I was at the fourth Delhi Literature Festival (yawn!).
SPOILER ALERT: The RSS guy was the star. He was applauded absurdly so, if not unanimously. Can you imagine? Is this what happens at literature festivals? Where was the persecution and the Latin phrases in everyday conversations? The smell of melancholy and curdling resentment? This was Star TV when I went in expecting that mysterious black-and-white-only Russian channel your cable guy only used to show after midnight. But anyway, that’s all later.
When you see someone pointing a cell-phone camera in a crowded public place, especially one as bright, colourful, bubbly, sparkling, and luridly photogenic as Dilli Haat, you stop in your tracks and wait politely. Or you duck and pass through, trying your best to avoid spoiling the frame of the photo. Or you alter your walking path, and walk past from behind the photographer. Now that ‘selfies’ exist though, what side is the fucking lens facing? Are they capturing the soon-to-finish plate of steaming hot steamed pork momos or the manufactured folksiness of the Rajasthani street dancers? Or their own fake-smiles with the arched-back side profile that works best in JPEG format?
There’s other crowded-place questions too: When someone is walking furiously in your direction, do you stop to make way and let your ego suffer? Or do you soldier on, at the risk of an embarrassing tumble? Why are writers so pale-faced? If you’re listening to a big-name poet reciting Hindi couplets on a mic, do you clap in appreciation, or do you exclaim Wah-Wah and smack your forehead? (The latter, if you take the poet’s word.) Or: I pay my taxes (um…), so why is there no running tap water in the Dilli Haat bathroom? How do really tall people deal with all the stares I direct their way — do they feel like celebrities? Do they feel like punching every person who asks them how the air up there is? Was the man in the crowd claiming to be the Oldest Living IITian factually accurate in his assertion (does it matter)? Why does hot coffee sprinkled with hot chocolate smell so good, and why don’t more neo-kitsch fusion cafés serve it? Most pertinently, where the fuck is Rahul Gandhi?
I was at the fourth Delhi Literature Festival, held from January 8 to 10 this year in Delhi (d’oh). Technically, over 10,000 people attended the three-day festival. This wasn’t because of some sudden escalation of Serious Readers, but because they hosted the thing at Dilli Haat, a ridiculously popular spot in the capital that sells food and handicrafts from around the country, and sees thousands of people visiting each day, in no small part thanks to the 20 rupee entry charge. This, I think, was a bit of a masterstroke, because — at the risk of playing to old stereotypes — writers are somewhat disconnected from the real world. They’re miserable, emotionally stunted, immature, gauche, unwell-adjusted, blanched and pasty, Vitamin D-deprived pre-adolescents who exist in a self-destructive bubble of pent-up rage, jealousy, bitterness, anger, passive-aggressive outbursts, and delusions of grandeur. Putting them in a happy, carnival-like atmosphere is a welcome change from the predictable 21st century urban post-nonsense-ism discussions at incestuous smelly-wine and smelly-cheese parties. I assume. (Since I’ve never been for one.)
All told, writing is, in its very essence, a starkly lonely and solitary pursuit. Litfests — like your phone and Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and your loved ones — exist as a welcome and unwelcome distraction. And as a celebration. As a reminder that, while you’re still all alone with a blank document judging your twitchy protestations, there are still others who struggle the exact same way.
The festival area here was far at the back, accessible only after a straight walk of like a thousand kilometres, with a little stage and a couple of hundred seats that were mostly filled up, while some people stood on the sides, watching people talk.
I don’t have an active interest in litfests, and I was only there for this particular one the one day. For one reason (and one reason only): I wanted to see Rahul Gandhi. He was scheduled to speak at the concluding session, A Tribute to Pandit Nehru, moderated by Barkha Dutt. I was drooling.
I asked the guy sitting next to me — let’s call him Estragon — when Rahul was supposed to come. He said: ‘Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.’
This was around the time William Dalrymple, noted writer of historical nonfiction and a regular fixture at such events, was speaking about Return of a King, his book about British troops in Afghanistan in the mid-19th century. He spoke uninterrupted for close to an hour. (Like a tree falling in a forest, if a writer writes a book and doesn’t talk incessantly about it, does the book really exist?) Some of the stuff Will D. got into included a bit about an honour killing where people played football with the decapitated head of a British guy, but beyond that, I simply couldn’t concentrate. Unless you’re deeply entrenched in the subject or a fan of the speaker (and there were many there), how do you listen to another human being prattling on about some stuff that allegedly happened 200 years ago?
It took me back immediately to my school days, when there’d be a special guest speaker during a two-hour long assembly. I’d have to sit on the floor cross-legged, while the speaker would go on and on (and on and on). I couldn’t leave, but, try as I did, I couldn’t will myself into concentrating on the words being spoken either. It’s the worst kind of purgatory. That’s the thing: while most arts festivals — music, theatre, film, dance — have the performative aspect to fend off mind-numbing tedium, literature festivals rely entirely on the audience’s willingness to STFU and listen/distill/deliberate/absorb every word. (Or pretend to.) It’s just what happens. Dalrymple being told that he was anti-India and anti-Sikh during the Q&A, and that if he liked Afghanistan so much, why doesn’t he (fucking) move there had to be the highlight. This was over some perceived discrepancy/factual inaccuracies in accounts of certain events that the person in the crowd with the mic was pointing out. The guy in front of me, wearing an actual cowboy hat — let’s call him Vladimir, or Didi — approved. ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, yes, we’re magicians,’ he responded.
A separate session was supposed to have a bunch of these political bigwigs discussing the ‘idea of India’, a boring conversation this writer thought was best left for post-3 AM drunken ramblings (wrongly). Most of the people who’d been listed to take part in the discussion bailed, so we were left with the RSS person, Tarun Vijay, and Amar Singh, with a Times of India person moderating. I’d steered clear of literature festivals all these years, only to walk into this great farce that, disappointingly, didn’t even have the pretentious hoo-ha I’d been so excited to see.
During the ‘Idea of India’, there was enough finger-pointing, shoulder-patting, dick-waving, gesticulating and generalising, and talking in vague abstracts about Bharat mata/equality/freedom of speech and justice for all. All hot air — just take a look around.
But the crowd went mental. Every beautifully hollow statement masked in false grandeur and loud volume — made by anyone, really — was cheered on like it was the dawn of freedom. Impromptu Q&As, fuming members in the crowd yelling out interjections, shaking heads, mic snatching, grand interruptions, pre-prepared charts with statistics outlining the shitholeness of India. It was amazing. Best of all? A drinking game where you down a shot every time someone uses the ‘Yeah, but look at Pakistan…’ or the ‘Yeah, but why didn’t you speak up when they did it XYZ years ago?’ would have landed me in a hospital within minutes. This was the lit-world trying its level best to engage with politics. And what is politics if not sweeping broadness.
They went past their time slot. Still no sign of Rahul. It was then that some sense of tension set in. How would he even enter and get to the stage? It was a long walk through a crowded area. I don’t engage with politics particularly — for reasons of convenience as much as principle — but I understand there’s a great amount of ridicule and mockery directed his way. He’s seen as a dumbass or a goofy moron — a figure of fun, mostly. He’s still important enough for there to be serious safety issues around his public appearances though. So maybe they’d sneak him in through a hidden back gate? Or on a helicopter, sashaying down via that rope ladder. A quick look around to see those big beefy moustachioed security guards in imposing black uniforms that tend to precede politicians yielded only anxiety…
The Delhi Literature Festival had a whole host of partners and sponsors, all of whom were advertised on the big backdrop on stage. A couple of stalls for tea and a business school seemed to exist at the venue as contractual ‘deliverables’ and not much more. There was also — I say this with a straight face and a clean conscience — a sign informing patrons that Bisleri was the ‘hydration partner’. I don’t know what that means.
Browsing through the book stall set up by Oxford, I overheard a different session, this one about historical fiction something-something. Far more timid, this was basically writers talking about writing — closest to how I’d imagine such a festival to be. I’m like that. Either I forget right away or I never forget.
The scheduled time for the grand finale had come and gone. There was an unlisted poetry session. Dan Brown. Science. Shitty television shows. Lots of clapping. Even a standing ovation. The wait was agonising. I presumed they were just running late; it happens. Earlier, a kid had run on to the stage and kept squeaking ‘Hello!’ into the mic, giggling uncontrollably. The person tending to him had, visibly embarrassed, managed to restrain him and picked him up, also turning the mic off. Like clockwork, another kid, presumably the first kid’s brother, ran on to the stage and started to do the exact same thing, to much laughter all around. Some people were told to keep quiet and take their sansad elsewhere if they so pleased. All anti-Pakistan statements were loudly congratulated. Rahul Gandhi was not there. All the speakers and moderators were presented with giant coffee table books that could realistically work as coffee tables themselves (this joke has been brought to you by Cosmo Kramer…). Finally, I thought. It’s time. Now, he’ll come and speak. He didn’t. They shut it down and told us to go home. I must have missed all the announcements regarding his no-show. So this is the purpose litfests serve. Nothing to be done. There’s no lack of void.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Akhil Sood
Cover Photo Credit: Nino Barbieri