It was early June 2019 when the idea of the Rainbow Lit Fest (RLF) was seeded in my head. I was sitting with Dibakar Ghosh, the editor of my memoirs Straight To Normal, discussing the absence of large format queer literature festivals in India and abroad. Barring a handful of festivals in the US and Europe, queer literature features as part of Pride festivities and film festivals. In India, however, we have had a few LGBTQ+ literature festivals which were mostly queer “only”, or perceived as exclusive to the community.
Dibakar was of the view that I was in a position to create a Lit Fest – a queer-focused one. I could do that, he said, by replacing the annual arts, music and human rights event I curated under the Embrace: Music Justice Arts banner with the proposed queer literature festival.
He had grown to read my mind, my emotional and mental state, and could see I needed to anchor myself with some kind of objective which was larger and beyond me. He was aware that I was slipping into a period of depression, something that I knew was building up in me over the months after my book hit the market end January 2019.
I ran from one event to another including literature festivals, special gatherings, colleges and so on. At almost every event I was stonewalled with questions on situations that I had been through. It was rare that these questions related to happy moments, resulting in emotions that at times broke me from within and brought me to tears. In fact, I struggled to do book readings for this reason.
Given that I had written the first draft of my book, Straight To Normal, in 27 days between end-September and October 2018, I had hardly spent any time absorbing the ups and downs of my 50 years. I had written like a reporter, recalling and jotting down everything in a sequence, placing facts, not letting myself slip into tears off sadness or joy, resulting in a release of emotions when I hit the road with the book.
What also bothered the inner me was the publicity and attention that I received – both of which I should have been prepared for. I had grown to become uncomfortable with the media glare and felt that the purpose with which I had set out was getting lost. I had hoped that the book would make people more aware about the lives of gay people, of homosexuality, and of homophobia. But in those days, it was more about me than about the purpose.
This was why a literature festival seemed the ideal thing to do, as it would keep the focus on the event, its speakers, and the content generated from it, besides achieving the objectives I had set out to meet when I wrote my book.
As the depression settled in I withdrew from functions most of that summer, with the exception of the Kashish Film Festival in Mumbai early June and a book function at Title Waves bookshop around the same time. I broke down at the film festival during a discussion, but was more controlled at the book event.
In both instances I revealed my vulnerability. Before I knew it, I had a mix of ailments including vertigo, that were all signs of depression and anxiety. For the first time I turned to medication which gave me instant relief. It calmed me to an extent that nothing at all seemed to bother me, except for the weight gain – a side effect that rounded every straight line in my body.
Yet, the Lit Fest was evolving in my mind and by the end of June it had a sub-text – queer and inclusive. If this sounded similar to diversity and inclusion or D&I – the much-talked about efforts by corporates to include the LGBT community – it was meant to. The only difference I wished to underline was that we, the queer community, were the hosts, and were open to including the same the heterosexual world that had othered us owing to their own phobias!
In a way, this was a role reversal that encouraged intersectionality and a focus on common ground between various identities. This thought was emphasised in all our communications as I strongly believed that there was a dire need to build alliances and find ways to negotiate through the diversity of co-existence.
Over the next few months the real work was done with the setting up of an advisory committee that represented different sections of society, including the worlds of literature, history, law, activism and theatre. They included Anjali Gopalan of Naz Foundation, Maya Sharma of Vikalp (an author herself), Parmesh Sahani (author), Dr Saif Mahmood (lawyer, author and poet), Saleem Kidwai (historian and author), Vivek Mansukhani (educationalist and theatre personality), Apurva Asrani (scriptwriter and film-maker) and Zainab Patel (D&I manager with KPMG).
Epic India came on board as a co-presenter with its founder, Pankaj Malhotra, assuming the role of creative director. Together, we selected Gulmohar Park Club in Delhi as our venue – apparently an unusual place for a literature festival, which was one of the reasons it was picked. It sits in the midst of a largely middle-class residential area and had a connection with the community’s struggle with Section 377.
The first and primary petitioner in the case – Naz Foundation – had its office in Gulmohar Park at that time, and the first press conference on Section 377 and the 2001 petition, was held in this area. What’s more, as some delegates and attendees observed, it was thrilling and rare to be in a space that was shared with families, with individuals walking and jogging just a few metres from the main stage, a “co-existence of sorts”.
We were fortunate in that seven LGBT+ groups came out in support of RLF. We had other partnerships in place but raising money was probably the toughest thing at that point given the slowing economy and the fact that we had no past history to show. Even though we fell short of funds by a few lakhs of rupees, we managed to sign up nine sponsors and four donors, including somewhat unexpected contributions from individuals who subscribed to our crowd-funding campaign. This response itself allowed us so much more freedom in the programming we created, besides reassuring us that we were on the right path.
RLF finally had over 70 speakers, panelists and moderators, besides artists and musicians from different parts of the country and the world – more than 18 cities and towns were represented. Spread over two days, December 7 and 8, we had more than 650 people on the first day and a little over 800 on the second.
The mix of speakers included Devdutt Pattanaik, who opened the event with a keynote, followed by the Indian classical singer, Shubha Mudgal. On day two, the keynotes were from Nandita Das and Onir. And in between we held sessions on history of the LGBTQ+ movement through talks, book launches and films. This included screening BOMgAY – the gay film starring Rahul Bose and made by the late Riyadh Wadia.
We had the privilege of bringing about a “reunion” between three amazing men – Owais Khan, Rafiquel Dowjah and Pawan Dhall – who organised India’s first pride march 20 years ago in Kolkata. We even released a special edition magazine titled Q&I, with articles that had appeared in “hidden” queer publications back in the ’80s and ’90s.
We didn’t hesitate from discussing sex-work and sex workers’ rights, or political issues of ideologies, or the contentious Trans Bill. Some of this was deliberated through panels and talks, but was also engaged with through the brilliance of drag expressed in a Bhojpuri style by Avatari Devi.
I was overwhelmed by the feedback, response and the spirit that was on display at the fest. By then I was already in the planning stage for the 2020 edition, scheduled for December 5 and 6. Some of our past sponsors were ready to sign up and contribute more to RLF. Authors from UK to Canada were already writing seeking dates and a space to talk. The Afghan author, Nemat Sadat, who was one of our speakers in 2019, had initiated a discussion on a session for this year. We had short films and even documentaries such as the much awaited Sab Rab De Bande (a documentary on homosexuality and the Sikh community) lined up as part of RLF 2020.
Adding to the encouragement, during the first week of March, one of the largest players in the literature-to-music events space had started a conversation on whether we could partner them and take RLF to other metro cities. While the details were not finalised, the prospect was exciting and not at all distant from my personal vision of how this platform would evolve.
However, as is the case with just about any literature festival, event, corporation, family or individual, the appearance of Covid-19 in our lives has pretty much derailed everything we may have thought of doing this year. As John Lennon would have said: “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”
Barely two or three weeks later, I was pretty sure that RLF 2020 would not materialise. Yet I held on to the thinnest strand of hope. I tried for a while to ignore the crumbling economy with prospects of 0 percent or negative growth. But I could hardly push aside the fact that a large number of people in the unorganised sector were left to their own fate with virtually no support system. Companies, as we know, have been cutting jobs, slashing salaries and offering “furlough” options to some.
Who then would have the money to spend on a literature festival this December? Truly, would I even want to ask when most of our fellow citizens will be struggling to retain jobs and incomes, and dealing with the mental anguish of the new normal and an uncertain life?
Clearly, physical events are more or less off until the end of 2020. And this has created a strange kind of panic rush to the online world of social media. There are webinars almost every minute, till as late as 10 pm. Instagram and Facebook live sessions are now commonplace. And many believe this is the way to go for literature festivals, attempting to create new followers while retaining the old ones, with what I see as an attempt to stay connected and relevant in the post-pandemic world.
I am not convinced that there is a need to jump on the same bandwagon to grab eyeballs and minds on such platforms. To me it is a merely temporary distraction for people stuck at home, often bored, hopping between Netflix or Amazon Prime and social media. With the extensive use of apps such as Zoom – which may carry on for months given the work-from-home scenario – added hours in front of a screen might be stressful rather than pleasurable. Besides, attention span on social media is also pretty low, particularly amongst the young, which is why it isn’t uncommon to find people leave and come back or never return.
No doubt, good, solid content will retain the attention of followers. However, online events will always lack the presence and warmth that the physical world has, and the commitment of people who travel to a venue to get their share of intellectual ideas, fun, and the time to network or reconnect with people.
I knew that as a Lit Fest we had and have our uniqueness, as author and columnist, Sandip Roy put it: “Amidst literature festivals that often seem clones of each other, RLF stood out because it brings to light something that has often been pushed into the closet.” In other words, our concerns of sustenance and survival are different from those of other literature festivals.
I’m sure RLF will return in 2021. While at the time of taking the decision to cancel the 2020 edition, I was saddened and disappointed, I felt there was an opportunity to gather more literature, find a larger number of “unheard” stories, and add greater diversity to our overall content. On the way from here to when we have our next fest, we will be accessible online with competitions, live sessions, discussions, book launches and even some research in partnerships with a mix of queer groups. So until we can enjoy the comfort of gatherings, hugs, face-to-face conversations and the joy of interacting with the “realness” of humanity, hang in there and stay safe under the umbrella of the rainbow.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.