Guwahati is as much the ‘Light of the East’, Pragjyotishpur, as it is a Haat Bazaar for areca nuts. And no, there is no downfall in this change of descriptive moniker for the place. Commerce is its bedrock. It is also the foundation for every ‘literary event’ that must be held.
These days, sponsors get roped in to pay for venues, the eats, and the other expenses. It was not always so. Decades back, such gatherings had to be conducted within the organizing association’s slender means. Luckily, expenses were not too high then. The several halls around Guwahati those days were shabby, with fraying seats and fans that often did not work and to people’s horror, had mice blithely moving across the floors, eating the crumbs that fell from the food that the audience brought along with them. But they buzzed with cultural events of a high order.
You could forget mice horrors when you heard the greats at these meetings. Naba Kanta Barua’s words fell like a poem on the audience’s ears when he got up to speak. Nirmal Prova Bordoloi, whose mellifluous voice and felicity with phrases made people spellbound. It was often said that from Baideo’s mouth ‘Mou Boroxe’– meaning, her words were honeyed. Sweetness rained when she spoke. Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya was of a serious demeanour, but his public speeches were full of substance. In all those speakers, matter and manner converged become memorable speeches. I still remember their ideas, the cadences in which they were couched.
As a young singer, I got to hear these luminaries first hand. Literary meetings during those times began with a sacred invocation, a Mangalacharan, usually to the Goddess of Learning, Saraswati, or to Lord Ganesh, the guardian of Knowledge, or sometimes through a Borgeet. Over time, the Mangalacharans that I presented became my entry hook to these hallowed meetings. I went because I was invited to sing, but stayed, enthralled, to listen to the literary greats.
The days of the Mangalacharans seem to be going away now. Change is constant. In Guwahati, change is happening faster than in other places. The halls have become glitzy. Posh new ones have emerged. Air conditioning is considered a necessity in bigger venues. But the small ones still exist. They are shabby, but cost less enough for small organizations to conduct meetings. Literary discourses fill these halls through the year. They never lack an informed audience. Fine hotels are turning venues for literary meets too. In addition, novel venues have propped up. Many recent book launches have been held in boats docked at the riverside. The ambience here, so beautiful, has triggered inspirational talks by the guests. Literati at these gatherings let fall ideas and observations that are gems. If only you have recorders around, a compilation of these discussions can become a masterpiece!
Book Fairs these days are a fixture during Guwahati’s winter. The quality of these programmes is uneven, but they are open to all. It is heartening to see that the public throngs these events. But the hope that you will get to listen to a brilliant speaker helps. In praise of Guwahati’s democratic atmosphere, one finds many literary luminaries speaking at these ‘mela’ like events. How wonderful! It speaks highly of the literati and the city where such accessibility is possible, all the time.
Invited speakers at literary events are a diverse group of people. It is not a given that a brilliant poet makes a brilliant speaker. He may give a halting, mixed up speech, full of wanderings and false starts and disconcerting pauses. On the other hand, you hear many mediocre writers give brilliant speeches. You cannot help but feel that their true calling is oratory, not writing.
These days, writers are expected to ‘perform’ speeches. Some give such dramatic ones, full of flamboyant gestures and stagy voice modulations that it is like theatre. Their speeches may have substance, or not. In any case it is a pleasure to hear and listen to them. At book releases, speakers often talk well.
It is also entertaining, even informative to watch the audience at such literary events. The same faces pop up at most of them. Those who entered the writing field recently tend to be more solemn than veterans. The mantle of ‘writer’ sits heavily on them. They listen intently to all that goes onstage, nod with a great deal of gravitas occasionally, and make sober comments to neighbours. Veterans tend more to hilarity. It could be that the more perfect you get in writing, the less seriously you take yourself and your art.
Literary events take place in several languages in this city that is a salad bowl of many tongues. A recent development is the presence of events for and by, writers who work exclusively in English. The North East Writers’ Forum’s many events in the past decade in the city have brought in literary luminaries from around the country, and abroad. Indian writers in English now take their place on the podium in this city with pride and confidence. That is surely a value addition to the literary events that we see around us.
An area in which literary events have leapt forward is in ‘light refreshments’. The days of tea in plastic cups and a packet with a samosa and barfi have vanished. Dinners are in fashion. Often, throats tired with discussing literature need lubrication stronger than tea or coffee. This parallel development of what one may call ‘literary cuisine’ in no way denigrates the quality of discourse though.
True literature lovers are a heartening presence at such events. She is difficult to spot. She is more diffident than the others who want to be seen and heard making pseudo knowledgeable comments, not to hear. Fake literature lovers have a few stock phrases that they repeat with gusto at all meetings. You do hear people dropping in names such as, ‘Reminds me of Pamuk’, or whoever is the current literary flavour of the month. Such comment makers murmur loud enough for people to turn around to see them.
A genuine lover of literature has no time for comments. She listens raptly to the literary luminaries, browses through the books, and buys several more than she had planned. Or can afford, or even has space for in her home. It is for her that authors write and poets pen their immortal lines.