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Literature festivals caught in a Covid-19 crossroads

The directors and organisers of some of the oldest and most prestigious literature festivals in India tell The Daily Guardian how they plan to host their events this year.

Lipika Bhushan



Namita Gokhale, Anil Dharker, Manjiri Prabhu, Malavika Banerjee

As India moves between phases of lockdowns and “unlocks” in different cities, the key adjustment we have had to make is to accept the inability to assemble for events and festivals. Across the world, festivals on art, culture and literature have also had to reschedule their dates and their formats, considering that the pandemic doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

The literature festival scene in India usually starts in August, with the Bhutan Festival of Literature, Art & Culture, and goes on till the Delhi Literature Festival which takes place in late February or early March. I recall when the first few of these festivals had started, taking tiny steps one at a time. This beginning, however humble, had been possible only with the help of enthusiasts, distributors and publishers.

Over the years, these festivals have become a big congregation of some of the biggest and brightest minds in the worlds of literature, films, art and culture. And each year they draw lakhs of book lovers, deeply interested in reading, writing and high-voltage conversations around them. These festivals also see a lot of people, keener on updating their social media check-ins and taking selfies with well-known personalities and international celebrities.

 For the writing community, it is an opportunity to network with publishers, regional media, other writers and their readers. Writers, therefore, look forward to travelling across the country during these eight months. For serious readers, it is also an opportunity to engage in conversations with their favourite writers and attend some immersive and challenging conversations. Publishers view these festivals as a platform for business networking. They go scouting for writers and writers come loaded with their writing ideas looking for publishers in these spaces. Some of these festivals also provide opportunities for striking business partnerships between international publishers and smaller regional publishers. Literature festivals also provide a ground for the media to be able to get all the brightest brains in one place and get their opinions on urgent social and political issues.

In India, by the time the pandemic hit, we had just about wrapped up the 2019- 2020 series of literature festivals. In this changed world — with only a few months to go — the fate of literature festivals in 2020 looks a little unpredictable.

 I reached out to the directors and organisers of some of the oldest and most prestigious literature festivals in India to find out how they plan to host their festivals this year and continue to remain connected with those who wait in anticipation for these annual galas.

Namita Gokhale, the doyenne of publishing and founder and director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, shared, “We are hosting our international festivals on digital platforms this year.” Jaipur Literature Festival, one the biggest Indian literature festivals, which has spread its arms across the globe, seems to have sorted its schedule as it has announced the dates for India from the 28th January 2021 to the 1st  of February 2021. Gokhale adds, “JLF at the British Library runs from 11th to 13th September. The virtual London edition will be followed by the American editions of our festivals in Houston, New York, Boulder and Toronto.” Interestingly, the festival had announced a change of venue, given the growing need of a much larger space due to the crowd that pours in, sometime towards the end of 2019. Recently, it had also become a ticketed event.

Anil Dharker, founder and director of Tata Literature Live, another popular festival held in Mumbai every year, shares that they are exactly 3 months away from the dates of the festival and it is still unclear how the situation would pan out by then. “We are in a world which is not leaving us with any option but to have a limited audience and go digital for most of the conversations as most of the international writers wouldn’t travel. Depending on the situation, we may have local and domestic authors travel for the festival, but it is all too unsure at the moment.” The festival takes place in Mumbai, which is one of the worst-hit cities in this ongoing pandemic, and Dharker feels that the situation is going to worsen if and when the local trains, the lifeline of Mumbai, resume their services.

The Pune International Literature Festival, among the oldest festivals running in India, used to take place in September every year. However, as Manjiri Prabhu, founder and director of the festival, says “The monsoons have played havoc with the organising of the event for the last three years. That is why from this year onwards, we had already planned to host PILF in December. Now with the coronavirus situation, we hope to take some major decisions soon.” The Pune International Literature Festival intends to announce its final dates by the end of September.

 The KALAM Festival curated by its director, Malavika Banerjee, is another festival which is yet to announce its dates for the next season of both their Kolkata chapter as well as the Bhubaneshwar one. Banerjee says that it’s hard to plan ahead for several reasons: “First the uncertainty, second, even in a miraculous scenario where a live event is possible, authors will be wary of travel. Third, even if they do come, gathering in large numbers would not be permitted.” She adds that while they hope to have the festival at some point in 2021, January seems unrealistic.

But all is not grim as most of the festivals have already started regular interactions under their banners, focusing their energies on digital platforms. It is a good move given that even in the best of circumstances, and if the situation improves, many writers may not be able to travel and, therefore, some festivals or parts of these may have to look at digital events.

Jaipur Literature Festival has very aptly named its series under this effort, Brave New World, where it has been regularly conducting live interactions on YouTube and other digital platforms, between writers, artists and thought leaders both within India and living abroad.

Gokhale elaborates that the JLF Brave New World looks at the planet through the lens and perspectives of our challenging times. She adds, “It has hit a chord with audiences across the continents. The first hundred sessions of this digital transition have over three million views. Some of the greatest writers and thinkers in the world, from Margaret Atwood to Orhan Pamuk, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee to Neil Gaiman, George Saunders to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have joined us to share their thoughts on JLF Brave New World.”

Dharker too confirms that the digital transition of the ground events that they had under the Tata Literature Live events has been getting a great response, with every event seeing an average of 5,000 to 6,000 views. They plan one event a week and so far the response has been very encouraging.

  Malavika Banerjee of the KALAM festival which is also conducting a series of live conversations shares that while webinars are interesting and inclusive, the live event is a different beast and a far more attentive one. She mentions, “We have always had 10-12 events through the year but these were live events typically revolving around book launches. We’re doing these but also occasionally adding a topic like (the cyclone) Amphan or Black Lives Matter.

” Prabhu adds, “I guess, everyone is making the best of a given situation, to the best of their capacity. But as far as PILF is concerned, we would like to continue to maintain and enhance the spirit of the event and the excitement and anticipation of attendees towards an annual event — but as I said before, it remains to be seen if it will be an online or a physical festival this year.”

Gokhale shares that the transition to digital programming has been full of learnings. “There is perhaps, paradoxically, a greater intimacy to the virtual medium, and geographical constraints have given way to the liberating freedom to reach out to international speakers and to engaged audiences everywhere.” She also cites that a new community of book lovers has aggregated around JLF Brave New World.

While literature festivals helped bibliophiles rejuvenate their thoughts and ideas, they also brought about an atmosphere of festivities with literary soirees, big publishing revelries and musical evenings. It is the collective impression that made these festivals popular among people, publishers and brands.

Dharker shares that while the digital world definitely provides easy access and technology always meets a certain need, which in this case has arisen due to the pandemic, what is missed sorely is that festive atmosphere.  “This is why they are called festivals and not seminars!” reasons Dharker.

Putting together a physical festival also requires humongous efforts. There are aspects of the venue, the core theme of the festival for a year, curating an interesting series of different and unique topics that set it apart from others, drawing up and identifying personalities fit for these conversations who  can be invited from across the world and taking care of the minutest details of their travel, stay and food preferences. All this throws open the requirement of resources, especially huge funds, and thereby, sponsors.

While some of the big festivals grew bigger, both in size and stature, several smaller ones too were able to work as a bridge between readers and writers in their respective regions. Yet there were a few which staggered and stopped due to lack of funds and sponsors. When asked how sponsors would respond to a probable shift to the digital platform, Anil Dharker shares that sponsorships are always a challenge even with the physical festivals. “Raising money is always a challenge. Tata is our title sponsor but we still had to look for more sponsors every year to cover the costs.”

 With the transition to digital platforms, the perceived costs are less, but what sponsors fail to understand is the effort and time is the same. And international writers have realised that this new norm will limit their travel so they expect a speaking fee. Gokhale opines, “We live in an uncertain world, and most people and institutions are challenged by the broken economies around them.” She adds “Sponsorship for creative events is not always a priority in these times, but keeping in mind the enormous goodwill the Jaipur lit fest carries, I am certain things will work out.”

 Banerjee feels that if KALAM decides to hold an event later in the year, she is sure that their sponsors will back them as always. She adds “We need to be honest with our partners as they have been unquestioning in their support so far.”

Over the last decade, the festivals on literature have moved from too few to far too many, with almost every big city planning one locally. For writers and their publicists, it was a case of the more the merrier as it provided a platform to connect with audiences in different parts of the country. And probably, this is one of the reasons that up until 2019 we had grown to have over three dozen literature festivals across India.

The popularity of physical festivals and the resources that it consumed saw minimal effort being put towards digital platforms. But in current times, something that wasn’t the primary focus of festivals has suddenly become the most important aspect of their operations. This move to digital platforms definitely provides much wider access to readers and enthusiasts beyond boundaries. It would definitely mean a greater focus on content packaging and presentation and upgrading marketing skills to capture the attention of a floating digital audience. But if the festivals are able to develop a digital model to sustain them through innovative ways, festivals online may prove to be a strong addition, both in terms of reach and revenue, to the physical festivals in the longer run.

The Covid-19 situation has certainly put a pause on a lot of things and has changed the definition of normal but it is encouraging to see that those behind nurturing and promoting the idea of reading and creative confluence are ready to face this new world bravely.

 Lipika Bhushan is the founder of leading PR and Digital Marketing firm, MarketMyBook, and hosts ‘Between The Lines’ on YouTube.

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Typhoon Talas smashes Japan, leaving thousands without water, electricity, two killed




Thousands of people in central Japan were without running water and electricity on Sunday after Typhoon Talas dumped record rainfall on the area, causing floods and landslides and leaving at least two people dead.

According to the AFP’s published report, the body of a man in Kakegawa city, Shizuoka region, was pulled from what remained of his house on Saturday after a landslide destroyed it.

“Another male (in neighbouring Fukuroi city) was driving to his home (Saturday) when the water level rose and his vehicle apparently stopped. While the individual tried to walk home, he was believed to have died,” a regional disaster management official said.

He stated that another man was still unaccounted for in Kawanehoncho town, Shizuoka, after his car slid into a gap that appeared in the road. He also mentioned that three other people received minor wounds.

According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, Typhoon Talas battered central Japan on Friday and Saturday as it passed by close off the Pacific coast, pouring more than 40 centimetres (16 inches) of rain in Shizuoka villages in a single day.

Before heading back out to the Pacific on Saturday morning, it was downgraded to a depression.

Up to 120,000 homes may have lost power on Saturday as a result of the storm’s heavy rains causing landslides, including in the isolated mountains of Shizuoka. This is because several electricity pylons fell and broke as a result.

According to the local firm Chubu Electric Power, 2,910 homes in Shizuoka and the neighbouring Gifu region were still without electricity as of Sunday afternoon.

“As for those areas where restoration crews are not able to reach due to blocked roads after landslides, we will make progress while analysing the conditions of the landslides,” the utility said.

Debris choked a water inlet in Shizuoka, leaving almost 55,000 homes without running water.

“Currently, we are working to remove debris from a water inlet. But for now we are unable to give any estimate as to when it can be restored,” the regional government said in a statement Sunday morning.

Typhoons regularly cause significant damage to Japan in the summer and fall.

Typhoon Nanmadol struck southwestern Japan this weekend, leaving 147 people injured and four dead.

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Top opposition leaders gather at INLD rally to challenge ‘Delhi Sultanate’




Sharad Pawar, the head of the NCP, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, Sitaram Yechury, and Sukhbir Singh Badal, the leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal, were among the prominent opposition figures that attended the INLD’s large gathering on Sunday in Fatehabad, Haryana.

JDU leader KC Tyagi addressed the crowd and claimed that the Bihar CM has come from Patna to challenge the Delhi Sultanate at a time when eight former Congress CMs had switched to the BJP. He claimed that Kumar has no fear of the ED, the income tax, or any other organisations.

To commemorate the birth anniversary of Devi Lal, the founder of the INLD and a former deputy prime minister, a rally is being conducted.

Tejashwi Yadav, the deputy chief minister of Bihar and the head of the RJD, as well as Arvind Sawant of the Shiv Sena, also showed up at the gathering to demonstrate the unity of the opposition.

The coming together of so many regional satraps is seen as part of efforts to forge opposition unity. Kumar and RJD president Lalu Prasad are likely to meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi after the rally to take the process forward.

Veteran socialist leader Tyagi had already declared that the gathering would be historic because it would unite like-minded forces against the BJP in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

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‘Resort bulldozed to erase evidence?’: U’khand girl’s family




The family of Ankita Bhandari, a 19-year-old Uttarakhand receptionist, refused to cremate her body on Sunday, questioning the postmortem report and the government’s overnight action of bulldozing portions of the resort owned by the prime suspect, Pulkit Arya, the son of now-expelled BJP leader Vinod Arya. They claimed that this may have destroyed the evidence at the crime scene.

Ankita Bhandari allegedly rejected attempts by Pulkit Arya and two others to force her into prostitution, and as a result, she was killed. The woman’s body,  who was reported missing on September 18, was found in Rishikesh’s Chilla canal on Saturday.

Her brother Ajay Singh Bhandari questioned the resort’s bulldozer activity, speculating that it might be an attempt to destroy evidence.

In the late evening on Friday in Pauri Garhwal, the district administration used a bulldozer to demolish the suspected unlawful construction of the Vanantara resort in Ganga Bhogpur Talla. The building was later set on fire and had its glass windows broken by a group of angry local residents on Saturday.

“I am not satisfied with the provisional postmortem report. Her last rites will not be performed until we get the final detailed report,” said Ankita’s father Virendra Singh Bhandari.

The woman’s funeral was slated to take place on Sunday morning. At the Srinagar Medical College, her body is on display. The family has also urged that the accused be given a speedy trial and executed.

According to the preliminary autopsy report, she had suffered blunt force injuries and drowned to death. Ante-mortem injuries were found on the body, according to the autopsy, which was performed by a team of four doctors from the department of forensic medicine and toxicology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Rishikesh.

“We are making efforts to persuade the family. They have some concerns about the post-mortem report. We are taking every step possible to support the family. However, some things like post-mortem are beyond our control,” said Pauri additional superintendent of police (ASP), Shekhar Chandra Suyal.

According to officials, the final post-mortem report is expected to be released on Monday.

The government’s bulldozer action to destroy the resort has also drawn criticism from the state unit of the Congress party.

Is the government destroying the evidence by ordering the bulldozer action at the resort? Police failed to secure the custody of the accused. The Dhami government’s intention is not pure,” said party’s state chief, Karan Mahara

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Auto & Tech

Instagram to develop safety tool to protect users from filthy DMs




Instagram is developing a new security feature that will shield users against sexually inappropriate photographs in their inboxes. According to The Verge, the “Nudity Protection” tool will work to weed out instances of online harassment known as “cyberflashing.”

Recent days have seen a significant rise in cyber-flashing incidents, which entail sending unwanted sexual messages to strangers, frequently women. By empowering users to automatically reject direct message requests containing objectionable content, this new functionality aims to combat this threat.

The report says Meta is going to use machine learning to support people to shield themselves from nude photos and other undesirable messages.

Alessandro Pauzzi, a Meta developer, also shared a sneak peek of the new feature on Twitter.

In a tweet, he shared the screenshot of the possible feature and wrote, “Instagram is working on nudity protection for chats. This technology covers photos that may contain nudity in chats. Instagram CAN’T access photos.”

Confirming this, a Meta spokesperson told The Verge they are working closely with experts to assure these new features maintain people’s privacy while also providing them to control over the communication they receive. The technology won’t let Meta view the actual messages or share them with third parties, the spokesperson mentioned.

When the feature is released, Meta said, users will have the option to enable or disable it at their choice. The feature is currently in the development phase.

A control system for parents of minors using the social networking site owned by Meta in India was recently developed. This function is now considered to be the next development in ensuring users’ privacy and security.

In addition to the current Hidden Words function, which was first launched in 2021, this feature will be available. Users can automatically filter problematic words, phrases, and emoticons into a protected folder using the Hidden Words function. Even DM inquiries that are presumably spammed are filtered out by this tool.

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Auto & Tech

Prime Minister Modi to inaugurate 5G services on October 1





The 5G services will be launched by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 1 at the India Mobile Congress.

In October, the Prime Minister will open a four-day conference where top telecom providers including Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea will outline their 5G plans for the nation.

According to a source with knowledge of the situation, “the 5G services will launch in India at the India Mobile Congress on October 1.”

The department of telecommunications (DoT) and the cellular operators association of India jointly organise the India Mobile Congress (IMC), one of the major telecom, media, and technology events in Asia (COAI).

This news comes about a month after Reliance Industries Ltd. announced it would invest 2 lakh crore to build out its 5G services in important cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata by Diwali and throughout India by December next year.

The Reliance Jio intends to launch Jio 5G by this Diwali 2022 in a number of significant locations, including the megacities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai.

Within the next two months, by Diwali, we will launch Jio 5G across multiple key cities, including the metropolises of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai. By December 2023, which is less than 18 months from today, we will deliver Jio 5G to every town, every taluka, and every tehsil of our country,” Ambani told shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting on August 29.

By March 2024, Bharti Airtel, a competitor of Reliance, intends to roll out its 5G services in 5,000 cities and towns.

“By December, we should have coverage in key metros. After that, we will expand rapidly to cover the entire country,” Gopal Vittal, the chief executive officer of the second largest telecom operator, said earlier this month.

Even though Vodafone Idea purchased spectrum in 17 circles across the nation during the auction month, it has not yet made any announcements regarding its plans for 5G services.

The government’s airwave auction saw Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd emerge as the biggest buyer, spending 88,078 crore, more than twice as much as Bharti Airtel Ltd, which came in second.

By selling 51,236MHz of spectrum at the week-long auction, Ambani’s acquisitions assisted the government in earning a record-breaking 1.5 lakh crore. Wireless operators purchased 71% of the available airwaves in the 72,098MHz band, including 5G spectrum, with the sale of spectrum in the 3.3GHz band generating the highest revenue of 80,590 crore. A total of 39,270 crore, 14,709 crore, and 10,376 crore were generated from the sale of airwaves in the 700MHz, 26GHz, and 1,800MHz bands, respectively.

“We understand that the spectrum purchased is good enough for covering the entire country. So, there’s good reason to believe that in the coming two to three years, we’ll have very good coverage of 5G in the entire country,” telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had said after the auction.

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SIT chief on Uttarakhand girl murder: Every resort staff called for investigation




The chief of the special investigation team (SIT) has stated that they have called up every employee of the resort where the 19-year-old was employed as a receptionist to the police station as part of the investigation into the murder of the young woman in Uttarakhand, which has sparked intense public outrage.

DIG PR Devi said that they are taking everyone’s statements and running a full background analysis on the resort.

The body of the minor, who was allegedly killed by Pulkit Arya, the son of expelled BJP leader Vinod Arya, and two employees of a resort he owned in Rishikesh, was found in the Chilla Canal on Saturday.

According to the preliminary autopsy report, the victim died from drowning and had suffered blunt force trauma. Antemortem injuries found on the body were also included in the report. The girl was being pressured to enter prostitution, according to the police. WhatsApp conversations that support the claim are in the possession of the police.

According to reports, the woman told some of her friends and coworkers about those chats, which incensed the accused. According to the authorities, during the confrontation that took place on Monday night between the three accused and the woman regarding the matter, the accused hurled the latter into the Chilla Canal. In an apparent attempt to deceive the authorities, Pulkit Arya filed a missing person’s report after that. The three suspects have been arrested by police amid considerable outrage over the suspected murder.

Meanwhile, the BJP removed Vinod Arya and the accused’s brother, Ankit Arya, from the party on Saturday with immediate effect.

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