Literary wins! When writers streamed into your living room

Updated: 22 November, 2020 14:08 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Mumbai's biggest literature festival went digital this week and, barring some hiccups, it ensured that the love for books and great stories prevailed

A screenshot of a session featuring Dr Shashi Tharoor, R Jagannathan, Mallika Sarabhai and Shazia Ilmi
A screenshot of a session featuring Dr Shashi Tharoor, R Jagannathan, Mallika Sarabhai and Shazia Ilmi

Even though the culture of literary festivals in India is just over a decade old, it has quickly become a game-changer for the publishing world, which harnesses it to introduce its finest writers and newest books to readers. Words from the pages of a book become more real, when its author, sitting just an aisle away from you, discusses it; not to mention, being able to steal a chat with your favourite poet. It's an experience now, denied due to the pandemic. Tata Literature Live! that hosted its first digital edition this week (November 16 to 22), ensured that readers didn't miss the fest's spirit. With a vast roster of writers, local and international, and its expansion into a week-long online affair from a four-day physical event, the festival in its 11th edition, has made itself accessible, not just to Mumbai, but to the world.

By Thursday, the virtual festival had crossed over 2.5 lakh views, a number too large to have navigated the auditoriums of The National Centre for the Performing Arts, where it is usually held. "We also kept the sessions alive on YouTube [for 72 hours], as a lot of them were happening simultaneously. In real life, it's quite a wrench to have to choose [between two sessions]," says Anil Dharker, founder and director of Tata Literature Live!, who despite missing the vibe and energy of the festival, says the response over the last few days, has made him less uneasy about switching to virtual. "The biggest upside is that all of us in the [festival] committee have actually been able to sit down, and listen to each and every session. It has never happened in the last 10 years. When we are at the venue, we are constantly on duty. There have been several occasions, when I have sat in the auditorium, and within minutes been called out to deal with a minor crisis. Now, I solve that problem over a call."

Anil Dharker, founder-director, Tata Literature Live! says, in a first, he got to attend all the sessions unlike at the physical event
Anil Dharker, founder-director, Tata Literature Live! says, in a first, he got to attend all the sessions unlike at the physical event

Author Rehana Munir, whose debut title Paper Moon released last year, is partial to the physical version of the festival, and was experiencing fatigue with the glut of literary sessions that had been held during lockdown. "My experience with Insta Live in the early part of the lockdown didn't inspire much confidence. The impersonal quality of a virtual interaction, combined with the inevitable tech glitches, had me quite worried," says Munir, who was invited to moderate a session. But, she says, the tech team was skilled, resourceful and thoughtful, making the experience fun with articulate panellists, and an engaged audience.

Unlike the online Zoom events that have been hosted to date, this one came with a template, which we quite liked. There was a non-distracting book background on which the panellists' videos were tiled. Most panellists also sat against their bookshelves at home. In some strange way, it helped maintain the ambience. The one minor glitch was that the videos were designed keeping YouTube Live in mind, and not Instagram, where it was being screened simultaneously during the initial days. On Insta Live, horizontal videos didn't quite fit inside the square frame, and more often than not, the faces of the panellists were not visible. For publishers, who bank on book sales at the festival, the digital event may have brought some disappointment on that front. But, the year in general, has been an exception.

(right) Naima Ramakrishnan, a Class IX student from Bombay International School, is the first teen to moderate an event at the festival
Author Rehana Munir moderates a panel discussion with Ashwin Sanghi, Cauvery Madhavan, Ira Mukhoty and Taran Khan (right) Naima Ramakrishnan, a Class IX student from Bombay International School, is the first teen to moderate an event at the festival

We enjoyed the conversation between Booker Prize winning author Ian McEwan and Dharker, on the opening night. Titled The Enduring Power of Words, it was good to take notes, with McEwan doling out tips on writing. Our favourite: "Start with a short story. Waste six weeks on it, rather than three years [writing a novel]. A short story is the perfect place to fail."

The big debate on whether Indian democracy is in danger, which had Mallika Sarabhai and Dr Shashi Tharoor for the motion, and R Jagannathan and Shazia Ilmi against it, had both the sides put forth their arguments sans the sparring. "We spent a fair bit of time curating the panels; we don't want people to fight, even when they do not necessarily agree. The ideas have to be well articulated, and the rebuttal that comes, should be equally intelligent," says Dharker.

Tara Kaushal
Tara Kaushal

The festival did invite its share of controversy, following the abrupt cancellation of academic-activists Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad's event, scheduled for Friday, where Chomsky was to discuss his new book, Internationalism or Extinction. The academicians, who were to share their reservations about the sponsors of the event and the BJP, were scheduled to speak at 9 pm on Friday, but at 1 pm, they "received an email which said, cryptically, 'I am sorry to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, we have to cancel your talk today'." "…we can only speculate and ask simply: was this a question of censorship?" the speakers said in a statement. Later, on Saturday, author Roshan Ali announced that he would not be participating at the festival due to the incident.

For many first-time writers, this particular literary festival is coveted, and one where they wish to be invited. Tara Kaushal, whose stellar non-fiction, Why Men Rape: An Indian Undercover Investigation, released this year, when the pandemic was at its peak, says, "It [the pandemic] took [away] my big launch party, book tour, and the meet-greet-signings. It also slowed sales across the industry, even though my book became a bestseller, and slowed offers for translations, as the regional press is currently struggling," she says, add ing, that she was, however, glad she could share her personal journey with readers, even if virtually.

The surprise package at the event was Naima Ramakrishnan, a Class IX student from Bombay International School. This is the first time that teenagers have moderated sessions at The Little Festival, a two-day segment for children.Ramakrishnan was in conversation with Sudha Murty. Apart from Ramakrishnan, Tariecka Sinh was seen in conversation with Arshia Sattar, discussing the lesser known characters in The Mahabharata."It was a bit stressful, because this was my first time. But, Sudha Murty put me at ease. If there's anything I regret, it's not being able to do this in person. It felt a little detached," says Ramakrishnan.

Dharker does admit that an online festival can feel "clinical". "Yes, we do have greater access to writers. But, what we undeniably miss is being there, milling around, browsing through books, signing books, and comparing notes. There's no way you can replicate that."

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First Published: 22 November, 2020 09:02 IST

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