Monday, January 07, 2008

Scenes from a Lit Fest

Crossings, Singapore's Writers Festival 2007, celebrated literature in its myriad forms with over 50 writers from 16 countries in over 100 programmes between 1-9 December.

For me, the entire festival was an exciting mash-up of scenes from writers' lives, off and onstage. It was an opportunity to see many players in action: moderators, writers, bloggers, festival organisers. There were many international writers setting the scene abuzz. The queues were the longest for the famous Chinese writers such as Jung Chang and Bei Dao. There were enough NRI and Indian names in the marquee to make the whole festival a la Rang De Basanti. David Davidar, Kunal Basu, Madhur Jaffery, and Anita Nair, among others.

December 8, 5 pm
The Singapore Tea Party

As Sharon Bakar and I enter Earshot, the famous cafe in the Arts House by the Singapore River, Sharon spots A. Samad Said, a writer from Malaysia.

"How good to see you Sharon," says Mr Said with a chirp in his voice. His small saintly figure, complete with a flowing white beard, is preched on a chair. In front of him, there is a plate of half-eaten sandwiches. Sharon aka Bibliobibuli, herself a famous Malaysian blogger, is pleased to get the attention from the Malaysian laureate. "Oh, he is the biggest writer in Malaysia," she tells me later.

The laureate talks about his upcoming session. Sharon promises to attend his session the next day and we break for a cup of tea.

Both of us are hungry and a little tired after our session on blogging (World Wide Web of Words--Literary Blogs). Moderated by the spunky and energetic Singapore journalist and blogger Deepika Shetty, Sharon and Ivan Chew (a Singaporean librarian who maintains a books blog) had shared their insights on literary blogging in the session. While for Ivan, blogs were platforms for verbal diarrhea, it was a compulsion (to write) for Sharon. She often had to tell herself to stop posting (and occasionally feed her husband).

So, exhausted there we are with our English breakfast tea. Sharon has ordered a pizza which is yet to arrive. We had met before in Kuala Lumpur (KL) in one of the readings that Sharon had organised. So, we try to reconnect. Sharon talks about the books nominated for this year's Booker Prize. Then the discussion veers off to Tan Twan Eng, Malaysia's latest literary sensation. Tan Twan Eng, the Booker longlisted South Africa and KL-based Malaysian novelist, had shot to fame with his debut, The Gift of Rain. His sessions in the beginning of the festival were good draws, clearly pointing out how popular he had become. When asked how his life had changed after the Booker Prize nomination, he quipped: "It feels the same but things are a lot easier for my publishers and agents. Their phone calls are returned."

Even before we finish our discussion, we are joined by Elmo Jayawardena and his spouse, Dill. Elmo is a Sri Lankan writer but more of him later. We talk about his his book launch that is to follow the same day in the early evening. Elmo is a sharp wit, so he regales us with his jokes and one-liners while sipping on his latte.
Soon, we are joined by Deepika Shetty and Kunal Basu. Kunal had met Elmo in Ubud Writers Festival and I had inroduced myself to him earlier in the day, so he turns to Sharon. "Where are you from?" he asks. "Birmingham," says Sharon, "but I have been living in Malaysia for 20 years now."

Novelist Kunal Basu is an Oxford don--he teaches business and writes fiction (The Miniaturist, The Opium Clerk, The Racists). "How did you end up living this dichotomous life?" I ask him. "I always wanted to write and when we were growing up, there were no Indian role models as full-time writers," he explains. "There were Indian writers but most of them wrote on the side and had a full-time job to support themselves. So, I thought I too had to follow this model but I chose teaching as a career because it gives me control over my time."

Deepika and Sharon start talking about cyber stalkers. Kunal joins in, citing his experience of stalking. A research student, who met him first for a PhD thesis and later wrote an essay on his work, began to stalk him with hundreds of emails every day and would appear wherever Kunal went for his readings or talks. "It became so bad that we had to send her a letter through our agent to put a stop to it," he says.

I congratulate Kunal for couragiously writing in support of Tehelka's latest expose on Gujarat massacres. "I wrote a piece in Tehelka after the Gujarat riots which I think was even better than this," he says. The piece came as a reaction after a journalist asked him why he wrote a 'Muslim novel' (The Miniaturist, based in Akbar's court) despite being a Hindu. "I was angry at this question, which was like an accusation," he says, promising me to send the article.

December 8, A few hours ago
Ideas, Identities and Indian Writing

A little earlier on the same day, David Davidar, head of Penguin Books Canada, and a pioneering publisher of Indian writers in English, now also a novelist, tries to explore the misuse of religion through his novel, The Solitude of Emperors. Mr Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, was published in 2002. It was translated into 16 languages and was a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense Pick.

His session is titled, A Tale of Two Cities. The other panelist is Kunal Basu. Predictably, there are not many audience questions on communalism, David's theme of the novel. People are more interested in knowing about his publishing experience. David rues the fact that these days editors are editing less and less, resulting in poorly produced texts.

Kunal discusses how many of his stories took birth in his journeys. The idea for The Opium Clerk came to him, he says, while trekking in Bangkok. His guide told him: In the 19th century, Calcutta was the centre of the world's drug business. That sentence triggered in him a curiosity about that period in Calcutta and he began to research for his novel, he says.

Shobha Bhalla, the editor of India Se, asks why are David and Kunal, despite being NRIs, are mentioned as 'from Canada' and 'from UK' respectively in the festival's publicity brochures. Kunal says in reply that "we don't write the brochures." But Kunal does not see any problem in the description as he thinks that he is a global citizen as well as Indian. "When it comes to identity, I am carpetbagger," he says. "If I can get under anyone's skin, I would be happy to do that. And that's why I am not happy with the term Indian Fiction too. It does not exist. Look at the range of our writing. Rushdie is so different from Davidar and so on. So, I don't believe there is anything called Indian fiction."

A shorter version of this report appeared in India Se, Jan 2008.


bibliobibuli said...

how very nice to relive that nice tea! wasn't it good just to sit and talk books with people we are seldom together with in the real world?

a. samad said is one of malaysia's writer laureates btw. your description of him is spot on - he does look saintly!

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharon. It was a great moment for me to be in the company of so many bright people! My only regret is that we could not meet again after that evening. Let us make it better the next time.

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