Last year, when I was attending the Bangalore Literary Festival, I heard an interesting fact at one of the sessions (about literary festivals): at last count—in autumn 2013—India boasted of 63 literary festivals. That’s quite a whopper of a figure, isn’t it? I have only been to the literary festivals in Bangalore, Pune, and Delhi (no, as unbelievable as it may sound, I actually haven’t ventured till Jaipur yet). And, earlier this week, I participated in another lit fest—a rather different one from the type I’ve frequented so far. This was a lit fest organized and hosted by a school, the Lycée Français de Delhi, for its students. 2014 was the second year the school organized the lit fest, and this year’s schedule featured workshops and lectures by various writers: Anupam Arunachalam (Comics on Delhi, followed by workshops on comics); Priya Kuriyan (Illustrations on Delhi); Nilanjana Roy (Delhi, A City of Inspiration); and Rana Dasgupta (21st Century Delhi).
I was slotted for the 6th of October. I began with an hour’s lecture on Stories and Settings (my essay—which I ended up actually not referring to, except to read out excerpts from my work—is available in PDF form here, as Stories and Settings – Madhulika Liddle, if you’re interested). The audience consisted of about 56 students of Class VIII and IX. Gaëlle Castrec, who teaches English at the school and had organized the festival, told me—while she took me to the lecture room—that the Lycée Français de Delhi has students of 39 nationalities. That is impressive.
Even more impressive were some of the students I got to interact with in the course of the workshops that followed the lecture. Each workshop—a two-hour one for the Class IX students, a one-and-a-half-hour one each for the two sections of Class VIII—was about writing detective fiction. My objective was to introduce the children to the elements of detective fiction, and then give them ideas on how to go about plotting a story.
I tried to make this an interactive exercise, getting the children to volunteer suggestions on the different types of clues, weapons, motives, and so on. As always in a mixed group like this (not the city-based literary festival sort of event, where attendees will invariably be only people who’re already interested in the genre), there were a number of children who’d never read a detective story (some admitted to not liking reading at all) or were really just not interested. But for every five children who were busy doodling or staring out the window, there were—and this is what kept me going—some extremely enthusiastic and creative young people. Bright, smart, eager, and with some amazing ideas. They were bubbling over with suggestions about how to commit a murder (“Push him off a roof!”, “AK-47!” “Drown him!”), what clues to look for, what motives one could have to kill someone else, and oh, so much more.
Even more interesting were a lot of the questions that cropped up: Could one write a story from the point of view of the murderer? (I couldn’t resist mentioning a particular book which is one of my favourites and uses this technique) Could two people commit the same crime (another book by the same author same to mind, in which not two but many more people commit a crime)? Could two unrelated crimes take place at the same time in the same place? And more.
All said and done, I was exhausted by the end of it—I’m not used to talking for hours on end—but it was a memorable experience. It left me feeling glad I’d accepted the invitation. And it left me wishing more schools would take initiatives like this: introduce children to the nuances of literature, and not just ‘literary’ literature, but the sort of things that do often appeal to children: adventure, fantasy, humour, detective fiction… take a bow, LFD. I hope others follow suit.