A poetry van on a 10,000-km tour of India will make a pit stop at the Jaipur Literature Festival next week to spread the love for books.
When Akshaya Bahibala and Satabdi Mishra’s painted van drives into the Pink City next week, it would be peeling off layers of poetry on to the rarefied lawns of Diggy Palace, the venue of the 12th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which begins on January 24. The book-loving couple from Odisha, who have filled their vehicle with over 500 books on poetry in English and Hindi, are on a 10,000-km tour of the country. Their aim: spread love, peace, books and poetry.
“We are on the road now, travelling from Indore to Ahmedabad,” Bahibala and Mishra told FE ahead of the Rajasthan leg of the tour. The tour, termed ‘Poems on the Road’, will be a session on the opening day of Jaipur BookMark (JBM), a publishing industry platform that runs parallel to the JLF. “The tour celebrates books and poetry, and the importance of reading, writing and sharing poetry. We are delighted to host them at Jaipur BookMark 2019 as they drive through Rajasthan,” says Neeta Gupta, festival co-director, JBM, which will be held during January 23-26.
Kicked off from Bhubaneswar on December 13 last year, Poems on the Road has traversed 10 states so far, clocking 5,000 km. Bahibala and Mishra, who are partners in Walking BookFairs—an independent bookstore in Bhubaneswar that dons many hats as a publishing house, library and bookmobile—stop in towns, villages and beachsides, drawing people to books. “Poetry books are printed, but kept in warehouses, not bookshops,” fumes Bahibala, annoyed at the lack of access to poetry books. “People can’t buy if they don’t have access,” he adds. In a sprawling bookshop in a major city in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, Bahibala and Mishra could find only 12 poetry books. “That is the situation everywhere,” explains Mishra. “Bookshops are democratic spaces. Everybody should be given the opportunity to see every book,” Mishra says.
Their tour allows people to read books of poems when they stop in public spaces while also giving them the opportunity to buy them. “We replenish the stock when we stop in major cities,” says Mishra, referring to the extra boxes of books they have couriered from Bhubaneswar to cities like Mumbai and Delhi for the purpose. There are books of English poets Percy Shelly, Emily Dickinson and John Keats, as well as Hindi poets Ganjan Muktibodh, Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Nagarjun.
The initiative, which will end in Kolkata on February 13, is also being looked at as a vehicle of change. “It is giving thousands of people from all social backgrounds across the country a chance to browse, read and buy the best poetry books from around the world… and also provide a unique democratic platform to the youth of our country to come together, share their stories, open up the debate about various problems around us, exchange new ideas for social justice and change through poetry and books,” says Bahibala.
Their tour is certain to spur a debate on the absence of poetry books in bookshops during JBM. “Directors of 26 literature festivals in India and abroad, translators and publishers will take part in Jaipur BookMark this year,” says Sanjoy Roy, one of the founders of the JLF. There will be readings by Indian poets Akhil Katyal, Sohini Basak and R Cheran and Berlin-based Ulrike Almut Sandig during the session.
JBM, which is in its sixth year now, will be discussing several issues gripping the publishing industry. In its first session, titled ‘This Business of Books’, leaders in the industry will argue if publishing is a ‘service’, a ‘calling’ or a ‘life’s work’. Another is called ‘A Hundred Bookstores are Not Enough’ and will talk about how the publishing industry supports booksellers. “Every year, we try to include new and independent voices in the programme, whether it is a Tamil publisher from Nagercoil, an independent bookstore in Gangtok, aspiring new writers, filmmakers, web series promoters or audiobook publishers,” says JBM’s Gupta, who is also the publisher at Yatra Books.
“At the heart of all our sessions is the need to highlight something new. These dialogues give insights to newcomers on how they can become a part of and make it big in the industry,” says Gupta. Launched in 2014, JBM’s sessions on Indian languages last year provided the much-needed space for little-known writers from across the country. Bengali author Manoranjan Byapari, a former rickshaw-puller from Kolkata who came to the JLF for the first time last year, landed a multi-book contract with Westland a few months after his appearance at the festival.
This year, the JLF, touted as the ‘Kumbh Mela of Literature’, will also see the presence of literary giants such as Life of Pi author Yann Martel, Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri, feminist icon Germaine Greer, Pulitzer-winner Colson Whitehead, Call Me By Your Name author Andre Aciman, Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif and Tamil author Perumal Murugan, as well as acclaimed artists Anish Kapoor and Marc Quinn.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer