Of the four venues for literary events within the Diggi Palace, the largest is the Front Lawns. As the name suggests, it is a large open area, half of which hosts a gigantic and colourful tent. Orhan Pamuk, in his two sessions here, commanded large audiences.
And so did Javed Akhtar and Gulzar.
But all that was nothing compared to the scene at 2:30pm on Sunday, Day Three of the Lit Fest, when a massive crowd waited for the reclusive John Maxwell Coetzee to make his appearance.
People were everywhere. They sat on chairs, on the ground, on the stairs, around the stage, and many more kept standing stoically. Those who could not get a seat included William Dalrymple who was spotted squatting on the ground right in front of the dais. Many had skipped lunch and had been waiting for more than two hours, zealously guarding their small patch of real estate near the stage.
For the journalists present, it was their sole chance for an interaction. It had been made clear that he was not going to meet any journalist. At least they could pose as lay readers and ask a question or two, they thought.
Couple of minutes past 2:30, Coetzee was nowhere on stage. “Let Mr Coetzee through, please,” pleaded the blonde announcer. And every ones’ heads turned.
A silver haired man in a blue pinstripe shirt was trying to pass through the crowd unnoticed. It was Coetzee. With the crowd being so large, people were expressing annoyance at anyone moving around — even at the man in the blue pinstripe shirt.
And then, as he made his way up to the stage, the blonde made an announcement that was received with boos from the audience: “There will be no question and answer session at this event.” A fixture at every event, over the past couple of days, the Q&A had been much anticipated for both stimulating and outrageous questions. But Coetzee didn’t want it that way.
A festival representative went up on stage and informed the audience, “Mr Coetzee did not even turn up to receive the two Booker prizes awarded to him. We are so glad he is here.” But Coetzee did not smile or laugh. His face remained expressionless, as he kept fidgeting in his seat.
Patrick French was to be Coetzee’s panelist. And nobody can say French didn’t try. “You know, I read the newspaper today,” he said. “And it said Junot Diaz is Spanish.” The audience laughed. But Coetzee was staring at the floor of the stage.
French tried again, this time including Coetzee in the joke. “The news report also stated I’m going to be standing on the stage with Mr Coetzee and reading his work for 45 minutes. Even I didn’t know this was going to happen.” Coetzee continued looking down.
When his time came, Coetzee just got up, gathered the loose papers he had before him, and made his way to the right end of the stage, where a podium with a microphone had been organised for him. His voice was soft but clear. “Like most people, I have opinions. I don’t find my opinions particularly interesting. Therefore, I will use this platform to read you a story. This story will take about 45 minutes to read. So for the next 45 minutes you will hear my uninterrupted voice.” He had timed it well. There was going to be no time for a Q&A session.
“I debated with myself whether this story will be suitable for an Indian audience, since it relies on Roman Catholic theology, and in particular on the question of whether contraception is against the will of god. And then I thought to myself, Hinduism too takes seriously the question of where the soul comes from and where it goes.” Coetzee was reading even this introductory part from a sheet of paper.
For the next 45 minutes, he continued uninterrupted as he read from his story, ‘The Old Woman And The Cat.’
Some walked away, some dozed off; even French on the stage became fidgety, and kept himself busy drinking glasses of water. But Coetzee continued. And at the end, after 45 minutes, Coetzee looked up and said, “Thank you.”
This time, French tried another joke. “Mr Coetzee you have done something remarkable. You have held an Indian audience silent for 45 minutes. You have a remarkable capacity to make people smile and laugh even while keeping a straight face yourself.”