It was a heaven-sent opportunity for litterateurs – a trip up in the Himalayas for informal discussions on some matters facing authors and books, readings, and chats with peers. But there was a pleasant surprise too — the insightful observations and heartfelt musings of half a dozen local schoolchildren on issues from female infanticide to corruption that left the writers, established and upcoming, awestruck.
The writers’ retreat at boutique resort Te Aroha, which means a pleasant place in New Zealand’s Maori language, in the hill town in Nainital district in the first week of November was the brainchild of Sumant Batra, corporate and policy lawyer and avid collector of the minutiae of Indian art and daily life, and was intended to lay the groundwork for a literary festival in the Kumaon hills in November next year.
Participating in the panel discussions on issues like whether printed books and the art of bookmaking have a future, the benefits and shortcomings of social media for authors, and the battle of languages and the status and quality of translations, especially into various Indian languages, were novelists Kiran Manral and Vineetha Mokkil, poets Sudeep Sen (English), Amir Or (English/Hebrew) and Geet Chaturvedi (Hindi), thriller writer Kulpreet Yadav, and Cordon Bleu chef-cum-writer Michael Swamy.
The discussions, curated by Literature Studio founder Vibha Malhotra and Delhi University assistant professor Sakshi Chanana, were further enlivened by the participation of four winners of a creative-writing contest – short-story writers Saritha Rao (English) and Rashmi Nambiar (Hindi), bilingual author Maulshri and poet Supriya Kaur Dhariwal, who is just out of her teens but has made quite a name for herself.
The discussions, against the backdrop of the picturesque, snow-clad Nanda Devi mountain range, threw up many views – provocative and contentious at times but incisive and illuminating too, frequently moving beyond books, the forms in which they are read and the languages in which they are written to encompass the art and craft of authorship, the mind, creativity, intention and objectives of the writer and ultimately to the wider aspect of literature in its political and social context and balancing its paramount objectives of educating and entertaining.
While the debates stimulated the intellect, the late evening readings by the assembled authors were an aesthetic tour de force, taking up the pleasure of reading several notches. They also offered an unparalleled insight into the creative process by identifying the stress the various creators laid at particular telling words and sentences, be it prose or poetry, and the evident pride of the progenitors at the reception their works evoked.
But the real show-stealers were the high-school students invited to read their work and interact with the authors.
In a place where schools are not just distant in space but elevation too, the task of learning competes with arduous household chores, and the facilities their counterparts in the cities of the plains take for granted are lacking, the five girls and a boy displayed a level of sensibility and creativity which their peers would envy.
Whether it was a touching plea of a girl child to be allowed to live and study, a view on environmental degradation of fragile eco-systems of the hills, or the bane of political chicanery and corruption, they left their accomplished audience gasping in admiration.
The boy, who had accompanied his sister, used the time they were waiting to pen down his own “Audacity of Hope” – a simple but moving tale of a boy rising above his circumstances to achieve his desire in life.
If this is a sample of the potential languishing unrecognized in the Kumaon hills, it is definitely high time the region had its own literary event.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)