Neil Grant writes about his experiences at the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in India, the country where his new coming of age novel The Honeyman and the Hunter is set.
The Brahmaputra River flows 1800 kilometres from its origin in Tibet to the Gangetic Delta in Bangladesh before mingling with the waters of the Bay of Bengal. In Assam, set in the north east of India, its passes through the city of Guwahati, home to the Brahmaputra Literary Festival. Now in its third year, the festival invited authors from across India and from 20 countries around the world including, Latvia, Bhutan, Cambodia, Argentina, Myanmar, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Lithuania, Tunisia, Latvia, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet, USA, Singapore, and Australia. In December, I received an Invite to the third Brahmaputra Literary Festival in. How could I refuse.
Sponsored by the Publication Board Assam, the festival brings students from universities, colleges and high schools in Assam to listen to writers talk, not only about their work, but the ideas behind their work. Festival Artistic Director, Rahul Jain (probably one of the loveliest guys you will ever meet, and certainly one of the hardest working), said the idea behind the festival was to expose the young people of the area to fresh ideas from Assam, the rest of India and the world. One group I spoke to, headed by their teacher Ratul Lahon from North Lakhimpur College, had travelled over 400 kilometres to be there. Entry to all sessions at the festival was completely free and a lunch was provided to everyone free of charge. Rahul Jain simply stated, how can you think when your belly is empty? Surely it was no coincidence that this literary festival was held during the weeklong puja (festival) honouring Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge and learning.
The writers were treated like rock stars with their faces on banners around the city and huge mugshots on billboards and posters around the festival site. It was difficult to move from between session or to the authors’ lounge without requests for ‘selfies’ (yes, that concept has truly made it to India!) or autographs. The festival site was a pop-up space in the grounds of the Srimanta Sankaradev Kalakshetra cultural centre, composed of huge cotton covered ‘tents’ holding the session venues and book outlets. Each writer was assigned a volunteer guide (mine was a 22 year-old, fourth year law student called Arunabh Sarma) and a car with a driver who would take them to and from the festival and on impromptu shopping trips for tea and silk.
On day one of the festival, we saw Cambodian poet, Chheangly Yeng, struggle with tears as he read his poem about the rain never falling where it is needed most. As a metaphor for the change so badly needed by his people, it was an emotional moment and an amazing entry point for me. His fellow panelist, Phina So, bravely attempted the translation into English but was also moved to tears. The next session was from three Bhutanese writers whose humour reflected the Gross National Happiness of their country but who also veered into unexpected territory with a poem titled Menstruation from Chador Wamgmo.
Day two saw me speaking on my first panel, Travel and the Writer, with Govinda Prasad Sarma (India), Rajiva Wijesingha (Sri Lanka), Aman Nath (India), Deevapriya Roy (India) and Pier Narandara (Thailand). The lively discussion took us from travelling India on 500 rupees (around A$10) a day as a ‘broke couple’ to backpacking across southern Africa as a young single woman.
A standout moment during another session (Prisoners of Conscience) was when Burmese writer, Nyi Pu Lay, talked of when, deprived of reading material during his time in prison, he would read the unrolled slips of newspaper used as cheroot filters. He was caught when he read his cousin’s obituary and relayed this to his family. Believing he had smuggled reading material into prison, he was thrown into solitary confinement.
By day three, we were festival veterans. We had made friends, exchanged contact details and participated in more group selfies that I thought was humanly possible.
I had two sessions that day; the first called When They Write About Us with Rajiva Wijensingha and Juan Sklar on our novels about India. I spoke of my experiences with writing The Honeyman & The Hunter – a novel based partly in the Sundarbans area of the north east and inspired by my mother’s childhood in colonial India. Juan told us of the frustrated narrator of his Spanish language novel Nunca Llegamos a la India (We Will Never be in India) and proposed that India is, in fact, many places at once. Rajiva spoke of his trips to India and of the complicated relationship between his country (Sri Lanka) and its much bigger neighbour. In my final session for the festival, I moderated a panel on Pitfalls and Pleasures of Writing Across Cultures where Gabija Gruisante, Juan Sklar and Franco-Tunisian writer Hubert Haddad. Hubert spoke only French and was translated into English, which added another beautiful layer to the discussion.
It was a sad goodbye on the fourth day in Assam. We had made many new friends and were ready to smuggle brave new ideas back across our borders. I was continually surprised by the quality of questions from the young people in the audience. Never once did I hear ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’; instead, they engaged fully with the speakers, posing difficult questions and receiving considered responses.
On the way to the airport, I visited the world’s smallest inhabited island – Umananda – home to a 300 year-old Siva-Parvati temple. I crossed the Brahmaputra River on a ferry with Aman Nath the Delhi-based writer whose curiosity and humour made the experience doubly rewarding. As I stepped down into the temple nook holding Siva’s statue and placed some coins at the feet of the great god, I hoped I would be back next year for the fourth Brahmaputra Literary Festival.
My profound thanks to Rahul Jain (Festival Artistic Director), Maninder Singh (Chairman, Publication Board Assam), Pramond Kalita, (Festival CEO) and the Government of Assam for inviting me to the festival and for making me so welcome in your beautiful state. My thanks also to V.B. Pyarelal, Suman Dev Chaudary, Dikshita Purkayastha, Moni Kongkana Dutta and Jintumani Tahbildar for their incredible organisational skills. For more information on the Brahmaputra Literary Festival, visit blfguwahati.com
About Neil Grant & The Honeyman and the Hunter
Neil Grant was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He spent many years slouching through Europe and Asia with a stack of notebooks until, in 2001, Allen & Unwin agreed to publish his first novel, Rhino Chasers. This was followed byIndo Dreaming in 2005, which saw him researching traditional whale-hunting, surf culture and two-minute noodles in Indonesia. In 2009, he travelled to Afghanistan to gather material for a book on asylum seekers, a journey that changed his life; The Ink Bridge was published in 2012. The Honeyman and the Hunter is based partly in India – the birthplace of his mother.
The Honeyman and the Hunter is a wonderful exploration of dual heritage, cultural identity, family and the power of storytelling. A wonderfully compelling tale of belonging and loss, of saltwater and mangroves, of migration and accepting change; a story of decisions that, once made, break through family histories like a cyclone swell.