From book fairs to lit fests – the gallop of the written word

Shivaji Dasgupta
New Update
Lit Fest People Stage Show

(Representative image)

Kolkata: To improvise the good children rulebook, writers were meant to be read and not heard. But then, in these stereophonic times, far too many are heard a lot more than they are read.


At an emerging age, we used to eagerly await the annual book fair at the Calcutta dusty grounds. The commercial publishers constructed imposing stalls with top-dollar carpeting, arguably from East Bengal Decorators, the cleanest in the business. Publications like The Statesman tapped profitably into nostalgia by offering re-prints of red-letter editions, the assassination of Gandhi et al. While the consulates and propaganda chariots (mostly communist) chose niche demonstration of wares, albeit decked up lovingly. Most interesting were the Little Magazines, a rapidly diminishing constituency, flaunting a wealth of depraved talent.

While being suitably spoiled by a barrage of goodies, acquisition subject to parental purse strings, there was surely one indelible truth. Except for the occasional autographing exercise, the authors were rarely seen and never heard. Thus, they enjoyed a certain supernatural aura, quite the mythical Wren and Martin of Grammar book fame, and this was substantially augmented by residing in thin air, gracing a physical presence perhaps only to hand over printable manuscripts.

In quirky retrospective logic, many did feel that their three-dimensional entity could never surpass the black-and-white impact, colour in this rare case a step backwards. Unlike say, film stars, whose charisma is derived from the amplification of presence and a ‘darshan’ would further enamel the impressions. Writers derive uncanny equity from obscurity and an enigmatic desk and chair qualify as the most promiscuous stock in trade.


But then, in tune with the audio-visual era we live in, the Lit Fests in India flamboyantly took over the mantle of the book fair, the T20 equivalent of the former’s Test Match tenacity. It all started with Jaipur (in India) and was succeeded ably by the exquisitely crafted Calcutta edition and peers have spawned across the educated width and depth. These are invariably finely-curated intellectual fashion shows, with the stage becoming a ramp for well-toned brains, with interpretations and extrapolations ruling the conversations.

This is exactly my key point of discomfort, the part about the enforced analysis and interpretation. In a very linear flow of logic, the difference between a book and a movie is the patently-open canvas of the former, licensing every reader to forecast the real-time screenplay. A well-sculpted book is carefully co-created by every reader, and this leads to an understated yet valuable sense of ownership. As an extension of this argument, when writers and interrogators overanalyze any content, it loses its non-aligned integrity and thus queers the pitch.

But yes, just as the T20 formats lovingly opened up Cricket to a less intense new age viewer, the Lit Fests potentially expand the franchise of readership and is good for publishing at large. I know many who started listening to serious classical music driven by the multi-sensorial charisma of Zakir Hussain and Amjad Ali Khan, and the same must hold true for Imran Khan in the 1980s, in a different arena. So, seeing the author while listening to her and a few cronies or foes can help sustain reading habits that are surely cholesterol and not plant-based meat.

In many fields of play, the greatest threat to civilization is the notion of progress, a dangerous deterrent while posing as an ally. The Lit Fest is the outcome of a surge in performance culture, persuaded by technology to earn tenancy in social media exchanges. Most vitally to fast forward the reputations of both publisher and author, by applying rudimentary principles of consumer marketing.

A dogged part of me and possibly of you as well still believe in the invisible acumen of a writer, a Pied Piper who lures your imagination with incurable possibilities. But each to his own, I guess, and on this indulgent note, let me head to the lending library, the very original fair-cum-fest.