When I got an email in mid-August, saying that I was one of the five winners of a fiction contest conducted by the Writers of India Festival in association with Caravan Magazine, and that my reward was a trip to Paris, to attend a literary festival organised by Columbia University, my first instinct was that this was all a hoax – a social experiment of some sort, to figure out how young writers react on being told they will be flown to Paris on the merit of 3000 words they have written. First of all, I have rarely won writing contests. Second, I have never been flown to Paris, no-strings-attached (or strings attached, for that matter). Third, the first thing you’re told when you embark on a writing career is that you will make little money, and find less fame.
However, it turned out to be a genuine contest with a genuine reward – not only would the five of us be flown to Paris, but we, along with five students of Columbia University’s Creative Writing MFA programme, would read out extracts from our work to a panel that included Jeet Thayil, Vikram Chandra, Sudeep Sen and Geetanjali Shree.
The mascot for the Writers of India Festival turned out to be Mona Lisa photoshopped into an Indian costume in the fashion of Rajasthani miniature, her unironic smile in place. I named this creation ‘Monisha’, a sobriquet that caught on.
We trooped into the venue where most of the events were to be held, and saw several lines strung with clothing, high up in the air. Initially, we were lulled into the belief that France had gone all out to make us feel at home, but eventually discovered it was part of a modern art exhibition.
We were given sound advice by one of the staff of Columbia University, who was trying to humour our tourist leanings. “Go to the Seine, but don’t put a lock on the bridges,” she said, “Why would you lock up your love and leave it to be sent to a junkyard when the bridge gets too heavy? Set it free.” On our way to the bridges, in writerly fashion, we composed the beginnings of a rubbish poem called ‘Junkyard of Love’. The only line I contributed was “This is where love goes to die.”
[quote]The last flat surface on which we had seen such vivid lipstick marks was Shah Rukh Khan’s chest in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge[/quote]
Before the festival took off, the five of us decided to indulge a common interest – we went on a rather morbid excursion to the Montparnasse cemetery, to check out the graves of the writers and philosophers who had made Paris their home, or the home of their remains. The French have a rather macabre sense of humour, we discovered. Among the graves was one that had statues of lions playing football, and another that we deduced to be a zombie grave, because its inscription reads, “Dead? Not yet.” Finally, we found the graves of Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. His gravestone was covered in lipstick marks. It fascinated us desis, because the last flat surface on which we had seen such vivid lipstick marks was Shah Rukh Khan’s chest in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
I’ve always loved literature festivals. You meet some of your literary heroes, and spend days pinching yourself, wondering if you were really having that conversation with that person. An author of international renown sounds interested in your work, and you’re so touched and thrilled that you begin to sound like you’ve been pulling tricks with helium balloons. Every now and then, you find a spark with someone who was until recently a name on the cover of a book, and become fast friends. And there is no better place to hop in and out of eating places, sing ghazals by Faiz in the middle of the night, and get drunk than Paris.
[quote]There is the benevolent Westerner who wants to rescue you from writing in English[/quote]
The only unfortunate aspect of a literature festival is the audience. Of course, there are the usual suspects – the aspiring author, the professor who wants to throw decasyllabic words at you, and the insistent person who believes his express purpose is to dazzle the audience and authors with a five-minute ‘question’ that eventually turns out to be a comment.
The Diaspora and the locals who are interested in world literature provide you with a bunch of new categories.
There are the exotica hunters, who want to believe in flying carpets and shimmering illusionary palaces and dark arts and dungeons. They will theorise that, just maybe, Baudelaire or Sartre was reborn as one of the writers your country has produced. And they will prove their love for your country either by doing the Bollywood snake dance step or striking yoga poses.
There is the benevolent Westerner who wants to rescue you from writing in English, clearly one of the traps of your colonised mentality and in no way your first language. Your ancestors have been wronged. In the case of the French, they see no reason why people from former French colonies in India – like Pondicherry – should not write in French, but they see no reason why people from the rest of India should want to write in English. Their chief aspiration is to convince you to write in a language which will ensure that you sell fewer books for less money.
Somehow, at every lit fest, you find people who take a fancy to you for no evident reason. In our case, there was a Tamil couple that began to bond with me on the premise that I speak acceptable Tamil – a fact they discovered when I asked Tamil poet Salma a question. Inexplicably, the couple decided to tack themselves on to us for the rest of the event – including the photo ops. When I finally asked them to allow us a single picture without them in the frame – the task fell to me, because they only spoke French and Tamil, and none of us had any French – they took offence and refused to comply. As a result, in every photo of the group, there is a beaming sari-clad woman whose identity none can fathom and presence none can justify.
The lit fest experience would not have been complete, naturally, without someone asking why there were no Pakistani writers at a festival of Indian literature – did that reflect India’s bigotry?
And so ended my little adventure in Paris, leaving me rather more in love with literature, more in love with festivals, more in love with my luck, and more entrusting of all humanity.
That last development was to change when I got back home. A relative asked how my trip to Paris was. Before I could respond, another relative said, “Why, what’s so great about a trip to Parry’s?” – this being an old neighbourhood in Madras, where the sugar manufacturing company EID Parry is headquartered, and in her mind, the limits of my wanderlust.