When pandemic forces a literature pageant to go digital



Rahul Singh

THIS newspaper has covered the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival (KSLF) ever since it began in 2012, at the Kasauli Club in the cantonment hill station of Kasauli, a short distance from Chandigarh. The then Brigadier, Anant Narayanan, a far-sighted individual, urged us to hold it in Kasauli, where Khushwant Singh did much of his writing. The Kasauli Club was the ideal venue: its terrace looking down into the valley below, then the Shivalik Hills and, beyond, the shimmering Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh. It’s a truly glorious view, and those who see it for the first time are simply bowled over. What’s more, the terrace is large enough to hold 1,000 persons, and at night, becomes a perfect setting for song, dance and merriment. The first KSLF was a grand success, and ever since, successive Brigadiers, along with the Kasauli Club, have supported it. From an initial audience of a couple of hundred persons per session, the KSLF following has grown manifold, from all over India, even abroad, putting Kasauli on the literary and tourist map of India.

This October, too, the present Brigadier, Naveen Mahajan, was keen to have it physically in Kasauli for the ninth successive time. But the pandemic made that impractical. However, we felt that continuity must be maintained, hence the first Digital KSLF, though not held in Kasauli, had the ambience of the place and the spirit of Khushwant Singh behind it. The main theme of the litfest had to be centred around the pandemic, so the title came easily, “A New Life”. Yes, this virus, whose mysteries we are still trying to unravel, has changed our lives as nothing has before. A hurried communication with Prannoy Roy, and, hey presto, we had a broadcast partner, NDTV.

The litfest concluded last weekend. But for all those who missed it, they can still see the recordings on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, after they log on to kslitfest.com. For the seven sessions, we managed to line up a galaxy of top-notch writers: Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Fareed Zakaria, Sudha Murty, Chetan Bhagat, Harsh Mander, Shobhaa De. There was little need to introduce them as they are familiar to all those who do even a little reading. But not many here know of Jono Lineen, an Australian museum curator who has done the unique feat of walking 2,700 km of the Himalayas, from Pakistan through India to Nepal, alone! His book, “Into the Heart of the Himalayas”, along with Zakaria’s “Ten Lessons of a Post-Pandemic World”, and Mander’s “Locking down the Poor”, had their world launch at the Digital KSLF. We even got a sneak preview of what the prolific De has written during the lockdown: “Sreelaji” and “Lockdown Diaries”.

We also realised that a successful digital litfest needs a top-class technical team. When we were later congratulated for the excellent sound quality and visuals of the sessions, most people imagined we must have got hold of technicians from one of the big cities, or IT hubs like Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune. Imagine their surprise when we told them that the team came from Chandigarh! Take a bow Ashwini Kumar and Rahul Gauba, who amazingly transformed themselves at incredibly short notice from litfest stalwarts to digital wizards. Most of us have reservations about social media and how it has often been misused to carry fake news and hate speech. But for teaching and holding digital events, it is proving invaluable.

Let me end by mentioning what human-rights activist Harsh Mander and the ever-modest Sudha Murty, philanthropist extraordinaire, had to say, which left a lasting impression on many viewers. Mander highlighted the plight of millions of migrant workers from the unorganised sector left totally bewildered and helpless, without food, money or shelter, after the Prime Minister’s announcement of the lockdown on March 22. They were truly the forgotten people, forced to trudge back to their homes, hundreds of km away, carrying the few belongings they had on them. Mander also reminded us of the poorest of the poor who, to our shame, are still with us. We look at them everyday but don’t really see them. They have to explain to their children, as he related movingly, that they may have to go to sleep hungry some nights. And why do so many of them in the cities sleep next to highways and on traffic islands, risking being run over by a drunk driver, he asked. Because that’s the only place they can escape the mosquitoes. How sadly tragic.

Sudha Murty, when asked by Chetan Bhagat what her one wish was, replied: “Poor children should get three meals a day, have three sets of clothes, get education till Class 12, have a language of communication, and learn survival skills. Only then, will I be able to call our country a happy one.”

Is that asking for too much? And don’t we all want a happy India? Let’s all pledge to fulfil that one wish of hers, setting everything else aside.

— The writer is a veteran journalist



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