The Indian dream of success in the world of letters used to be bordered and defined by the Booker. We were proud of our Booker winners, but irrationally, in the way a previous generation had been proud of Indians who held the Guinness Book of Records title for world’s longest nails or some such.
The great Indian ambition has shifted, creating a cottage industry in literary festivals and prizes. Every city wants a festival of its own, starting with Jaipur, through Mumbai, Kolkata, Thiruvananthapuram, Panjim, Chennai and Hyderabad, with Bangalore and a score of other cities planning their own tamashas. In 2001, there were almost no prizes for writers who worked in English, and few respectable prizes beyond the Sahitya Akademi and the Jnanpith awards. At present, the Crossword Book Award and the Commonwealth Prize have been joined by the DSC Prize, the Man Asian, the Shakti Bhatt award for first-time writers, the Hindu Literary Prize and the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, to name the best known.
I don’t subscribe to the view that writers should be hermits, drawing the hems of their garments away from the noise and squalor of prizes and festivals. Perhaps this comes from having grown up in an era when all our prizes were strictly export-quality, and where you needed a passport to attend a festival. And after being on a few prize juries, my respect for the patience of the organisers has grown — caught between the anxious demands of writers and publishers and the often gladiatorial instincts of judges, they keep the peace better than Ban Ki-moon.
But examine the list of cities that host literary festivals. How many of these actually support writers and readers? It is not the business of festival organisers to provide, say, creative writing workshops, or writer’s residency programmes, or public library networks. The absence of these, though, makes the present celebration of Indian writing seem like a giant banquet held with no reference to the conditions of famine outside the hall.
Fourteen years ago, Pankaj Mishra wrote in the essay “Edmund Wilson in Benares”: “I had always lived in small towns where libraries and bookshops were few and far between, and did not stock anything except a few standard texts of English literature: Austen, Dickens, Kipling, Thackeray… I read randomly, whatever I could find, and with the furious intensity of a small-town boy to whom books are the sole means of communicating with, and understanding, the larger world.”
In that time, the literary festival industry has boomed; but there is no interest in creating a public library system. There are outliers. Goa has launched a new and ambitious public library. Some cities have seen a revival of the privately run circulating library, and NGO-run initiatives, such as John Wood’s innovative single-room libraries, Room To Read, have done well across rural and urban India. But most of our public libraries suffer from a lack of resources, and a bristling unfriendliness towards the people who need it most.
Writing a 2007 paper on libraries in Southern India, Elizabeth Gould nailed the problem: “My vision of public means ‘access to all’, which is an American viewpoint, but clearly in India the public libraries were accessible only to an elite few.”
In his memoir, the writer Chaman Nahal wrote about the kind of establishment that stands as a “library” in the public imagination: “I also found a tiny shop tucked away in a loop in the bazaar near Ghas Mandi, which ran a lending library. You could get anything there at fifty paisa a day ... Munshi Prem Chand, Ratan Nath Sarshar, Kipling, Tolstoy, all came to be secretly packed in my school bag.”
If establishing and running public libraries is unglamorous – far less desirable than setting up yet another prize – then creating a system of support for writers comes in even further down the list. The Sangam Residency is one of the few organisations that offer writers the simple freedom of a room of their own — space and time to write in peace. It is easier – relatively speaking – for a writer in India to apply for residencies in Europe and America, and yet this excludes writers who don’t understand English or other European languages. For this group, there is no support, certainly not the luxury of working in Barcelona or Italy for a few weeks.
Some writers can do without the handholding. R K Narayan, for instance, began his career needing nothing more than a walk around the fields and his village to spark inspiration. A few years later, his concentration was so well honed that he found even a beautiful view from his window distracting, preferring his desk to face a drab grey curtain.
But for the rest of us, a room with a view can be exactly what you need to get started. The quiet space it offers is just as valuable as – and perhaps even more necessary than – the lights and bustle of the festival stage.