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When it comes to fan following, writers can give film actors a run for their money

Visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) reinforced an impression, which has been growing steadily in my mind the last few years of visiting literature festivals — that the author is the newest influencer on the block for many young Indian people today.

Everybody knows about the Indian public’s love for cricketers and film stars. That will continue, sans doubt. But newly added to the list of stars is the writer with something to say — if he or she is articulate, personable and with a bestseller in his jhola, so much the better.

At the recent Jaipur Literature Festival many sessions saw standing room only: even the aisles and balconies were packed. These included sessions featuring Thomas Piketty, the French rockstar economist who specialises in economics of inequality; Stephen Fry, the hugely articulate British comedic actor-writer; Shashi Tharoor, who combines articulation with his own style; pithy, witty Bollywood producer Karan Johar; Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi, whose books combine easy reading with Indian mythological themes (the latter had the bonus of having a film star – Kajol – share stage space); dreadlocked Booker prize-winner Marlon James; the tell-it-like-it-is journo Barkha Dutt and so on. In the past I’ve seen adoring young folk throng sessions by Chetan Bhagat, Javed Akhtar, Vikram Seth and many others who combined an easy turn of phrase along with their personal and literary successes.

Pluses this time: older iconic writers like multi-award winning Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, and detective-fiction bestseller Alexander McCall Smith, both far from young and sexy but icons nonetheless, drew massive crowds at their sessions, their every riposte and quip greeted by appreciative applause and laughter. Tons of fans lined up in endless queues post-sessions to get their books signed.
So, is this a great positive coming of age for writers? Happily, it seems that way. The Jaipur Literature Festival has developed its own cult following as do several others, and it is pencilled in to many annual itineraries, including those of schools and colleges. Young India is buying in to intellectual exploration too.

JLF regular and avid reader Abha Bhow agrees. Last year she saw Dr APJ Abdul Kalam being cheered and mobbed by eager youngsters, and this year Casey Schwartz facing a barrage of intelligent questions after her session on neuropsychoanalysis. “I was also surprised so many youngsters knew of Piketty, leave alone his economic theories,” she says, adding, “The fest provides a perfect showcase for authors and the rising interest towards them is quite visible.” The internet has opened avenues which didn’t exist earlier. “One can see the interest shift from just pulp fiction and chick lit to something more substantial.”

A comment by a young girl to her friend after a session summed it up perfectly for me: “An intelligent, literary brain is much sexier than six-pack abs.” So while films stars with the said packs, and multi-tattooed cricketers will continue to draw mobs, young India is on its way to discovering the appeal of a sharp intellect.
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