(Interview by Prayag Arora – Desai on November 5, 2016)
You can’t talk about literature in the city of Mumbai without mentioning Shobhaa De. Shobhaa has been credited with changing film journalism in India, has dabbled in fiction, penned memoirs, experimented with young adult literature and everything in between. We caught up with her for a brief chat in the days leading up to Tata Literature Live! Mumbai LitFest, where she will be making an appearance. The festival is slated to be held at the iconic NCPA and Prithvi Theatre, from 17-20 November. Excerpts:
What brings you back to Literature Live?
There is a certain intimacy about it that I find missing from the other jamborees. I like the way it is meticulously curated. And that a small, dedicated, passionate team puts it all together with admirable efficiency. It is also very democratic… there are no ‘stars’ here — everybody is equal. A smaller space also means writers and readers get to interact more easily. The panel discussions are again marked by their political incorrectness; which is how it should be but rarely is, in a rapidly shrinking space for civilised public discourse.
What are Indian literature festivals doing right, according to you? And what are they doing wrong?
I like the informality of our litfests. I like that some of them are more like melas with a picnic-like atmosphere. Some are studiedly ‘erudite’. Others are about the lovely location and little else. I like that more and more cities are staging such festivals, implying there is still a healthy interest in books and authors. Some throw in song-and-dance in the evenings. And of course, the ones that succeed spectacularly are those where alcohol flows as generously as ideas.
You once said that the very rich and the very poor have similar approaches to money; one wants it and the other needs it, but neither will ever hesitate to ask for it. You’ve also said it’s a middle-classdle class notion to wonder “…how can I ask someone for more money?” Have you seen the Indian middle class change in its attitudes?
The Middle Class Indian is a gorgeous, sumptuous creature! Hungry and ambitious but never grasping. There is a refinement to being middle class. Where money matters are concerned, we still remain annoyingly timid, never having the guts to ask for ‘more’ for fear of losing what we already have. I like that restraint. Getting ahead in life is a middle class obsession — nothing wrong with that. But the middle class has not become besharam… that’s our saving grace. Pizzas may have replaced dosas in homes, but that doesn’t mean the last bit of toothpaste will be ‘wasted’ without a sincere attempt to squeeze the tube as fiercely as possible.
Could you comment on reporting in Bollywood today? If you were to take up the mantle of editor again, how differently would you handle things?
I wouldn’t dare take up such a mantle! Back then, it was fun to be an irreverent editor. Today, you risk your life for trying to break a few stupid rules. Bollywood is filled with control freaks these days… the worst being the handlers of stars. A PR manager throws more airs than the star. Every aspect of Bollywood is carefully calibrated leaving zero room for fun. Bollywood is so blah because the game has totally changed. You get as much coverage as you can buy — that’s it.
How did your career as a journalist and editor help your writing skills?
Well, it certainly worked for me. As a reporter /journalist you hone several skills. You learn to observe keenly. Hear keenly. Report fairly. Maintain deadlines. This helps your fiction. I will always remain that curious journalist looking for an angle, in any situation. I am permanently in search of a story.
People believe you made publishing history with Stardust…
That is just so pompous and self-aggrandising. I believe I had an enormous amount of fun. That’s it.
What’s on your bookshelf these days?
Arshia Sattar’s Ramayana for Children. That’s my Diwali gift to my grand-kids.