By Dr. Satish C. Aikant
Come November 15 and Dehradun will come alive with writers and bibliophiles as literature aficionados and stalwarts among the men (and women) of letters come together at the third edition of Valley of Words (VoW), Doon Valley’s own literature festival. The grand international festival of literature and arts named after the valley of Doon, has now established itself firmly as one of the most important literary and cultural events happening in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Within three years VoW has evolved into a premier literary event in the Doon Valley ranked as one of the leading events of its kind in the country. The Festival has become one of the most important events on the city’s cultural calendar. Writers, artists, scholars, economists, military strategists, poets and experts from various other fields and their followers and admirers will congregate at Madhuban Hotel in Dehradun to participate and intermingle in a shared atmosphere of intense intellectual and cultural activity. The event is one of its kind, though it is part of a huge upsurge in cultural events in the form of literature festivals all across the country. On the last count there were close to 200 literature festivals in India in a single calendar year. Surely a welcome development. They have become important channels for promoting culture taken in its broad sense, not limited to the highbrow but encompassing what Raymond Williams has termed ordinary culture or the lived experience. We have come a long way since the European literary salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, precursors to the modern literary festivals.
Dr. Sanjeev Chopra, who is the curator and guiding spirit behind the grand event, assures us that the upcoming festival will be more expansive, more impressive and colourful in terms of the sheer range of works that will be discussed and the conversations around them that will make it a memorable experience. While the fulcrum of the festival is clearly literature, the sessions and discussions will be arranged to draw in several creative fields. While showcasing national and international literary writing, it will also aim at celebrating the colour and ethos of the city and its cultural plenitude.
While an important aspect of literary festivals is to promote writers and their work, they also create a space for discussing the challenging issues of our time by bringing together writers, publishers and thinkers and interested audiences. Literature has always been one of the best vehicles through which to challenge settled assumptions and articulate the alternative voices. Hence new viewpoints and voices are finding their rightful place highlighting inclusion and expanding the universe of ideas.
At the grand finale of the festival winning authors will be awarded for their books published in 2018. The awards process involves preparing a shortlist of books nominated which are carefully considered by a jury. To be sure the shortlisting process is a daunting task as a total number of 220 books were submitted for nomination. For an award to be perceived as fair the objective is to focus the spotlight on the author and writing setting a new literary trend, and the process begins with the selection of the jury. It is imperative that the members do not have a conflict of interest with the nominated books, their authors or publishing houses. My job however was made easy by my exceptionally qualified colleagues on the jury Professor Jaiwanti Dimri and Professor Divya Saksena with long years of experience as academics and writers adhering to high standards of integrity and transparency. We selected 34 titles for the shortlist from different categories. The winners will be selected from these with the assistance from the Advisory Council of the festival. The emphasis will be on the most original, the well crafted, and singularly interesting writing. Since a certain degree of subjective element is inevitable the jury does intense brainstorming to arrive at a consensus. Finally a book is selected purely on its merit marked out for its originality, its content and contextual relevance.
The awards are designed with an aim to celebrate both budding and established authors working on diverse subjects. Literary works from various genres have made it to this year’s shortlist with acclaimed writings including Keki N. Daruwalla’s Swerving to Solitude: Letters to Mama, Sudhir Kakar’s The Kipling File, Hindol Sengupta’s The Man Who Saved India: Sardar Patel and His Idea of India, Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Beghums of the Mughal Empire, Intizar Husain’s Day and Dastan: Two Novellas, Dileep Chandan’s Ballad of Kaziranga, Rana Safvi’s City of My Heart: Four Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century Delhi, Alka Saraogi’s Ek Sacchi Jhoothi Gatha, V. S. Rao’s Navagraha Purana and Siddhartha Sarma’s Year of the Weeds.
The awards go a long way to popularise and give greater visibility for contemporary Indian writing both in English and other major Indian languages. There is particular focus on translation. Considering India’s linguistic diversity an award for a translated book has a simultaneous impact in two languages – the original and its translation. When a translation wins a prize the sale of the original too picks up. We haven’t ignored the important category of writing for young adults. The idea is to generate interest in reading and writing which the children and youth of today need to develop for the betterment of their lives. In our changing world literature assumes far greater importance and writers and artists can make an important contribution in guiding the youth and moulding their sensitivity towards conserving nature, wildlife and cultural heritage. A significant component of the festival is the R. S. Tolia Forum that focuses on the economy and sustainability of the hill state of Uttarakhand. There will be sessions devoted exclusively to creative writing in Hindi – both fiction and nonfiction. Evenings will be devoted to music and other performances to regale the audiences. There will be debates by school children on crucial topics of the day. Several book launches with new authors, many of them from Mussoorie and Dehradun, are on the anvil. Doon has already become the education hub of Uttarakhand and the Doon valley provides an appropriate setting conducive to literary activity. It is home to several distinguished writers of national and international repute. There is something about the place, its natural beauty and mystic charm that fuels their writing in a way few other places can. Writing is a solitary activity. However it is important for a writer, every now and then, to come out of his shell to engage with the real world and discover what is going on and to share his experiences with the kindred souls. There’s no better place for this to happen than at a literature festival.
One might sometimes feel that literature festivals seem somewhat out of touch with the digital world, since as, let us face it, reading and writing have become less common pastimes. It is a real challenge in today’s busy world, because of the ubiquitous technology and all the distractions. At a time when the world is increasingly moving online, the physical or tangible experience of a festival is becoming more and more important – a place and a network where like-minded people can meet as a community and be in dialogue with public at large.
Literature festivals play a huge role in bringing together writers, artists and their audiences in formal and informal interactions. When the public attends live sessions and listens to authors and engage in exciting conversations with them they are more likely to pick up their books. The festival allows access to ideas and creative processes of authors in a unique atmosphere of colour, magic and the incredible energy of a vibrant, engaged audience. So it is not just about promoting books and authors. In the final reckoning the festival offers something that just cannot be found in the virtual realm – a live experience. The Valley of Words is open to everyone. Visit the event for your pleasure, or as Walter Benjamin expressed it off-handedly, ‘just to get in touch.’
(The writer is Jury Chair for the VoW Book Awards 2019)