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The Bookwallah chook chook


India's first 'roving writers festival' seeks to take six writers on an extended ride around the country. Find out if they're stopping near you

At a time when most literary festivals necessitate the use of a suitcase and sunscreen, and effect a brief exodus of writer and reader to some desirable 'destination' (what agents call a literary holiday), along comes a lit trip that only obliges the authors to locomote. By train no less.

It's called The Bookwallah, and it's coming to a city near you, provided you live in or near the following places: Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore, Chennai or Pondicherry. They call it India's 'first roving writers festival', and it seeks to take six writers on an extended ride 2, 000 km down the country, halting at the aforementioned places for interactions with the public. The Bookwallah - which is a part of Oz Fest, an ongoing Australian cultural festival in India - will take an equal number of Indian and Australian writers on the journey, which spans a month or so. These are poet Sudeep Sen, novelist and critic Chandrahas Choudhury, journalist and fiction writer Annie Zaidi, novelist Michelle De Kretser, young adult author Kirsty Murray, and non-fiction writer Benjamin Law.

The writers are not the only freight. The trains will also carry six custom-made trunks containing about 400 books by Australian authors. The trunks will ingeniously open up into bookcases as and when required, providing the public with a moving library.

The entire initiative has been supported by the Asialink Writing Program of the University of Melbourne.

As can be expected of any travel plans, this was not without its need for painkillers. "It's been quite a job putting the project together, " organisers Nic Low and Catriona Mitchell said in an email interview. "We considered five different itineraries, from Kolkata to Kerala and everything in between. We became amateur experts in the intricacies of the Indian rail system. We looked at nearly a hundred different writers. We asked thirty publishers for more than 1000 books, and put together dozens of events in five different cities. But we haven't done it by ourselves: when you're a traveller, the best thing you can do is ask the locals for help. And so we've had great help from Indian partners like the Literature Live!, the Bangalore Literature Festival and Literati Bookstore in Goa. "

This itinerant festival will conveniently plug into ongoing literary festivals, the first being Literature Live! in Mumbai, which begins on October 30. But beyond the familiar formula and expected audiences of such rooted festivals, this moveable feast aims to additionally set up at any hospitable location - from a station platform to a student mess - the versatility of the enterprise and the readiness of the writers enabling conversations anywhere. Not to mention the chronic tardiness of Indian trains, which will leave a lot of room for impromptu book stagings.

"We're primed and ready for the unpredictability of Indian travel arrangements - as much as you can be, " Low and Mitchell say. "We're expecting delays and detours, and this is built into the project. We've got six great writers and a travelling library full of books like Kirsty Murray's India Dark and Children of the Wind series, Benjamin Law's Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, Chandrahas Choudhary's Arzee the Dwarf, among others, so if we can't make the arranged venues and audiences, we can just set up the library and do our readings and discussions wherever we are - on the trains, on the platforms, in waiting rooms. We'll keep everyone updated on twitter (@ theBookwallah) so if we can't come to you, you can come to us. "

While the expedition - which Chandrahas Chowdhury calls "an experiment in bringing together the meditative character of a residency with the social side of a literary festival" - aims to home deliver literature and literary ideas to the readers of five cities, it also expects to be one of writerly fellowship and mutual inspiration. It was therefore important to select authors with some geniality and social skills. (To corral six egoistic authors on a train would be to set the stage for murder on the Orient Express. ) The writers are optimistic. Chowdury is looking forward to the nights on the train (" I wonder if someone will be up for playing cards or chess" ) and Kirsty Murray is excited about the prospect of touring India in the company of other writers and having the chance to participate in many varied events.

Annie Zaidi, who has never participated in a lit trip like this, is apprehensive about not finding enough readers en route. "I'm curious to see whether the public wants to talk to writers, and if so, what about?" she says. Benjamin Law says he has no idea what to expect. "But having used India's trains a lot - and in every possible class - I know that you have the best experiences when you interact with fellow passengers. I remembered the first time riding a packed train in India and a fellow traveller insisting on sitting on my lap, since there was so little room. So I'm already embracing the idea of a big ol' love-in, " he lets on.

On and off the train, the tour will address issues of cross-cultural engagement. "Travel, tourism, migration, the Australian and Indian diasporas, cultural similarities and differences between Australia and India, literary journeys, journeys of the heart and mind - I'm looking forward to engaging in all these conversations, " says Murray. "Annie Zaidi and I will be 'in conversation' comparing notes on Australian and Indian teenage girls. Some of my sessions will focus on my latest novel The Lilliputians which has been published in India this month by Young Zubaan. (The novel is based on the true story of 29 young Australians who toured India in 1910 as members of a theatre troupe. ) I will also be visiting many schools and talking with young readers and writers about the importance of stories in all our lives. "

Among other things, Chowdhury will be delivering his lecture 'Ten Ways That Novels Can Change Your Life' in colleges. "I also have a chapter of my new book to write while we're on our travels - I'm apprehensive about getting that done, " he says.
Coupled with its conceptual novelty and social experiment is The Bookwallah's agenda to promote Australian literature, a little-known genus, in India. "So many classic works of Indian literature are difficult for Australians to actually gain access to in the same way that many of Australia's best literary works are unavailable in India, " says Murray. "The main reason for lack of exchange between Australian and Indian authors over the past fifty years has been the stranglehold that British and American publishers have held on distribution of literature across India, Asia and Oceania. As publishing is being transformed by the rise of the Internet, there's no better time to break the cultural hegemonies that have dogged exchange between India and Australia. "
With The Bookwallah, they're on the right track.

The Bookwallah's schedule: Mumbai: October
30 - November 4;Goa: November 5-7;Bangalore : November 8 - 13;Chennai: November 14 - 17;Pondicherry: November 17-21.

For invites and information on public and private events, please visit www. thebookwallah. com, or contact, Nic Low (n. low@asialink. unimelb. edu. au)


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