I think I've finally begun to understand what I like most about gatherings of writers.
It is their ability to be so charmingly human, while being smart and sassy. There is jealousy, there is ego, there is ill-will; there is many a coterie and 'camp'. Writers can't stand each other and will lose no opportunity to run each other down, in public.
They do so with grace. They use wit and sarcasm, irony and innuendo. They will make sure that you seethe and the world laughs at you, but they will also sit back and allow you to have your chance at potshot-taking...
As an illustration, let me tell you about Saturday evening, when I was attending the 20th anniversary of the Hindi literary magazine, Hans (although, to be fair, it is unfair to describe magazines like this as only 'literary'. It stands for the best and least apologetic literature; it cuts across socio-politico-economic-cultural boundaries). This is an annual event that the progressive-literary circuit rather looks forward to, and most people land up at Rajendra Bhavan on the scheduled day, with or without an invitation.
The editor, Rajendra Yadav, invited the panelists up on stage; he began calling out to well-known critic Namvar Singh.
Somebody in the audience said, "Vo zaraa neeche gaye hain..." (Translation: He has just gone down).
Yadav promptly came back with, "Ab aur kitna neeche jayenge?" (Now, how much lower can he sink?).
The audience was in splits.
Prof Namvar Singh, white hair neatly combed back, smilingly arrived, took his place on the panel, and we all sat through an interminably long lecture about 'Premchand and the issue of Land (reforms)'.
The moderator for the discussion was a venerable old marxist, who seemed determined to claim Premchand as a marxist, too.
Prof Namvar Singh stood up. Then, after reminding the audience that Premchand was a land-owner and not necessarily an indebted farmer, he said, "I'm only going to comment on one short story by Premchand. And I will leave the pontificating, dissection and theorizing to the theorists."
He went on to argue that Premchand's attitude to land was visible in his beautiful descriptions of a farmer's attachment to 'mitti'. That Premchand had never once spoken up for the abolition of the zamindari system, and that that was natural enough since he was a Congress supporter, and not a part of the farmers' movement.
Mr Old Marxist (I forget his name) was red in the face. He took to the mike again, had a stammering fit, and asked Prof Singh to go back and read such-and-such letter from Premchand, who was, very definitely, in favour of Kisan Sabhas, and by implication the 'movement'.
For the rest of the evening, Prof Namvar Singh was accused of being anti-labour, anti-farmer, anti....
Prof Singh just sat there, unflappably popping sweets into his mouth, looking like he was going to explode with mirth. He was actually enjoying all this name-calling! He loved having upset everyone, especially those who gave long boring lectures. He loved each minute of it!
And that is what I like about a literary gathering - that you can share a platform, while insulting each other; sitting at distant edges of an ideological see-saw, you can still have fun with wit.
Nobody walked out. Nobody sulked. No blood was shed, no bonds severed. I am pretty sure that, after the event, Prof Singh sat down with Rajendra Yadav and Mr Red-faced Marxist, and consumed liberal amounts of chai. I can bet that nobody felt the need to apologize.
And I knew that, this - this war of wits, this unflappable mutual respect - is what I'm looking for, in a writer's group. This ability to see words (harsh words, insulting words, silly words) as the tools of the trade, use them to have some fun. And poke some too, while they're at it.