Diaries of a Lit Fest Rookie

The novel is about to come out finally. Your publisher says that launch parties are passé. It’s all about social media, they tell you. We have to be smart about marketing. You realise that’s code for, “We don’t want to spend any money.” But you are a first-time author. You have no option but to go along.

Later, you see pictures in your local tabloid for the launch party for Amitav Ghosh’s latest book. It’s at some fancy hotel with fancy people drinking fancy wine. No one invited you. Your blurb from a DSC Prize long-lister counts for nothing.

You wait for your Jaipur Literature Festival invitation. You’ve seen the pictures – the candlelit Rambagh Palace parties, the vintage Rolls Royce, the blue margaritas. You’ve never had a blue margarita.

The Jaipur invitation does not come. But you’ve read somewhere that William Dalrymple has said there are now almost 80 literary festivals in the subcontinent. Thanks to the law of probability, one of them finally wants you. The ABC Literary Festival offers accommodation and meals but suggests your publisher foots your travel. You know that’s never going to happen.

You are tempted to check out a cheap fare on SpiceJet. Who are you kidding? You did check it out, but last-minute self-respect prevailed. Meanwhile, your old school friend, who runs a very successful family business in ball bearings, emails you from vacation in Phuket to say, “Author sa’ab, when’s the launch? Waiting for my signed copy.” He thinks he is owed a free copy because he was your chaddi buddy.

Finally, XYZ Literature Festival invites you, all expenses paid. “People read literature in XYZ,” asks your sister incredulously. She does not realise that literary festivals, not hospitals or highways, are how cities measure their worth these days. XYZ does not have a literary festival. It has two.

What you don’t grasp until you land there, is that both are happening at the same time. And you are at the lesser one. You suspect this because your hotel room has chipped plywood panelling. But you know this for sure when you discover that your bathroom comes with one tiny green Medimix soap. You hesitantly ask at the reception if it is possible to get a second Medimix, so you don’t have to keep ferrying that one sliver between the washbasin and the shower.

But you are among the more fortunate ones. Someone else discovered a perfectly comma-shaped pubic hair on his bedsheet. Meanwhile the organisers claim that the coordinators from the other festival, those bastards, have been calling up hotels to cancel their bookings. It seems the two festivals are not there to double the joys of literature in XYZ, but to poke each other’s eyes out. The organiser hands you two drink coupons for the opening party and complains that two of her writers have gone to the other party. In her car, no less. She’s recalled the car, she says with some relish. You wonder if you can get their drink coupons.

There are about five people for your session, the topic of which you don’t understand. The moderator asks cheerfully if he can borrow your book so he can look at it before going on stage. Your co-panellist, who has an MFA from the US, looks ready to faint. The organiser is busy trying to shoo other writers into the Writing Muse in the Age of Social Media session. “There are not enough people there,” she says accusingly, as if she knows you didn’t tweet enough. Luckily, your panel begins. Two more audience members have strolled in before you can be shanghaied to be seat-filler. Quorum has been achieved.

Later that night, a writer from the other festival tells you his hotel bathroom comes with soap, shampoo, conditioner, even ear buds. You are tempted to borrow his room key for a shower.

At the end of the lit fest, you have signed one book. You suspect it’s a pity-buy, stage-engineered by the organiser. The gynaecologist who buttonholed you to tell you about his comic medical thriller has not bought the book. He has sent you a Facebook request however.

You see Ravinder Singh getting mobbed after his session and sniff haughtily. And enviously. The gynaecologist waves at you. You wave back cheerily. You cannot be too picky. Shobhaa De (or is it Tavleen Singh?) arrives to a flurry of excitement. She’s staying at the Taj.

You, meanwhile, return to your threadbare room to wait for your shuttle to the airport. You take comfort in the fact that you have advanced the cause of literature with literature lovers of XYZ. At least that’s what the closing session has declared. You struggle with the flickering Wi-Fi to post artsy pictures on Facebook to impress your friends with your jet-setting literary life. On the plus side, you find you have a second Medimix soap in the bathroom.

Then one day, you too get to stay at the Taj thanks to another fest. Breakfast is included, as is the Wi-Fi (basic plan). Welcoming fruit platter available, says the note in your room. The goodie bag is large and splendid. When you open it you find rolls of toilet paper. Useful, but you wonder if it’s a comment on your book. Luckily, you discover everyone else has it as well.

You message a lit-fest veteran who is famous for making outrageous demands to festivals he does not want to attend. Such as, “Could you fly me and four of my friends to your city?” (The festival tried to bargain him down to three).

“I am at the Taj,” you tell him. He understands the value of these things.

Palace or Gateway?

Old wing, you say proudly.

“Well done,” he tells you, though you have done nothing, really. Then he asks “Sea-facing?”

And the cookie crumbles. Your room looks out onto a wall. Never mind, he says. The dining room is sea-facing. Take a picture and post it on Facebook. And that’s just what you do. At least the toiletries in the bathroom are worth nabbing, you think. That counts for something.

At the lit fest, someone asks when’s the next book coming. And you realise somewhere along the way you stopped thinking about the next book. You are more worried about the next lit fest.

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