Notes from the Chandigarh Literary Festival, 2015

Long-time readers of this blog probably know by now that I’m a writer. Those who’ve been reading this blog for a couple of winters may also remember that, come autumn, and when India’s 70-odd literary festivals swing into action, I generally end up going to one of these dos. I must admit to being no good when it comes to networking, and I’m usually so busy with my writing that I can’t spare the time to frequent lit fests. But if I’m invited, I will go.

This year, it was Literati, the Chandigarh Literary Society’s literary festival. 2015 was the third year the society organised the function, and I was invited for two sessions, both on the 7th of November, which was the second day of the festival (which was inaugurated on the 6th and ended on the 8th).

A view of the Sukhna Lake club grounds and the lit fest stalls .

A view of the Sukhna Lake club grounds and the lit fest stalls .

Since I, practically speaking, was there for less than half the event, I can’t say much about everything that it encompassed – but what I did attend was, all at the same time, fascinating, insightful, entertaining – and more. Some of the highlights, for me:

1. Kiran Nagarkar’s keynote address at the inauguration, which was one of those instances of a writer who not only writes well, but speaks well too. Mr Nagarkar spoke forcefully of what ails India (and the world) today, of how things change and yet don’t, of how his play, Bedtime Story, written during the Emergency, was initially cleared by the Censor Board with 78 cuts and has only now been finally published in its complete form.

2. Nayantara Sahgal talking of her writing, her returning of the Sahitya Akademi award, and other things – among them Gandhiji. She spoke of how Gandhiji had been invited to her parents’ wedding, and, having blessed the newlyweds, went on to give them a long homily on celibacy. “My mother was very outspoken,” Ms Sahgal said. “She said, ‘Gandhiji, thank you, but I love my husband a lot, so I’m not going to practise that!’”

(Gandhiji got a rap on the knuckles, so to say, from the daughter too, years later: a four-year old Nayantara, asked to hand a bouquet of flowers to Gandhiji when he held a prayer meeting at their house, declined, saying, “I won’t! He’s so ugly!”)

Seen from afar, but that's Nayantara Sahgal in conversation with Kiran Nagarkar.

Seen from afar, but that’s Nayantara Sahgal in conversation with Kiran Nagarkar.

3. My first session, which was called ‘Potpourri’ was pretty much that: a mishmash of genres and writing, with three of us – Ratna Vira (whose book, Daughter by Court Order, explores the concept of ‘the personal is political’), poet and dancer Tishani Doshi; and yours truly. Very different voices, but we somehow managed to get through the sessions, with book readings and some discussions.

At the 'Potpourri' session: Ratna Vira, Me, our moderator Puneet, and Tishani Doshi.

At the ‘Potpourri’ session: Ratna Vira, Me, our moderator Puneet, and Tishani Doshi.

4. My second session, ‘Whodunit’, in which another writer of somewhat offbeat detective fiction – Jane De Suza, author of The Spy Who Lost her Head – and I were in conversation with Aradhika Sharma. This one promised to be a damp squib: we reached the venue (the side lawns at the Sukhna Lake Club) and hung around, waiting for an audience. And hung around. And hung around, getting excited at anybody we saw approaching (they turned out – by turn – to be people wanting to get a closer look at the lake; people under the mistaken impression that this was a session with extremely popular writer Ravinder Singh; and others, none of them eager to attend our session). Eventually, at Jane’s suggestion (and what a good one that turned out to be!), we decided we’d sit down with the sole audience member, in a circle of chairs, instead of up on the dais – and soon, there was an audience of about ten or twelve. Small, yes (woefully so), but we had an enjoyable time.

Aradhika had some great questions for us (including a rapid fire round: “Hitchcock: yes or no? Why?”, “Most hated detective?” “Describe Poirot in one word?” “If a Muzaffar Jang book were to be made into a film, whom would you want cast as Muzaffar?” (That last question is one that has been put to me several times, and I’ve always had the same answer: Hrithik Roshan. This time, a friend in the audience—who cheerfully admits that she has a crush on Muzaffar—piped up: “Nooo! How can you? Irfan! It has to be him!”)

Before the Whodunit session: Jane, Me, Puneet (who moderated my first session), and Aradhika.

Before the Whodunit session: Jane, Me, Puneet (who moderated my first session), and Aradhika.

But, all said and done, a happy (if tiring) half-day or so of all things literary. I enjoyed myself, and I came away the richer, for a few reasons.

1. I made the acquaintance of Naman Ahuja, an art historian who’s also a Professor of Art and Architecture at JNU, and is the man who curated one of the best art exhibitions I have ever had the pleasure of viewing, the brilliant The Body in Indian Art, held at the National Museum last year. I had the good fortune to be sitting next to Naman on the Delhi-Chandigarh train, and so got to spend plenty of time chatting with him and learning about everything from the birth legend of Karthikeya, to how the Portuguese commissioned luxury goods in Mughal India, to how Gandhiji was so adamant about getting the erotic sculptures at the Khajuraho Temples covered up with cement that truckloads of material was sent to the town, and stood by for a fortnight while activists struggled to convince Gandhi otherwise.
And yes, Naman even showed me a delightful photograph of a pair of jamawar gloves that had been especially woven for one of the Governors General of India!

2. I got to catch up with an old friend, the wonderfully adventurous Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu, who debuted as a writer around the same time as I did. Puneetinder writes for Lonely Planet, has a fascinating travel blog, and told me about a book she’s writing which I can’t wait to read.

3. And I have Jane De Suza’s book to read. I read a lot of crime fiction, but much of it is singularly lacking in humour, so this is something I’m really looking forward to reading.

Jane De Suza's The Spy Who Lost Her Head.

Jane De Suza’s The Spy Who Lost Her Head.

So yes, all in all: a short but fruitful and thoroughly enjoyable trip.

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31 thoughts on “Notes from the Chandigarh Literary Festival, 2015

  1. Wow! you seemed to have a good time!
    May you have more of them!
    What are jamawar gloves?
    Can Kiran Nagarkar’s address be read online?
    And, has Naman Ahuja (Ajuha?) written a book or something?
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for pointing out the error in Naman’s name, Harvey! Have corrected that. Yes, he has written some books – including one on the body in Indian art. I’ve put his books on my wishlist – especially one which he’s written on the architecture of Rashtrapati Bhavan, which I am very interested in!

      I don’t think Kiran Nagarkar’s address can be read online, though I did overhear someone asking him if he could please share the script of it, and he’d agreed. I do hope it gets put online – he spoke at length, but was so very good, not for a moment did I begin to get bored.

      Jamawar is a particular type of shawl woven in Kashmir. More about it, here:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamawar

      These gloves – I’ve forgotten whom they were for – were quite fantastic. They had a repeated pattern in red and green (among other colours) on an offwhite background, and looked (to my surprise) completely intact.

          • LOL!

            As far as the Rashtrapati Bhavan book is concerned, Naman did tell me that it was by the Publications Division, and so the only chance of buying it was to visit the Publications Division stall at the Book Fair. That may be the case with his other books, though I hope not. I wonder if Jain Book Depot in Connaught Place might stock some of his books…

  2. Sadly, I missed it, and you. Isn’t the venue lovely? What did you think of Chandigarh?

    I am glad you met Vani and Puneetinder. I met Puneetinder once at a cafe meet, she is a lovely girl.

    • Oh, yes, Ava! The venue is lovely. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Chandigarh (I have always been on overnight trips – en route to somewhere or the other), but it’s such a – literally – refreshing change from Delhi. So clean and green and unpolluted.

      Yes, Puneetinder is a lovely person. I first met her in I think 2008 or early 2009, when both of us were part of a book event at the IIC in Delhi, promoting our respective books.

      And Vani is a lovely girl, too! So cheerful and sweet and bubbly. It was good to finally get to meet her. :-)

    • Haven’t completely recovered, Anu. Still had a bad cold, cough and sundry aches and pains when I went to Chandigarh, and of course the train journey to and fro, plus the hectic schedule at the Lit Fest itself, exacerbated everything! So I came back and was completely knocked up for the next couple of days. Have recovered a little, but still a way to go…

      But yes, the trip was good. The one thing I like about lit fests is that you get to meet interesting people, and listen to a very varied lot. Much learning happens.

    • Well, Hrithik as Muzaffar was because of him as Akbar in Jodhaa Akbar – he was just the image of Muzaffar I’d had in mind. I agree, Irrfan has that intelligent look about him, but he’s a little too old (and looks it) to play MJ. On the other hand, what are adaptations if not to take liberties with the original?!

      Frankly, I’d be happy to have just about any good actor play MJ – if only someone bought the film rights to the books! :-)

      • I think you should consider to develop it into episodes/ series suitable for TV. That way you/we will have more scope to show/see the many shades of the city and will be able to display the personality of MJ better. Of course you need a youthful face with talent for the role. You need an actor who can get into the skin of the role; not the actors for whom roles are created. If you are willing to make the age part flexible, then many good actors are around. You should consider and decide for TV. Later you may still go for a film at a suitable time.

        • Thank you! It’s not my hands, though – seriously. Where would I get the money, or the time, to do all of that? I can only hope that someone who’s interested comes across it and decides to do it. There have been a couple of film makers who’ve shown an interest, but so far, it’s fizzled out, always.

    • Oh and that bit about Gandhiji wanting to cover up the erotic sculptures at Khajuraho was an interesting bit of info, I would have loved to interact with Naman Ahuja. I bet you both had a long and interesting conversation.

      • We did! He’s a brilliant conversationalist – so knowledgeable, and yet so layperson-friendly, if you know what I mean. I learnt a lot in the few hours I spent chatting with him on the train and at the festival.

        • ‘A good conversationalist’, yes that is what is important. Frankly I really miss the days of my childhood when I watched my parents having hours of meaningful and very, very interesting conversations with like-minded people. Nowadays, I find people are just not interested and when I say people, I mean people of my generation who are retired or about to be retired. What I am trying to say is that, this generation has the time, I wouldn’t want to pin down somebody from the younger generation to a conversation. They, poor things. are so short of time, I wouldn’t want to punish them.
          I feel people like Naman Ahuja should put up all that they know on the internet so that this valuable knowledge doesn’t disappear. I say internet because getting a book published is not all that easy particular subjects that have a niche target audience.
          Anyway I love anything to do with history and while on the subject of books and Lit Fests I would like to share something interesting, I don’t think you know about this considering the age difference between us. Sometime in the mid-nineties a ship MVDuolos docked at Bombay. The ship was a floating book shop; I knew I had to experience this book shop. We went to this ship and wow what an experience that was. We purchased a few books at discounted rates, one of the books was A Handbook of Life in Bible Times by J.A.Thompson, now if you are one of those who likes all that archaeological history stuff then this is the book to read. Some years later there was this exhibition on the Jews at the museum in Bombay, in this exhibition they had displayed all the stuff like vessels, pottery, lamps that archaeologists had found in Israel, now you can imagine how I felt seeing all this soon after reading the book. I had seen the pictures and now I was seeing the same things for real. What was interesting was that one of the vessels that was used for cooking still had some grains and was slightly charred and all this hundreds of years before the Common Era. Suddenly history which appears more like a story suddenly becomes reality; you come face to face with the joys and sorrows of people from way back in the past.
          Goodness me did I end up boring you?

          • No, you did not end up boring me at all, Shilpi – in fact, I read your comment with a lot of interest and a lot of fellow-feeling, because anything related to history, culture, or art interests me so much, that anecdote really resounded with me. I know that if something like that happened to me – if I came across something, in real life, that I had only read about till then, I would be extremely excited too. It does, in a way, sometimes when I’m visiting a museum: for example, when I first saw The Arnolfini Wedding , by Jan van Eyck – I had till then only read about it in a huge book on great paintings that my parents owned. Then, on a visit to London, we went to the National Gallery, and I realised that it was there. I was so excited, I dragged Tarun off to find the gallery – and couldn’t figure out how to get to the gallery. I remember going to one of the docents to ask where that gallery was (I could see the number of it on my guide pamphlet) and he smiled – I still remember – and said, “Are you looking for the Arnolfini Wedding?”

            It was every bit as fabulous an experience as I’d imagined it would be. :-)

    • Bombay, fortunately, has several. And if you’re living in the same city where it’s happening, you can pick and choose which sessions appeal the most to you, and visit accordingly.

  3. Regarding the choice of actor, my first thought was Hrithik and for the same reason i.e his acting and looks in Jodha Akbar. An alternate choice in my opinion is Nawazuddin Siddiqui. I loved the way he acted in Kahani and Badlapur.

    • Very true, as far as acting talent is concerned, Nawauddin Siddiqui was on my mind too. He’s a brilliantly versatile actor – I haven’t seen Badlapur, but comparing his very contrasting roles in Kahaani, Talaash and The Lunch Box is proof enough of just how talented he is.

  4. You sure have a knack for eliciting so much envy from us readers. Green? I am fluorescent!

    Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s response to Gandhi had me doubled up (I mean, I have the highest regard for the Mahatma, but who would ever speak on celibacy at a wedding, for heaven’s sake?!!) And I’d have happily added to the audience strength at the Whodunnit session. I love these intimate sessions. It’s the same with classical music baithaks. I remember a young ‘star’ playing gunk to a packed hall; after he finished young Balasaheb Poochwale – a mere 83 or so then – took over, and the audience melted away. There were barely fifteen of us left, so we formed a semicircle around the performers, and thus got to hear some of the best music I have ever had the luck to encounter live.

    And Naman Ahuja!! Damn, I could kill!

    PS: I too think Nawazuddin would make a terrific MJ. Among the veterans, who’d be your choice? A young Nasiruddin Shah? He was terrific as Ghote in ‘The Perfect Murder’. Or maybe a young Farooq Shaikh?

    • Yes, that bit about Gandhiji lecturing the newlyweds on celibacy cracked me up! I mean, come on. It’s paradoxical, no, first blessing their union and then pretty much un-blessing it. :-D

      These intimate sessions are much more fun, just because they’re usually so much more interactive than if the panelists are sitting perched on a dais while the audience sits down below (which of course only works if the audience is suitably small, since that’s the only way everybody in the audience can still see the panelists).

      Naman Ahuja. Yes. What a guy. A man after my own heart. I’m so loony about culture and history and art that I had a very satisfying time chatting with him. I’d happily join one of his courses at JNU, if I could!

      Talking about the veterans… hmm. I don’t know. Not Naseeruddin Shah, who – though that intelligent look is there – doesn’t have the MJ looks. Farooque Sheikh would make a more handsome MJ, but then, there’s a certain regality I’d expect in whoever played MJ, which I think Sheikh lacks. He always strikes me more as the boy next door type.

      • Interesting discussion on MJ. :)
        I couldn’t imagine Hrithik as MJ because MJ is not just a pretty face; there’s a razor sharp brain behind the looks and HR, pardon me, doesn’t quite strike me as the brightest bulb in the business.

        May I say, a very young Prithviraj Kapoor? Or even his namesake from Malayalam today? ;)

        • You have a point there re: HR. ;-)

          Ooooh, I like the idea of Prithviraj (the Malayalam cinema star) as MJ. Dee-lish-us, and a fine actor. But how good is his Urdu? The only Hindi film where I’ve seen him act is Aiyyaa, which didn’t give him much dialogue.

          Another name occurred to me. Fawad Khan. Very good-looking, a good actor, and the Urdu will be a cinch for him.

          Now if only someone would see this thread and approach me for the film rights… ;-)

  5. Have been busy and also a bit irritated with the niggling pain in my shoulder. Finally made it to the Times Lit Fest at Bombay, had a wonderful experience and also met Jai Arjun Singh who was there promoting his book. He had two sessions one was with one of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s fav heroines Jaya Bachchan.
    I have missed a lot here on your blog will catch up later.

    • Oh, good! I’m glad you had an enjoyable time. And Jai is not just very knowledgeable and a brilliant writer, but a fantastic conversationalist as well. I saw some photos he’d posted on Facebook of the session with Jaya Bachchan. Looked interesting.

      I hope your shoulder gets better soon, Shilpi. Take care!

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