Author RAKHSHANDA JALIL speaks to Teresa Rehman on the relevance of literary festivals
As an author, how would you assess the importance of literary festivals?
Except for a passing and temporary sense of self-importance, I am not sure how it is important for an author to attend a lit fest or even benefit from one. At best, attending a lit fest gives you a good feeling to be acknowledged by your peers. So, unless one is a ‘networking’ or ‘socialising’ sort of author, I am not yet entirely sure how one stands to benefit as an author. Having said that, lit fests are here to stay and will possibly only get bigger.
Do you think literary festivals bring writers closer?
Again, it depends on one’s personality. Those who are more affable and social and like to hang out, certainly lit fests must be providing a great space to fraternize. I am not especially social and so I don’t attend these fests with the intention of making friends or even mingling very much. Yet, each time I return from one of these fests, I find I have met at least one interesting person — if not more — and it’s usually a person I then stay in touch with. So, in that sense, yes these fests take you out of your comfort zones and provide you with the opportunity to meet others from your own fraternity. It is up to you what you do with those opportunities.
Literary festivals have grown in different parts of the country. Do you think they are egalitarian in nature? Do you think they are giving adequate space to all breed of writers?
Regrettably no. The more lit fests I attend I see the ‘usual suspects’ those who are greater adepts at positioning themselves or have better contacts or better social skills. Lit fests are not egalitarian at all as the primary focus is on authors who can ‘perform’ and ‘deliver’; not those who are better or even more popular writers. Sometimes, the bhasha writers suffer because they may have poor communication skills in English or publishers whose pockets may not be as deep as the larger international houses and who therefore cannot pitch them and their books in the way the bigger publishers can. The world we live in is not an equal one; how then can lit fests provide equal space?
How would you assess Urdu writings and the space it gets in literary festivals?
Urdu is getting its fair space; sometimes it is even the focus as it was in the recent Hyderabad fest. Cities with a long-standing tradition of Urdu writing such as Lucknow do give that extra focus. Again, the more ‘sanitised’ names from the world of Urdu are invited — those with the right social and communication skills. Either that or the big draws from the film industry. As a result, the ‘real’ Urdu writers are often overlooked.
How do you see the future of literary festivals in India? Do you think it’s an earnest effort to celebrate literature?
Somewhere the line between literature and performance has got blurred. Writers are increasingly expected to be performers as well. It started with glitzy book launches in the metropolitan cities where an author was expected to talk about his/her book in a witty and charming or provocative and challenging way. It increasingly became less about the book and more about the author. I find that the least attractive thing about modern-day publishing in India. It’s unfortunate that this one aspect of contemporary literature has been picked up and blown out of all proportion in the lit fests. So, while the intentions are good and noble, and usually stem from celebrating literature, somewhere it becomes more about grabbing eyeballs, getting more footfalls and claiming more print and media space
How many lit fests are you attending this year?
I am making the most of a good year! I had three books come out last year — my big book on the progressive writers movement (OUP), a biography of feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan (Women Unlimited), and a translation of 15 short stories by Urdu writer intizar Husain (HarperCollins). All three are topical and have received good reviews. The progressive movement in particular has evoking lot of interest among readers. in fact, Jerry Pinto, the writer whom I met at the Guwahati Litfest recently, said to me that the progressive movement is ‘low hanging fruit’ an it was waiting to be plucked because of the enormous appeal it has for contemporary times. Then there was this collection of short stories I edited in 2013 called New Urdu Writings (Westland). So, yes, I am being invited rather a lot these days to talk about the progressives, about new Urdu writings, about translations in general.
Do you think marginalized literature find space in literary festivals?
Yes and no. In some cases hitherto marginalised literature such as literature from the north-east has found space in several lit fests with especially curated sessions, as in the Bangalore lit fest. Some local aspects, local that is to the cities also get picked up such as women writers from Awadh at the Sanatkada Festival in Lucknow, which is one of the most imaginatively designed and aesthetically executed festival that I have attended. Elsewhere, it is troubling to see an element of tokenism and paying lip service. The real focus and the real attention is on the big names and everything boils down to big vs small.
Critics term lit fests as a big ‘tamasha’. How would you react to this?
Some indeed are tamashas and sometimes it is a case of sour grapes: those who are not invited profess disdain, others flock to them tamasha notwithstanding. Ideally the literature element should be focused upon and the performance element should be reduced. Discussions should be real discussions and not merely one-upmanship. More care should be taken to make them more about books and literature and less about people and personalities. Till that happens these fests, ostensibly to celebrate books and reading, will be melas and tamashas of different degrees.