Shape-shifter, cultural impresario, literary wunderkind, social climber—these are a few epithets that have appeared before Pablo Ganguli’s name whenever he has been written or talked about in Britain. A recent newspaper article was headlined: ‘The boy who beguiled London’s literary luvvies.’
These bits of information had to be gleaned from a set of meticulously scanned articles about him that the publicist of the forthcoming Kitab Festival of literature, media and the arts sent out to inboxes late January. Ganguli is the founder of Liberatum, a “cultural diplomacy body” that he manages out of the U.K. and is the young man behind Kitab.
Meeting him for the first time shatters much of that myth. Dressed in a loose black kurta over a pair of slim-fit denims, he is hesitant about being photographed because he is “just a part of the festival”. But he isn’t difficult to coax. After a hectic session of posing, he seats himself on a large sofa at Hotel Taj Mahal’s lounge and peers into the digital camera, trying to identify the perfect frame.
“The photograph doesn’t matter, really. The festival is going to be full of photo-ops. You’ll have Hanif Kureishi, you’ll have Germaine Greer and tonnes of others. Do you know Al Gore wanted to come too? He couldn’t make it,” Ganguli tells me about Kitab. The purpose of the festival is to bring together literary minds from Britain and South Asia for debate, discussion and informal tête-à-têtes. “And I’m organizing a festival in Pondicherry in July where V.S. Naipaul and Vikram Seth will be coming,” he says.
Ganguli has done it before. He organized the first arts festival in Marrakech, which singer Annie Lennox, authors V.S. Naipaul, Vikram Seth, Martin Amis and Esther Freud (daughter of Sigmund Freud and writer of the film, Hideous Kinky) attended. “I’m a digger for the things that happen when great minds meet. More so, when the people involved are from two different countries and cultures, and most of them haven’t met each other before,” Ganguli says.
Most of how 23-year-old Ganguli has translated what he ‘digs’ to an enterprise of international cultural events, is somewhat stranger than fiction. Ganguli was born in Kolkata. His father, a Bengali art historian, named him after the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda—“not Picasso, please”. His parents divorced and he lived with his aunt and grandmother, but his life changed when 17-year-old Ganguli met British diplomat Simon Scadden in Kolkata. He was aware of his gay self at that time and he pursued Scadden to Papua New Guinea where Scadden was the Queen’s representative. He went to London with Scadden later on and moved into London’s literary circuit.
“It isn’t that I call these people and everything just happens. It’s a lot of slogging, hard-selling. I often work from 7am to 2am. My personal life became the most public thing ever. Let’s not attribute all my abilities to that,” he says. The director of his festivals, Shazia Nizam, adds, “Gathering finances is always the tough part. But having associated with the who’s who of the literary world certainly helps.” They did manage to fly down actress Goldie Hawn for last year’s Kitab Festival in New Delhi for a fee of Rs35 lakh.
Ganguli is a whirlwind of energy, already lining up many more literary festivals in the Hamptons, New York, Istanbul and Dubai. Author William Dalrymple, who attended last year’s Kitab festival, for one, is beguiled. “What gives him the edge is simple: persistence and energy. He is a rather amazing young man,” he responds, when quizzed about Ganguli, an old acquaintance.
A one-hour interview gives away little about the boy who beguiled London’s literary luvvies. But the formidable networker, digger of all things literary and a Kolkata boy intoxicated with his own image are facets not difficult to miss. What would he be doing when he is 30? “Believe me, I just want to get thin and pretty,” he quips.
The Kitab Festival begins in Mumbai on February 23