Only books, no baggage
One has shared a train compartment with goats, another with a convict; one has chatted with dakus, another discovered that, in India, homosexuality lies in the hamstring. Now, armed with a treasure chest of Australia's literary jewels, The Bookwallah, India's first roving writers' festival comprising Australian and Indian authors, heads South. Will they find new stories? Or will the stories will find them?
Between discussions, readings and workshops, silence echoes through the plush Tata Theatre at Nariman Point, its high ceiling and wall-to-wall red carpet — and perhaps the collective psychic energy of all the creative minds the Mumbai Lit Fest garnered here — leading us to imagine that we’ve walked into a grand, haunted haveli, into the predictable plot of one of those old horror movies. Even without an organ playing ominously in the background, we expect a phantom to materialise any second now. Mercifully, the only thing that appears out of nowhere is a little library.
Australian designer Georgia Hutchinson pulls it out of six chests. Covered in kangaroo-leather, the trunks she designed with Soumitri Varadarajan, associate professor, Industrial Design Program, RMIT University (Melbourne), will transport 170 Australian reads — books which have been handpicked by writers Michelle de Kretser (who couldn’t attend the festival), Kirsty Murray and Benjamin Law, through Goa, Bangalore, Chennai and Pondicherry before the end of this month. Laying out the selection that will be contributed to local libraries in each city (and ultimately replaced with Indian literature which will be hauled back Down Under), takes longer than it does to construct the mini mobile reading room. Each book must receive due attention. It’s a question of survival, really.
“Our biggest problem is that we don’t have the population to keep our books in print,” reveals Murray, author of children’s books and young adult literature, explaining why a simple request to recommend 50 “in print” books posed a challenge. “A lot of the books I would have picked simply aren’t in print anymore.” Part of the new wave himself, journalist, author and just plain funny guy, Brisbane-based Law, on the other hand, was eager to showcase “the many voices of Australian literature.” Picking a favourite book is impossible but, by way of example, Law tells us about an anthology of short stories by award-winning Vietnam-born Australian writer Nam Le. “Each story is written so differently, you can’t tell it’s by the same writer,” he says, speaking of the sharp reactions each tale has elicited. “I liked the fishing story,” offers Murray, and Law is quick to tell us about his travel-buddy’s daughter’s writings too.
“That’s Ruby J Murray,” the proud mother offers, peeping into our notepad as she stresses on the importance of the letter J. “Without it, the name’s Cockney for curry,” she says. “There are curry restaurants all over England called Ruby Murray. My daughter’s publisher pointed it out,” shares the author whose writings focus on Australian history, the blush on her cheek intensifying as she adds, “In this age, it’s probably wise to Google baby names first.”
Journalist and co-author of The Bad Boys’ Guide to the Good Indian Girl, Allahabad-born Annie Zaidi knows this story, just as she knows that “Benjamin has five siblings and Kirsty likes stand-up comedy.” Murray, on the other hand, has gained an appreciation for Annie’s feminism and, “the fact that Sudeep (Sen)’s an amazing gossip,” she shares. The writers were introduced just a day ago. Academic issues haven’t even been touched
Neither Murray nor Law are strangers here though. Murray was a resident at the University of Madras and also explored India during a four-month trip when she retraced the routes of 29 young Australian performers for her book The Lilliputians, a Young Zubaan publication slated to be launched in Chennai soon. Law investigated the local homosexual vista for his latest, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East.
Zaidi is as excited to play city guide as she is about the imminent road trip. “It’s a completely different experience to see a city through the eyes of a writer,” she says, and as the evening’s plans seep into the discussion, adds, “Things I don’t do alone, I may do with them.” A quick telepathic analysis of the comment transforms the literati into giggling school kids.
Somewhere amid the laughter, emerges a familiar name in the world of yoga. “Now he’s funny!” Law offers, telling us about the yoga guru’s contortions.
“He’d have his legs drawn over his head and his stomach contracting and expanding in these waves. We can’t possibly do that. So we’re just watching him really.” About two years ago, Law had signed up for yoga sessions marketed by the renowned baba as a cure for homosexuality. “So here, homosexuality really comes down to tight hamstrings.” Laughing, Zaidi narrates an incident when the same yoga guru escaped the police dressed in women’s attire.
“What did he do about the beard though?” Law asks, imagining what onlookers may have been thinking — “Hey, that’s one testosterone-packed woman!”
The switch to seriousness is swift. “Three things will happen with this trip,” Sen, poet (and editor of the Harper Collins Book of English Poetry by Indians), offers, “Each of us will probably write something...we haven’t decided what exactly. I may contribute photos instead of poems, for instance. There will be a documentary film, and the Bookwallah website will be updated regularly, so there’s going to be a lot happening there.” And there will be a lot happening on the long train journeys too, no doubt. They want to be surprised, the writers tell us. But after Sen dubs trains an, “egalitarian space,” and speaks of an occasion when, in Bengal, he shared a compartment with goats, author of Arzee the Dwarf, Chandrahas Choudhury tells us about the time he rode just seats away from a handcuffed prisoner, Zaidi (who, in Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, chronicled everything from the decline of the dacoits in Chambal to the dire poverty in Punjab) talks about adult men riding trains, strapped into narrow overhead shelves and Law remembers seeing kids bunged into luggage compartments of Indian trains. We wonder what it would take to deliver the experience they’re looking for.
“We really just want to start a conversation about Australian writing,” Law offers, while Sen says he doesn’t want his experience tinged with any pre-set notions, echoing Murray’s determination to, “not bring along anyone else’s baggage.” “I want it to be like I have an antenna on my head just picking up things,” Sen says, “but the trip’s also just about getting to know other writers. We all write so differently. That’s exciting for me.”