I don't exactly remember the first time I attended the Chennai Book Fair. My earliest memory of the book fair was sitting on an open ground under moonlit skies with friends, discussing books and politics. This was probably when it was happening in Quaid-E-Millath College. Over the years, the book fair had grown big enough to be shifted to places like the St George School and YMCA Nandanam, where it is now happening. I do not remember missing it for a year. Over the years, the book fair grew on me – something I would begin to look forward to like a festival. Over the years, the book fair also became a place where I felt at home – from being a diffident, clueless reader, to being someone familiar with many faces that I come across.
The Chennai Book Fair has given me some best moments, some beautiful memories. From Sundara Ramasamy to Prabanjan, the book fair has been this place where writers I deeply admire gave me their books or even bought me tea. The book fair has seen me grow from being the awe-struck reader to being a writer’s friend, or more recently their translator.
From being a place where publishers showcase their work, the book fair has grown to be a place where writers and readers meet and bond, discuss and debate, engage and differ. To many such, the book fair offered a breathing space – where they could just be themselves, and be appreciated for that. This was especially true of Tamil writers from Sri Lanka, who travelled from different destinations across the world to be in Chennai just in time for the book fair. To them, the book fair possibly offered a reprieve. It offered them a breath of fresh air – far removed from the crushing atmosphere of war and oppression they have been living in or witness to for decades. It was this place that gave them, and us, the freedom of thought, and nurtured our intellectual curiosity. More often than not, writers flew in even if they had no book to be released or no event to attend. From those two weeks, they derived the strength to face oppression through the rest of the year; they drew the light to guide them through the darkness of the remaining months.
But when a Sri Lankan Tamil writer found herself being pulled aside from the demonstration held by writers in the book fair on Tuesday, many such beliefs came down crumbling. The demonstration was to protest the denial of space to senior journalist V Anbazhagan and his arrest on a complaint from the organisers of the book fair – the Book Sellers’ and Publishers’ Association of South India (BAPASI). “It was another writer from Sri Lanka who pulled me out of the protest” she told me. “Do you want your visa to run into problems next time, he asked me and I froze.” The writer impulsively found her way out of the demonstration. For someone who had been part of many such protests in Sri Lanka, this was a compromise of sorts – but something she had to do, so she could continue to come back. “This is the first time this is happening to me in a book fair, I felt restricted – and I believe a writer should be above all such issues. This is why we keep coming back here, because we are free in its true sense. But since yesterday, I somehow feel this freedom is also compromised.”
BAPASI’s decision to remove the stall of Anbazhagan for displaying ‘anti-government’ books is unprecedented, but publishers hope will be an isolated incident. (BAPASI does prevent stall owners from displaying books that are legally banned and the norm has been accepted by all publishers). Even before the dust could settle on the controversy, a Tamil Nadu BJP spokesperson has demanded that books on LTTE be removed from the Chennai Book Fair. The idea of ban is a challenge to the intellect. A ban vitiates free thought – an idea universally central to creativity. Why writers and artists across the world have actively resisted the idea of ban or even censorship.
The Tamil literary space has its share of controversies but the idea of ban was never one. To think that BAPASI that has hosted the book fair for over four decades – through which it fostered a space for free thinking, bonding and intellectual curiosity – would someday be a space to discuss bans is telling of the times we live in.
One can only hope that BAPASI and its leadership will still fight it out, and let its rich legacy flourish, just as it did when it let writer Su Venkatesan (also a CPI(M) MP) go on stage and instead of delivering a speech on a topic assigned to him, condemned the BAPASI’s act and demanded that it set things right. The simple act of defiance is deeply reflective of the spirit of the Chennai Book Fair – something that the writers and readers will continue to cherish and celebrate.
Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.