Sanskriti: A Different Kind of Literary Meet in Boston, by Dipika Mukherjee

Just got back from Boston, from Sanskriti 2018. On June 23rd, the Calcutta Club Book Fair and Litfest held their fourth annual event.

This year, the Guest of Honor was Shobhaa De. She has been a familiar figure for decades to those in India and the diaspora, from glitzy magazines like Stardust and Celebrity or TV serials like Swabhimaan. 

Labelled the "Jackie Collins" of India, she is best known for her bold depiction of sexy socialites and bollywood starlets in works of fiction, but she easily shrugs off the "Jackie Collins" label by saying that younger readers may not know Collins, but they do know De.

And indeed, with her millions of twitter followers she vacillates between rather banal tweets fat-shaming policemen to fearless statements challenging the beef-ban in India and causing Hindutva fanatics to rampage at her door.

The Sanskriti 2018 organizers, Chitro and Ruma Neogy, are exceptionally gracious hosts; I got to know them last year when the Calcutta Club had invited me to talk about Shambala Junction and Ode To Broken Things during a cosy evening gathering. For Sanskriti 2018, it was clear that they had spent much thought and effort in compiling an author list reflecting the diversity of voices in Indian-American writing. 

No two literary festival is quite the same (and nor should they be), and Asian literary festivals range from the clockwork precision of the Singapore Writers Festival (where each author has a personal Artist Liaison Officer who escorts panelists to venues and after events and generally makes sure we are well looked after), to a rather chaotic conference in Bali, where venues were changed at the last minute and sessions ran late by almost an hour. 

What I like best about Asian literary festivals is that I don't --even for a moment-- worry about being the "Diversity and Inclusion" author. And as I write on the socio-politics of modern Asia, I usually have an audience asking excellent questions, and am with collegial writers committed to social justice issues. 

(Plus I wrap myself in a bolt of silk and get to feel fabulous!).

The Sanskriti festival had the instant easy collegiality of an Asian festival. If anything, both at the author's dinner and the actual festival, I felt lulled into a feeling of being invited into a casual community gathering, a summer picnic.

This feeling was heightened as the event was held in a huge school hall with acoustics that were not conducive to any conversation, whether on stage  or at the end of the hall, where Madras Grill ran an open buffet, flanked by a vendor selling saris and jewellery as well as tables offering financial and spiritual answers. 

There was a painter offering art for sale. Individual local authors had also leased tables to sell their books.

In essence, this long hall was a place of commerce, crowned by the literary discourse on stage. 

The juxtaposition of books and family fun is not at all unusual; Printers Row Literary Festival in Chicago operates with multiple vendors occupying city blocks under sunny skies in June. But the literary panels are always held in venues where the doors can be shut and words can be heard.

At Sanskriti the mood was fabulously festive, but also very loud. It was difficult to follow the skyped interviews and the lack of audience interaction led to a restless audience. The author panels, with three authors and a moderator speaking for thirty minutes, didn't leave much time for questions either. 

De is is a controversial writer, and at this festival there was room for so much more in terms of a discussion. In the words of the organizer's facebook post:

Shobha De (claimed) Bollywood aspirants ... often have to go beyond their professional roles to survive in the industry and/or to progress up the ladder. De posits that these individuals have a choice and if they decide to submit to the demands of the exploiters - they should NOT consider themselves a victim of the system.
Some members of the audience were outraged. Others were contemplative. Several supported the argument. What do you feel? Consider a parallel situation, where a student family wanting to get into a good college pays a hefty bribe to buy a seat - should that student believe that he/she is also a victim of the system? Where do we draw the line?

This would have been such a topical (heated) discussion, but with time restrictions and questioners limited to one question, the Q&A did not really take off. Bringing De was a "popular" rather than "literary" choice --(this is not about gender as an Arundhati Roy or Anita Desai would attract a very different audience)-- but De turned out to be fabulous speaker, both feisty and articulate. 

I would have liked to hear more from Kushanava Choudhury's work as well as the work of the emerging writers. The moderators all did a wonderful job. 

The Panorama Story Writing contest winners were fabulous, with the top two stories showing a facility for bilingual wordplay and linguistic complexity, while keeping the focus on the socioeconomic issues of transnationalism. Hearing them read extracts of their work would have been a treat.

This festival has SO MUCH promise.

What Sanskriti needs is a venue with demarcated spaces. Room(s) for words and a room for socialization. It already has some excellent organizers backed by a hardworking team and generous sponsors. 

Dipika Mukherjee is the author of three works of fiction: Shambala Junction (Aurora Metro, 2016) Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016) and Rules of Desire (Fixi, 2015); two poetry collections, The Third Glass of Wine (Writer’s Workshop, 2015), and The Palimpsest of Exile (Rubicon Press, 2009) and has edited four anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction. 


Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for a fascinating, insightful report of Sanskriti from my hometown of Boston. I had never heard of this festival, but your writing puts one right in the middle of it all, experiencing all the sights, sounds, celebrities, mavens and scribes up close, like being there. I look forward to experiencing more and reading fine works cited.
Thank you Umberto. I sometimes wonder whether I write about things that may seem irrelevant to the large AE audience based in US and UK, so it is always heartening to see a comment like yours, affirming that my post resonates. Gratitude to you for always taking the time to support so many posts on AE!
Griselda Heppel said…
I agree, this is a fascinating insight into an Indian literary festival, all the more exciting for it being held in Boston. There are truly no borders when it comes to celebrating books.

To answer your question though - I'm with the shocked reaction to Shobha De's pronouncement that if Bollywood actors have to submit to unwanted yucky sexual demands of the powerful in order to forge a career, they are not victims. OF COURSE THEY ARE. If they didn't submit, they would have no film career, is that really OK? Sure, these talented actors could refuse and become teachers instead but what kind of a choice is that? De seems to have no conception of imbalanced power relationships, or that the abuse of power automatically creates victims. I wonder if she'd say the same if she'd had to submit to sexual abuse in order to get published...
Griselda, you make excellent points. She also went on about equal opportunity harassment (the large number of gay directors in Bollywood means women and men are equally vulnerable), but that is a rather silly argument for validating toxic workplaces, be that Bollywood or elsewhere. People were outraged, but unfortunately not enough to call her on it. I was on two panels and felt I had hogged a microphone for too long to talk about social justice issues and didn't want a slanging match with the Guest of Honour.:(

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