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November 14, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

An affair to remember

Dominic Xavier's illustration Mukul Kesavan and I travelled to England together recently, on the same United Airlines flight. Despite the remarkably spartan quality of the in-flight service (plastic cutlery and egg-flavoured styrofoam), we didn't complain too much. On the one hand, having never met before, we talked non-stop all the way from Delhi to London. And on the other hand, we were on our way to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and were too interested in what lay in store for us to care about the minor indignities of travelling cattle class.

Cheltenham is a pretty little town, best known today for the literacy festival it has hosted once a year for the past 40 years. Along with Urvashi Butalia, Githa Hariharan, Amit Chaudhury and Ardeshir Vakil, Mukul and I were representing authors from the Indian subcontinent. Arundhati Roy was also there, briefly, but given her exalted status as a celebrity author, her event was scheduled separately from the rest of us.

Sarah Smyth, who, till the morning of our arrival in Cheltenham, had been a friendly voice on the telephone, was revealed to be a young woman whose schoolgirl-fresh appearance was belied by the cool efficiency with which she directed the flow of activities at the festival. Most of the events took place in the Town Hall, a spacious building with three or four venues for the various types of performances on offer.

We writers were shown to a cosy little space called the Writers' Room, to which we could repair whenever we needed a snack, a glass of wine, a cup of coffee or an author to talk to. The only identification we had were badges labelled "performer" and there was very little fuss made over us, whether we were major personalities such as Doris Lessing and Michael Plain or obscure authors from distant ex-colonies, such as myself.

At the time of registration, Sarah Smyth revealed a secret to each of us Indians which, she said, we were not to share with anyone, repeat. ANYONE, until our last event was over on Thursday evening. Initially, I was too distracted by the festival itself to spare much thought for this secret.

One of the first events was a discussion between Urvashi Butalia and two British authors about the end of the empire at which Urvashi made the very pertinent point that, in India, what we celebrate is less the ending of colonial subjection than the beginning of Independence. Some 50 minutes of brisk but always civilised debate was followed by 10 minutes of questions from the audience. This pattern was followed by most of the events I attended, except a surprisingly entertaining rendering of Roget's Thesaurus by a man dressed as Roget and speaking in the style of the eighteenth century, when the work was written.

Invitees to the festival could avail of two or three different locations for free food, including a charming restaurant called Bistro 81. An excellent three-course continental meal could be had for lunch and dinner, with half a bottle of wine, espresso coffee and dessert. For my four days at the festival, I certainly did my best to ensure that I managed as many meals as I could at the place! But there were competing demands on our attention. On the second night, for instance, author Louis de Berniere was on at the same time as the Booker Prize was being announced on television. It is a measure of his popularity that he had a full room, to whom he read a complete short story.

At our final event, a group discussion amongst five of us Indian authors, the audience was treated to the unexpected arrival of Salman Rushdie in our midst. This was, of course, Sarah Smyth's secret! The session was followed by a private dinner at Bistro 81, where we were joined by Rushdie's wife and infant son as well as Martin Amis, widely believed to be England's hottest young writers. The Booker result finally came up for discussion when the dessert course was in view, rounding out our experience of Cheltenham with a bit of thoroughly Indian spice!

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan