Vikram Seth and (right) Sunil Gangopadhyay at the inaugural session of the first Kolkata Literary Meet
There is a session in the Kolkata Literary Meet 2013, held in association with The Telegraph, called ‘The Second One: The challenges presented by the Second Novel’. The first novel is the one that gestates within you for all your life, uncertain of publication. The second one is challenging because of the expectations built by the first. Then there is the temptation of wanting to do something that is either similar — after all, one has to develop a style — or drastically different — variety and all that!
We at KaLaM are similarly placed this year. We have tried to balance the twin requirements of creating a group of regulars while at the same time introducing new writers to Calcutta audiences.
This was not easy at all. There were some writers who were so gobsmackingly good last year that the temptation to invite them again, even though they did not have a new book out, was strong. On the other hand, we wanted to include strands of literature that were different from last year so that we offered new ideas, thoughts and writings to the audience. A fortnight later, we will know whether we hit the right balance.
The good news was that some of our beginner’s luck lasted for another year. A lit fest veteran said that if you invited 100 speakers, 50 would confirm and of those 50, 10 will back out after the brochure was printed. We have been a lot luckier than that. We are at the brochure stage, and while some wonderful guests like Mohammed Yunus have had to withdraw last minute, others like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Javed Akhtar and Vikas Swarup have made an appearance.
Javedsaab and Swarup are coming to the Book Fair for the first time, and the former will be speaking on Saadat Hasan Manto in one of two Hindi/Urdu sessions.
That brings me to the biggest perk of running a literature meet — introducing writers to Calcutta. Swarup is visiting the city after two decades while others like Pico Iyer, Ahdaf Souief and most of the other overseas writers have never seen the city before.
Then there are those who have been here and love returning. Jeet Thayil loves the fish Irani Kebabs at CC&FC while Philip Hensher reckons there is some connection dating back to an earlier birth.
And whether or not they are familiar with Calcutta, they are invariably awestruck by the sheer numbers teeming around the Milan Mela. A Calcutta-based writer got it right when he said the Book Fair provides a classic ‘Shock and Awe’ moment — Calcuttans are shocked by the chaos, the dust and the crowds while visitors are in awe of the sheer numbers who come to browse and buy books!
Hopefully KaLaM will tempt some of the old-timers who have cried off the Boi Mela because of dust, traffic and construction reasons to return to the Fair. We have Amitav Ghosh, who is coming to a literature festival in India for the first time, we have Pico Iyer coming in from Los Angeles, we have some of the finest Bengali writers from both sides of the border and we have Chakravorty Spivak with us to deliver the inaugural Sunil Gangopadhyay Memorial Session.
It still feels uncomfortable to mention the name of Sunilda in the context of a memorial session. The debt the Lit Meet owes Sunilda is huge.
He agreed to inaugurate the meet and was always supportive and patient. We had discussed the possibility of a session at the Coffee House in College Street, and he had been enthusiastic about reliving the heady times he had spent there with the likes of Shakti Chattopadhyay. The session will take place, and hopefully we will get a healthy Sunday afternoon crowd for it.
We have several young writers who have roots in Calcutta. Sanjeev Sanyal roamed the bylanes of Ballygunge in 1980s as a young Xaverian while Nilanjana S. Roy quizzed for La Martiniere for Girls only two decades ago. Both are now successful writers, and feel thrilled to come back to the city of their childhood. While putting together the festival one could not help but notice the large number of speakers, including a large number who achieved fame outside, who have a Calcutta connect. Some famously like Profs Amartya Sen and Chakravorty Spivak, Sharmila Tagore and Amitav Ghosh; others in oblique interesting ways. Young Pakistani writer Ali Sethi’s grandfather worked in Calcutta till 1964 while the popular writer Amish did his MBA in IIM Calcutta. It was a pleasing thought and in some way we can keep aside our cynicism for all things Calcuttan and feel pleased that we do indeed produce fine minds.
It would be smug and dishonest if we did not admit to the number of regret letters that we got this year as well, but that is a result of our growing aspirations as well as dates not working out.
Toni Morrison rarely leaves the US, so we need to find ways to tempt her across the globe. V.S. Naipaul had just come to Mumbai, so he was unable to gee himself up for another trans-continental journey. The demise of his cat Augustus might not have helped. With a heavy heart, we also had to let go of Vikram Seth who is at the moment in a cold hill station plotting the nuptials of Lata’s grandchild. We were unable to elicit an answer from Orhan Pamuk, but that was at least better than a no, and leaves a door ajar for next year.
However, the Kolkata Literary Meet Award for the best regret letter would have to go to Seamus Heaney. It was so sensitive in its awareness of the recipient’s disappointment and so full of good wishes that the mind boggles to think how well-written a letter of acceptance would be.
The regret letters are important for us. It shows that there are writers out there to woo and win over. It also tells us that an event is an ongoing work in progress, and while there will be disappointments, we need to find ways, by way of theme and content, to give the best writers no reason to say no. Some of last year’s regrets are this year’s guests of honour. Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor and Javed Akhtar to name a few.
The literary glass is more than half-full, Calcutta. Come to the Google Dome from January 30 and raise a toast to some of the best writers of our times.