The Chennai Book Fair ended this week. Here are some personal notes on it:
We had smartly chosen the evening of a weekday to avoid the mad congestion that is inevitable at such events on weekends. On our arrival at the YMCA Grounds in Nandanam, the venue of the Chennai Book Fair, we realise our smart thought has basically occurred to almost everyone in Chennai as almost the entire city seemed to be in attendance.
Within seconds of our entry, we are struck by the smell that no bibliophile can ever miss, one that unfailingly stirs you up even in this age of Kindle and e-books. Yes, that unmistakable aroma of fresh-off-the-press dosais.
But we are not here for the dosais, we firmly tell ourselves. So we head for the chaat shops, which the book fair organisers had thoughtfully lined up right near the entrance.
Food done, we contently move towards the rows and rows and never-ending rows of book stalls. The whole scene is spectacularly stunning: Young and old intently looking intently at the staggering stacks of books that collectively contain practically the entire knowledge of the world and then generally ignoring them, settle for Chetan Bhagat. It was also heartening to see young readers identify authors, walk up to them and intellectually involve them in taking selfies.
Chennai being a knowledgeable city, there was no surprise as what was selling like hot cakes at the stalls: ’Ooty Varkey’. Honestly, there was a stall amidst the book shops for this and it was doing roaring business. Varkey will continue to do well till there is a ‘Kindle’ alternative to it.
The book that sold most was, we are told, Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan, a historical that was first published in the 1950s, a period that today’s writers set their historicals in . Incidentally, Ponniyin Selvan was the most sold book at last year’s fair too. In the one previous to that too. So what is the secret behind Ponniyin Selvan timeless popularity? The most logical guess is it is published with some kind of drug-lined paper that makes people keep coming back to it again and again.
On a serious note, Ponniyin Selvan is a pretty good novel with an interesting plot and intriguing characters that come alive through a racy writing style right till the end of first twelve pages that we have managed to read in the last five years.
Staying with Tamil books, the literary scene is throbbing with fresh talents who bravely conjure up magical metaphors, smart turns of phrase and new imagery, and employ them all to badmouth fellow writers. Otherwise, the Tamil publishing scene is filled with, for all practical purposes, translated books or untranslatable works.
This year, the talk at the various Tamil book stalls centred inevitably on Perumal Murugan and the unfortunate predicament that he and his book Mathorubagan, find themselves in. One has not read the book, but one managed to read the English version’s blurb, which at the end sums up it all with the words: “…an intimate and unsettling portrait of marriage, love and sex.” As you can see, this is also the blurb that can fit Fifty Shades of Grey. Left to themselves, blurb-writers would use this even on The Chambers Dictionary.
Anyway, the writing community was understandably worked up over the turn of events surrounding Perumal Murugan. Charu Nivedita, the Tamil writer, emotive as he generally is, forcefully said: ‘I will slipper him’. The ‘him’ in question, however, turned out to be a fellow thinker type who managed to bring up the important point — during the talk on Perumal Murgan incident —- Charu’s libido.
In general, there were many nuanced debates and talks with different writers and thinkers using different cuss words to abuse each other. But to be fair to them, the writers and intellectuals quickly understood the futility of employing swear words and eventually moved to issuing physical threats.
At the end of the day, overcoming all their individual differences, they (Tamil writers) still managed to send out the collective message to the rest of the world that the Tamil writing community has among its intellectual ranks some of the worst jerks known to mankind.
The intellectual position on the freedom of expression issue, as it emerged, was: 1) Whatever the opinion, everyone has a right to have one 2) Anyone having a difference of opinion is welcome to have one 3) We will call him/her an as*****.
But aside from these exchanges among writers, the fair has to be classified as a stimulating success. I am already looking forward to the next edition when, hopefully, there won’t be any major distractions like this year and all lovers of books can come together and enjoy a good dosai or two.