On Stage

November 2016


Every November, Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest attaches itself firmly to almost all venues of NCPA. That`s because Mumbai’s international literary festival is not just a Literature Live! event, or a Tata event, but very much NCPA`s event too. (Full disclosure: I am the Founder and Director of the litfest). So it has been for the last six years, and so it will be this November from the 17th to the 20th when Experimental, Little, Godrej, Sunken Garden and Tata will reverberate to the sonorous voices of writers and performers; large umbrellas will give shade in the Experimental Garden; and people will queue up from early morning to collect their free passes.

Last year, the first person to come to the festival was an NCPA member, bright and early at 7 in the morning on the very first day when tables and signage were just beginning to be set up. “We don`t open till 9 m`am,” one of the young volunteers told her. “No problem,” she said cheerfully, “I will wait.” So she did, our very own first day, first show attendee.

For all of us who sometimes despair about where our city is going, with the loud stentorian voices of philistines making a virtue of their boorishness, this festival comes as a welcome antidote: queues of people at each venue through the day, clutching their passes like prizes; the animated Question and Answer finale at each session, a forest of hands going up, each hoping to catch the chairman`s eye; and finally the dreaded sentence, “Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but our time is up!” Then the queue at the book signing (beloved of reader and writer alike), where everyone gets a quick word  and a selfie with the author.

This year being the four hundredth death anniversary of William Shakespeare, we have a large contingent of international poets attending the festival along with the usual quota of celebrated novelists and non-fiction writers (including the celebrated British literary critic, Nicholas Shakespeare, who is a descendant of the great man!). I asked the poets to send a ‘Poem for Shakespeare’ for the festival brochure, and many responded, even though very few poets write poetry on demand. I even have two sonnets! Simon Armitage, Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, did one better: he sent a sonnet in Morse code. Gulzar (who everyone calls Gulzar saab) wrote a poem in Urdu, the language in which he does most of his work. While I write this column, two other people are at work, one translating the Urdu poem into English, the second deciphering Morse code.

You have heard of pop singers and their outlandish demands while touring. Like a specified make of limousine to receive them, or a room of a particular colour (including bed sheets and towels and all furnishings and even bathroom décor and toiletries). Some have asked for water of a certain brand, all bottles at a prescribed temperature. Recently, I read about a band which asked for a huge number of M & M s placed in bowls all over their hotel room, from which the brown button-shaped chocolates had to be removed. Luckily, writers don`t make such outrageous demands. This year, though, one particular writer did ask for something odd: he wants a hotel room with a balcony, so he can go out and smoke. Now how do we persuade the Taj Mahal hotel to add a temporary smoking balcony?

Unlike many of you who are reading this, I have one grouse: in these four packed days when books and words are all over NCPA, you might find me outside the Experimental Theatre rather than where I want to be, which is obviously inside. That`s the price one pays for being the organiser. On the other hand, there are some advantages. Like taking V S Naipaul out to dinner, or having a long conversation over coffee with Germaine Greer or engaging in email banter with Thomas Friedman. One day Tom Stoppard came home for dinner and saw a whole shelf of my bookcase with nothing but his books which he then patiently signed. Salman Rushdie (before he was forced to go into hiding) liked our cook’s hot phulkas so much that after dinner, he had six of them with no accompaniments.

What the litfest does give everyone who attends, is the magic of words. Spoken by the magicians themselves. Isn’t that that serendipity enough ?