Of journeys, angst and politics; fest of fine print
The Kovalam Literary Fest 2012 offloaded the first leg of its intellectual booty in a daylong literary fair in the capital themed on contemporary world literature. The next leg will be in Kerala over the weekend.
The Delhi leg at the India International Centre Wednesday drew an eclectic crowd - ranging from celebrities like Man Booker prize nominee Jeet Thayil, the author of the gut drama "Narcopolis", Roderick Mathew of the controversial "Jinnah and Gandhi" fame and Farrukh Dhondy, author of "London Company", as also Manu Joseph, David Davidar, Nilanjana Roy and Monisha Rajesh.
The curtains on the festival went up in the afternoon when journalist Parsa Venkateshwara Rao took on first-time novelists, London-based Monisha Rajesh and Sangeeta Bahadur. Bajaj is the author of "Around India in 80 Trains" a travelogue across India. Bahadur, a diplomat, has written "Jaal", a deeply psychological novel drawn from Indian mythology, metaphysics and occult arts.
"Indian train journeys are the most fascinating for the different kinds of people and the languages we pass through... I always had an idea that it would be a fun book. I wanted to see India," Rajesh told Venkateshwara Rao, when he enquired about the writing of the book.
Bahadur said her novel, the first of a trilogy about a young messianic warrior Arihant with divine powers and the lord of Maya, Aushij, is "an adult novel and not a children's book as it has been billed by critics".
"The second and the third parts are more complex," Bahadur added.
Bahadur's philosophical epic contrasts sharply with the star-of-the-festival Jeet Thayil's "Narcopolis" - an intelligently-crafted work about the shadowy drug and sex underworld of Mumbai. The book was described by publisher-writer David Davidar of Aleph Book House as "remarkable" and "one of the best I have read in many years". Davidar, who anchored a reading-cum-discussion of Thayil's novel, goaded the writer to bare his soul.
"I tried very hard not to write a very autobiographical first novel. I had the knowledge and the details of the drug world. The narrative is linear and tangential. At the last moment, everything came together," the 53-year-old writer said, adding that his parents "knew how screwed up I was and never expected any surprise if I wrote things open".
Thayil read an excerpt about "India the land of (expletive deleted)", shocking and delighting the audience at the same time.
India's freedom politics subsequently became the playground later in the evening when British writer Roderick Mathew proclaimed that "Mahatma Gandhi spoke in abstractions" while Jinnah spoke "in specific terms right from the time of the Nehru report."
"Gandhi never addressed any of the issues concretely," Roderick told journalist-commentator Swapan Dasgupta. But the seeds of federalism that Jinnah raised in 1920s are still a pillar of Indian polity, Roderick said.
A discussion on "London Company" by Farrukh Dhondy, moderated by senior journalist Amit Baruah, turned out to be most rejuvenating session of the evening with the Pune-born Parsi writer sending the audience off their seats with laughter at his anecdotes about his days at Cambridge and the early Indian working-class diaspora in Britain.
The audience was rapt at his graphic description of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul's 88th birthday party in London, which Dhondy put together with Naipaul's wife Nadira at Bombay Brasserie in London. It was replete with an aria written by Dhondy and set to music by his son.
"Vidia started crying," Dhondy said.
Britain is changing, the writer observed. "Economically, it is still looking a role in the world. It is just an European country today," he said.