The Telegraph
Sunday , January 19 , 2014
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Old friends, bookends and new guests

When the Kolkata Literary Meet starts its third edition, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gloria Steinem and Sankha Ghosh would be appearing in newspapers and Facebook posts. Not many would therefore know about Dr Kleetus from Kochi. Like some of the speakers at KaLaM, he, too, will be coming from the Jaipur Literature Festival. But unlike them, he will be part of the audience at both fests. Dr Kleetus, and those like him who make it a point to attend events such as these, are what it’s all about. From now on for Team KaLaM, Dr Kleetus is the person to remember when things seem over-budget, under-sponsored and out of control.

KaLaM has been tough to plan, tough to execute but, hopefully, easy to attend and to enjoy for all booklovers. The shift from partnering the Calcutta Book Fair to getting into an association with Victoria Memorial Hall was like starting anew. However, the basic principles remain the same —to bring the best minds from the city, rest of India and overseas within reach of Calcutta’s bookworms.

It’s become clear that we are now being taken very seriously in the literature festival circuit. We have got into collaboration with Oxford Literary Festival (OLF) which is held at various exquisite venues all across Oxford University. The festival culminates at the Sheldonian, a magnificent structure built by Christopher Wren. The intangible magic that such a setting adds to a literary discussion is hard to describe, and I am sure our collaboration with the majestic Victoria Memorial will give us a taste of that magic. From 2015, KaLaM will host an Oxford Day where writers and speakers from the OLF will visit the KaLaM. Similarly our speakers will be part of the India Day.

The other good portend was how several writers were delighted at the thought of coming back to KaLaM. Our first year “inaugurator” Vikram Seth returns after a fortnight in the idyllic wilderness somewhere in the emerald depths of Sri Lanka. Javed Akhtar will also be here for a second time. He was laid low by back spasms, but the lure of Calcutta and the Sahitya Akademi Award have put Javed saab back on his feet, fit to attend a session and to join Shabana Azmi for a performance of Kaifi Aur Main.

We are also delighted to welcome back Amit Chaudhuri from year one to be part of a session that focuses on his writings over two decades.

And we are happy with some debutants. Ramachandra Guha was a case of third-time-lucky for us as was Sankha Ghosh. Both these writers were invited earlier, but somehow things did not work out. Part of the challenge of inviting the best speakers is to learn to take a “no” with some grace and yet not as the final word. Crucially, invitations are an ongoing process and some writers need up to 18 months lead time to plan their travel.

And yet, sometimes, you can plan for a particular writer for 18 months and it all falls into place over three weeks! Case in point: Jhumpa Lahiri. We got in touch with her on Boxing Day, and she will be with us on January 23. I guess we will be the pioneers of the literary festival prologue, but Lahiri was well worth making an exception for.

The regrets as usual varied in tone and tenor. Zoya Akhtar was earnest and utterly forgivable because it was clear that she was keen to attend but simply could not work out the dates. We hope that we can have her with us sooner than later. Others like Daniyal Mueenuddin have promised to come next year. So has Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Professor Amartya Sen has told us to move our dates closer to January 20 so that he can attend the meet before heading off to Harvard for the start of the term there. We will certainly try as hard as we can to ensure that.

The new dimension we have added to this year’s literary programme are the music and theatre segments. Jayant Kripalani has been slaving away for more than a month on an ambitious Padatik Theatre production New Market, Old Tales which will be performed near the Clock Tower of the New Market on January 25. On Republic Day, Calcutta Club will host Kaifi Aur Main with Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar. Anantara will host Aditi Mangaldas’s Timeless at Kala Mandir on January 29. This was performed to major critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival and will be performed for the first time in Calcutta.

And then there is the session which took a year to plan. Somewhere on the EM Bypass KaLaM 2013 guest Ali Sethi, the 29-year-old-writer who is built like a fast bowler but sings like a nightingale, mentioned he is Farida Khanum’s shagird. And then added that she was born in Calcutta in the 1930s and lived here long enough to have memories of the city, Ali has worked through the year to make this happen and inshallah it will be a wonderful finale to edition three.

We have new associates, a stately new home and a programme that for many promises to be the best literary fest programme this season. It’s solid, it’s fun, it’s literary, kitschy, quirky and hopefully, intelligent all the time. We have grown from simply getting our kicks out of pithy session titles to thinking about themes and relevant speakers. For all those who have made it to the last few KaLaMs and for those who will be coming from this year, a warm welcome.

Hope all of you, and Dr Kleetus, have a fulfilling week.