Day 2: Litfest

By Sunil Kumar

Day 2: Litfest

So; the surreal journey into a modern-day mindscape and the world of words continued. For the first time; my father accompanied me to see what the fuss was all about. After a taxi ride with a bunch of women for whom I had to move to the front seat; and listening to the taxi driver’s admiration of “Tiger Zinda Hai” and dismissing the U.P government’s handling of the Taj Mahal; I reach the venue; the old film studio which has played host to animated discussions for most of the last decade.

The first session we attend is “Beyond the Bestseller: From Insta Success to Books that Endure” a discussion moderated by a plump Srijana Mitra Das featuring Claudia Roden, Plum Sykes and publisher Meru Gokhale. A long-winding talkfest; a staple of the festival ensued; but a single line is what I remember nearly a month later: A bestseller is a work which has an ability to connect with people. Now; this as many people may be able to decipher is a totally random process or we may have had every book making the author rich. My question to this panel was on whether people need to embellish facts to sell books(non-fiction); and whether it needed to appeal to the left brain or the right brain. Now this as we may know from common sense is what so many high selling authors would resort to; and expecting something creative and offbeat from straitjacketed women would be a big ask.

Meru Gokhale came back with the standard publisher refrain of extensive fact-checking and diligence taken when publishing a writer; and Sykes mentioning that non-fiction writers who do this may be better off writing a novel. In my opinion; the jury’s out on this; and things will continue anyways. Obviously; whoever does this is not going to publicly reveal the same; unless he wants some semi-damning publicity. Life’s a story anyways and in the immortal words of the X Files; the truth’s out there. May continue to be so from the beginning to the end of time.

Moving on; as we continue sitting in the Times Hall; the next session begins on “Journalism as History in a Hurry”. With inane and fashionable platitudes flowing fast from Mei Fong, a biased Pragya Tiwari and an equally insidious moderator Zareer Masani who asked a few pertinent questions; I want to listen to a session that piqued my interest I.E Stalin with Harvard professor Stephen Kotkin. As this begins; the audience is not faced with two or three pompous self-interested writers chatting on a sofa. Rather; Kotkin sums up his book walking up and down in the hall; and cracks a few jokes like a stand-up comic.

I can’t help it; my judgmental gene is active due to years of conditioning and being subjected to pathetic generalizations by some crass individuals. Coming to Kotkin; I liked his detailed historical discursive conversation and managed to ask him a few questions on how Stalin’s death affected Soviet Communism after 1953 and whether Leon Trotsky becoming the man in power would have impacted geopolitics.

Kotkin replied by mentioning that he found my questions very good; but in all fairness; he would answer only one of them. Trotsky becoming Supreme Leader was a myth according to him; as Lenin had all but appointed Stalin to succeed him. Reading “The Romanovs”; a book bought from Cambridge on my last visit has given me added perspective on Russia’s long and bloody history; especially its Tsars and the Soviet Union being perceived as a “friendly” country in 80s India; and Russia after that certainly impacted the Indian psyche in general.

Kotkin; like most Western academia and media seemed to disdain Trump; but also praised democracy including in the USA and a nod to the host country; India.
He mentioned that freedom of choice in pluralist societies gave one the option to discard incumbents. Overall; he was pragmatic on India’s concerns and standing in global geopolitics; and regarded China’s attempts at overthrowing the US from pole position as a serious well-planned threat which was being taken lightly. Chinese strategists wanted to evict the US from its bases. India was smack in the middle of the rising conflict between the new power centres of the world. Also; Russia these days was like a junior partner and willing accomplice in the aggrandisement of China. Opaque and authoritarian tendencies were part of the communist government’s psyche and like India; a deep layered and ancient civilization such as the Chinese could not easily be summed up.

After Kotkin; we make our way to the “TIM Delhi Airport Hall” to listen to Mishka Ben David and Ashwin Sanghi give their take on “The Thriller Weavers”. Although the conversation was interesting; I and the audience could not help but wonder if Sanghi’s attempts at marketing and product placement were a little over-the-top; whereas Ben David was more restrained.

Sanghi’s anecdotes were funny and creatively inspiring. Visits to Kolkata and Kashmir where he saw Amitabh Bachchan’s temple and a Jewish grave(Yuz Asaf) got his writing juices flying after which he merged disparate ideas into a coherent novel narrative. Ben David on the other hand is a former Mossad agent who is well-known in Israel as a writer. In contrast to the Indian; the Israeli was less verbose and seemed to have attended fewer litfests to talk shop.

My question to the duo was on the ideal length of a thriller and whether any setting would do. For example; a dull English garden can also prove to be a hotbed of intrigue and murder in the hands of an accomplished writer. Sanghi responded that he was naturally verbose; both in real life and on paper. But; when he was writing with international thriller writer James Patterson; he learnt the art of creating snappy, high-impact dialogue which kept interest more alive and kept the audience guessing.

Ben David mentioned that he did not consider length to be very important in the thriller genre; as both a short novel and a long verbose one could prove to be equally satisfying. He also mentioned publisher control and customization according to the market.

Moving on to the JSW hall; Cathy Scott Clark, Brijesh Singh and S.Zaidi were discussing urban policing, terror, dons and their creative process apart from their editors. Zaidi is apparently more afraid of his editor Baghel rather than Mumbai mafia bosses; and also said that dealing with negativity daily was part of his job; and by now he was probably used to it I.e effectively desensitized. Brijesh Singh; a former member of the Mumbai police praised the organization as doing its best despite constraints of funds, technology and a huge ever-expanding population.

Left around 4.30 earlier on the second day(Saturday) as was committed to reaching another engagement.

Some photos from the day


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