I was born in a literature festival. My childhood playground was the goddess Saraswati’s backyard.
These names may mean nothing to the white man, the handful of Punjabis and Bongs, and the one-and-a-half Mallus from Delhi who decide what constitutes Indian Literature these days, but, among other things, I ate Bombay Toast made by Mrs Palagummi Padmaraju, I sat on Sri Sri’s (the Sri Sri, the legendary poet, not the godman!) lap as he smoked those non-filter cigarettes, made poor Siva Shankara Sastri fall on his back because I removed the stick that held up the cloth of an easy chair, dined with the Buchi Babus (sitting on a high chair, though), and started reading literature that was actually appropriate for children, borrowing books from the vast library of the Arudras.
All thanks to my grandfather, the real Devulapalli Krishna Sastri, who turned our home into an admission-free toll booth, if you will, for all Telugu literary traffic.
Nearly forty years later, when my first book came out, and my editor (who features in various, barely concealable disguises in my pieces), suggested my name for a prestigious literature festival (when she could have chosen from ten more experienced, more glamorous writers on her roster), foolishly, I accepted. I thought it was appropriate. I would fit in. It was, after all, where I had grown up.
That was seven years ago. I am a lit fest veteran now. I can show you the scars. I have been to nine literary festivals. And, frankly speaking, it has been nine too many.
In my youth, though I was too silly to fully get the exchanges between the stalwarts I mention earlier, I could sense they were actually about poetry, literature, art, creativity, inspiration, and the elusive muse which, if his friends were to be believed, my granddad seemed to have a monopoly over. More importantly, I could sense the fun at these gatherings, the sparkle, and, for want of a better word, the innocence.
No one seemed to take themselves too seriously despite being bona fide giants in their respective areas. For why on earth would an idiot kid actually want to hang around these old fogeys when there were unconquered trees in every compound?
While today’s literature festivals have been motherlodes of gas, pomposity and duplicity to mine from, and perhaps half my oeuvre in Scroll.in has been a result of these outings, after the last one, I am done with them. (Let me assure you, there isn’t a large queue of litfest curators pounding on my door this minute.) As Mrs Packletide put it so eloquently, the incidental expenses are too heavy.
I am not so naive as to think that forty-odd years ago, when Telugu writers, poets and artists congregated for one reason or another, that they were somehow a selfless breed existing purely for art. I am sure there would have been one-upmanship, backbiting, angling for the same deal and all other normal human responses emanating from a homogenous group with access to limited resources. But two things I can say with certainty: that art, and by that, not necessarily their own, came first for all of them, and every one of them left back art that has endured.
Here are three reasons why I won’t attend literature festivals any more.
I use the word loosely here. And that’s not just because there are more film folk than writers at lit fests today. Or yoginis, nutrition experts, former models, angst-ridden vocalists, and a whole bunch of folk that have taken away shelf space from the real writer. But because I find it increasingly hard to call even those participants, the supposedly real ones who write for a living, writers.
For, the average beast you see here doesn’t display even a single quality that I associated with writers: humour, individuality, dignity, grace, generosity, inclusiveness, or the most important one of all – the possession of which would make up somewhat for the lack of all the others – genuine talent.
The creature you see today, despite his puffed-up chest, is a brittle little guy – flitting maniacally from the author’s lounge to the sessions – his glassy stare forever on the lookout for a deal, a gig or a sale of three more copies of his book, entering and exiting little shape-shifting, self-serving groups, advertising both his FabIndia-mark vanity and his complete lack of self-esteem with equal panache. He is so full of himself that the only other space he has in his mind or body is for what comes out of the kebab platter in the evening (that he can wash down with copious amounts of fake Black Label).
As the year draws to an end, if you pay careful attention, you can see writers going for the full-body wax, getting their hair and make-up guys in position, putting on their LBDs, leaning forward seductively, licking their lips, touching themselves suggestively, and moaning softly on various social media platforms...to lure lit fest organisers.
And that’s just the men.
In the last ten years, the lit fest organiser (or curator, if you will) has become a powerful person. From obscure desert towns to one-horse hill-stations, there are lit fests everywhere these days. But that is still not enough for the thousand desperate writers dying for a podium, a microphone, and an opportunity to speak remorselessly about themselves.
The lit fest organiser, therefore, much like the Bollywood casting director, is suffering from a problem of plenty. Not for a minute am I saying there is a casting couch in the lit fest scene, heavens, no (though I can’t help but re-imagine a large reteller of classics and a famous lit fest organiser in the Hé Mera Dil Pyaar Ka Diwana scenario), but as the end of the year draws near, these temporary tribal chieftains do become the recipients of much social media love from author-starlets (male, I say, male!) hoping to confirm a berth.
And like all men (and women) who have snorted the hallucinogen of temporary power, these singularly unliterary folk, for those three-four days of their despotic reign, other than swaggering about, having willing writers laugh at their dumb jokes, and soaking in all the flattery, perpetuate an evil that has been the bastion of publishers: the pecking order.
At a recent festival, a big, blustery, no-talent organiser was taking a photo in the author’s lounge. A bunch of giggly young women writers and a couple of the organiser’s favourite male writers were in the frame. A not-so-high-profile writer walked into the frame innocently, sporting a big grin.
As he put his arm on the shoulder of one of the male writers and prepared to say “cheese”, the organiser, with a dismissive wave, asked the writer to get out of the frame. The man walked away quietly. I was appalled that not one of the writers (nor I, who was watching the whole thing) in the frame objected. But that was the precise moment I decided I’d never attend a lit fest again.
Not too long ago, a gentleman I know from my children’s illustrator days called me up. He was excited. They were on the verge of setting up a children’s lit fest, and could I suggest a few authors as participants? I called him back a day later with the names of four or five children’s writers who I thought were good, and a bunch of talented illustrators.
“Good, good,” he said. ‘But...tell me...what do you think of Shilpa Shetty and Shruti Hassan?”
“Lovely ladies, both,” I said. “But what have they got to do with the lit fest?”
“No,” he said. “I heard Shilpa Shetty once said Animal Farm was her favourite children’s book. She seems like a good choice.”
“I see,” I said. “And Shruti Hassan?”
“She is Kamal-ji’s child, no?” he said. “Perhaps she can talk about her childhood.”
I could see where the gentleman was coming from. All the average reader is interested in today, a truth that is being hammered to us via the ever-growing, fly-ridden dung heap of “literature” by anyone who is remotely connected to films, is Bollywood.
Name one lit fest in the recent past that didn’t have Karan Johar.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is a two-bit writer from Chennai. He works as a JCB operator in his spare time. That’s the closest he will get to a literary prize.