Siddhartha Sarma: Among the Believers– My time at two literature festivals in Kolkata

Siddhartha Sarma is the author of two acclaimed novels and several works of non-fiction. His most recent novel is Year of the Weeds.

I do not often attend literature festivals, but I am glad I went to two, in quick succession, not just because of the way they were organised but also because I got to engage with Kolkata in a way I had not earlier.

I attended the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival from 18 to 20 January 2019. I was to speak as part of three panels on three different topics. The first panel, ‘Off Centre: Writing the Real India’, was to be moderated by Kota Neelima, a former colleague who I was looking forward to meeting again. I also wanted to meet the poet Sumana Roy and the novelist Prajwal Parajuly. Unfortunately, my flight was delayed by more than seven hours, and I was stuck at Delhi airport. It wasn’t an entirely wasted day, because I spent it with eminent writer Ranjit Lal and noted translator Arunava Sinha, who were on the same flight. But I missed the first session, and it was a significant loss for me.

On the second day, I was to moderate a session with Bangla novelist Anita Agnihotri and writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. While Hansda writes in English and I have interacted with him over email and on social media in the past, I have only read one of Anita’s extensive body of work, and I was looking forward to the discussion, titled ‘Writing Fact into Fiction’. Unfortunately again, Sowvendra had some urgent official work and could not come to Kolkata, so noted writer and translator Jerry Pinto very kindly filled in. We had a free-flowing discussion on the subject, and I learnt a lot of things from Jerry and Anita.

On the third day, writer and reviewer SB Veda was moderating my third panel, this one on travel literature. I finally got to meet Prajwal Parajuly, and also met journalist and writer Ashwini Devare, and Australian novelist John Zubrzycki. We talked about writing on travel, and writing emerging from it, and I got some insights into the creative processes of these writers. We also read some passages from some of our works.

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Earlier, on the night I reached Kolkata, I attended a dinner hosted by the organisers and Oxford Bookstore. This was the tenth anniversary of the literary festival, and the organisers had instituted an award to recognize Indian English literature for the decade, which they gave to me.

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Three days later, I returned to Kolkata for the Tata Kolkata Literary Meet. I had a session with young readers, where I spoke about the Niyamgiri agitation in Odisha, on which my new novel Year of the Weeds is based, and talked about the Constitution and its framers, the need for debate and dissent in a democracy, and the importance of working on democratic principles in our everyday lives. I also got to meet and interact with writers and publishers at the meet.

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At all my sessions in both events, the panels and topics were selected with care. My co-panelists had written or knew about the specific topic we were to discuss, and the moderators had read our works and had interesting, perceptive questions to ask. The audiences at all the panels were well-informed, well-read, curious and polite. I talked to several of them after each panel discussion on a wide range of topics. I had a wonderful and instructive time at both literature festivals, and the absence of high-profile yoga gurus and other such phenomena was particularly welcome. The focus was on literature and I gained from it.

During both visits, I also got to engage with the idea of Kolkata in a more complete manner than I have had in the past. I visited the Park Street Cemetery and paid my respects at the grave of William Jones, something I should have done much earlier. I took a walk along Park Street and ate the recommended cuisine, and also visited Chitpur Road, as well as some new parts of Kolkata. I reviewed the history of the city, and have perhaps begun to do a re-appraisal of its place and significance in the larger history of India. In particular, I am beginning to believe it would not have been a bad idea if Kolkata had continued to be the capital of the country. There is much to be said on this matter and perhaps I shall write about it at some point.

I am glad I attended both these literature festivals, and equally glad they were held in Kolkata. If the truest, most distilled form of literature is a reflection on lived experience and the human condition, I have perhaps gained some insights about the craft of literature from these events which celebrate it. And that is something to value.

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