My friends hate me. This could, possibly, be related to the fact that I shall be flying off to Bhutan for a week-long trip—fully paid for—as part of the first ever Bhutan literary festival later this month. There will be royalty; the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, is the official patron; there will be Bollywood in the shape of writer-lyricist Gulzar, the comic actor to end all comic actors, Boman Irani, and the director Rajkumar Hirani. And the writers range from the international award-winning historian and biographer Patrick French to our very own best-seller, Chetan Bhagat, and the graphic novelist, Sarnath Banerjee.
Bhutan is no laggard in this regard—the Queen Mother herself is an author, as is the secretary of the information and communications ministry, Dasho Kinley Dorji, and many others who will be there. Is it any surprise that our ambassador to the country is also a writer, Pavan Varma?
Chat room:(above) Writers and artists at the Jaipur Literature Festival held earlier this year (Ronjoy Gogoi/Hindustan Times); and the Mountain Echoes literary festival will be held in Thimpu, Bhutan.
And to what do I owe the honour of being in their company? Well, I wrote a book.
That, at least to my friends muttering darkly about murdering me and taking my place, hardly seems to justify anything. In fact, Bhutan is just the tip of the iceberg; these days you see literary festivals all over the place. The Jaipur Literature Festival ended in January to glowing coverage and massive crowds, and people were already off to the literary festival in Dubai, and then there was one in Hong Kong, immediately followed by a newly created one in Karachi. DSC Ltd, not content with sponsoring the Jaipur jamboree and a new $50,000 (around Rs22.3 lakh) literary prize this year, has also extended support to the first ever DSC South Asian Literary Festival to be held in London in October.
There is a question that nobody seems to ask, scared that the answer, like a dormant Icelandic volcano, might ground us all. What is the good of literary festivals, really? And what is the good of so many of them? As any of you who have attended a book launch know, an author is rarely a very interesting performer. If they were, they would be out there doing things, not sitting at home looking at the 89th draft of their novel with an editor’s note saying, “Umm… this is nice, kind of, but do you think you can insert a sexier angle here? I’m not sure that many readers are as interested in earwax as you seem to be. And please, please, could you bathe before you visit my office next? We’re still having the building fumigated.”
Of course, writers do need a level of self-reflection, as do most other creative sorts, but it tends to make most of them—with honourable exceptions, such as Salman Rushdie chasing the latest miniskirt—a bit indoorsy. And yet literary festivals are gala events involving ball gowns, black ties, formal dinners, even more formal speeches, and sometimes even the odd bedecked fort and caparisoned elephant. It does seem a bit self-indulgent to celebrate a tribe of social misfits, especially considering that in South Asia most books rarely sell more than 10,000 copies, and many of the one-and-a-half-billion residents cannot even afford to buy one.
So why are literary festivals popping up all over the place? Part of the answer is prestige. Writing attaches to itself power in a way that other creative arts do not. Every political leader who fancies himself important manages to churn out a book. Few actually have the talent to write but that has never stopped anybody from putting pen to paper. The exceptional ones that do have the talent, and are also excellent orators, people such as Obama, Churchill and Nehru—all of them oddly enough doing much of their writing before they reached the peak of their political success—have had an enormous impact.
If you think about it, all of our greatest reverence is kept for texts—whether they are religious, legal or fictitious. There is the Quran, the Bible, the Vedas, the Constitution, Mao’s silly Little Red Book, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Marx’s Das Kapital. We swear by them in court and in our private lives. They have created, sustained and upended whole civilizations. If a great text can do that then a great writer has the possibility to be a great leader, even if that leadership is only in thoughts. The best literary festivals are about that, the celebration of ideas, of ways of thinking. Of course, not every festival will achieve that, certainly not every session or every author, nevertheless the promise of an exchange of influential ideas is what they have, the cachet they bring.
This promise, this possible scent of the new, is something to be unequivocally celebrated about the new festivals, and what we should judge them by. We still have not answered the question of whether, in our brave new world, we are all just becoming the same, or actually have new ways of looking at things. Since the written word is accessible to potentially everybody, a literary festival can be a festival of all sorts of ideas. If the writing world is now looking eastwards, maybe we can tell them what we think should be written about?
I had the chance to speak with the economic historian Niall Ferguson at Jaipur. Much of his writing solidly celebrates the British Empire—something I believe India is well rid of. It was, therefore, a delight to have him turn that around and categorically state how important and beneficial independence and democracy have been for India. He quoted a line from an article I had sent him but backed it up with a wealth of his own arguments and impressive grasp of historical data. I wish he had not done it on stage and left me grasping for a response, but to have one of the most influential writers on the planet solidly support an idea I shared was well worth the embarrassment. This is the promise that these events carry, and maybe Bhutan, with its line-up of local writers to offset us foreigners, carries this promise more than most.
Nevertheless let us also be realistic. The driving force behind most of the new literary forays in this part of the world is not so high-minded. It is largely financial. Book readership might be small in this part of the world, but it is rapidly expanding—almost the exact opposite of what it is like in the developed markets of the US and Europe. Where publishers see the chance of selling books, they will promote them, and authors—who spend years of their lives trying to finish that one manuscript that you polish off in an hour—are often happy to come along and say, in so many words, “Buy my book, please?”
If we leave it at that, literary festivals will continue to be an indulgence, and in our part of the world, with its many hungry, disenfranchised and disadvantaged people, they will continue to be a guilty indulgence. Or riding on the back of market forces, we can try and deliver much more. Like most such things, it is up to us what we grasp: an opportunity of luxury, or the luxury of an opportunity. Incidentally, would you buy my book, please?
Omair Ahmad is the author of The Storyteller’s Tale.
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