Sometimes one wonders if literature festivals (lit fests)are about books any more. A few years ago, Salman Rushdie not being able to come to the Jaipur Literature Festival made more news than all the authors who did attend it. In the year of the Padmaavat (2018) protests, censor board chief Prasoon Joshi bowed out saying he didn’t want to compromise the “dignity of the festival". Journalists probably scan lit fest programme schedules these days not for literary merit but the greatest potential for mischief and mayhem.

It was thus inevitable that the 2020 Zee Jaipur Literature Festival would have its own brush with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests. Five protesters shouting slogans like “CAA down down" were removed, detained and later released with a warning. The organizers issued a statement saying it was not their wish “to silence protests" but to “ensure our visitors—students, older people and international guests—can take in the diverse content and knowledge for which the festival is known." That sounds a bit like a literary version of some kind of pre-boarding (or perhaps evacuation) procedure but it is a rather thankless job being a festival organizer these days. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But at a time when protests are rocking the length and breadth of the nation it does beg the question: What’s a lit fest to do in the time of Shaheen Bagh? How does it stay relevant? Not easy, says Anjum Katyal, one of the directors of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. “A lit fest faces the risk of being seen as a bit of an ivory tower," she admits. “People tend to think that books and writers inhabit a world removed from everyday reality."

There are scores of lit fests across the country these days. The economic doldrums dimmed the lights for a few. But others have become bigger and new ones have popped up. One of the latest additions is in Hoshiarpur in Punjab. The president of the literary society there tells the media they want to encourage “a healthy, polite and constructive debate on sensitive topics". Good luck with that. These are not polite times.

Even if protesters wielding tambourines don’t show up at the door, the festival guests are hardly immune from the fever sweeping through the nation. During the festival in Jaipur, Rajya Sabha member of Parliament (MP) and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Swapan Dasgupta was grumbling on Twitter that Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had been given an “open platform—without challenge" to spread his party’s line, though he was relieved that the stomach problems of some foreign guests were being blamed on errant prawns and not on the machinations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah. At a festival in Kolkata, Dasgupta got his solo time in the spotlight but not without a soundtrack of some faraway azaadi slogans rumbling over the manicured lawns and winter dahlias like the sound of distant thunder.

At a time when there are human chains on the streets protesting citizenship laws, when students are defiantly singing Hum Dekhenge and CAA advocates are chanting slogans of “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron saalon ko", when women in hijabs sit on 24-hour vigils and Kolkata’s football fans unfurl signs that say “This land was bought with blood not papers" during an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match, do literature festivals need to roll up their sleeves and get into the trenches? Do they need to be seen as advancing the dialogue? And no, just grooving to a Sufi rock version of Hum Dekhenge is not going to be enough. And as writers, will we just remain worried about the urgent concerns that keep us up at night—who got invited to the A-list party, who got the better hotel, will the drinks run out?

“A lit fest should provide a space for reflection and discussion of the turmoil on the streets," says Katyal. She dubs it “activism of the mind in solidarity with activism on the streets". Ajoy Bose, promoting his book on Mayawati and his film on The Beatles at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, says there’s not much point in accusing lit fests of elitism.“These are lit fests. They are not street theatre. There will always be a gap from the churn on the streets."

Kaveree Bamzai just attended the JLF for the first time with her book No Regrets: The Guilt-Free Woman’s Guide To A Good Life. She was “dazzled" but says, more than books, perhaps a lit fest “is about the word and the ideas produced by those words". She feels that “in between deciding whether the drinks at the Baradari party are preferable to the Indian Accent-worthy food at (literary agent) Mita Kapur’s house, a lot of interesting conversations happen". Conversations about the world as it is and as it should be, and not just in the authors’ lounge over whisky cocktails. Perhaps that’s the best a festival can, and should, aspire to.

“Books are just one part of our huge living cultural heritage," says Bose. At the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, Pullela Gopichand discussed the challenges of playing badminton in courts which might moonlight as wedding venues and Joanne Harris talked about magic and women’s writing while Ayushmann Khurrana caused young women to tie themselves into giddy “I love you Ayushmann" knots. Khurrana was there promoting his new gay film, talking about LGBTQ+ rights and the Victorian-era Section 377 while sitting in the shadow of the Victoria Memorial. Another evening, T.M. Krishna sat in the monument’s quadrangle, singing what he calls the “unsung anthem", the rest of Jana Gana Mana, while the statue of Warren Hastings looked on. All these are statements of sorts. All of them are pushing the envelope. And it all provides fodder for conversation about what it means to be a citizen in these times. But the grounds of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata or the Front Lawn in Jaipur will never be Shaheen Bagh. And they shouldn’t try.

If anything, attending literary festivals in a time of protest has been humbling. Writers like to think that their role at lit fests is to inspire, even if they don’t sell as many books as they would like. Bamzai recalls that historian B.N. Goswamy told her, “The crowds may be coming for selfies, but if they go back with even one new thought in their heads, the purpose of the Jaipur Literature Festival is served." Bose echoes Goswamy when he says, “I hope young people listen to a speaker and it does touch their lives when they go back."

But these days, those of us who get to sit on the podiums at lit fests and sign autographs with a flourish can no longer assume that ideas only flow from the stage to the street. The women at Park Circus, Kolkata’s version of Shaheen Bagh, probably didn’t know anything about the Living Life Queensize—Women Who Win panel on the lawns of the posh Tollygunge Club in the city during the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival. But writer Shobhaa De, who was on that panel of inspiring women, went to Park Circus to be inspired herself.

One of the women told her there would be 10,000 ladies staying the night. De writes in a column: “My question was simple—I hadn’t spotted any bathrooms.The women told me most of the protesters stop drinking water once they get to the venue because of this issue." But still they came.

Writers, especially when we have a microphone in our hands, like to think we are the thought leaders. If anything, these times of protest have taught us a sobering lesson. The thought leaders are offstage. Sometimes we have to learn from them. If they will not come to the lit fest, the lit festarati will have to go to them.

Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He is also a lit-fest junkie.

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