By Kouser Fathima
Literature festivals are the new fad in urban India. However, it seems that these lit fests have very little to do with actual literature. This is what I realised after attending the latest edition of Bangalore Literature Festival. It looked more like a social outing for the urbanites than a celebration of literature. In fact, it had everything that makes for a carnival: people, food, and fun with a little bit of literature thrown around.
I am neither a literature student nor an expert. My interest in lit fests is only as a book lover and I was disappointed with the lit fest I attended. I expected to see more of authors and literature students discussing books. What I saw was a well-dressed crowd (not that a writer can’t be well dressed) socialising, enjoying the food, and clicking pictures. It was no different from any of the social events where people hobnob with each other. In fact, it was like a huge carnival.
It’s not that there were no writers around. Many authors, whose books were released in 2016, had sessions where they talked about their books and took questions from the audience. The questions, however, were more about other things than the book. The crowd was more interested in celebrity authors than the new ones. When Kanishk Tharoor spoke about his new book on short stories, Swimmer Among the Stars, people (I am also guilty of it) were more excited because his father, Shashi Tharoor, walked in to hear him speak. Many waited patiently hoping that Shashi Tharoor will speak a few words at the end and they were disappointed that he didn’t. Everyone rushed to him to click a selfie before he was escorted out by the security guards.
The sessions where the authors spoke of their books were never full. Many a time people started leaving the venue during the interactive sessions. Other sessions, which generated interesting discussions, were overcrowded but they had little to do with literature. These discussions had ‘celebrities’ discussing ‘controversial topics’. One of the most crowded sessions had celebrity speakers discussing demonetisation, beef ban, and charges of sedition.
The only place where books were actually discussed was near the book store. However, I didn’t see people actually buying books. One of the reasons why people weren’t very keen on buying at the venue was that most of the books were available online at a discounted price. Most book lovers were looking around and noting down the books they planned to order online. The range of books available was also limited. There were hardly books which were exclusively available only at the lit fest.
As the day passed by, the crowd increased. What a crowd it was! I saw people pointing out and shrieking with joy every time they spotted a celebrity or famous personality. It was an occasion where people could interact and click pictures with celebrities, who are not easily accessible otherwise. So at the end, it was an event to socialise and network with the famous people of the city.
Some people were disappointed as many of the local writers /intellectuals were missing. Interestingly, the city was hosting another public event on Sunday, ‘Sunday Soul Sante’. Many who couldn’t go there ended up coming to the lit fest. I heard a group of young girls commenting that a lit fest is as fun as a soul sante and that they didn’t even have to drive very far. This only shows how the lit fests are viewed by the people now. The crowd was eagerly waiting for the music concert scheduled at the end of the day; some had just come for the concert.
As I recall, few years ago the literature sessions were completely different – they didn’t have fancy names nor were conducted in five star venues. It featured book reads, discussion about the author’s other works, and a comparative analysis with other contemporary authors writing in the same genre. It appears that with changing time, the concept of lit fest also has changed or adapted to the millennia. Recall how cricket has reinvented itself into IPL with all its glitz and glamour. Now the lit fests seem to tread the same path. When the millennia crowd were losing interest in ‘literature weeks’, some smart marketing guys added the glitz and reinvented it as the trendy lit fests. These lit fests are no longer ‘boring ‘ sessions attended by literature enthusiasts /book lovers. Now they are fun-filled social events open to all, who are ready to click cool selfies with books in the background. (Author, Amitav Ghosh called this phenomenon tamasha in the context of Jaipur Literature Festival.)
Did I enjoy the lit fest? Surprisingly, yes! As I met friends, clicked pics, and met many celebrities, I felt something was missing in the whole experience. Will I go next year again? My answer would be yes. But next time I will be mentally prepared about what to expect, so that I will also be less disappointed.
Till then let us all wait for another literature festival, oops, lit fest.
Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @kouser2012
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