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How to survive litfests: A bluffer's guide

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:37 IST

Each time I am at a litfest I wonder where all the wild bad depressive anti-social writers have disappeared to.

Writers these days are like CEOs arriving at business conferences. Or Rotarians coming to attend the District Governor's Dinner. Everyone nods politely to each other and no one disagrees. You have a glass of wine and then go to bed early. Yoga in the morning, a light but long breakfast (long because breakfast is where you network) and then you are off to attend your 'session'.

William Trevor, the Irish short story writer and novelist who passed away recently, said: 'Writers are outsiders with no place in society.' Contemporary writers are so well-adjusted one begins to worry about the quality of their writing.

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God bless lit fest organisers for being so nice to writers and feeding them and putting them up in fancy hotels. The only problem is that writers have such a high sense of self-regard, coupled with insecurity, that very little of interest happens offstage.

Pen is envy

Writers who don't know each other will rarely ever strike up conversations. Seldom does anyone make an effort to get to know a person they already don't know. The authors float around like abandoned frigates, eyes unseeing, weak smile adorning scrubbed face.

This isolation is compounded by the unfounded expectation writers often have that everybody should be familiar with what they've written. This is the Delhi version of 'Don't you know who I am?'

There is also the sense that writers carry that they are somehow special and above litfests. 'Oh god another litfest.' I don't get that. Someone has spent money to get you out of your study and on to the stage-make the most of it instead of being cynical. When you've convinced yourself that all the people worth knowing are already my friends, and the others are not worth it, you've closed yourself off to the world. You've punished yourself to standing in a corner with your nose to the wall.

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Famous writers exist in a bubble. They are like film stars or politicians completely out of touch with reality. They are escorted on stage and are whisked away later by festival organisers. They are surrounded by fawning yes-men and get so used to people nodding at everything they say that they have no way of knowing if the yes-men are nodding at what they are saying or nodding only at this reputed dummy standing in front of them.

B for Bollywood, B for bluff

In Bombay for a festival, I decided to take a break and go and meet the other kind of writer-the Versova scriptwriter. The Versova scriptwriter, also a writer, is a very different kind of beast.

I sat in a room while my friend, who is directing a web series, ran through auditions, co-ordinated with producers and narrated the story of his web series to anyone who cared to listen.

For the Versova scriptwriter, money is top priority. It's true of anyone who is part of the film and television world.

They ask the question with innocence, not with any intention of putting you down or placing you in a social hierarchy. And the question is this: 'So how much do you get paid for your columns?

It's not a question I'm ever asked in Delhi. In Versova I was asked this by a dialogue writer, an aspiring actor and a casting director. I proudly declaimed my modest means. After a couple of hours of harrowing honesty I decided to change tack. By the time a new crop of dialogue writers and actors streamed in in the evening, I had notionally upped my rates.

'So what do you do?'

'I'm a writer?'

'What do you write on?'

'This and that'

'What do you write?'

'I write books and columns and pieces for websites and newspapers.'

'How much do you get paid?'

'50,000 per column.'

50,000 was okay but it wasn't really having the desired effect. A little later in the evening I decided to up it to 1 lakh a piece.

'Ok, not bad. So how many do you write in the month.'

'I do about 15.'

That really worked. 15 lakh is a respectable sum by Versova standards.

As the evening ended, several actors and dialogue writers had formed a group around me. 'Can you get me a column?' 'How does one get in touch with an editor?' 'How many words is it per piece? Can I have your visiting card?' I said I'd run out of visiting cards.

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I went from impoverished writer to rock star. I felt like Lalu holding court in Patna even though I knew I was living a lie. I told them: 'I can also get you invited to litfests. Free five-star accommodation and dinners with Nobel and Booker prize-winning authors. More friendly chaps than your average Bollywood superstar.'

I handed out the phone numbers of all the editors I know. Their phones haven't stopped ringing. They haven't stopped cursing me.

Writing columns is the new Bollywood, courtesy yours truly.

(The writer's House Spirit: Drinking in India was published earlier this year)

First published: 16 December 2016, 8:11 IST