The idea of a lit fest sees a sea change in the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF). And quite literally, too, for it is held bang on the Kozhikode beach.
Perhaps it is the balmy sea air. Perhaps it is Kerala’s much-vaunted reading culture, which makes rock stars of its writers. Either way, the crowds that thronged the sixth edition of the KLF, held simultaneously at six venues across the beach from January 12 to 15, were unlike anything I had ever seen.
Was this revenge lit-festing? No, it was par for the Kozhikode course, I was told. Just a week ago, some 24,000 people had turned up on the last day of the 61st Kerala School Kalolsavam, the State’s uber-competitive arts festival for schools hosted in the city. After two years of a COVID-imposed hiatus, it seemed that the general public was more than ready for this booster dose of writers, books, and ideas.
Not an elitefest
The KLF is that rare lit fest that has its ear to the ground, so to speak. There were as many sessions in Malayalam as in English. The conversations had both the rigour of a public lecture and the intimacy of an adda. Almost every venue was a full house, with people of all ages, but especially youngsters, walking in confidently, listening intently, and staying back to have a pow-wow with the speakers. And of course, click the inevitable selfie with them—a rite of passage these days and not just in lit fests.
I am also convinced that it is only in Kerala that you will get to see Ministers and politicians anchoring sessions at a lit fest and engaging with writers, often ceding them greater space and the limelight as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I heard the State Minister for Local Self-Governments and Excise, M.B. Rajesh, ask sharp, searching questions of the writer Benyamin about his latest work, Tharakan’s Grandhavari, an Italo Calvinesque experiment in narratology in which readers get to shuffle the “book” (designed like a box of cards) and choose the order they want to read in. In another session, Minister for Higher Education R. Bindu spoke to the writer Sarah Joseph about her novel Budhini. Industries Minister P. Rajeev quizzed the writer K.R. Meera on two of her recent, and avowedly most political, works of fiction: Qabar and Ghathakan. If this was a litmus test of the connection between literature and politics, and a pointer to the fact that nothing in society, never mind literature, can exist in a political vacuum, it worked splendidly well indeed.
Another unexpected delight was the artist Jayan Bilathikulam’s tribute to O.V. Vijayan’s scathing (and scatalogical!) political satire Dharmapuranam, in the form of a frieze of paintings, sculptures, and mirrors that filled an entire wall along the beach.
I must add how safe and comfortable I felt despite the teeming crowds that often put me in mind of the Thrissur Pooram. (Except that you would probably never find as many women having an easy time in the latter.) This was no doubt thanks to the tremendous efforts of the army of young enthusiastic KLF volunteers who ensured that the entire lit fest machinery worked smoothly. A heartfelt salaam to them!
If I have a quibble, it is that there was altogether too much of everything. With four days of 400 writers and 150 sessions, there were too many interesting conversations happening at the same time, too many unhappy choices to make. But then lit fests are like buffets: you cannot have it all, you lap up what you can and try to make the most of it.
And perhaps the best a lit fest can hope to do is offer us this buffet of ideas to choose from, this sheer staggering diversity that is ours to embrace, help us find common ground and spark off a conversation, even if we disagree. May we read, listen, connect, claim our space, and may the conversations continue.