I don’t do lit fests well. I was designed more for crawling under my bed and weeping into my childhood pillow. Quite often, I do the latter after doing the former.
But, on the odd occasion when I have been in conversation with someone like V Sriram, Harimohan Paruvu or Ivan Arthur, I have forgotten that I have a mike in my hand which I can gag myself to quick death with, and actually enjoyed a session. When it works out that way, I have a feeling the audience feels the same way, too.
Which brings us to moderators.
I once had a moderator (as Harimohan, again, and Vamsee Juluri will vouch) who gave us three panellists five minutes each while she read out select verses from sixteen large volumes of self-published poetry, all the while shaking her head from side to side like Stevie Wonder on steroids.
(That day was a specially bad one where the literary gods, and I don’t mean Devdutt Pattanaik, were giving me a clear message. Because, at a dinner that evening which had nothing to do with the lit fest, the same poet was a guest, sat next to me, and read out the gems she had left out at our session. I didn’t duck under the table in case there was a stash of her unpublished work kept below as standby.)
Not that anyone is going to invite me to a lit fest ever again, but here’s a tip for future moderators and lit fest organisers.
The job of the moderator is to be a conduit, a tactful interlocutor, an auto-tuner of the panellist, helping her say what she wants to say in the best possible way. And staying the heck out of the way the rest of the time. In a sense, the moderator plays the role of temporary editor to writer or writers present.
Yes, writers within grabbing distance of a mike do tend to behave like canines within sniffing distance of a crotch. That’s because they usually bring a year’s worth of gassy angst, and are dying to distribute it free to thronging admirers. At such times, dear moderators, by all means, do moderate.
But what does one do when a moderator forgets what she is there for, and hijacks the spotlight that she is meant to oscillate from writer to writer? Or worse still, decides she knows more than writers do?
This is precisely what happened at a lit fest I attended recently. Not once but thrice.
The first moderator was a writer without whom, apparently, one can’t conduct a lit fest these days.
It was a well-attended session where a poet was releasing his new book. The session was being moderated by said writer who is part of the in-crowd. (By that, I mean some white folk.) For ten whole minutes, as time ran out for glaciers, and I began suffering from short-term memory loss, the moderator babbled on – with delicate, arty hand movements – about time and memory.
The poor poet could do nothing but wait. No doubt, using said time composing limericks about said moderator. When it got down to question time, it was obvious the moderator hadn’t so much as looked at the poet’s book.
That the poet happened to be nothing short of brilliant, and that his two readings made me want to buy up everything he’s ever written made it all the more ironic. I did what I could by telling him I would be happy to illustrate that limerick book free of cost.
Now for Moderator Two.
This one supposedly had famous antecedents. In a session that had writers in translation, this moderator not only talked down to one particular writer (whose first language wasn’t English, but was, to my limited English-speaking knowledge, wonderfully articulate anyway), but completely twisted the meaning of what she was saying, and cut her off when she asked for the mike again. She also repeatedly asked the members of the audience if they even knew what the panellists were talking about. Yes, there was a larger-than-usual contingent of high-school students. But they were young. Not stupid.
When in doubt, I look to James Bond: Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.
And enemy action it was at another session when the same moderator took on the very same (award-winning) writer and, this time, told her that her points with regard to problems faced by writers in translation were, how can I put this elegantly, codswallop. Going by her résumé, the moderator hasn’t translated anything in her life.
If there isn’t an Arnab Goswami Award for Lit Fest Moderators, someone please institute one with immediate effect in honour of Moderator Number Two. And give the Simi Garewal Consolation Prize for Dim Dialogue to the first moderator.
I will end with my own experience at another lit fest.
This time, my moderator was a TV journalist who had written two books that had sold less than mine.
And that is a pretty humiliating feat, let me assure you.
He came into the session, looked at me and my co-panellist the way one looks at someone one has borrowed money from several years ago with no intention of repaying, and opened with “Okay, let’s throw open the session to the audience.”
While one enthusiastic front-bencher grabbed the mike and began reading the first chapter of his unpublished memoir, and another asked my compatriot whether it was better to write before or after a bowel movement, the moderator relaxed and took a selfie.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is a South Indian writer who has played to empty halls at assorted lit fests. He wishes to inform his wife he requires no moderator when he has his evening whisky.