Below The Belt

Extraneous Noise: Tyranny of crony circles and lit fests

If literature festivals are about celebrating writers, then they invariably are also about celebrating freedoms.

 |  Below The Belt  |  7-minute read |   25-11-2014
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Just last week, a fellow author of three novels, cribbed to me on a long distance call, about how he never gets invited for any literary festival. He was soliciting my advice, having been a scribe at some point in the not so recent past, and a fairly senior one, if he needed to hire a publicist to "crack the code," referring to the coveted inner circle of lit fests now sprouting all over India.  

Last heard, even Panchkula had one.

"Panchkula, silly," he laughed.

"Panchkula?" I repeated.

"That tiny motherfucker of a spot, somewhere near Chandigarh… which by the way has not one, but two lit fests now…" he growled, minutes later. "You know it's all about who you know… how well you are connected in the so-called literary circles… serious lobbying… I mean have you noticed the way smaller, younger authors are treated at bigger festivals? And this JLF is clearly organised to ass-lick the heavyweight goras and grab national media eyeballs by flying them down, and wining and dining some NRI desi authors… not to forget actors turned authors… Bollywood celebs… what about us? Motherfuckers who quit their day jobs and write their balls out… who have no money. No power. No south Mumbai or south Delhi pedigree. No famous husbands/wives/fathers. No Pakistani roots. Who don't know how to hold a wine glass. No big shot angrez agent backing us up or a fancy, firang publishing house!" 

There was a petulant pause.  

"Chill, books hardly sell, anymore. Find some other fight…" I interrupted.  Before we hung up. Not speaking for months.  

"Tarun Tejpal, motherfucker, now even he gets invited!" his message read earlier in the day. Today.

Were we making up? 

"Tejpal? You sure? Which lit fest?" I replied.

"Times Literary Fest, Mumbai. The newspaper you spent most of your career in. The number one daily," he added, sardonically.  

"Motherfucker," I wrote back.

"Touché," he responded. 

We were equals. I smiled.  Knowing that somewhere, my friend and fellow author, was right. He had been all along. His anger not just directed towards a greater number of novelists not making the cut to these elitist literary festivals, that despite their numerous tall claims of being representative of India's great and democratic book-loving tradition and habits, mainly exist as emblems of a convenient populist culture (the same way Bollywood does or reality TV), where large corporate sponsors matter, as much as saleable star authors. Where representation is based on two fundamentals - commercial success (how much has the author sold) and controversial quotient (how many people will turn up to see him/her.) Which is why I am reacting to the Tejpal invitation, with the same outrageous ire as numerous folks on Twitter who since last evening have been questioning the intent of not just one swish literary festival, backed by an undefeatable media conglomerate, but the whole literary circus, in general, once a year.

City, after city. Town, after town. Yet another farce. Yet another fixing. Yet another fallacy.

Barely a year ago, former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal was arrested for allegedly raping a junior colleague at the magazine's annual confab in Goa. Now, out on bail as the trial lingers, Tejpal was to be seen in his first public outing at the TOI Literary Carnival, in a panel titled, "The Tyranny of Power", chaired by journalist Manu Joseph (penned the controversial piece, What The Elevator Saw in Outlook, receiving a lot of flak for trying to exonerate Tejpal in public opinion by cruelly assassinating the character of victim), along with screenwriter Basharat Peer (hot off Haider) and Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former diplomat and member of the Congress Party. Aiyar told the Wall Street Journal, "The man [Tejpal] is under indictment, but he has the right to defend himself and while he's on bail, there are no restrictions on where he can appear. If he wishes to say something about the charges against him, he can, if he wishes not to talk about the matter, that is his right."


So is Times of India really, the symptom, or the malaise, itself? What was the greater risk? The controversial invitation or the last minute cancellation? What sells? The scandal or the shame?

"We have regretfully withdrawn our invitation to Tarun Tejpal to participate in The Times Of India Lit fest, Dec 5-7,2014, While there was never a question of a subjudice case being discussed at any of its forums, the reaction to his inclusion suggests that our lit fest was in danger of being overwhelmed by an extraneous issue. A great deal of thought and effort went into putting together intellectually stimulating topics and panelists, and we did not want any distractions from either. All these years we have managed to be about discussion not noise, and we'd like to keep it that way for the sake of our acclaimed participants and engaged audiences," reads the official statement from Namita Devidayal and Bachi Karkaria, longest-serving Times of India employees, oops, editors, oops, Festival Directors.

There is a God!

No, wait.


Now where have I heard that word, before? Extraneous, meaning, of external origin/ irrelevant or unrelated to the subject being dealt with. How is a woman's rape, an extraneous issue? Or is it? The way we forget. After the headlines. The prime-time debates. The armchair arguments. The angry Facebook and Twitter updates. After one Nirbhaya dies. After we allow her to.

Another author friend, Amandeep Sandhu puts this in perspective, and strongly adds, "It is not an extraneous issue. It is central to the publicity sought by the festival organisers by inviting Tarun Tejpal. It smacks of the same impulse exhibited by the organisers of Jaipur Literature Festival a few years back when they first grandiosely invited Salman Rushdie and then backed out. At that time the organisers did not even support writers who read from Rushdie's works. The issues are different, but the pattern is the same: first send a message which is bound to excite crowds and then when people's pressure mounts - in one case religious-sensitive, in another gender-sensitive and then conveniently and regretfully drop the invitations. If literature festivals are about celebrating writers, then they invariably are also about celebrating freedoms. Nowhere in both the episodes have the organisers revealed their personal stance, except to play it safe. That playing safe finally compromises freedoms. On top of it, by revoking the invitation, the organisers of this festival yet again have passed a sentence on a case, which is still subjudice."

Who decides a woman's freedom? Her fate? And are Rushdie and Tejpal the same, in the end?

The Times of India lit fest statement, reeking of the same proverbial hypocrisy and rhetorical smugness that was recently reflected in another famous statement (that also went viral), addressed to Deepika Padukone by Priya Gupta, managing editor, Times of India, a simple "response executive", with no journalistic background and many double promotions. After weeks of verbal volleyballing between the two affronted parties. Barely a year after, the dimpled actress was seen sitting pretty beside Vineet Jain, at several award functions. Jain being the managing director of India's largest media house, Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd, parent company of TOI, his Wikipedia page claims, referring to him as a "spiritualist, entrepreneur, an educationalist, a humanist and a patron of art and culture". "Deepika, just for the record, we do not zoom into a woman's vagina or show her nipples. As a newspaper, we take every care to ensure that we pixelate them if they show up in a picture, but your cleavage is as sexy as Shah Rukh Khan's '8-pack' abs. Given the nature of the online media worldwide, there could well have been a story headlined, 'OMG... Shah Rukh's 8-pack sexy abs!!!'". Well, you know the rest…

"Guess what?" the author friend rings again.

A few seconds earlier.

"What? Tejpal at JLF now?" I laugh.

It feels good to laugh. While I still grapple with the questions.

"No… this woman he raped is apparently writing a book. She's landed a book deal… soon it will be her at lit fests… bet that will be the next great catch, eh? That was coming, right? It had to…" he pauses.

I am silent.

My friend laughs.

"Find another fight…" I disconnect.


Sreemoyee Piu Kundu Sreemoyee Piu Kundu @sreemoyeekundu

The writer is an ex-lifestyle editor and PR vice president, and now a full-time novelist. She's the author of Faraway Music, the best-selling female erotica, Sita's Curse, You've Got The Wrong Girl! and Cut. Last year, she wrote the internationally acclaimed work of non-fiction on single women in India, Status Single. A leading columnist on sexuality and gender, Sreemoyee is also the recipient of NDTV L'oreal Women of Worth Award in the 'Literature' category.

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