On a sunny autumn morning, the Gothic-hall of the iconic century-old Nilgiri Library resonated with cheers as writer Perumal Murugan received his Lifetime Achievement Award for fostering literary arts and culture in Tamil Nadu. It was the opening day of the 7th edition of the Ooty Literary Festival.
In a conversation that followed, Perumal Murugan shared how he turned author. “Introduction to magical realism, feminism, Dalit writings and post-modernism of the 1990s in literature brought in layered-writing in Tamil. It affected my writing style too. Though realistic narration was considered obsolete, I chose to tread my own path in this style,” he said adding that his mentors, professors Srinivasan and Raja Durai , and poet Sukumaran moulded him as a writer.
Throwing light on how translations have opened up regional writing, he recalled poring over Tamil translations of Russian literature in the 1980s. “The beauty of the steppes is still so fresh in my memory. You realise that human emotions are the same everywhere. With my works being translated in German and Czech now, it gives me hope that language is no longer a barrier for writers. Local, ethnic issues have global appeal now.”
This year’s festival was reimagined on a bigger scale by a team of co-trustees including Geetha Srinivasan, Yash Muthanna, Kalpana Kar, and Aroon Ram. It included an exhibition, titled Remembering & Reimagining, curated by Jenny Pinto, which featured an extensive collection of photos spanning 200 years, documenting the social, ecological and cultural history of the Nilgiris. An exhibition of illustrations by artist Paul Fernandes, called An Artist Recreates the Magic of Ooty, took visitors on a journey through the history of the idyllic queen of the hills. Author Sudha Murthy regaled students with her experiences of turning author at Igniting Minds. “Such festivals are a great opportunity to meet other authors as well as connect with my readers,” she said between posing for photographs.
Discussing the impact of the festival, Kalpana Kar, said “It opens up minds. The habit of reading, the power of a world of words comes to the fore in the real sense.” She added that the festival is part of the bicentennial, with a focus on “conserving the Nilgiris, and co-existence with wildlife as we are looking at an endangered biosphere here”. She added that they made an effort to engage with more children this year, “with stories on Nature and wildlife, hoping to eventually turn them into conservationists.”
Elaborating on queer writing, author and LGBTQIA+ inclusion consultant Parmesh Shahani, spoke of a queer renaissance with queer fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, queer anthologies and genres capturing the tapestry of the queer experience. Parmesh added, “A lit fest that puts issues like gender, LGBTQ, sustainability, and environment upfront gives hope. Right now, there are over 200 books on queer writing in India, from trans writing by folks like Akkai Padmashali to K Vaishali’s Growing Up Lesbian and Dyslexic in India which came out this year. Global conversations on inclusion gives us visibility, representation, a chance to be seen and heard, and to fit into the imagination of being Indian which is many things, also being queer.”
On day two, Suresh Menon, veteran sports writer, who wrote his recent book Why don’t you write something I might read? (in response to his wife’s recurring query!) expressed hope that books will survive and stay. A book-lover, he calls himself a ‘non-fiction writer’ and said the only preparation to becoming a writer is reading. His session along with Devangshu Datta from Juggernaut Books and cricket writer Prem Panicker took the conversation forward on translations and trends in publishing.
Another noteworthy conversation featured wildlife conservationist Shafath Ali Khan, India’s celebrated hunter and K Vijaykumar, IPS (retired) who as chief of the Special Task Force of Tamil Nadu ended the Veerappan saga. “My grandfather was an advisor to the British government on man-animal conflict,” started Shafath Ali Khan and added, “One lakh and seventy thousand villages in India are at the foothills of national parks and are at the receiving end. As man-conflicts rise, tribals will become enemies of wildlife. Hunting down man-eaters or rogue elephants is the last resort to save the wildlife.” Vijayakumar recounted the twist and turns of Operation Cocoon from his book Veerappan- Chasing the Brigand.
Author and poet Jerry Pinto, advisor of the fest, said the Ooty Literary Festival, which was started by two grandmothers as they describe themselves — Yash Muthanna and Geetha Srinivasan — has grown over the last seven years. “We ensure that local talent is represented strongly. It is about cross-fertilising minds. We always ask writers to do events and workshops for children. That’s where you are growing a new breed of readers.”
As the sun set over the hills, performers of jazz, blues, and Sufi took over, drawing to a close a celebration of words, poetry, and most importantly, Ooty