Tuesday, February 09, 2016

What's Litfests got to do with reading books ?

Fashion Week of Thinking Socialites

Artcle first published in +DailyO India Today (Click here to read)

Heard the turnout at the Kolkata Book Fair was low this year. But, there was a rush for passes to the three Literary Festivals (Lit-fests) that have become part of the city's winter calendar for the last few years. Of course, the gentry of the lit-fests and the book fair were hugely different.

A few years back I earned the wrath of the luminous organiser of one of Kolkata's Lit-Fest - by calling it a "poor man's JLF". She was riled again this year –at my declining her invite (for which many were willing to give an arm and a leg) saying it is too "elitist" for someone as gauche as me. Being a dear friend I hope she will excuse me over time.

In our age of innocence  - the precarious cusp between school and college - we would go to the Kolkata Book Fair (then held in the Maidan - old Calcutta's equivalent of Hyde Park) for two primary attractions. First, it provided a good cover for meeting girls. Second was, of course, to browse and buy books. While the former was largely a feast for the eyes - the latter was indeed food for the soul. Later in life - when a bit older - was moved to see thousands of people of visibly modest means, who would travel miles in trains and buses from the suburbs to buy books. That they were genuine book lovers was painted on their faces - but those were the days when Bengalis could still afford to believe in "plain living and high thinking".

It is tiresome to repeat - today's generation hardly read and even those who do rarely visit bookstores - preferring the easier and cheaper option of downloading from the net. Knowledge is now consumed on-line - which, per se, isn't as bad as it is made to sound. Granted there are still many dinosaurs like me who love visiting bookstores – just for the look, feel and smell of books but our tribe is diminishing as fast as the Zoroastrian population of India. We too are increasingly turning to Amazon or Flipkart – for ordering books. But, Lit-fests have arrived as fashion shows for ‘thinking socialites’.

There is an emerging new genre of writers – who may be called the “Lit-fest” authors. Thy can be broadly divided into two categories. The first are established writers – who spend the recess between writing books attending Lit-fests. Then there are others who write only to be invited to lit-fest and mingle with the fashionable literati with champagne flute in one hand and cigarette in the other.

Be that as it may, there is definitely a growing market for such shows out there. Or else, Lit-fests won’t be sprouting like the infamous “Congress Grass” (parthenium) in every city from Bombay to Begusarai and Kolkata to Karachi without any apparent revenue model other than sponsorships. Some explain this as the “Cook-Book Phenomenon”. As eating out is the order of the day with cooking becoming almost extinct – more and more people are turning to reading recipes (and watch "Big Chef" on Television) for vicarious gratification of the dormant cook within them or, perhaps, assuaging a subconscious guilt.

There can be another hypothesis. As attention spans are shrinking in a digital age – reading books is increasingly becoming a challenge even for the born bibliophile. Increasingly, therefore, the talkative Indian is being seduced by the spoken word for intellectual stimulation. This, perhaps, explains the popularity of TV Chat shows and prime-time debates on News Channels. Lit-fests, probably, cater to the same appetite in more sophisticate settings and esoteric company.

Last year I happened to be in Jaipur towards the end of JLF. Truth be told – I quite enjoyed the experience not as much for the book reading sessions or panel discussions – but nursing a single-malt in the crackling weather listening to live band performances by motley groups of young musicians from different parts of the country. Quite a change from the Egg Roll, Fish Fry, Lemon Tea and Rabindra Sangeet routine at the Book Fair. I intended to return this - This year - despite but couldn’t make it much to my disappointment. Asked a friend in Delhi, who used to be a regular on the Lit-fest circuit – if she was going to Jaipur? She shot back indignantly “Me and Lit-fests? Oh they’ve become so passé now only the wannabes go for them”. Thought-fests (especially in salubrious Goa) are the place to be in these days - she told me.

While I was secretly relieved for having given it a miss – it set me thinking if Lit-fests yet another marketing fad - of publishers and event companies - that is going to blow over soon?