My impressions of The Hindu’s Lit-For-Life festival that took place in January as published in Madras Musings.

To me, December is always the best time to be in Chennai and that is thanks to the Music Season. For the past few years, January too has been very exciting, in part because of The Hindu’s Literary aka Lit For Life (LFL) Festival. The two cannot be compared, of course. The music season lasts much longer and is spread over several venues. The LFL is for three action-filled days at the the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Auditorium and an open air pavilion, both located in the Lady Andal School campus.

If there is one single element that distinguishes the LFL from the music season, however, it is the presence of the youth in large numbers at the former. They make for a vibrant atmosphere, be they volunteers or members of the audience. Of course, the LFL has the familiar faces that can be seen at all cultural events in the city, with one exception who is a fixture at all such programmes all over the world and who made it to the LFL as well, but that person shall be nameless.

Perhaps it was because the event coincided with the Pongal holidays this year, or perhaps the event has acquired a critical mass of an audience thanks to its consistent quality of programmes over the years, the attendance was at an all-time high for almost all the events. Even the post-lunch and late evening slots had full houses. In terms of the number of events, well, any sabha would have been proud of the statistics – 44 sessions, 94 panellists from six countries, workshops and performances. What made the difference was the presence of over 2000 people at each session – no sabha can match that on all days of its festival.

Understandably so, the issue concerning Perumal Murugan dominated the festival. His absence was sorely felt, but there was no way out of that once he had announced his withdrawal from the world of letters. But the palpable sense of empathy with him made up for his staying away to an extent. The festival opened with a resolution passed on the matter. Tabled by N Ram, Chairman of Kasturi & Sons Limited, it stated that “Literature and society become poorer every time the forces of intimidation and censorship are allowed to prevail against the forces of creative utterance.” It called upon “State and Central authorities, political parties, and civil society to respect and protect freedom of expression as an inalienable fundamental right.” The controversy over Perumal Murugan’s Madhrubagan was in fact to be brought up in various panel discussions right through the festival.

The sheer variety of events in the festival showed the range that the world of books encompasses – there were programmes on fiction, travel, politics, gender, history, biography, freedom of expression, language, cinema, theatre and culinary skills, to name but a few. There was even a session on skincare which, according to those who attended, was a phenomenal success, with Dr. Sharad Paul having everyone eating out of his hands. (Some in the audience were not above asking for some free treatment in the question-and-answer session!)

I could not make it to as many sessions as I would have liked to, but here are a few that I went to and which I found particularly impressive:

‘Feminine form – the site of violence’, the participants being Justice Prabha Sridevan, Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, Ammu Joseph and U. Vasuki

A session of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka with Nirupama Subramanian in conversation with Salil Tripathi and Samanth Subramaniam.

Prince Rama Varma and T.V. Gopalakrishnan on the lyrics of music.

‘This Land, Our Country’ by P. Sainath.

‘Images and Imagery of Memory’ with Sushila Ravindranath in conversation with Alarmel Valli and Sangeetham Srinivasa Rao.

Aatish Taseer in conversation with Ranvir Shah on his learning Sanskrit to hear the “voice of classical India”.

Ahdaf Soueif, Rajmohan Gandhi, Damon Galgut and Meena Kandasamy on the growth of people power.

‘Lotus Leaves, Water Words’ a reading performance directed by Prasanna Ramaswamy.

There were also a whole lot of street plays put on by students in a side wing and there were the workshops, none of which I could attend. Besides the stalls selling books, there was a new initiative by way of Author TV, a channel that focusses on men and women of letters. This team interviewed authors on their work and what was very impressive was the way the anchor managed to ask pertinent questions to each writer, based on his or her work. Yet another first in the LFL series was a heritage walk I conducted in the Madras Literary Society campus, where the content had entirely to do with books.

As for the browsing and sluicing, it was of the highest order with a series of food stalls catering to everyone’s tastes. ‘Vivekananda coffee’, though it is not known if that great man subscribed to that beverage, was in particular demand. The authors’ lounge provided a private space where panellists could come together before the event and work out the nuances of their programmes. It also provided a space to network in, as was evident from the regular at international festivals referred to above who managed to gatecrash and network like a spider, this despite not having any scheduled event at the lit fest. But let us leave that aside.

All the participants praised the hospitality that was provided by the team from The Hindu. The attention paid to their travel and stay, the welcome at the venue, the eye for detail for the small comforts that make all the difference, all of this came in for lavish praise. It was understated South Indian hospitality at its best.

The Hindu’s Lit For Life event may not have been the largest or the most high profile of its kind, but it was in every way a wonderful gift from the city’s best-known newspaper to Madras that is Chennai. And given that this is a metropolis of book lovers (where else do you have a Book Club that meets with such regularity?), it had the audience that made the effort worth the while. May the festival continue in the years to come and become a part of the city’s social calendar.