Five points, someone

Published: Jan 28, 2010 11:32:49 PM IST

Today is.. quieter. My autorickshaw is allowed to sputter all the way up to Diggi Palace’s portal, and there are far fewer people blocking the main reception area. I only have to jostle once. I step into the Baithak tent, and, lo and behold, though I’m late, there’s actually a seat available!

***

Interesting discussion, The Myth about Short Stories, featuring Nighat Gandhi, Mridula Koshy, V Kartika and Vaiju, moderated by Nilanjana Roy. Towards the end of the session, when the audience Q&A was on, Roy, getting the attention of the young lady who was ferrying the audience microphone around the tent, said, “I think we have time for a couple of questions.” [Pointing] “There’s Renuka here, and [mentions another name which I can’t make out in my scrawled notes].” [Pause] “ Oh dear. Is this what they mean when they talk about incestuous literary circles? When we even know the questioners by name?”

***

I cop out of the festival for a while, to take a friend, who is feeling poorly, back to her hotel. She’s an invitee, and being housed at Clark’s Amer. Woo! So much posher than my own humble haveli. (Note to self: wheedle with the boss some more next year. Or get invited.) On my way back, I get a ride in one of the Festival’s fleet of taxis. The driver asks me to wait for just a few minutes; he has one more passenger he’s waiting for. The man we’re waiting for strides out, stretches out his hand, and says, “Hi. I’m Vikram.” I’m sharing a ride with Vikram Chandra! He has a hectic few hours ahead of him. A quick bit of shopping, two sessions at the Festival, then a connecting flight to Bombay to catch his flight back home to San Francisco, where he is to start teaching the next day. (I texted a friend about this later that day. She topped it easily. She was on the same flight as he was, and introduced herself while they were waiting for the boarding call. Later, in the air, she texted, “Vikram C just came up and said that there was a seat free next to him, come over and chat.”)
 
***

At lunch, back at Diggi, I’m sitting with a writer, two famous editors and a literary agent, out on the lawns. Shobha De emerges from the inner dining area where the toffs can eat in privacy. She waves to the ladies at my table, and a few minutes later, joins us. Ms De was Consulting Editor to a magazine I worked for many a year ago, but I don’t expect her to remember me, so I sip on my beer while she tells our agent friend off her shopping plans. Emerald tumbles, it appears, were the items she sought. “I will not rest until I have my emerald tumbles,” she said. And shortly, she was off. Immediately, we all pounce on the agent. What on earth were emerald tumbles? Well, tumbled, apparently, refers to the method by which the stones are polished. Now we know. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tumble_finishing

***

Post-lunch, after much deliberation, I go over to the Durbar Hall for What are you like? which has Anne Enright chatting with Indrajit Hazra. It’s the first time I actually get into the Durbar Hall for an event. Elaborately painted, high ceilinged, with a large mirror behind the participants on stage that lets the audience look at themselves. It is beautiful, but stuffy as hell. In a short while I have a headache of monstrous proportions. Nevertheless, I take a few notes. Some quotes:
- I brought my brother here to prove I have a great family.
- [On her reading habits, she says she never reads a book when it’s being talked about. Rather, she buys books, then leaves them on her shelves, sometimes for years before she feels the time is right to read them.] It takes time for a book to settle down.
- I like airports. Escalators. Lifts. Non-spaces. [Gestures to the ceiling] I couldn’t put a character in this room!
- A writer’s job is to take things, break them apart, find something new. An ideology sets things.
- A short story [for me] is a friend you haven’t called in a while, but when you do, it will be fine. A novel is a different relationship. It occupies the same space that worry does.
- Writing for me was an arranged marriage. Everyone thought I would be a writer and then I was.

***

At the next session, Publishing in the next decade, there is V.K. Karthika of Harper Collins, Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan, Ravi Singh of Penguin, and author Amitava Kumar, who is standing in for Vikram Chandra (who must have left for his flight), Chiki Sarkar of Random House (who had returned to Delhi) and Shobhaa De (who, one assumes, was communing with tumbled emeralds). Moderator Shoma Chaudhury, exec editor of Tehelka, brandishes a copy of the latest issue of the magazine, which features a survey they had done titled The Phantom Reader. She says the survey was conducted over nine cities and 12,000 (or was it 16,000?) respondents, and cost more than most authors get as advances. From the panellist’s and audience reaction to the stats she read out, either they were overcharged or all authors need day jobs more than ever.
Among the figures met with the loudest disbelieving grunts from all around, were the ones about the woman reader being a small minority (15%), and Mumbai and Delhi selling least books. Singh said Delhi was pretty much their best market, and Butalia, after talking about Zubaan’s growth (starting from the founding of its predecessor, Kali for Women), concluded that the results were “crap!” The discussion went on to views in Chetan Bhagat. Kumar reacted with a long, eloquent silence, the others were more appreciative of Bhagat’s impact on reading habits and publishing in general. Back to the survey: Bhagat is the one that most respondents wanted to have dinner with. But regional favourites also popped up: like Amitav Ghosh in Kolkata, and Sujatha in Chennai. (Heard behind me: “And in Delhi, Tarun Tejpal. Ha ha! Not!”) When the future of publishing came up, Butalia said there was much to learn from newspaper readership surveys (“more scientific,” she said, and Chaudhury, to her credit, did not let her smile slip for a second), which indicated that the future was in Indian languages. When literary criticism and reviews came up, Chaudhury said that sometimes it was difficult to get writers to review some books; a Rushdie book had no takers, for example, because many thought it was bad, but didn’t want to go on the record to say so. (At which, I wondered: why go to practising authors? Why not train your own reviewers from within your staff? After all, we don’t ask actors and directors to review films, or get chefs to review restaurants.)
During the audience Q&A, one aggrieved young man professed a sense of betrayal on the discussion not really touching on the future of publishing. Chaudhury quickly clarified that the session was supposed to be about the special Tehelka issue, and that the organisers had printed it wrongly in the schedule.
Ah.

***

The concluding session was a debate. After sitting through the first round of speeches, I decided to defect and go say bye to various friends from other cities. Most of the invitees were headed to the Writers Ball, to which your correspondent wasn’t invited. Several friends offered to take me as their escort, but by then I was wilting, pretty much festivalled out.

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