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.
This sounds amazing! Wish they had fests like this when I was in school. (But then, considering how mystery-mad I already was, maybe that is not a bad thing!)
I was wishing the same thing. The only thing we had by way of extra-curricular activities were debates and elocutions – and the topics were always dry as dust. Fortunately, our text books had more varied fare – I remember some of my favourite stories being the ones with a crime angle to them: Seventeen Oranges was one, The Man Who Hated Time another. If I’d known back then that other schools organised lit fests like this, I know I’d have been very envious!
Just read your essay and loved it. Gives me a whole new appreciation for the importance of settings in stories, particularly contemporary ones! But the physical setting makes such a difference. You can feel a character’s emotions just through a vivid description of his/her surroundings.
“ the other day I was reading a novel set in ancient
India, and there were mentions in it of tea, and of somebody making a meat curry with potatoes” Back in childhood, this would’ve passed me by, but now small details like this bother me a lot. I recently read an Ellis Peters novel describing corn fields in Brother Cadfael’s Shrewsbury. Considering that the Cadfael stories are set in the twelfth century, about 350 years before corn came to Europe from the New World, it set me wondering if the farmers of Shrewsbury had secretly found the way to the Americas and concealed it from Columbus – completely diverting my attention from the story!
“settings are described with all five senses” Yours definitely are! Did I tell you about my strong craving for kebabs after reading your Muzaffar Jang novels? I could practically smell and taste them after reading your description. I had to look up recipes online and try to make something resembling Shami kebabs ASAP!
I’m flattered that you actually took the time out to read the essay, bollyviewer! Thank you so much – and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Talking about anachronisms in books, very true: some years back, I probably wouldn’t have been terribly bothered by an anachronism (I almost certainly wouldn’t have recognised one, even, if I’d come across it). Now, more and more, I read historical fiction with a critical eye, and end up being irritated by stuff like what you mention (it surprises me, though, that Ellis Peters could have made such a blunder – her books always strike me as being so meticulously researched).
“Yours definitely are!” And, oh: you make me blush. Thank you, thank you! (And you should have asked me for the recipe for shaami kababs – I must admit that the best I’ve ever had are my mother’s, which is an old family recipe. Simply fantastic). :-D
How interesting Madhu. Delhi has so much going on for the schools there. And lucky lucky students to have you to talk about detective novels and plotting them.
Did you discuss M.Jung with them, and how he went about solving a case without much help from modern technology and equipment?
Talking of reading by the younger generation. When my girls were in school they would have a reading night when every one went out somewhere together as a class, and the teacher read to them, or the students did. It was fun and adventurous. They carried light with them in the form of lanterns.
The name of the school sounds very French. Is it an International school?
“They carried light with them in the form of lanterns.” That sounds like so much fun! And such a wonderful way of inculcating the habit of reading. :-)
I didn’t discuss very much of Muzaffar Jang with the children. They already knew about him, since (preparatory to my lecture and the workshops) they’d read excerpts from my novels. I did try, however, to touch upon the non-technological aspects of detectiion in my workshop: showing them how simple observation – or asking questions – can lead a detective to clues that aren’t dependent on fancy technology.
“The name of the school sounds very French. Is it an International school?”
Yes; it’s the school of the French embassy.
How interesting! A Lit Fest in a school, just wonderful, I would have loved to attend a session there, it is real interesting interacting with the children, I am sure you had a great time, notwithstanding the kids who were bored.
Yes, I did have a good time. The children who were interested were very enthusiastic and eager, so they more than made up for those who weren’t interested. :-)
I’ve been away and I got to this piece just now. This is very interesting, Madhu, and I found your essay even more so. Primarily because, I find it very difficult to turn my brain off these days when I notice something off-kilter; I find my tolerance for these are far lower than they used to be. Sometimes I think that being so analytical takes my pleasure away in an otherwise well-written book or well-made film. On the other hand, I think it is sheer laziness that people can’t be bothered to do their research. :(
From your essay, I like what your editor told you. And I think you were more than successful in doing it. As I told you when I read Engraved in Stone, I could see and hear the sights, and smell the odours. And that is primarily why I love your books – it makes old Delhi come alive in a way that I haven’t seen before. So I’m waiting eagerly for the next Muzaffar Jang mystery. (Though I still haven’t forgiven you for giving him a wife!)
Anu, you are so good for my ego. Seriously! I wrote this essay in a bit of a hurry, trying to organise my thoughts and not quite sure whether I was making sense (or was being too analytical for 8th- and 9th-grade students)? But I went with it, and several of them did seem interested, so I’m guessing it was all right. It’s sad, actually, that a lot of so-called ‘bestseller’ authors in India pay such scant attention to setting. Sheer laziness, I suppose.
I am hoping to have a meeting with my publisher next week to discuss the next Muzaffar Jang novel. I’m excited about it, too, mostly because I’ve put in so much work. And my level 1 editor (my husband) says he likes it very much. :-)
Loved the post and essay! What an interesting session. I am sure you enjoyed it thoroughly.
Not sure whether the kids benefitted from the essay or not, I certainly did :-)
Thank you so much! I have no idea if the kids benefited (though I might get to know, since they were all supposed to write detective stories, over the next term, and I’ve been promised that the best stories will be shared with me). Let’s see. :-)