An Insider’s Survival Guide to Indian Lit Fests

What to pack, how to dress, and whom to speak to.  
Jaipur Literature Festival
Lit fests can be a lot of fun once you know how to navigate them. Photo courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival

The world suddenly abounds in lit fests, and perhaps the largest concentration can be found in India where upwards of a hundred literary festivals and book fairs are held in any given year. They’re mostly crammed into the winter: from November to February one could travel from one festival to the next, weekend after weekend. One novelist I met at a Bengaluru lit fest complained that he had barely had time to launder his underwear over the three months of hectic touring since his book came out.

These gatherings are ostensibly meant to celebrate books and literacy, but more often turn into socialite events. However, those of us who come seeking intellectual nourishment need to handle certain ground realities.

On The Way There

Unlike rock concerts starring superstars, lit fests rarely cost anything for the attendee—they are free fun, and stimulation for the masses. However, in order to control crowds many festivals have started ticketing specific events (such as writing workshops with limited seating capacity) or expect you to register online, so do check the rules before landing there. Abroad, the system is more stringent: festivals are often ticketed and not necessarily cheap. So let’s enjoy free Indian lit fests while they last, and support them by going there.

If you’ve registered online and especially if you paid to be upgraded, you may be entitled to a delegate kit or a so-called “goodie bag” which typically contains gifts from the sponsors, meal coupons, invitations to launches, and also a pen and notebook from the festival’s media partner. Remember to make good use of the notebook—although I sometimes record interesting sessions on my phone, I never get around to listening to these. Nor have I ever logged on to festival websites to search for video recordings of talks. But I do browse my old notebooks and muse over interesting ideas or memorable one-liners that people shared during the panel talks.

If you can convince your local newspaper to carry your report from the festival, or if you run a popular book blog, it may be an idea to seek accreditation as a journalist. A press card isn’t always required, and you may get one-on-one interviews with writers.

Finally, try and book a hotel close to the venue, so that you can sneak away to your room for a bit of rest, and also offload books. If the festival is very popular, it may be good to plan your visit well in advance: book your room for next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival when you go there this year. You can always cancel a booking if you change your plans, but it is harder to get a good hotel on short notice.

What To Carry

Yearly Book festival

Literature festivals are a great place to stock up on a year’s supply of books—and get them signed. Photo: Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival

Unless you’re eligible for one of those above-mentioned goodie bags, do carry a sturdy bag or a small rucksack—for those author-signed copies you’ll inevitably collect.

Carry a medicine kit with you at all times. This should contain headache pills (headaches may be caused by strong sunshine or too much talk); antacids and Imodium to deal with the sometimes inedible food, caffeine pills, coffee-laced chocolates or glucose to boost your energy levels; throat lozenges, and nose and eye drops (outdoor events can get very dusty). A hand-sanitizer and tissue paper may come in handy, as will possibly a hipflask filled with Old Monk. Party Smart anti-hangover pills by Himalaya may also turn out to be a worthwhile addition to the kit.

How To Dress

Landing up dressed for extreme conditions—like a beach party in Goa or a formal Nobel Prize function—may not be practical. Clothing at lit fests ought to be functional, yet casually smart. It is best to blend in as it’ll make it easier to strike up conversations with the literati.

A t-shirt with a witty message printed on it will of course do fine, but shorts may look out of place. Khadi kurta, pyjamas and a jhola is always a safe bet, and being bespectacled (rather than fussing with your contact lenses) will lend you an air of belonging. A regular shirt or a blouse with some ethnic block-printed patterns and long pants or jeans (which will also offer protection against mosquitoes) are best.

It can get cold at times

It can get chilly, so be prepared. Photo: Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival

As many lit fests are held outdoors it can get chilly, so carry a cardigan, a shawl or big scarf for the early morning or evening sessions. Coming dressed in a sweater may be less practical, as the noontime sessions will inevitably take place under a blazing sun, which means that you’ll be stewing or have to remove the sweater and sit there in your banian.

Shoes ought to be comfortable, as you may have to stand a lot in queues to enter venues, at the book signings after the talks, at the canteen or tea stall, or in front of the toilets (there are usually never enough loos to facilitate everybody).

At The Venue

First and foremost, remember to keep your mobile in silent mode at all times, unless you want to make every other festivalgoer your personal enemy.

While choosing which sessions to attend, try to avoid the celebrities unless you love to feel the mad crush of stardom. If you do manage to make it into the bigger events, do carry binoculars or opera glasses to get a closer view of your favourite author. A camera with a powerful zoom may also be a good investment, if you want portrait photos for your album, blog, or Facebook page.

Try to catch at least a couple of low-profile events with lesser known writers; rest assured they too will have interesting things to say and you will enjoy a sense of intimacy with the speakers. Maybe you’ll also end up discovering a new favourite author.

Food And Beverage Matters

It is a good idea to carry a water bottle and snacks, such as chocolate bars to energize you when that late afternoon lull makes itself noticeable, as there may be limited food on sale and the rates are sometimes exorbitant. While some festivals, such as the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival on Park Street or the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai, are held in areas where it is easy to pop out and grab some grub, others are set in remote locations—such as the Goa Arts & Literature Festival outside Panjim—forcing you to depend on the limited food available on site. Even if food isn’t free, you can try and sneak into the dining area if you manage to look like a delegate or poet (see above on dressing right).

Party Hard In Moderation

Parties at lit fests are usually free of charge but by invitation only. If you haven’t managed to score an invite, you can always try gatecrashing. It helps if you look a bit like Suhel Seth or Shobhaa De, or at least try to dress like them. The venue is always a five-star hotel in the vicinity of the festival location. Dress smartly, act pleasant but VVIP-like (if such a combination is possible), and you will probably not be asked for an invitation card. If the guards insist on an invite, tell them that it is with your PA. If they produce a printed list of invitees, point at any random name belonging to a person of approximately the same gender as yourself. There’s no harm in trying.

The food is usually of average hotel buffet quality and tries to accommodate everything from deep-fried tiffin items to Chinese, in a hopeless mismatch. This means that you are likely to suffer indigestion, so keep antacids handy.

Booze flows freely, so much so that some writers are known to bring hipflasks to fill up. However, getting drunk is unbecoming and the day after you’re likely to regret many things you said even as there will be embarrassing snaps of you online in which you’re reaching over the bar for that alluring bottle of Teacher’s.

Culture Vultures

At lit fests, every white person you spot isn’t necessarily William Dalrymple, but many of them are. So keep your autograph book handy at all times. Lit fests provide the common man and woman a chance to chat with the greats of Indian literature, such as Ruskin Bond, Amitav Ghosh and KR Meera. Once at a lit fest, I spotted Martin Amis all by himself and unsurrounded by fans, rolling a morning ciggie, so I managed to get a brief chat and an autograph. Usually though, the best time to take selfies with famous authors is immediately after their talk sessions or book signings, while they’re still in their professional roles. They are, as a rule, most obliging. Be polite. If you happen to see one picking his nose, don’t whip out your camera phone. Or, be discreet about it and use a zoom lens to get a close-up of the booger.

If you happen to be a wannabe author, it is best to focus on the publishers and literary agents in the crowd.

Socialising will be helpful

“Every white person you spot isn’t necessarily William Dalrymple.” Photo: Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival


    Zac O'Yeah is the author of crime novels "Once Upon A Time in Scandinavistan" (Hachette India, 2010) and "Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru" (Hachette India, 2012). His latest novel is "Hari, a Hero for Hire" (Pan Macmillan India).

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