At the Bangalore Literature Festival last week, I adopted a cautious, rodent-like approach to finding the best seat in the capacious front lawn. I took, at first, a modest seat by the aisle, encountered a wall of tall people obstructing my view of literary greats; shifted to another seat, this time on the other side, a little further up. I spent five minutes paying full attention to Ashish Sen speaking about Mahesh Dattani’s works as the playwright himself sat beside and sagaciously offered agreement until the aged gentleman in the row before mine began to rise every five minutes; perhaps to allow for a better view to resolve some internal conflict reflecting that of Dattani’s characters. I needed to restrategise. I moved as discreetly as possible to four rows ahead of mine, to settle for a seat with a view restricted by no nodding head and next only to the seats reserved for the press.
Now, everything will make better sense, I reasoned.
I sat down with my notebook, set down the day’s shopping from the festival bookstore(where I had stood mulling buying something and unwittingly blocked Sunil Sethi’s way for a full minute) and sat back and watched session after session on the final day of the first BLF.
The crowd at the discussions seemed to ebb and swell depending on the popularity of the speakers. And what a crowd it was. Judging purely from the visitors’ eagerness to take part in the discourse, the city was in dire need of a platform such as this. Amish Tripathi even got told off by an elderly lady who warmly admonished the chronology of his characters and demanded that she be given an answer "Now! I don’t want to wait for your third book" as if he was not a writer of popular fiction but an errant young driver who insisted on repeatedly parking in front of the gate of her Sadashivnagar house.
It was a question that perhaps every journo hoping to file a report the next day was trying to answer. How does an event like this – one that brings people with love for literature and books together- accommodate an identity it derives from the city? Sure, a literature festival in Bangalore was going to significantly showcase local writers and literature; the art and music of here, but there was more to local flavor?
The panel discussion titled "Bangalore – Multiple City" on the city’s history and recent cultural shift was a sometimes entertaining, sometimes depressing, often hilarious exploration of a range of present opinions. The discussion on identity started off fittingly with litterateur Dr. UR Ananthamurthy revisiting the reasons for his campaign to rename Bangalore to its more native origin -Bengaluru. The change, according to URA, was not just for the sake of identity but because a city should be referred to by the name its common man uses: "It is about pride." The scholar delivered (yet again) his famous explanation of how an English word instantly becomes a Kannada noun by attaching a "-u" at the end. Kannada, he said, is a very ‘receptive language’.
In a conversation that was quickly sliding into the politics of language, URA said that Bangalore will always be about Kannada. While on one hand endorsing generosity and acceptance of other cultures, he said that language can be of prominence only in its home. He said that if he as a visitor ‘had learned to say New York or Paris in those cities’, it was only fair for others to learn to say "Bengaluru".
URA expressed displeasure at the distribution of the language amongst the city’s various classes. According to him, privileged classes feel that they don’t need the local language. "Upper classes didn’t know there was another Bangalore until Dr. Raj died" he thundered.
Journalist and theater person Prakash Belawadi rubbished fears about the decline of Kannada. "There is more Kannada in Bangalore now than when I was a child" he countered. Belawadi didn’t endorse the growing popular concern that the language was fading. He said "Kannada is the definitive medium of cultural and literary expression, make no mistake."
When the insider-outsider point was nervously raised, it was Shobhaa De’s turn to say that it was unfair to appropriate cities to any one section of its citizenry. Be it Bombay or Bangalore, "you’re there because the place provides a livelihood." She said the one thing about Bangalore that hasn’t changed is its people. Another panelist, actress Ramya spoke fondly of the Bangalore of then and declared that the city was ruined and conveniently leveled blame on the proliferation of IT companies and attendant influx of people.
It was left to ex-Infosys CFO Mohandas Pai to patiently challenge this favorite charge of Bangalorean chai sessions. "The government will lose 40% of its taxes" he said politely, if IT companies were to bundle up and move to elsewhere, unfairly facing the resentment against crumbling infrastructure and related issues. "Democracy is a system of lobbies" he declared rather boldly and insisted that urban issues should be raised with governments by campaigns of interest.
In the inevitable ceremony of horror at what things have come to, somebody made an unfortunate "Garden City to Garbage City" remark and hell broke loose and its contents ran amok.
Nobody knew what happened as this panel began a well-practiced denigration of the BBMP and the city’s garbage problem. After several minutes of rueful chatter, it took Ms De to wonder how Bangalore had become a "garbage obsessed city?" If Shobhaa De isn’t primarily credited with asking the sharpest questions in a burning discussion, this was her moment. "What about garbage of the mind?" she asked sensibly even as the rest of the panel continued to give civic authorities and the city’s indifference an impassioned, somewhat pointless dressing down in what had started as a meditation on the changing face of Bangalore.
Pai spoke about his own early days in the city when there were privileged classes of administrators, academics and old money and then there was the ‘rest of us’ who, to policy-makers, didn’t exist. He said that most civic issues are the result of undemocratic planning and policy. "Stop planning for the ruler" he told the city’s civic bodies. Belawadi in turn objected to ‘conflating civic problems as collateral damage to development’ of the consequences of the growth of the software industry.
The moderator, former BATF member V. Ravichandar duly quoted Nehru about the difference between other Indian cities, which spoke of the past and Bangalore which was a "picture of the future". He paused before explaining that India’s first Prime Minister said so when inaugurating the then Bangalore Municipal Corporation to a collective fit of derisive laughter.
For us average Bangaloreans, this communal ire was quite a treat. I read a tweet last year about another lit fest which noted how applause from an event’s audience means that a wide-ranging liberal platitude has just been delivered. Well in line with the laws of crowd behavior at literary events, this happened:
Pai: You won’t get beaten up in Bangalore for decrying the CM.
De: But you will get beaten up if you are a woman.
Even louder applause.
Ananthamurthy: We needn’t fear the government here. We are lucky to not have chief ministers like that of Tamil Nadu.
De: Or West Bengal.
A conversation about identity had turned into a ritual of wringing hands, just like in living rooms and on park benches elsewhere in Bangalore. The panel represented success, eminence, even privilege and yet, the woes they begrudged the most were the same issues that the general public bemoaned. Never mind the undiscriminating democracy of bad roads and piling garbage, does nothing else of note remain to the city? Is this the furthest this conversation can go, I wondered.
It was satisfying however to see some sense come out of this wildly roving conversation: one had to agree with Belawadi when he said that Kannada culture was strong as ever and that fears to the contrary were out of a "notional minoritization of certain sections." Even URA’s vision of the city as one in which "children and the elderly could safely cross the road" struck a chord. It was agreed that in the end Bangalore had considerably trumped bigotry of the scale in which it exists elsewhere. In spite of fears about ‘privileging the natives’, there was heartening talk of acceptance and generosity.
Just outside the festival bookstore, one was welcomed by a winding art installation with bamboo poles on which cards with attendees’ favorite lines from works of literature were suspended by strings. They swayed this way and that in the cool December breeze making the entire thing rather dreamlike. The Bangalore Literature Festival had me leaving, like many others, quite elated to have witnessed an impressively organized first edition. But I left also silently praying that Bangalore gets rid of its trash trouble by this time next year. For more reasons than one.⊕