I have never been a festival fiend. In the event that you follow my pieces here or elsewhere you would know that I have earlier had a bone to pick with literary festivals. Yes I am old school and still wallow in the fiction of the reclusive author pounding away on the keyboard in a writing cave with their only public interface being with barflies, cabbies, or assorted characters on the street who could provide them material. But I was in for a surprise.

Early in January I received an invitation from a literary festival in Assam and because my writing was going slow, decided to participate. I am glad I did, because the Kokrajhar Literary Festival has helped me revise some of the opinions I have harboured about litfests in general, while also showing through example how a literary event can be inclusive and diverse. Inclusiveness is the key here and that the organisers were trying to do something different was apparent right in the invitation which said “Literature for Peace and Harmony”. We will return to this focus on inclusiveness but let me tell you a bit about the place.

Kokrajhar is a small town and administrative headquarter of Bodoland in Assam, a region which after years of conflict is now peacefully governed as an autonomous territory. Right from the time we landed at Guwahati airport, the warmth of the hosts and the diversity of the festival participants was apparent as they escorted us to the waiting vehicles for the four hour journey along the course of the Brahmaputra. My co-passengers were the Santali poet Yashoda Murmu and Charan Aivarnad, a young writer from Bangalore who writes in his two mother tongues, Tulu and Kannad, besides being a translator.

We took the picturesque route south of the Brahmaputra, framed by low hills and forests, arriving at the well laid-out campus of Bodofa Cultural Complex in Kokrajhar when the sun had just set and cold winds from the north were making us shiver in our jackets. After a round of introductions and registration we were driven back to our hotels through the little town which had dressed up with posters and banners of this important event on their calendar.

The stress on inclusivity, peace and harmony was made clear at the inaugural event the next day where the speakers forged a clear connection between peace, harmony and the flowering of literature. The keynote address by UG Brahma, Cabinet Minister, Assam revisited the history of conflict in Bodoland drawing from there to the return of peace and how an inclusive literary event will act as a binding force for maintaining peace and harmony.

The inaugural speeches were interspersed with eye-catching song and dance recitals in Bodo, Assamese, and Bengali that drew cheerful applause from the audience. Pramod Boro, The CEM of the Bodoland Territorial Region, Anil Boro, Chairman of the Organising Committee, K Sreenivasa Rao, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, senior writers and academics from the region were present at the inaugural which attracted a large crowd overflowing from the purple and white shamiana of the main venue.

The show had begun and was followed by parallel sessions of readings, poetry and discussions covering a large number of languages including Bodo, Manipuri, Assamese, Konkani, Urdu, Vagari, Malayalam among others. Representatives of literary bodies from many different languages took part in a session to foster enhanced understanding which sparked many lively conversations within and outside the venue.

Picture courtesy: Rajat Chaudhuri

In one of the story sessions Sanjib Pol Deka, a writer and academic from Assam, read a moving story about a curious theft in a village which satirised claims of economic development contrasting it with the real scenario on the ground. After the reading, I asked him what he thought about litfests and if these got more people to read books. Deka was of the opinion that litfests do spur discussions around literature and these may foster a reading habit but there are also other interventions necessary to really get a community deeply interested in books.

The other fixtures for the day included readings by senior and emerging writers in an equally diverse set of languages from Ladakhi to English and Kashmiri to Telegu. The music of the varied tongues, the vibrant energy of the audience that ranged from college students to curious locals and the conversations among fellow writers, geographically separated but joined in the common cause of the written word, set the tone for the next two days. Here in this corner of north eastern India, the organisers had conjured up a melting pot of culture and languages that represents the amazing diversity of this country.

The evenings kept up the tempo of the day, adding to it. There were gripping performances by local groups like the Lwrgi Theatre with its adaptation of Tagore’s Rather Rosi, and fireside poetry gatherings that were a medley of tongues washing over the quietly flowing Gaurang next to the venue.

Keeping with the theme of peace and to cleanse the memories of conflict, hundreds of candles were lit at the venue creating an eye-catching spectacle and for those moments it seemed the heart of the festival was quietly beating among the throngs gathered around the flickering flames. It was heartening to see the armed police personnel joining in, taking selfies with the candlelit backdrop and because a poet friend was carrying a serious camera, one of them asked him to take his photos and mail them back as soon as possible.

The next day, I had been asked to read from my novels in a session that was seeking new kinds of stories. It was a lively panel where we had the pleasure to listen to Mitra Phukan read a rib-tickling tale about an unsuccessful thief while Bodo writer Rashmi Narzary intrigued us with snippets and commentary from her novel Bloodstone, centred around beliefs about a menstruating Mother Goddess. I read a bit from The Butterfly Effect and another tale about a librarian with a superpower while the other author presented a story about a Bodo revolutionary figure from colonial times.

The festival also housed a sizeable book fair with participation from regional and national publishers and in between sessions we hovered among the stalls sampling books, picking up a title here and there, and generally soaking up the atmosphere of the festival grounds. A number of titles were released this day alongside more sessions involving publishers, editors and poets. In one of these, multilingual poets from all over the country presented their work, women writers read their stories in another and then there was a set of engaging readings and discussions by East Asian writers from Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

Picture courtesy: Rajat Chaudhuri

Charan Aivarnad who recited his poetry in Tulu, a language from coastal Karnataka, told me over lunch how he enjoyed presenting before a multilingual audience and his belief that the music of poetry can communicate beyond languages. More readings and verse by young Bodo writers followed through the afternoon culminating in spectacular dance and drama performances. There was more fireside poetry and music that night and the spirits of the participants were high as we thronged the dining hall for dinner. The festival kitchen served us hearty no-nonsense meals that brought alive the flavours of the region, without being lavish or over-the-top in any way. With that right mix of flavour and nutrition, and having exchanged phone numbers and books with fellow writers across the table, we were ready for the finale.

The sessions on the final day included one on threatened languages. This panel was easily the pièce de résistance of the final day which not only spurred good discussions but also helped to consolidate the focus on diversity and inclusiveness that was so special about the Kokrajhar litfest.

In his opening address, GN Devy, joining online, spoke about how and why languages become extinct while commending the organisers for being the only literary festival in the world that brought together close to a hundred threatened languages – a feat they accomplished the previous year. The other speakers from Arunachali, Tulu, Rabha, Assamese and other linguistic backgrounds spoke about the threat to their mother tongues from globalisation, economic factors and other reasons interspersing their presentations with humorous instances of transformation and hybridisation undergone by languages. The speaker representing Arunachali had the audience in splits when she shared how in the variety of Hindi spoken in her community: “Conductor, mujhko (bus se) utar do” becomes “Conductor, mujhko (bus se) gira do” among other examples.

With that note of humour as an icing on the urgency of the issues covered, we were almost at the end of the three-day event which mingled festivities with the world of words and how it can bring people together.

The valedictory session attended by ministers, administrators, academics like Prof Abdul Alim of Aligarh Muslim University, and senior Rajasthani writer Meethesh Nirmohi reiterated the message of peace and harmony and how this litfest has fostered understanding between different regions of the country. In his address Meethesh Nirmohi called for further widening the scope of the festival next year by involving Dalit writers, translators, filmmakers among others.

As the car driving us back to Guwahati crossed the mighty Brahmaputra and with the strains of soulful sufi music from the festival still playing in our minds, I arrived at the realisation that a festival, literary or otherwise, achieves meaning and purpose, not only by its glamour quotient or headline acts but more so through the variety and inclusiveness of the participants who reflect the magical diversity of our nation. We need more such litfests.

Picture courtesy: Rajat Chaudhuri.

Rajat Chaudhuri is a bilingual writer and translator. Find out more about him on his website.