Shashi Tharoor at the Bangalore Lit Fest 2019.
Unlike the previous day when I got late to the fest and missed the first event of the day, I did not want to get late on Day 2. I started from home at 8.30am and got a bus though not a direct one within minutes. It was five stops later that I realised to my dismay that I had kept my camera battery for charging and had not inserted it back in my camera. I re-checked my camera battery cabinet and lo it was empty! I got angry with myself for being so absent-minded and for a moment wondered whether I should go back home and insert the battery or else take photos with my smartphone. So lost was I in this battle that was taking place in my mind that I forgot about the bus which had almost started moving from the fifth stop. I had to literally jump off a moving bus! The next thing I did was take an auto back home and as my luck would have it the driver was one of those types who fleeces commuters. I jumped off the auto no sooner had it reached my destination and and ran out as fast I entered it, this time with the battery inserted in the camera. I had no time to even answer my bewildered father who could not figure out what was happening. Two of my cats who were watching all the action gave me a puzzled look. The time was 9.10am and I realised that the only way I could reach the venue by 10am was in an auto or cab. I flagged down an auto and headed to the venue. There were jams galore all along the way including one in front of the venue. The time was almost 10am. I raced to the ‘Adjust Maadi’ stage as soon as I aligthed from the auto. To my utter disappointment, not only were all the seats occupied, even the turf around the seating arena was occupied by visitors. When I somehow managed to get a wee bit of space to sit on the turf, one of the volunteers asked me to get up and directed me to go right behind those who were standing. How disheartening! It was well past 10am when Shashi Tharoor arrived to release and speak about his book “The Paradoxical Prime Minister”. Apparently, the wordsmith too had got stuck in the jam.
Shashi Tharoor displays a copy of his latest book as emcee Darius Sunawala looks on.
Clad in a blue suit with a sleeveless coat, Shashi Tharoor, I must say, made some sort a fashion statement. We must give it to the man, for walking straight out of his car and onto the stage without even bothering to cool his heels. The organisers were even willing to swap his talk with the second event so that he gets a much-needed rest. When the emcee Darius Sunawala announced his arrival, the crowd erupted with applause. I couldn’t take down notes as Shashi Tharoor spoke because I was struggling to stand comfortably. I barely managed to take a picture of him. He spoke in length about his book which was about the current Prime Minister. The book profiles Narendra Modi, and has sections called Moditva and Modinomics, which has a large portion devoted to the demonetisation policy. The speaker wowed the audience with his exemplary English, sense of humour and oratorial capabilities. It didn’t appear that there were many Narendra Modi fans in the audience because the number of cheers drowned the jeers if any. His famous (infamous to Modi fans) ‘Scorpio on the Shiva Linga’ statement which went on to become controversial after it appeared on the dailies the next day got him plaudits at the fest. For most part of this session, like many in the crowd, I found it difficult to balance myself and had to strain my neck on numerous occasions.
Easterine Kire reads out her poems to the strums of Bharat Nair’s guitar.
After the drama that prevailed during the Shashi Tharoor session came to an end, the stage was taken over by poetess Easterine Kire who eloquently read out poems penned by her to the strums of the guitar being played by musician Bharat Nair. The poems centred among other things on women, romance, Nagaland from where the poetess hails, and the landscapes of Norway.
Sarika in conversation with Sadhana Rao.
After the soothing music and poetry, the next set of speakers took the stage. The panellists for the discussion titled, “Child Star to Her Own Woman”, included Bollywood actress Sarika who lit up film screens at the tender age of four, and Sadhana Rao. Sarika was also known for her beauty during her halcyon days. Sadly, age seems to have taken a toll on her looks. She also seems to have put on lot of weight. The voluminous Anarkali she wore that day made her look fatter. Clippings from her various films shown in chronological order preceded the conversation. As the conversation started, Sarika mentioned that she had never attended school and is self-taught in reading and writing. She used and still uses the dictionary extensively. She considers the dictionary her lifeline, her school and college. The studio was her school, the directors her teachers, scripts her syllabus. She never got trained in acting. On the sets, late actor Sanjeev Kumar gave her tips in acting. Contrary to what many of us think, she never enjoyed playing the role of a boy as she found wearing wigs very annoying and the varying tense in the script would often be confusing. She considers herself blessed as she got to work with such acclaimed directors like BR Chopra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Her most memorable film was ‘Griha Pravesh’. She went on to state that she is disappointed with the current TV scenario. There are many good actors but hardly any good scripts. Sarika wears many hats. Besides acting, she dabbles with production but is not thinking of direction as of now.
As she descended the stage after the conversation, Sarika was mobbed by the young and the old for selfies and she obliged many.
Arundhati Rao reads out a passage from Girish Karnad’s play “Rakshasa Tangidi”.
After the culmination of the conversation featuring Sarika, I moved across to the ‘Naale Baa’ stage which had a galaxy of big names on the panel for the conversation “Crossing to Hampi: A Dramatic Exploration of the Vijayanagara Catastrophe”. The seats were occupied; the conversation had begun 15 minutes back. Girish Karnad was among the speakers, braving illness, his movements and speech being restricted by a nose cannula. He was seated on a wheel-chair. Theatre and film personality Arundhati Nag was reading a passage from the play “Rakshasa Tangidi” written by Girish Karnad on the subject of the discussion. Rakshasa Rangidi’s plot related to the invasion of the prosperous Vijayanagara kingdom by five Muslim rulers. I was in awe with her style of rendition of the dialogues. It was simply superb and did full justice to the work of the writer. The last to speak was Prof. CN Ramachandran who gave his take on the play and was all praise for the script and the research that went into writing it.
I next headed for lunch and for the second day in a row had Bhel Puri.
Barkha Dutt shares her views on “Women in Conflict Zones”.
(L-R): Jasmina Tesanovic, Humra Qureshi, Rashmi Saksena and Paro Anand.
I headed to the ‘Naale Baa’ stage to listen to the discussion “Women In Conflict Zones” which had as panellists noted journalist Barkha Dutt, the multi-faceted Jasmina Tesanovic, writer Paro Anand, journalist Rashmi Saksena and writer Humra Quraishi. Ironically, Barkha Dutt’s mother Prabha Dutt was India’s first female journalist who reported from a conflict zone. Unfortunately, Prabha Dutt died very young. Being in a warzone is no easy task especially for women one main reason being the absence of toilets. The speakers agreed when someone said that in a warzone, victims are not just victims but also participants. Jasmina Tesanovic added that in Serbia, only men were enrolled to fight, women did not count. Among the men who were recruited, 80% turned out to be war deserters. Most of them were traumatised. Life was difficult with no food and medicine. Rashmi Saksena’s new book, “She Goes to War: Women Militants of India” which inspired this conversation mentioned how surprised she was at the spate of incidents involving women as perpetrators in conflict zones. In most cases, women become violent when their men get brutalized in the war. Many become carriers of weapons and find their way out of ticklish situations. Writer Paro Anand mentioned that in the early 1980s and ‘90s, when she worked with children and youth, no women and children were for violence. Now the increase in the number of conflict zones has become a matter of concern.
Vijay Seshadri (L) and Chidanand Rajghatta (R).
I next headed to the ‘Adjust Maadi’ stage where the topic of discussion was “Trumpian Times” that had journalist Chidanand Rajghatta in conversation with poet Vijay Seshadri. The conversation turned out to be very light-hearted and gained momentum after Seshadri took time to settle down with the topic. He had the audience in guffaws when he stated that he is not interested in Trump and that it is better to deprive him of oxygen so that he can be left gasping. He added that it is very interesting to note that Trump has supporters. When asked where he was when Trump was elected President, Seshadri replied that he was en route to Singapore to take part in the Singapore Lit Fest. At Singapore, he was taken aback when he saw the headlines “Trump elected President”. He was surprised to hear that Hillary had conceded defeat. He laughingly added, “His luck is amazing”.
Robert Dessaix and Shobhaa De share a lighter moment.
A discussion, “Seventy…And to Hell With It” originally scheduled to take place on the ‘Naale Baa’ stage at 10.15am got postponed to 2.45pm in the afternoon and was instead held on the ‘Adjust Maadi’ stage. The conversation had noted novelist Shobhaa De in conversation with Aussie journalist Robert Dessaix. Shobhaa De has always had good words to say about the Bangalore Literature Festival. This time too she did not hide her happiness at being in the Garden City, “I am happy to see Bangaloreans give so much importance to writers”. The conversation was inspired by the Indian author having turned 70 recently. It goes to Shobhaa’s credit that she looks anything but a septuagenarian and she was beaming positivity. “Seventy is not the end of the road”, she exulted even as the audience cheered and went on to add that she has never felt so unshackled. She said that she has started liking herself more and never felt so terrified of herself as she was in her 30s and proudly exclaimed that she belongs to the first generation of working grandmothers. According to her, contrary to popular belief, the loneliest people are the young and not the old. Now that calls for a lot of reflection.
Not sure of which talk to attend next, I continued to sit on the same chair.
Kiran Manral (L) and Shaili Chopra.
The next session centred on the topic “Feminist Rani” on a book of the same name recently penned by Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant. The discussion featured an interview with the striking looking Shaili Chopra by Kiran Manral. “The book was written with an objective to break the notion that in India feminism is a notion borrowed from the West”, said Shaili. Incidentally, the release of the book coincided with the #MeToo movement. Shaili added that “feminism can be perceived differently by different individuals”. “Feminist Rani” is a compilation of stories which are narrated from real life. Featured in the book are such names like Kalki Koechlin and Gul Panag.
The discussion that followed on the ‘Adjust Maadi’ stage was the one which many were waiting for. “Mard Ko Dard Hoga: #MeToo” had Barkha Dutt in conversation with Sandhya Menon, Sister Jesme, Tushita Patel and Vinta Nanda all of whom as many of us know survived atrocities by men. Television producer Vinta Nanda who has levelled rape charges against actor Alok Nath was the first one to speak. Vinta who took the nation by surprise by making sexual assault allegations against the much respected actor was the first to speak. The incident took place in the 1990s and Vinta first reported the incident to Bombay Mirror back then but everyone was mum. The allegations proved costly as her shows got pulled down one by one. This was clearly an abuse of power. The influential actor got his way. In the interests of her career, Vinta went back to the concerned actor a second time. She directed him even after he raped her and he continued misbehaving.
Sister Jesme who left the congregation of nuns a decade back out of frustration was the next to speak. She was the first to document cases of sexual harassment against nuns much before they were taken seriously. You can find them in her book “Amen – The Autobiography of a Nun”. She had always nursed a desire to become a nun. When she joined the congregation, everything looked good. Later, she found that the system was fake. She mentioned an incident when a priest asked her to strip and told her that if she didn’t he would do it himself. He sexually abused her and then asked her to confess to him! He then told her not to speak about the incident to anyone. She went on the serve the church for 33 long years. Most abused nuns she says lack the courage to speak up about the crime as they lack support and are quite sure that their families will not take them back.
Former journalist Sandhya Menon spoke of how she endured sexual harassment by her boss Gautam Adhikari who behaved inappropriately with her in a car. The man in question told her not to speak about the incident to anybody. He later started starving her of work. Sandhya ultimately quit and decided to never ever go back to journalism.
Tushita Patel spoke of the torment she had to undergo when working with the ‘Asian Age’ under noted journalist MJ Akbar. He once opened the door for her in his underwear!
(L-R): Janice Pariat, Kiran Manral and Preeti Shenoy.
I then moved to the ‘Naale Ba’ stage to listen to the discussion “Lives of Girls and Women” which had authors Janice Pariat and Preeti Shenoy in conversation with journalist and moderator Kiran Manral. What struck me most in this conversation was Janice Pariat. She is so pretty, elegant, has a voice of a cuckoo and her diction is flawless. Preeti Shenoy like always was dressed impeccably and I must say has an aura of sophistication about her. When Kiran Manral asked the ladies, “Are books that are centred on women taken less seriously?”, Preeti replied with a big “no” because otherwise her books which are mostly on women would never have become best-sellers. Surprisingly, Janice has never thought of writing about women. Preeti spoke of the raw deal most women get in life. They are are married off even before they put in place their dreams and aspirations. Forty-four per cent of women in the country are married off before they are 18. Her latest book “The Rule Breakers” is the story of a woman as seen in the eyes of the protagonist Veda. For a woman, it is important to follow a career and gain financial independence. With independence comes power.
Janice Pariat reads a passage from her book.
Janice read some passages from her book “The Nine-Chambered Heart” with eloquence. Interestingly, the protagonist in her book is described through different gazes of her lovers.
(L-R): Kartik Shanker, Krithi Karanth, Janaki Lenin and Stephen Alter.
By the end of this discussion, I was terribly tired and was contemplating going home. But the topic of the next discussion “My Family and Other Animals” was too enticing to let go. I thought I will attend this one last discussion and leave. The discussion with Kartik Shanker as moderator had in the panel Krithi Karanth, Janaki Lenin and Stephen Alter. Although Krithi was introduced to the wilderness by her father, the famous wildlife expert Dr Ulhas Karanth, it was only later in life that she developed an afinity to wildlife. Janaki Lenin too had her first wildlife experience when she was in her early 20s. Mussoorie-born Stephen Alter spoke among other things of his life in the border of the town and his visits to Corbett National Park along with his family. The after effects of my three-hour sleep the previous night began telling on me and I just stayed glued to my chair till the conversation ended. Honestly, I was hardly there during this conversation. With that I called it a day and this time I was sure I wanted to go home as I just did not have it in me to listen to any more discussions.