“Can you shift a bit to your left? And keep your eyes up here…”

Who, asked the bemused authors, was speaking to them? It felt a bit like the voice of god, but it was merely the tech team giving instructions to the writers/speakers from their perch on another floor at what was a hybrid version of the Bangalore Literature Festival. Authors were both online and offline, as was the audience, which was either logged in from home or in person right here right now.

This was a festival in real time, on ground, in the flesh. An old fest in a new, new world. Warm exchanges were going to be interrupted by disembodied directions, proximity kept at a distance, every interaction choreographed. Tiny human islands formed and un-formed over the next two days, over the cool weekend of December 12-13.

BLF kicked off day one session one with bestselling writer Anuja Chauhan commenting on the unusual amount of eye contact with her husband, filmmaker Niret Alva, who was in conversation with her on stage. And thus began the madness of ensuring this session after that, one speaker after the other, dialing the few virtual speakers in time, appreciating the live banter on stage.

Anuja Chauhan in conversation with Niret Alva.

Preparations for a hybrid

When we signed off last year, saying “see you next year same time same place”, little did we know that the promise would be kept in the middle of a pandemic. This time the planning period went without the usual café venues or even a “what are you wearing?” For the first time we were operating purely on con-calls.

No one was offered lunch or dinner, wine or water in one another’s homes. Team member V Ravichandar’s sprawling garden in the heart of the city was out of bounds this time. Cold feet, butterflies in the stomach, fingers crossed – we were so aware of the risks that even our rows were rare.

The laughs were quicker this time though; like gunshots they rang out all through the planning stage, a happy spillover into the actual festival. Once the decision was taken to go ahead, everyone shifted into a slightly manic note. We were going to do this! Like teenagers who eloped in the night, we felt like one half of a pleasurable secret.

The cheer of potential participants added to the festive feeling. In particular, Vivek Shanbhag, who said: “If we have the festival, it must be a physical one. I will be happy to speak only if it is physical.” Only in Bangalore can the writer community have one another’s back so deliciously.

Vivek Shanbhag (right) with Karthik Venkatesh.

The obvious question – how would we bring writers and readers together, how? – did not faze us too much. The thing is, each year BLF does feel new, different, reinvented. No two fests are the same for any organiser anywhere in the world. BLF looks forward only to the sameness of the serious love it gets from the city, but there are different hills to climb each time, be it an unwieldy number of parallel sessions or inviting a diva/don to speak.

We have produced safety pins out of thin air to keep pretty pallus in place and carried sitars for musicians through heavy downpours. But this year, a cough, a sneeze, a clearing of the throat…anything could kill the mood.

The challenge was to keep in mind the shifting conditions, the new world order. Not just the venue of the fest, but every arrangement had to be scrutinised as well as sanitised – being safe was as vital as being meaningful. The content still had to surprise, as always; the drama could not be the holding of the festival during a pandemic.

We took our act to the Bangalore International Center (BIC), not only because they generously offered it to us free, but also because it is picturesque, green and full of open spaces. We swayed between two abject fears: our two venues, the hall and the auditorium, would fill to the brim or be completely vacant.

Reality saved us – the right number of people turned up, keeping us no more than one-third full. The nightmare of having to turn away a rabidly well-read mob never came true. With masks in place and the smell of hand sanitisers in the air, we were ready to inaugurate the ninth edition of BLF.

Near but far

Those who came smiled at one another with their eyes and settled sedately into their seats after the space had been aired for 15 minutes. Questions at the end of each session, both from those present and from those watching online, were asked from a respectable distance. There were breaks between sessions for sanitisation. The use of face masks was naturally mandatory. Every window was open.

Any event, on the ground or online, has too many moving parts; a constant, mostly invisible, jugglery that never lets up. Authors lose their cool, books get lost, mikes switch off, internet connections are iffy, hearts break… The list of what can go wrong is outgrowing its clothes all the time. The humming of Covid-19 in the background only adds to the cacophony.

(From left) Zac O'Yeah, Usha Ananda Krishna, Usha KR, Aruna Nambiar.

Speakers, of course, took off their masks, but only to speak – except the health panel: therapist Anna Chandy and author Amandeep Sandhu chose to speak in muffled tones from behind their mask. Stay safe, they said, staying safe themselves.

Attending as speakers or audience was both a physical and psychological act, at once brave and one of surrender – so the choice was personal and respected accordingly. For some, being out in the open was a step back into normalcy, a return to life as it used to be. For others it was a reminder that no pleasure comes without a price.

Despite the strain of consciously maintaining distances, of bumping fists and elbows or even executing smart namastes, it was easy to forget that the times they are a-changin’. From poet Mani Rao’s practical lines – when / you are dying, you change / to prose / The family finds out who gets what – to the search for a permanent address in the context of the current chaos, the festival stumbled into every unknown corner.

The sessions had a poignant newness to them, an added nuance that was missing earlier. Themes included home and health, satire and crime, security and the evolution of female characters in fiction. Ecology came in with Rohini Nilekani’s search for the black panther, while Sudha Murty brought in grandparent stories. No one felt the need to focus exclusively on the pandemic as it infiltrates all thoughts and conversations anyway. Organic references to the new regime was a part of the dialogue.

The sun-splashed corridor of food, artistically laid out by chef Kanishka Sharma, was where the masks came off. The lack of a musical programme was keenly felt though, especially by team member Sadhana Rao, who lovingly puts this part together every year. The team, which also included Srikrishna Ramamoorthy, Subodh Sankar, Shrabonti Bagchi, Lakshmi Subodh and Shruti Venkat, contributed the necessary gusto and giggles. Teamwork was the glue; people coming together for one another could only create scaffoldings of fun.

Book-lovers browsing at the Festival bookstore.

The “when” of this festival overrides the “why” and “how”. The city’s slide into cultural silence in its intersections and the realisation that the world won’t change to fit itself around us had brought us here, to this hall, to this auditorium. And the online side only enhanced the actual fest. So though celebrated authors like Alexander McCall Smith, Jeffrey Archer, Moni Mohsin or Declan Walsh joined in from around the world, they were actually in conversation with Bangaloreans on the podium here.

Not just words and stories, fresh air can go to your head too. It wasn’t only the festival team, alerting one another on WhatsApp to every conceivable mishap, but the visitors, both writers and non-writers, who seemed to be awash with the memory of normalcy. When bookworms meet, the earth is just one big library.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.