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Nook for books

The Kumaon litfest at Nainital proved to be a perfect setting to turn a childhood love for fiction into a more mature engagement with non-fiction

If there were ever a perfect location to revive or arouse a passion for reading, it would be the hills. There might be some who count on the sound of waves crashing as a perfect backdrop to intellectual stimulation but there’s something about the crisp cold air that makes one want to tuck oneself under the quilt and lose oneself in the written word.

I attended a litfest away from the city, after a five-hour train journey and 90-minutes car ride up winding roads to Nainital. This hill station in Uttarakhand has been the venue for Himalayan Echoes: Kumaon Festival of Literature & Arts for four years now.

I went in as a sceptic. A sceptic to how interesting such organised rituals would be. I can be counted as one of those whose reading habits resemble the monsoon —intermittent, with a sudden downpour and finally unscripted desiccation.

The setting for this literature festival was a twin to my habits. Sunshine, then clouds, followed by a blazing sun, rain and finally the cold air pushing us to wrap our heads under scarves. The first day of the two-day event saw the likes of author Stephen Alter, Irish poet Rosemary Jenkinson, and comedy writer and performer Nuala Mckeever.

The festival, unlike the diabolically famous Jaipur Literature Festival, which draws nearly 100,000 people over its five-day programme (averaging 20,000 per day), is intimate. The Nainital event, at Abbotsford Estate, saw about 200 people in attendance each day, which meant the sessions were almost tangible.

Authors are at arms’ length, which means picking their brains later or after the sessions are more than a possibility. But most of the authors and poets were new to me; I have fallen victim to time – in that I have for the most part stopped reading fiction, leaving it behind with my school days an absolute obsession with Harry Potter, Lord of Rings and the likes. Those I do give in to are classics like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or those bordering on realism with a heavy dose of the supernatural: think Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum.

As far as poetry goes, it was only the ones I was forced to read at school and be tested on, however beautiful and thought provoking they might have been. The exclusive exception, the one I did succumb to without the pressure of being marked on it later was the poetry of Kahlil Gibran.

But things have changed. Listening to Jenkinson and Kate Newman — a writer and poet who spoke on the second day — it is safe to say we would be missing out on many a contemporary poet if we didn’t open our minds to poetry.

Hailing from Northern Ireland which has seen a long-drawn conflict, Newman said it “gives you great stories”. She added, putting it simply, and so apt for the times we live in, that “freedom fighter vs terrorist in our history is a thin line”. Mckeever too had spoken about how she used humour during hard times — like the loss of her long-time partner. These are all things we can connect with on some level.

There are universal themes to which one could connect — a lot of the sessions dealt with saving our forests. People like Alter and historian Shekhar Pathak (on day two) emphasised on this. And if not in the middle of the trees and the birds and the bees, where else to understand the importance of timber which stands, living and growing and breathing out clean air?

Delhi’s pollution is a wake-up call and things will get worse if such lifelines (forests) are destroyed for what they may call development. Take the Kalka to Shimla four-way highway that is being constructed, a report in 2018 stated that 34,000 trees in total would be cut down for this. It’s obvious and immediate ecological effects include giving a grand stage for landslides, and loss of wildlife as their natural habitat is torn apart.

Alter in his session pointed out to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Earlier this year ‘The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment’ report had found that at least a third of the ice fields in the Himalayas were doomed to melt due to climate change. This spell out dangerous consequences for the billions of people who live around this range and even depend on it — including not just India but China, and Pakistan, among others.

The discussions were thus a motivation for individuals present to fight climate change, like how Pathak emphasised with his own example. Launching his new book ‘Hari Bhari Umeed’, which is about the importance of forests in the era of climate change, Pathak spoke in-depth about the Chipko movement.

The good part was that there were a few school students present, which meant all the lectures on the need to do something for our planet did not only fall on the ears of the much older crowd which was more in numbers. They were few to break the monotony of the age gap.

Along with including more of the currently deemed unholy crowd —the millennials — the festival could also do with more city dwellers, who need a dose or two of literature and some enlightenment on our changing ecology. Even so, keeping this in mind, it would be only right to visit the festival in the coming years before all of urban dwellers descend on it and change what it is.

For me, I take back lungfuls of cleaner air and the promise to myself to read more. I took the first step in fulfilling this promise by ordering myself from the long ‘wish list’ on Amazon — No Turning Back, a book on life, loss and hope in wartime Syria by Rania Abouzeid — and one much more talked about in recent days — Good Economics for Hard times by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

Wish me luck!