per week at best. What kind of literate culture doesn’t discuss books in its newspapers and popular periodicals? On the other hand, literature festivals across the country are mushrooming; most states have one, many have two or more while cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai have several each. The big brother of Indian literature festivals, Jaipur, is onto its 10th edition this month (for whatever reason, it appears to have forgotten it was founded in 2006) and is an established stop on the global circuit.
Jaipur attracts hundreds of thousands of people over five days to hear some of the world’s best minds talk to each other and to us for free. The bookshop sells at a furious clip. Almost everyone seems happy. Festivals trigger conversations. Jaipur certainly has. I went to Jaipur in 2013, when I was the books editor of a weekly news magazine, and was grateful for the access enabled by my media pass. In the guise of interviews, I had a number of long and, for me, fascinating conversations with novelists I admire, Howard Jacobson for instance. But those were meandering, rambling conversations, almost private, as opposed to the performance of a public conversation. Too often public “conversation” is about generating “debate” or “controversy”. Jaipur has certainly generated its fair share. But illumination and understanding are harder to come by, need more time and less pretence.
I am not arguing against literature festivals. For writers the appeal is obvious—the opportunity to scare up an audience, to meet other writers, and travel to places like Jaipur, Dhanachuli, Thimphu, Dhaka, Galle, even Dantewada. For readers who are interested in writers as personalities and celebrities, or who are eager to meet a favourite or discover a new writer, the appeal is also obvious. And, encouragingly, pressure is building on festivals that do sell tickets, attract deep-pocketed sponsors and generate revenue, to pay writers for their time.
But a well-attended literary festival is no indication of a culture that loves books. We may have plenty of literature festivals in India, but we have few public libraries. Book-buying may increase during the days of the festival for the onsite shop but there’s no evidence that more literature festivals means that more people are reading or buying books. Our glut of festivals doesn’t even mean our newspapers pay more attention to books or the ideas in them because, editors and marketing men say, readers aren’t interested. (What about those people who flock to Jaipur?) Perhaps readers are no longer interested in reviews, in the occasional petty squabbles, in the even more tiresome tendency among some reviewers to treat reviewing as a networking opportunity—recommending fellow novelists in the hope that they too will be treated kindly when it’s their turn—and in the figure of the reviewer as expert opiniongiver. But there is something to be said for the separation of writer, reviewer and reader and festivals collapse that space.
While my sessions in Chandigarh appeared to go well, I didn’t leave convinced that literature festivals are a great thing for readers. I’ve always thought of reading as an opportunity not to have a conversation but to think for yourself, to interpret for yourself. There is nothing performative about sitting in an armchair or in bed by yourself and reading, no pressure to respond in any particular way to the performance on the page. Literature festivals are public affairs, while reading is, to my mind, a private affair. What do the two have to do with each other?
This article is part of The Indian Quarterly‘s Jan-Mar 2017 issue.
Images courtesy Flickr account U.S. Embassy New Delhi