Among the many literary dreams I nurture (second only to the one where I fly pillion on a pushpaka vimanam piloted by Devdutt Pattanaik to drop in for a casual chat at Vaikunta, Kailasha and Amish Tripathi’s penthouse), there is one where I moderate a totally honest session at a major lit fest. A session where the audience members get to see what the writers are actually saying. Without subtitles.
Let’s say the three panellists I have with me on stage are Ananya Menon Roy, award-winning writer of literary fiction, Vasudev Balagopal, fiery sociopolitical commentator and activist, and Thomas Whitebottom, celebrated British writer, author of eighteen books on India. And the session?
Three Writers Say What They Want To Say No Matter What The Session Is Called
Me: Let’s start with you, Ananya. Because you are a woman and I will prove my credentials as a bona fide feminist by asking you first. Why don’t you tell us something tremendously boring about The Things We Lost At Night But Found In The Morning Under The Bed, your 636-page book, your sixth, in fact, in as many years. Take six minutes. We have 50 minutes in total, and you know Vasudev and Thomas. They won’t give you an inch later.
(Ananya Menon Roy speaks for six minutes.)
Me: Coming to you, Vasudev, would you like to elaborate on Ananya’s monumentally boring opening with something tremendously pointless of your own. Perhaps you could disagree...to show us you are of superior intelligence. Or you could ignore her completely ...again to show us you are of superior intelligence, and just jump into talking about People Before Nation, your new book. It’s your 14th one, in fact, which most don’t realise is just your first book Nation After People, with the chapters pinned in reverse?
(Vasudev Balagopal speaks at length.)
Me: Vasudev, sorry, I know you can drone on till the Indian crow becomes extinct, but Thomas has just sent me a text...with some very interesting emoji choices, saying he will kick me in my “acknowledgements section” unless he gets the microphone. So, Thomas Whitebottom, the mic is yours now. Between Ananya and Vasudev, they have broadly covered boring and pointless. So you could do something pompous and self-aggrandising, perhaps? Talk about how you gave up a fake lordship to come mingle with us brownies. Leave out your shoplifting episode in East London. Tell us how you can save us, like you have been doing for the last thirty years.
(Whitebottom talks for a bit, Balagopal interjects. I pass the microphone to him.)
Me: I think Vasudev has a mind-numbingly uninteresting point to make. Let’s allow him. And you can continue with your high-handedness thereafter, Thomas, don’t worry.
(Vasudev Balagopal speaks for a bit. Whitebottom finishes his piece.)
Me: Perhaps, it’s a good time for a reading. Let’s start with Ananya again, shall we? Go on, Ananya, I can see you’ve bitten your knuckles till they’ve bled. Why don’t you read that bit where you speak of dung cakes poetically, and exoticise the tepid yellow dal we eat every day by calling it lentils de la brouhaha...so the white reader thinks it’s profound? Pause meaningfully from time to time. It makes you look appropriately compassionate. Read slowly. So that those in the audience contemplating self-harm will go ahead with immediate effect.
(Ananya Menon Roy does a reading. The other two clap.)
Me: Coming to you, Vasudev, why don’t you, under the guise of talking about the plight of the Bilbonko tribe of the Jagadjal Islands, speak at length about your own greatness. And how it has grown steadily, along with the decibel level of your voice that makes a mic redundant, from your first book to your 14th? Drop hints, too, please, about how you deserve the highest civilian award we have. And that there are rumours that you might be awarded the Purple Heart, so our own people better hurry.
(Vasudev Balagopal speaks and does a reading. The other two clap. Vasudev begins weeping, overcome by emotion.)
Me: Well, that leaves us with you, Thomas. (Ananya makes a face.) Oh, hold on, Ananya wants to say something.
Me (continuing): Sorry, ladies and gentleman, Ananya forgot to slip in details of her trip to Tuscany a few months ago. And she would like to talk about it while pretending to talk about Vasudev’s work. That way, she can show you she can wear a Jamdani sari and a traditional mookkuthi on one hand, and wax poetic about the intense clear redness of Morellino di Scansano that is divine when paired with salumi and semi-hard cheese, on the other.
(Ananya Menon Roy speaks for a bit. Whitebottom cuts in and does a ten-minute reading.)
Me: I think we are done here. From the corner of my eye, I can see the organizer. He is saying we have three minutes left. Either that or what he can do to me with three fingers. So, why don’t we finish with each of you saying something patently fake-nice about the organiser? He paid for your tickets and stay, after all. Plus, you drank and ate like no one was watching you. I saw a couple of you stealing napkins, and shampoos, too. Compare him to Nelson Mandela, Morgan Freeman or some such person. Confirm your berth for next year.
(The writers do the requisite brown-nosing.)
Me: Now let’s throw open the session to the audience. It’s what we fondly call the Q&A. It gives the audience the opportunity to pick up the mic and tell you about their lives – even more mundane than yours – in about eight to nine paragraphs that lead nowhere, much like my career, under the guise of a question.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is a spineless writer who has managed to get his name on the spines of five books so far. He is available for demeaning literary assignments for drink and board.