Bangalore also hosted its own literature festival last week and I was there on the last day of what was a three-day affair. It hosted three discussions on issues slightly broader than books (like Bangalore, scripting on India etc) and had two author interviews.
It was my first time at a literary festival and until I attended this one I wondered what makes these festivals work. Is it only books or is there more to them? The basic reason for their success is, of course, books, but there is much more to them. A festival, unlike a book launch, is not just about books but many things including books. They usually are held at palace-turned-hotels and therefore are sprawling affairs.
At Bangalore Lit Fest, the central activities (discussions, interviews etc) took place inside a tent and outside the tent, it was just like any other fair. You had stalls hawking various wares, from books through trinkets to food. Apart from standalone food stalls, you also had a festival-backed food court. You had celebrities from varied walks of life, some of them from the film world. (The Jaipur festival had roped in Opera Winfrey.) And above all, you had festivity and atmosphere. I am sure other literary festivals are not very different. For any family with cultural pretentions, they are a great day out.
But even with all this, would these festivals work in, say, the 80s as they are working now? It’s difficult to say. Book enthusiasts were always there, but there wasn’t so much enthusiasm about books in the past. In the last 10 years or so, that has changed. Although English books, in India, still are embarrassingly outsold by their Hindi and other regional language counterparts, now English books sell much more than in the past. (Now for an English book to be called a moderate success, it has to sell at least 20 thousand copies.)
When I visit bookstores, I find youngsters checking out books and some buying them. At BLF, the number of 20 somethings present and participating in the discussions by asking questions was another indicator of enthusiam around books and writing. This is partly because some recent time literary successes in India in the popular genre have made becoming writer look like an achievable goal.
The Internet has to thank for this in no small measure - because it has made it easier to be a practicing writer today (through ebooks and blogs) without having to be accepted by a publisher. Similarly, social media have also contributed to this.
At BLF, the discussions and interviews were perfect windows to these changes: changing reading preferences; an enthusiastic army of aspiring writers inspired by recent successes; the unapologetic attitude of new-gen writers about their unliterary language.
In the course of a discussion, Scripting India (roughly on books on India), a girl from the audience stood up and asked if travel blogs should also be considered as part of literature on India. The question was asked to Mark Tuli who was part of the discussion panel and he said he doesn’t read travel blogs. The compare of the discussion, Pavan Verma, said that the English language is being regularly pauperized. One of the panelists retorted saying if that works and democratizes English reading, then there is nothing wrong with that.
This is, of course, not the whole picture of Indian literary scene. There are enough literary work being written and globally India is known for its literary work and writers. (And BLF had enough of them and they contributed to its success). But subaltern writers started an important narrative about a decade back and it has slowly made itself unavoidable claiming its space on at least the domestic stage. I am sure the first two days were far more exciting.