From club to the crowdIn 2007, the Fine Print Book Club set up a small office in Baluwatar, where they conducted monthly interactive sessions for people
For Ajit Baral and Niraj Bhari, the brains behind the reading club, the goal lay farther than just running a book club. As publishers, they had one objective: to promote reading culture in Nepal.
“We had heard about literature festivals happening abroad. We had been in the publishing business for some time. But we wanted to do more with our book club,” recalls Ajit Baral. “The literature festival is a larger form of that initiation—with a bigger audience.”
Keen on learning how such events were organised, for five consecutive years, Baral and Bhari frequented the Jaipur Literary Festival religiously. Come January, and they would set off for the Indian city, going from session to session, listening to writers, making observations. They wanted to host a similar event in Nepal, but the fledgling publication house did not have the means to host a festival.
In early 2011, Ncell turned down a Fine Print proposal to sponsor an interactive trip for one of its newly launched books and proposed that they instead come up with a plan that supported a literary activity. Baral and Bhari knew exactly what they had to do. They submitted a proposal to host the Nepal Literature Festival.
“I don’t think we could have done it if Ncell hadn’t supported us,” says Baral.
When the first edition of the event was held in 2011, it was up against the Kathmandu Literary Jatra, a similar festival which was to take place after the Nepal Literature Festival, and which also promised to bring together thinkers and writers.
In its first edition, the Nepal Literature Festival came across as a sloppy operation—with slip-ups at press conferences and ‘unforseen budget constraints’. The Kathmandu Literary Jatra that followed on its heels was deemed by its participants to have been a ‘better-organised’ event.
“When we started, we started on a small scale as we didn’t know how much Ncell would support us, so we pitched a small budget. We chose a small hall at Moksh, and it couldn’t fit many people,” says Baral.
But a mishap that occurred during the run-up to the event proved to be a blessing in disguise for the organisers. Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, who had been pegged as a festival attendee, was prohibited from boarding her flight to Kathmandu from New Delhi after she forgot her passport.
“The festival got hyped because Nasrin couldn’t attend and we thus got a lot of publicity,” says Baral, who then had to go about making emergency arrangements to fill in the void left by Nasrin’s cancelled sessions.
But turnout was pretty good. Encouraged, the organisers decided to move the event to a bigger and more central venue—at the Nepal Academy premises—which also provided the possibility of organising parallel sessions, and outdoors.
The festival has certainly come a long way since Baral and Bhari first conceived of the idea. It has already featured 14 international writers, including popular names such as Mark Tully, Vinod Mehta, Shobha De, Annie Zaidi, Amish Tripathi and Prajwal Parajuly. And the festival’s multi-lingual poetry sessions are said to be the most popular among the local audience.
To ensure festival quality, the organisers try to pick the most optimal speakers and panellists available.
“We look at the past festivals, and depending on that we decide on what should happen this year. We reach out to different people for feedback and suggestions during several rounds of pre-festival meetings,” says Bhari.
To be sure, the festival has faced severe criticism for focusing too much on what is close to Fine Print’s interests.
“It [the literature festival] brings people closer to the writers and to books, for sure. But there doesn’t seem to be much thoughtfulness behind the sessions,” a critic said upon anonymity.
Others have said the festival seems more like an event organised by the publisher to sell its own books.
The organisers concede that they have been criticised for such things as including non-literary topics or subjects that are too technical.
“But that’s because we have a serious lack of people and we don’t have many options,” explains Bhari.
“We have a limited pool of local writers, so we’ll be aiming at including more international writers from India and elsewhere,” adds Baral.
So far, the organisers also feel that luck has been on their side. They agree that there might have been some difficulty drawing the kind of turnout the festival does had there been more events of the same nature.
“It’s the only event of its kind right now. And Nepalis have more leisure time, so our festivals do have a good turnout compared to fests in other countries,” the organisers say. “For instance, Prawal Parajuly was pretty impressed with the crowd.”
The organisers have also managed to work in the glam-factor: Nepali cine-stars have been featured every year in their panels, while their pull-out READ carries glossy pictures of the writers.
“The festival has evolved into a bigger event and we’ve matured along with it. That maturity is reflected in the festival,” Bhari says.
“My mother is still not convinced that I want to do publishing for a living because she associates literature with poverty. But by glamourising reading, we hope to motivate more people to pick up books.”