Home >mint-lounge >features >Slugfests and monologues at a lit fest

And so off to Mumbai for the Times LitFest, that annual intellectual orgy put up by friends Bachi Karkaria and Namita Devidayal in Bandra and so looked forward to by this layabout. My first scrum was with Rajeev Sethi and Sunil Sethi for a session with the delightfully vague name “The Good, The Mediocre And The Downright Ugly". I presumed it was about why India is such a shitty place but wasn’t really sure, and had no idea what the other two combatants had made of the thing.

No matter, we threw ourselves into it. Me starting proceedings by setting off a rant on my usual—Babur’s observations on India’s lack of beauty then, why we took no notice of the ugliness around us now and so on. And on. Mint Lounge readers will need no reminding. Sethi (Rajeev) was mostly above the fray. He spoke, calmly and softly, of Sufism and of rasa. Sethi (Sunil) spoke, eloquently, about a recently published book of paintings and how Curzonian intervention had destroyed the Taj Mahal. Someone brought up Urdu poetry, politics, art in airports, rice cultivation in Japan and the population explosion. What were we on about? From fanfare to coda, the tune was impossible to tell.

It was as confusing as a Napoleonic battlefield—indeed, bugles, cannonade, snare drums and screams could hardly have added to the chaos on that stage in Mehboob Studios. However, nobody from the audience protested, left or, in fact, stirred. I can only imagine that they were petrified, shocked that this twaddle was unloaded on them, a friendly and unsuspecting people who had come in peace and in expectation only of entertainment, if not quite enlightenment.

The Times Of India journalist who reported the story the next morning did a heroic job in stitching together a coherent narrative, making me sound almost sane and like we had one discussion instead of three.

And so off to the evening refreshments, sponsored by the good people of the Asia Society. At the bar I was delighted to be greeted by my old friend Johnnie Walker and we had a quick recap of the time we had been apart. The Asia Society grandees presented themselves and said (to my embarrassment) that they had noticed my whine in an earlier Mint Lounge column about being plied only with wine the last time. But thank you.

After a few drinks, fellow Mint columnist Salil Tripathi and I were spoiling for a fight with Hindutvawadis. Tripathi, in a particularly aggressive mood, was bellowing and rolling up his sleeves. There we were, two strapping specimens from the martial race of Gujaratis. Unfortunately, no enemy was to be found, so we holstered our guns and returned to the saloon. Writers these days no longer wish to get hammered and fight about something meaningful. They drink camomile tea and tweet status updates and save water and take pictures of their food. And so to bed.

The organizers had thoughtfully pencilled in my session on Saadat Hasan Manto with Javed Akhtar at 10 the next morning, creating a scheduling conflict with my hangover. I staggered on to the stage alone at 10 sharp (Akhtar having been reported missing). Then, to my horror, I proceeded to involuntarily discharge a monologue so dreary and in a tone so uninterested that I feared I, let alone the audience, might fall asleep. Fortunately, Akhtar swung around just in time to save the morning if not the day. He was magnificent and after we finished, the wife of a Yes Bank grandee pressed some corporate award on him. We stood to leave, but the moderator made the mistake of asking Akhtar to now “please say a few words". Akhtar responded with an anecdote. He was interviewed by someone for television. At the end, the interviewer said would he now please say a few words to their viewers. Akhtar told her in Hindi: “Did you think all this time I was saying them to you?" Rude, yes, but brilliant. He obliged however, and recited a couple of poems, one of them quite good.

My last session was a sparring bout with comrades Rajdeep Sardesai, Kumar Ketkar and Swapan Dasgupta on why the common Indian voter is such an idiot (no, really—the Greek word for common man is idiotes). The session was officially named, more coherently this time, “The Eternally Astute Indian Electorate". It was an unqualified triumph and all three men were in sparkling form. They are passionate but always keep the bitterness out, and it was an absolute privilege to pilot the event.

Dasgupta and I had arrived early and were loitering about outside when he was ambushed by a man, a raving loon, who demanded to know when he, Dasgupta, would finally stand up and “save the Indian civilization" with his writing (and I thought I had been given that particular burden). Dasgupta, who clearly had been doorstepped by the fellow before, fled, saying the man should email him—standard escape line. I asked if the man was Bengali and Dasgupta said what else could he be. Presently, as we sought shelter for a smoke, a fetching young woman approached us and, offering her hand, said she liked my writing (she used other words, which modesty prevents me from repeating). “You must concede that mine are better looking than yours," I said to Dasgupta, which elicited the brilliant comeback—“yes, the beautiful people."

I am upset by the canard against him spread by people, most recently Vinod Mehta (though without naming him) that Dasgupta was expecting to be made high commissioner to London in return for services offered to the Bharatiya Janata Party and particularly to Narendra Modi. The same story was spread in the late 1990s and I think it unfair to a man who has ploughed a lonely furrow for years without expectation and for belief.

Elsewhere in the circus, I peeped in to see what was happening in one of the tents and the agent David Godwin and editor David Davidar were going at it.

I carefully picked a chair close to the exit and, sure enough, it was a crashing bore. I was nearly run over by other people who also had the good sense to flee. This was not surprising. On a flight last week I began an essay Davidar wrote for Open. I could not read on after the opening 400 words. Perhaps it got better later but he had lost me. Cliché grappled in grim desperation for space with stock phrase. How could this person possibly edit someone else’s writing competently, leave alone be hailed as some literary genius? It was so sobering I had to ring for another round of Air India’s Talisker. It demonstrated to me once again my belief that in this nation of idolators, reputation is all and quality incidental. I brought up Davidar’s writing with another very sharp editor and she said writing and editing were different skills and that while he may not be good at the first, Davidar was certainly so at the second. I was convinced but not entirely.

Not much else to report but I must say I was chuffed to meet the fabulous Anuvab Pal again. The funniest man I know, and a cracking good performer. And also friends old and new: Neel Mukherjee, Aatish Taseer and actor Ayub Khan. All in all, a good weekend. Back home now to recover from the excesses of flogging books and to the business of actually reading them. Manto, anyone?

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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