The Hindu's annual Lit for Life kicked off with its Delhi segment at Teen Murti Bhawan today. Dr. Nirmala Lakshman of The Hindu welcomed everyone with a series of clips from past years' lit festivals. Literary consultancy Siyahi's Mita Kapur and Ms. Rachna Singh Davidar were gratefully acknowledged and in full attendance too. While the major part of the festival is slated to run in Chennai, with interactive workshops and events planned for next week, the reason that the Delhi inaugural event was significant according to Dr. Lakshman was that The Hindu's readership has peaked in the past quarter in the Capital, breaking old bastions, eliciting a larger readership of unprecedented numbers breaking out of its traditionally Deccan stronghold. Festivals like Lit for Life, she said, enables them as a newspaper to forge a direct link with readers on topical issues through books that matter.
A charged evening greeted journalist Shankar Aiyar's discussion of Accidental India A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change,. Following Mr. Aiyer's 5 minute powerpoint presentation detailing the thesis of his book, editor of The Hindu and the panel moderator Mr. Siddharth Vardarajan fielded questions at the issues pinpointed in Mr. Aiyer's book for all panelists to review and consider. Long rapid fire exchanges between Brinda Karat (CPIM), Jayanthi Natarajan (Congress), internationally famed Indian economist and writer Bibek Debroy, and Shankar Aiyer himself challenged the author's view that (only) 'crisis precipitates change', and that a hierarchy of change and turning points in India's history (that acts of crises had sparked the Green Revolution, the White Revolution, the IT boom, the Right to Information Act etc.) thereby leading to its accidental transformation! This led to questions about the polity of India, and whether we were better off without rulers and certain ministries that were slaking in big bribes feeding off corporate power and wealth. Bibek Debroy elucidated that the question really worth asking was, whether the roles of the executive, judiciary and legislature were in cohorts with each other for the same ultimate goal of social and economic equity and progress as first visualized in the Constitution. A trove of facts and trivia about India's mis-place in the world, malnutrition figures, an increasingly young and bursting demographic, kept returning to the table, as the panelists tried to pin down the ills of a society, where corruption was embedded in the moral fabric of its democracy.
Longtime friend and supporter of Mr. Aiyer, Bibek Debroy, after objecting to the use of the words crisis and accident, insisted that the more pressing discussion ought to be about the role of the state in reducing the inequities that presently exist. Moreover, while Mr. Aiyer's book's introduction does make 'a passing reference' to how the state could address malnutrition, deteriorating health services or other social sectors in decline, plucky provocative questions flew about the floor as panelists singled out ministries (civil aviation, rural development) and debated their centralized power. Ms. Karat claimed that politicians were not the only ones to blame, and that while corrupt politicians should anyway be shamed, arrested, jailed, and executed, it is the big corporates who are 'givers of the bribes' that must not be let scot-free. The entry of huge pharmaceutical giants and no proper regulation of MNCs in India was responsible was creating a massive health debt, and infringing on proper, engaged, accessible services at the local level. Impassioned arguments stoked the evening, always, a promising start to any long literary event.
The session was followed by high tea, and another author journey with photojournalist Steve McCurry, followed by author signings with the partner bookstore Landmark, and a final roll call of the shortlist for The Hindu literary prize 2012, final winner for which will be announced in Chennai next week, in a more elaborate turn of events.