India’s annual tryst with book-tinged frenzy is on its way. The new year segued into the World Book Fair in Delhi, and without missing a beat, things got rolling at the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival and The Hindu Lit For Life in Chennai. Near the end of the month, all eyes literary will be on the legendary Jaipur Literature Festival as well as the Kolkata Literary Meet. These will be followed by the eternally effervescent Kolkata Book Fair, among other literary celebrations.
Clearly, between book launches and literature festivals – alongside new online and offline reading spaces – book enthusiasts in the big city are more than covered. Is enough happening beyond the metros, though? Online bookshops are increasing access to books for people in those parts of the country where physical bookstores are few and far between. But how can readers in these places be involved in events the way their counterparts in book cities are?
In Tura, located in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, The 100 Story House, a rustic children’s library, is one of the few spaces in town where books are accessible to young readers. Here, groups of children often gather on weekends to read and bond over art and craft workshops. “Books can provide much needed peace amidst political disturbance, which our region is known for,” said Jemimah Marak, who runs The 100 Story House.
Last month, when she held a special reading at her one-year-old library, a ripple of excitement livened the reading room where over 35 children of four and above huddled, urging her to read the crowd favourite, Dracula. “They love the blood and gore,” she laughed.
Some days before the event in Tura, another reading, of a different tune, was held in Ahmedabad, at Conflictorium, a participatory museum that addresses the theme of conflict to create dialogue through art. In keeping with the tone of the space, academic, author and translator Rita Kothari read from her book Unbordered Memories: Sindhi Stories of Partition , and discussed KM Munshi’s historical novel The Glory of Patan.
In late December, another reading, led by writer Anjum Hasan, unfolded at the government-run Girls’ Home in Madikeri, Coorg, where she has been a regular visitor for the last few years. “They are Kannada speakers and my Kannada is very poor but these encounters are still really valuable to me,” said Hasan, who read a Peppa Pig book and another one about life on a farm to thirty-and-odd children. The vivid pictures in both the books struck a chord, she said.
These readings, in different corners of the country, were held as part of The Penguin Readathon and Book Gifting Journey to celebrate the publisher’s 30th anniversary in India, covering 30 spaces in all. For this month-long project, Penguin Random House collaborated with community libraries, shelter homes, informal schools, documentation centres, independent bookshops, and organisations working with people with disabilities, among others. The readings were by and large led by local Penguin authors, and differed in their level of complexity to suit the audience.
At Kothari’s reading at Conflictorium, Ahmedabad, for example, the academician and author spoke about translation practices and what it means to translate memory, history, trauma and the nation especially in the context of migrant communities. “There was a huge group of students from Shrishti College who attended the talk, and there were several other academics, students, historians along with some people who have been interested in the history of the Sindhi community,” said Shamini Kothari, who works in research and publication at Conflictorium.
How does one take the same text to seven diverse spaces that are new to book readings, as authors Shaguna and Prarthana Gahilote did with their new book Curious Tales from the Himalayas? “Our readings varied from the Deaf Society in Noida where we collaborated with our Kathakar International Storytellers Festival, bringing in an Italian puppeteer Bruno Leone along with storytelling from our book. In Darjeeling, we did storytelling and readings for the children of the tea garden workers with Broadleaf and at the Edith Wilkins Trust, a shelter home for the destitute,” said Shaguna. “In Gangtok, it was at Rachna Stores for a diverse group of visitors. In Mumbai, it was at R&R – a rehabilitation and resettlement centre where children come after school. Another one was held at the Laksh Foundation for teacher trainees who go around the village of Mangar in Faridabad to supplement school teaching of the village kids.” They picked stories the audience could identify with; so it was The Bowl of Thenthuk for the teachers who related to it as they live in a similar village themselves, and in the mountains of the north-east, stories from Sikkim and Tibet worked well, in a mix of Hindi and English.
While logistically a challenge, taking books and readings outside big cities have several advantages. If we are determined to not let the act of reading and thrill of books fade – as we are constantly reminded we are in the danger of – a community of readers and listeners must be encouraged, without geographical barriers. For many who attended the events included in the readathon, it was their first experience listening to a storyteller. For others, it was a chance to get up close and personal with local authors and exchange ideas that are not usually accessible.
In Tezpur, for example, crime fiction author Ankush Saikia was roped in to do a session at The Green Hub, a youth and community based video documentation centre. This reading was perhaps the first time a national level publisher had organised an event in the city, he said, which turned out to be an informal get-together where the audience was curious about “what it takes to be a writer, what it is like getting a publisher, how long it takes to write a book.”
For Marak in Tura, the objective remains to revive the storytelling tradition, which seems to be getting lost in technology. “People have less meaningful time with their children,” she said. “So we encourage parents to read to their children, even if it is a five minute bedtime story. We encourage children to ask their parents to read them a story at night. We also try and involve grandparents, as we want them to pass on the folk tales they know to their grandchildren.” Away from the limelight and city sheen, these are the spaces that need more sparkly book moments, with new readers waiting.