Bangalore Lit Fest (Version 5.0) (as Brand Guru Harish Bijoor aptly put it) turned out be one helluva vibrant affair with some of the who’s who of the Indian literati and glitterati in attendance. The three stages where the fest was being held #beda, #beku and The Red Couch were adorned with hilarious caricatures of Bangalore by Paul Fernandes, the noted Bangalore cartoonist.
On a bright sunny Saturday morning (17 December), noted authors Sudha Murthy, Shashi Deshpande and Prof. K. V. Tirumalesh lit the lamp to inaugurate the literary soiree. Speaking on the occasion, the Hyderabad-based Kannada writer Prof. Tirumalesh confessed that he had a lot of misgivings about literary festivals and had come here to check out how things function. I am sure he would have gone home happy as he was in attendance at most discussions on both the days. Shashi Deshpande got a loud applause from the gathering when she said that the biggest celebrity at any literature festival is the book. Books take you to a different world. She also commended readers because without readers things would have been different. In a short and crisp speech, Shashi Deshpande also eulogized the 26 letters of the English alphabet without which it would have not been possible to pen stories. Sudha Murthy said that as of now she is concentrating on children’s literature. She seems to have been inspired by her little grand-daughter Krishna who twisted the story of Krishna hiding the robes of gopikas by narrating her own anglicized contemporary version of the story substituting the river with a swimming pool. In her story, the gopikas slip into bikinis in the swimming pool locker rooms. Krishna manages to get hold of the keys and hides their garments. The gopikas threaten to sue him which is when he relents and hands over their clothes.
Minutes after Sudha Murthy’s speech, an immaculately dressed Shashi Tharoor walked in with his son Kanishk. The first session of the Bangalore Lit Fest had him in conversation with Sanjeev Sanyal. The topic of discussion was “Inglorious Empire: The Reality of the British Raj” which centred on Tharoor’s latest book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”. After settling down for the discussion, the charismatic MP had a good word for the audience. He was happy to see such a large turnout in spite of the city’s traffic.
When asked why he chose to write a book on India during the British Raaj, 70 years after her independence, Tharoor quickly replied that many Indians either did not know history or had got the country’s history completely wrong. He admitted that he carried out a lot of research on the subject and took the help of a lot of researchers and stored all the data on Google Drive. The book was a result of a lot of hard work. Although he felt, 80-90% of Indians would already know of what he wrote in the book that was not the case. “If we do not know where we came from then how will we know where we are heading”. Now that is reason enough to buy the book. When interviewer Sanjeev Sanyal said that Indians welcome the Western perspectives of our history, Tharoor jokingly replied that we Indians are a very forgiving people. He cited the example of former British premier Winston Churchill who nursed profound rancour towards the country. Many Indians do not know of the kind of bitterness he nursed towards their brethren. Churchill himself was surprised by the characteristic forgiving attitude of Indians. This is exemplified in a question he asked Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who was quite nice to him in spite of being sent to jail before Independence during his tenure. When asked if the British were totally bad he replied in the negative. Drawing comparison to the Portuguese rule in Goa, Tharoor was of the view that while the British were no doubt more racist than the Portuguese, the Portuguese massacred locals in larger numbers than the British. The Portuguese persecuted Jews and Syrian Christians. Nobody was entirely good or bad. The British fermented Hindu-Muslim divide. Caste segregation took a turn for the worse during the British Raaj and also animosity between Shias and Sunnis began during this time.
In the midst of the conversation, a plane flew over the venue drowning the voices of the speakers, Sanyal joked that this was definitely a conspiracy theory hatched by the British Airways. The light-hearted remarks sent the audience into guffaws.
Tharoor said that in spite of his patriotic zeal, Bhagat Singh was a misguided young man. He gained precious little by losing his life so early. If it wasn’t for his mercenary act, Bhagat Singh would have lived longer and served the nation more because he was highly intelligent for his age.
Among the many topics that were discussed were the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Bengal famine where the British did nothing for the affected people and punished anyone who tried to help. There are still people alive who witnessed the atrocities of the famine especially the incident where Churchill refused to give permission to download sacks of wheat from a ship that was anchored in the vicinity of the affected regions.
Before the British came to India, the country had the highest GDP but when they left the country was the poorest in the world. The British could seek atonement by tendering an apology to India a la Willy Brandt’s apology to Poland on behalf of his fellow countrymen for the atrocities carried out by the Nazis or else grant a monetary compensation.
Tharoor also lamented about several shortcomings in the Indian education system which among other things did not include Mahabharata, Ramayana, the works of Kalidasa and many other renowned Indian poets in the curriculum. Also some of the great men of India were not given their due. A good example is Sushrutha who was credited with being the first physician to have performed plastic surgery and Aryabhatta who discovered zero. Unfortunately, their achievements have either not been documented comprehensively or have been lost.
The next discussion on the #beda stage (the main stage) between Sudha Murty and best-selling author Chetan Bhagat on the topic “Having It All: The New Indian Girl” in the wake of the release of Bhagat’s book “One Indian Girl” turned out to be very lively with both the interviewer and the interviewee entertaining the audience with their wit and candour. Sudha Murty took the stage first and welcomed Bhagat in comic style by saying that he is her Hrithik Roshan. The author was quick to reply, “Shall I take off my shirt?” to which Murty laughingly replied, “You are not Salman Khan”. The audience reacted with peals of laughter. Some simple questions followed: Q. How long do you take to write a book? A. Roughly, a year. Q. Do you type or write? A. I type on my laptop.
Like most authors, Chetan Bhagat mentioned he cuts off completely from his family when in the midst of a book and he gets into the character of his book even if it is a girl. Sometimes, he gets into the character so much that he addresses his wife by the name of the character. Somewhere in the midst of the conversation, Bhagat said that he once offended his wife when he told her that he wanted a mother-in-law like Sudha Murty. Why? “Because she is a millionaire!” He said that with such a straight face that initially everyone thought he is serious.
When asked about the raunchy and bold content in parts of the book, Bhagat said the idea was to convey to men about a woman’s sexuality. He also intended to stop guys especially from rural areas from visiting the Net and searching for porn sites. Bhagat said that it was the Mughals and British who messed up our perspective of sex. Proof of ancient Indians’ open-minded approach towards sex lies in the umpteen erotic sculptures seen in century-old temples. Taboo towards sex only results in people seeking information in questionable ways.
When asked how the writing bug bit him, Bhagat had a most interesting reply. He had a very bad boss. People who weren’t half as competent as him walked away with promotions while he was denied his due. He then decided to employ the LBDN principle (Look Busy Do Nothing). He began writing during office time. Thereafter, there was no looking back.
Bhagat conveyed to the crowd the importance of teaching a child to read instead of letting them spend time in front of the iPad.
He lamented about his rough childhood and admitted he pulled through because of his mother. Speaking about life’s problems, Bhagat opined that humour helps cope with them in a large way. (I wholeheartedly agree!)
Although his books are often criticised, Bhagat said they are easy to read and are given to patients in hospital when they are depressed. It lifts their spirits especially the intimate scenes.
Writing humour is very difficult and an author needs to have a positive side. Talking of his own writing, Bhagat conceded that contrary to what many thought, his engineering background helped him when writing. He went on to add that things should affect a person only then can he or she write.
After the two animated conversations, I thought of taking a break. Just when I was toying with the options of having grub or visiting the bookstore I heard a familiar voice coming from the #beku stage. It was that of Margaret Alva, one of the high priestesses of Indian politics. The interviewer was her daughter-in-law author Anuja Chauhan. Both the ladies were impeccably dressed. Alva looked elegant in a lovely brocaded saree with leaf prints all over. She matched it with pearl jewellery and a lux white handbag. Anuja was a designer’s delight in golden strapped high heels, an itsy-bitsy choli, an ethnic cotton saree, a sling bag with elaborate work and attractive jewellery. I particularly liked her neckpiece. It looked very much tribal. Wow! Anuja looked oh-so-comfortable interviewing her more famous mother-in-law and sat comfortably ensconced on the roomy sofa with both legs folded and resting on the cushion. By doing so, her lovely high-heeled wedges attracted more attention. Wonder whether she was endorsing them (*wink wink*).
The discussion revolved around Alva’s book “Courage and Commitment” which is based on her 41-year-old political career all of which has been with the Congress party. She mentioned an anecdote about former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who was heading a minority government then confidently telling her that he would finish his full-term in spite of being in a minority government and despite the Gandhis.
Although Bangalore gave her the first opening in politics, it was the capital that beckoned. As General Secretary, she looked after eight states while on the other hand she was always sidelined in Karnataka.
Talking of the present state of affairs in the Congress party, Margaret Alva says the party needs to recast itself and that she has made it clear to Sonia Gandhi. It is living too much in the past. Young people of today do not want to live in the past. Moreover, youth constitute 60% of the voters. Alva who sounded too energetic for her 74 years said that unless the Congress party makes amends it will have to continue taking a backseat.
Among other things, Alva spoke of living in a cashless economy and how she had to deploy majority of her staff to get cash from ATMs. She also spoke of her tenure as governor of three states together – Goa, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
She lamented that elections have become dirty now. Even trusted people stab you in the back. She’s glad that she’s out of it all.
Another absolutely engrossing conversation “Askew: A Short Biography” based on T.J.S. George’s recently released book of the same name followed on the #beku stage this one moderated by popular Bangalore emcee Vasanthi Hariprakash. The panellists obviously all of them long-time inhabitants of the garden city included architect Naresh Narasimhan, educationist Prof. K. E. Radhakrishna and V. Ravichander. Unlike, the earlier discussions, this one did not have the author on the dais. He was part of the audience!
Vasanthi proudly announced that she was glad to be moderating a discussion on a book written by one of her earliest bosses. The book captures 500 years of the city’s history. All the panellists recalled some of their delightful memories of old Bangalore. Ravichander turned the clock back to 1967 when as a 12 year old he cycled to Majestic from Chamrajpet to watch movies. The city was obviously a paradise for cyclists back then. Ravichander went on to say that Bangalore was the perfect place everybody wanted to live in till the mid-1980s after which things began to change for the worse. Naresh Narasimhan spoke next and said that this was his 50th year in the city. He recalled that back in 1965 which is when he has the earliest memories of the city; it had the look and weather of a hill-station like Kodaikanal. And he too has a lot of cycling memories. Back in 1974 he and his gang of friends would have contests. One of them was to count the number of cars as they cycled. He won it because he spotted 7 cars! Naresh said that while the levels of materialism have gone up , mental health has gone down. Prof. Radhakrishnan had some beautiful memories to share. His first experience of the garden city was way back in 1961 when he had come down all the way from Mercara with his friends. He was in high school and 12 or 13 years old then. This was the time the good old red buses were just introduced. But the gang preferred to ride on Mysore Jatakas. Unfortunately, the group lost their way. A good Samaritan put them up in a hostel. They were all served tomato saru. He went to speak about Central College which he called beautiful and had the most beautiful girls. Vasanthi jokingly remarked if that was the reason he chose to become an educationist.
Ravichander, himself an IT man, agreed that the IT boom had a mixed effect on Bangalore. While it created jobs it destroyed the city. Naresh said that he is not anti-development but definitely anti-destruction. For the majority of contractors in Bangalore, solving traffic problems means taking it to a higher level (raising his hand) [read as constructing a flyover]. Visitors think highly of Bangalore when they come out of the international airport but their opinion blows on their face when they reach Esteem Mall. Prof. Radhakrishna fondly talks of the time Basavanagudi was referred to as Sahitya Gudi, Sanskritiya Gudi, Sanskritiya Rajya Gudi. It was home to literary greats like DVG, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar and Kailasam. And he also spoke of the annual Ramotsava.
Naresh Narasimhan spoke of a proposal to have the road from Tipu Palace to Bangalore Palace to be renamed Swarna Marga or Golden Mile considering the fact that there are 150 heritage buildings along this road that need to be preserved for posterity. Hope the plan works!
After a grub break, I browsed through the umpteen books at the festival book stall and ended up buying a few titles and in the process increased my baggage. Not quite a good idea keeping in mind I was carrying a camera and had to keep writing. But then what if those books disappear from the shelves? I thought I had better shoulder a bigger load than end up getting disappointed later.
I next attended the discussion “Mukhamukham: Face to Face with Adoor” that had author, curator, film theoretician and historian Amrit Gangar in conversation with noted Malayalam film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan. The celebrated film-maker spoke of his 50 year journey in films emphasising the strong connection between literature and films. For a long time, cinema had no status but today things are different. Here, he added the huge role played by the films made by Satyajit Ray. Satyajit Ray was a trend-setter of sorts. Cinema in its purest form is an art. He expressed his happiness that the Bangalore Literature Festival had dedicated a section to films. In fact, most literature festivals have started having a section on films. Jadavpur University has introduced a course on cinema.
He recalled the time he started working. It was as a statistical investigator and he got to interact with various classes of people. He got bored with it. He was already into writing plays. He took the entrance exam at the Film and Television Institute at Pune and stood first. He went on to do the course and received a sum of Rs. 75 every month, a big sum those days. The days that followed his graduation from the Institute were tough because of the financial aspects involved in film-making. So he started working as an assistant. When he eventually took the plunge into film-making, it took him a good 7 years. He needed Rs. 1 lakh and managed to get a loan of Rs. 5000. When he finally finished the film and it released in theatres it did not do well. To add to that people wrote its obituary in no time. Public opinion was that it did not have songs and the comedian Adoor Bhasi was not in the cast. Things took a turn when the same film did exceptionally well at the National Film Awards bagging awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor. He released the film again. This time every show ran houseful and what is more he managed to get back the money he spent in making it and return the loan. By returning he created history because till then no film-maker had returned a loan. And from the profits he earned, the talented film-maker bought equipment from Madras. And because he made off-beat films on shoestring budget, he had to double up as a camera man too.
He had an amusing anecdote to share with the audience. When he cast actor Gopi as the hero in one of his films he was asked by producers why he chose a bald man as the hero and refused to buy it fearing that no one would watch it. Ultimately, his detractors were all proved wrong because the film ran for 145 days!
The next discussion on the #beku stage titled “The Many Roles We Play” had versatile actor Ashish Vidyarthi in a candid conversation with author-publisher Ashok Chopra. In addition to being an excellent actor, Vidyarthi came across as an authority on the English language with diction as flawless as can be. And oh yes, another plus was his booming voice. Among other things, Vidyarthi jokingly remarked that many people judge him by the roles he plays (mostly that of a villain). He recalled how someone once told him, “Why are you here? You don’t even look good.” Stating that he is very obsessed with Hindi, he added that obsession is something one can put at stake and one should always have the obsession to excel. In order to exert ourselves, we have to be excited about life. Actors have to continuously learn from their surroundings. An actor needn’t be bothered about being mocked about. For him, the fear of failure has always been a driving force. His father was also a powerful driving force. He confessed that stardom when it comes is difficult to handle. Actors are an insecure lot. And insecurity always keeps one arrogant!
I then made my way to the #beda stage to be an audience to the discussion “Culture Wars: Narratives of Left, Right and Twitter” which had writers Aakar Patel and Manu Pillai, polymath Sumant Batra, TV personality Mini Menon and moderator Saikat Majumdar in conversation. As the talk started, I started feeling sleepy. I simply couldn’t comprehend what was going on. I had to sleep through this one.
My sleepiness was a cause for worry. I badly wanted to listen to the last talk of the day (“On A Different Pitch: Five Forms Of Cricketing Partisanship” by Ramachandra Guha). When the suit-clad historian walked in he was greeted by loud cheers. Clearly, Guha was one of the crowd favourites. No sooner did he start talking, every trace of sleep disappeared from within me. Even a cup of tea would not have had such an effect on me. Ramachandra Guha is the best speaker I have ever come across besides of course the inimitable Mr Allan Wood, my English Literature teacher at school.
He started off his light-hearted talk by explaining why he made an appearance in a suit. The reason surprised many. He wanted to prove his loyalty to his club The Friends Union Cricket Club (FUCC for short). This was news! I never knew that he is so closely associated with the willow game. In the audience, were Guha’s uncle and aunty. His uncle was a first-class cricketer whose career was cut short by a niggling injury.
Guha introduced himself as a fourth –generation Tamilian Brahmin of Bangalore and jokingly remarked that Tam Brams like Gujaratis in the Garden City feel that they belong to the city although they do not. His earliest cricketing memories date back to the time he was five. He would play cricket with his father, an enthusiastic cricketer. For a long time, he nursed dreams of becoming an international cricketer. When he moved to Delhi, and was an undergraduate student at St Stephen’s, he represented the college team which boasted of players like Arun Lal and Kirti Azad, both of whom went on to wear Indian colours. The two were also his classmates. The team also had Piyush Pandey, the ad guru.
Putting aside his disappointment at not making to the national team, the acclaimed historian continued humouring the audience. “Behind every literary critic is a failed novelist. And behind every cricket writer is a failed cricketer.”
He then began talking about the Five Forms Of Cricketing Partisanship:
1. Be loyal to your club.
He spoke of his cricketing days in the 1980s when he represented the FUCC which had in its ranks some of the best cricketers that the state has seen. VM Muddaiah was the first FUCCian who went on to play for India in 1959.
2. Be loyal to your generation.
“There are no cricketers like those seen by a 12 year old.” He recalled the time he shook hands with his cricketing idol GR Viswanath when he was a 11 year old. He jokingly remarked that those days, cricketers rode on two wheeler s while their fans travelled by car. At that time, The Little Master (the sobriquet given to Vishwanath) was riding a scooter. He went on to recollect the fond memories he had of watching top cricketers in action at the YMCA in the 1970s. His uncle would take him there. He mentioned the names of Prasanna , Vishwanath, Chandrashekhar and Deshpande who played for 5 states during his career. Eight years later, Guha himself went on to play for St Stephen’s. When staying in Delhi, he recalls the moment Viv Richards hit a six. The ball which was hit from New Delhi landed in Old Delhi! West Indies won the test. India levelled the series in the next match with GR Vishwanath hitting a century.
3. Be loyal to your state.
He was confused as to which state to support. He was born in Dehradun and spent his formative years there. But the state (UP) had the worst team. Tamil Nadu is the land of his forefathers but he chose to show his loyalty to Karnataka where he had lived from 1967 to 1973. Karnataka in spite of having a strong team always ended up losing to Bombay in the Ranji trophy. For 16 years in a row, Bombay remained unbeaten. But in one particular final, Karnataka won. Karnataka did not win but Bombay lost. The turning points were Captain Ajit Wadekar’s run out and Vishwanath not being given out for what was a clear lbw. Much later, when Guha reminded Wadekar of his getting out, Wadekar said the cause of the run out were his new shoes. And Ganguly, the umpire who officiated in the match went on to brag to the Bengal team that he had achieved what none of them had achieved all these years. Beating Bombay (with the wrong lbw decision)!
4. Celebrate bowlers more than batsmen
Bowlers are an underappreciated lot. In a 50 overs’ match while bowlers are restricted to bowling 10 overs, there are no restrictions on batsmen.
5. Favour test cricket
Guha likens test cricket to single malt whisky, one-day cricket to India-made foreign liquor; and T20 cricket to local hooge. 20-20 matches have only led to vulgarisation of the gentleman’s game. IPL has brought out the corruption in the Indian system. Creditable companies are not among the frontrunners and most of the high-profile individuals involved in it are controversial.
The first day of the literary soiree ended on a musical note with songs of Bob Dylan rendered by Guru Rewben Mashangva.