06.24.10

Italy Meets India Over Books

A report from last month’s Turin Book Fair where famous authors from India and Italy gathered to discuss the Kama Sutra, America, and, of course, Berlusconi’s exploits. Francesca Mari reports from the festival.

A report from last month’s Turin Book Fair, where famous authors from India and Italy gathered to discuss the Kama Sutra, America, and, of course, Berlusconi’s exploits. Francesca Mari reports from the festival.

This year, the Turin Book Festival, which took place just a few weeks ago, collected Indian authors for exhibition. India was Italy’s “Honorary Guest Country 2010.” Sudhir Kakar, the psychoanalyst and writer, was tasked with the inaugural address—essentially with explaining the subcontinent to those of the boot’s tongue. What would—what could—Kakar say within the confines of an hour?

Kakar choose to talk about why the Indian mind is happy to abide by contradictions. Why, for example, the ancient Hindu text of the Kama Sutra, despite its disapproval of adultery, supplies steps for seducing your neighbor’s wife. (The Kama Sutra makes allowances: if your lust makes you sick; more strangely yet, if the husband of the woman you want might advance your career, etc.) Kakar tried, in short, to convey the moral relativism of the Hindu mind—“Not,” he says, “an absence of moral code, but only a more context-sensitive way of looking at and dealing with its violation.” Aimed at a country that nurtures the likes of Ratzinger and Berlusconi, the concept seemed insufficiently foreign.

“If people refuse to believe that marriage is a kind of doom-by-certificate,” Shanghvi says “all they have to do is speak to Mrs. Berlusconi.”

Kakar’s speech was one of more than a thousand dispensed over five days in the convention center that Renzo Piano carved out of Fiat’s former modernist factory back in 1983. The Turin Book Festival, or the Salone Libro, rivals Frankfurt for Europe’s largest literary function. But unlike Frankfurt, its focus isn’t international. Of the 315,013 attendees, 98 percent of them are Italian. Blogging schoolkids, Nonas (grandmothers), and editors (eerily identifiable by their emaciation, even in Italy) browse 12 acres of books, many of which shimmer a little under the glow of flatscreens amplifying alienating images of authors.

Aside from a single sari-tying demonstration, India’s role in the fair is secondary. (It certainly isn’t as sensational as Israel, the guest of 2008, which now maintains a stall selling “Everybody Loves a Jewish Boy” shirts next to the Shoah Shelf). And none of the three authors—Amos Oz, Carlos Fuentes, or Paul Auster—contending on six computer consoles to win the fair attendees' popular vote, and the €25,000 awarded with it, are Indian. But Elisabetta Migliavada, an editor at the prominent Italian house of Garzanti, says Italian interest in Indian literature is genuine, growing out of the popularity of Salman Rushdie. India, she says, is exotic, but it isn’t as poor as Africa, another producer of excellent exotic fiction, and so it’s more palatable to Italian markets. Altaf Tyrewala, a Mumbai-based novelist, suspects India’s economy is forcing people to pay attention to its literature—at least as a guide “to grasp[ing] the cultural nuances of a growing economy.”

So what does honorary status of Indian author even mean?

Karan Mahajan, the friend I’m accompanying, and the author of Family Planning, serves as an impromptu spokesperson for the pros and cons of arranged marriage. Shobha De, India’s bestselling gossip novelist, becomes Italy’s authority on honor killing. For this, the authors are paid in pasta privation—in food stamps redeemable at the picnic tables of the lone restaurant in the convention center, “Passage to India.” There, tickets are best spent on the menu’s “Delhi drink”: a Pakistani dusts a dime-bag worth of cumin into a plastic cup of mint and vodka.

The real cultural center is obviously Eataly, the nucleus of Piedmont’s Slow Food movement, just one block away. Eataly is sort of like Whole Foods, except with even fancier semi-circular lunching counters. Fish. Cheese. Prosciutto. Pasta. Weary writers, publishers, publicists, and press people take refuge in Eataly’s aisles, and the Indian consulate welcomes the fair’s Indian authors to a banquet in Eataly’s wine basement.

On the third night, Garzanti hosts its authors at a restaurant set in a former Piedmont palace. Walls of tarnished mirrors multiply white candles and gold accents. Among the attendees are three Indian novelists and the famous cotton-maned Franco-Bulgarian philosopher, Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov is being awarded Turin’s Bonura Prize “for a protagonist of contemporary culture,” and one of the other authors turns to him.

“What book of yours should I start with?”

Todorov raises an eyebrow and lets his toothy smile spell a vague disbelief. “I don’t know your taste,” he says finally. “I’ve written many.”

After the author describes his first book, Todorov pivots forward on the point of his elbow and says, “I wrote a book about the clash of civilizations.”

“Which civilizations?”

Todorov smiles. “All of them.”

Presiding over the other end of the table, with dour eyes and ponytail is Tarun Tejpal, whose second novel was recently published. Tejpal, who founded India’s leading hard-hitting newsweekly, Tehelka, in 2004, is famous for uncovering cricket conspiracies and exposing government corruption. Beside him, in black velvet loafers and a matching blazer, Siddharth Shanvant Shanghvi, the delicate-featured darling of Bombay, cuts a striking contrast. Shanghvi’s steamy debut, The Last Song of Dusk, became a French sensation and indeed he looks and acts like one, too. When the conversation turns to Mahajan’s fixation on the conquest of Mexico, Todorov pauses and smiles.

“I wrote a book about that,” he says. “It is called The Conquest of America.”

“An important book,” says the publisher.

The party breaks after espresso, and Todorov asks Migliavada for the email addresses of Garzanti’s three Indian authors.

“This isn’t a real city,” Tejpal mutters, looking disparagingly down the lamplit street. “This happened last year. Can’t catch a cab.”

The next day, having skipped the publisher’s 8 a.m. breakfast, Shanghvi sits on stage, being interviewed by an ancient man who confesses he hasn’t read Shanghvi’s second novel, the book at hand. Exhausting the material printed on the back flaps, the interviewer opens the questions to the audience.

Invariably it arrives: What do you think of arranged marriage versus love marriage?

Shanghvi, against marriage, rolls his eyes with a wash of his arm. “If people refuse to believe that marriage is a kind of doom-by-certificate,” he says “all they have to do is speak to Mrs. Berlusconi.”

A few Berlusconi putdowns follow, after which an agitated Italian, who Shanghvi later describes as “the size of a small Sicilian island,” rises to rebuke: How dare a foreigner intrude on Italy and then insult its leader? Shanghvi studies her, then turns to his translator. Tell her to come back after she’s lost some weight, he says. His translator looks alarmed.

Go on, Shanghvi says.

The translator goes on. The Italian audience laughs. The woman leaves. No blush. No Sicilian sunset.

“I’m not a fattist,” Shanghvi smiles coyly later. “I didn’t mean this in a bad way, but I suppose a good way isn’t wholly plausible either.”

A clash of civilizations? Not exactly. More like one Indian author delighted to abide by a little contradiction. Meantime another contradiction transpires. While the markets of Europe collapse, over €50 million change hands on account of Turin’s fair. Some €20 million are spent on books and book-related things and €30 million on indirect or additional spending—most likely coins passed across the counters of Eataly.

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Francesca Mari has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The Believer, and other publications.