By Anjum Katyal

This journey began with Alice Walker, celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning writer-activist, whose unforgettable The Color Purple was a rite of passage in my undergraduate days. She pledged to come to us in January 2017 and the excitement of that promised treat was the wind beneath my wings as the planning for AKLF 2017 started.

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But as the year steamrolled ahead, it got darker and darker. Hate speak and vicious attacks on anyone who was different. The stifling of dissent through threats and brute force. Bullying censorship of others’ points of view. Forces of divisiveness driving rifts between people who had lived together as neighbours. It seemed that we were only too willing to indulge our darkest, least admirable aspects as a race and forget what made us noble, compassionate, humans. That’s when it became increasingly clear that the festival we were collectively creating was going to be a response to the crying need of the hour – the spirit of inclusiveness, the importance of accepting those different from oneself, in thought and word and deed.

Halfway through the year, at the end of July, someone, whom I greatly respected and loved, passed away after a long and productive life – Mahasweta Devi, celebrated writer-activist, whose sinewy prose was a rite of passage in my professional life as an editor. These two amazing women, Alice and Mahasweta, both major presences in my life, who had never met, and now never would – I knew they would have understood each other. I sent Alice Walker some writing on and by Mahasweta. She wrote back, after reading it – “She is so much my sister.” Yes. Literature, ideas, words, connect. Sisters who never knew each other. Sisters of the mind.

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At Oxford Bookstore Park Street

Mahasweta had left us, but she left her voice behind. A voice that burnt fiercely like a beacon in the growing darkness engulfing us, fighting for a place in our midst for those who were the most on the margins. The outcast, the dalit, the landless labourer, the migrant worker, the tribal. I knew that the festival had to pay tribute to her, to her spirit and her ethos.

Alice Walker sent us the topic of her keynote address on Jan 15, the opening day of AKLF 2017: ‘Writing One’s Spiritual Path into Being: The Journey from Silence to Speech: The Writer’s Gift to Herself and Others.’ Anticipation grew. I remembered how, last year, Ben Okri had woven his magic spell at AKLF as he spoke of a writer’s inner life, of creativity and growth. I knew that Alice Walker would leave us as rich a memory when she visited us.

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Opening Ceremony of AKLF 2016

And then we heard that Alice Walker would not, after all, be coming to India, due to ill-health. It was a bitter blow. Hers would have been a voice of hope, fortifying, like Mahasweta’s, the force of good against the darkness of hatred – Love in a time of Vitriol. We decided to end our festival on Jan 18 with the lighting of little flames of love and faith, despite all, in the humanity of humankind – Candles of hope to disperse the Darkness. I shared our plan with Alice Walker. And received this in return: ‘I send regrets to all for my absence. In solidarity with you and your work, in this unraveling world. Blessed be!’

Anjum Katyal is Director, Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and Consultant, Apeejay Oxford Bookstores.

Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival is India’s first major literary initiative of the year, India’s only literary festival created by a bookstore and Kolkata’s first literary festival. AKLF’s eighth edition from Jan 15– 18 is woven around conversations to make the world a more inclusive place. Spotlighting Kolkata’s unique cultural heritage of inclusiveness, the programme of AKLF 2017 was announced aboard a cruise on the banks of the Ganges. Created by the nearly 100 year old Oxford Bookstore , the Festival programming spans the entire spectrum of inclusion, from women and children to the underprivileged, including a tribute to the late Mahasweta Devi who brought the most marginalized into the fold of literature. The era of Post Truth, where facts are fast losing out to rhetoric, the reality globally, will be discussed by experts; as will be the impact of different media on our reality today. Every evening for three days, AKLF will pay tribute to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan through poetry and contemporary music at Poetry Café and Plug in, hosted at the festival’s main venue – St. Paul’s Cathedral grounds – chosen for its welcoming, accessible and inclusive nature.

AKLF 2017 will be held at St Paul’s Cathedral, established in 1847, and Oxford Bookstore, established in 1919. The festival’s closing event will be hosted at St John’s Church, built in 1787. The Festival conversations will also be hosted at Royal Calcutta Turf Club, Tollygunge Club, the campus of iLead & Presidency University, Daga Nikunj and the Harrington Street Arts Centre. 

Stay Connected with #AKLF2017 at AKLF.IN and @THEAKLF

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