I've mostly enjoyed literature and arts festivals and have learnt a lot through them. This year, I was invited to curate the Chandigarh Literature Festival. Here's the text of the speech I made at the opening:
Hello and welcome to CLF 2016. This is a literature and arts festival. It showcases books, screens and discusses films.
Over the last year or so, I've met a few friends who roll their eyes and say, what? Another litfest? Chandigarh has one? Two? Kasauli and Panchkula too? A few years ago, the joke going around lit circles was that, any day now, Gurgaon would have its own festival. Well, that happened too. Some people wonder aloud, do we really need all these festivals? I think that question is worth asking, and answering, every year.
You may have heard that India is incredibly book hungry. We are also hungry in a lot of other ways. A lot of people are hungry in the most literal sense of the word. At least one fourth of our population is below the poverty line, which is really the starvation line. More than half the nation is just about getting by without the basic, assured minimum – good diverse food, clean water, housing, medical aid, pension, terminal life care. A decent education comes just a little bit higher on the pyramid of needs. And books? Not schoolbooks, not books that help you pass exams, but books that allow you to drink at the fount of life, that let you grow into a fuller individual, someone who is better informed about human history and the human soul, books that can help you cope with a spiritual or economic crisis, books that attune you to the changeability of friends, of systems, of borders and moral boundaries, books that help you articulate the nameless terrors that have hounded you since childhood, books that let your mind climb into sky of possibility, books that comfort you when everyone else has failed you – how many Indians have access to such books?
Ten percent? Five? How many of us, once we have left school and college have access to a decent library? How many villages have a free or subsidised library? How many small towns have a good bookshop? How many bookshops in even big cities like Chandigarh? How many car showrooms? Even cities where there are a few good libraries tend not to have any outreach programs that would help fortify the connect between citizens and books. A library or bookshop is not a hospital, after all, where you go only when something is wrong and you need it fixed. They are more like parks for the mind – amusement parks, walking and jogging parks. They help create a fitter, healthier citizenry. Festivals are a step further along the same process of connecting books with citizens.
Those of us who are here today, we are a tribe. Some of us may not have other essential things – houses, cars or bikes, pensions – but we have books. Some of you may be thinking now, well I can afford to buy more books, but where is the time to read? Or you may be thinking, I don't read that much but I love stories. I want to engage with new ideas. I want to feel energised through knowing more, or being comforted by the beauty and balance found in two lines of a ghazal.
When we show up at literary events like this one, it is hard to say what we come looking for, what we hope to gain, how it will transform us. Yet, we know that words do have the power to transform. Our lives begin with a word – a name – and all the history that is attached to it. We become part of a larger community – a nation, a religion, a city, an organization – through stories. Then we keep writing and re-writing the narrative of who we are, where we are going, what we have to do.
Words and stories are not a luxury. They are critical to society. What is a luxury is our access to more complex stories. To be able to swap ideas, to challenge ideas, to hear people debating ideas in a safe and respectful environment – that is a luxury. A literature and arts festival provides that environment. This is why every town need its own festival. The arts need to expand. The bridges between the different arts need to be reinforced. For this, we need people to participate in the conversation around books.
This is what the Adab Foundation has been hoping to do over the last few years, and the conversations and readings you hear over the next three days are a step further along that road. I hope you will enjoy these discussions and participate in them. Welcome once again.