Along with a declaration that being a devout nationalist is a prerequisite to being a journalist in India, one of the promos on Republic TV promises to shut up “the psuedo liberals that hang around literature festivals”. Just to be clear, some of the synonyms of pseudo are phony, contrived and insincere. This, delivered, in a tone of withering scorn, suggests that the promoters of Republic TV consider their work, wildly incoherent rants on Kashmir or a two-year-old story on a socialite’s death, more important than participating in a discussion on Crime and Punishment.
Some years ago when an academic on the Jaipur Literature Festival podium remarked at the surprisingly large number of people who appeared to be interested in Dostoevsky’s seminal work, media personality Suhel Seth quipped, “That’s only because attendance is free.” While that’s true, people still attended out of choice, a heartening sign that there is still interest in big ideas floated centuries ago.
The editors at Republic TV, meanwhile, have taken a savage dig at their contemporaries, snarkily dismissing lit fests as venues for lazy, armchair intellectuals who contemplate the fate of our great nation while quaffing bad wine. This deadly earnestness is truly alarming. The inability to consider any other form of argument relevant, merely because it’s held in a pristine garden in an ancient palace, speaks of a paranoia of harmless democratic initiative. Simply put, one can only wonder what’s so bad about people having a good time while exchanging opinions.
Actually, lively conversations, dancing and other forms of escapist entertainment, are more important than ever because sometimes, anarchic or rebellious forms of revelry can do more to challenge a stifling atmosphere than angry ranting can. Literature festivals are no Tahrir Squares but they are venues where people are allowed to feel comfortable being themselves. It’s almost 40 years since the God of all festivals, Woodstock, started the counterculture revolution and every arts, music and literature movement since, owes its existence to it. It’s a great time to revisit Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock (YouTube) to fully gauge its impact on either Burning Man in Nevada, or Magnetic Fields in Rajasthan.
Once you look beyond its obvious legacy, the hippie fantasy of unleashing consciousness via psychotropics, it stood for the belief that no matter what your beliefs, you were entitled to have them. Our literature festivals are timid more than unruly but they subscribe to a similarly unifying spirit, whether it’s questioning military adventures or communal politics.
It is, perhaps, remarkable that despite the critical state of publishing and book selling, India, in the last year, has had over 30 different literature festivals, in places like Kasauli, Kumaon and Panchkula. These are areas where it would be surprising to find a well-stocked bookshop, while a library is out of the question. The Lit fest has become sexy in a metaphorical sense, evocative of college-like idealism and maybe a faint (and misplaced) promise of hedonism. Plus, there will always be a part of the population that yearns to write books and seeks inspiration from authors present there. The interchange of ideas at forums like these that Republic TV so scathingly rejects as delusional, misses the point that people want to engage on issues that involve us all. The seductive power of the word and the pull of a sane argument cannot be underestimated.
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