11/04/2014 11:35 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Celebrating Words and Wordsmiths in Mumbai

Anil Dharker, who's widely known in India as a columnist and TV personality, had this idea of celebrating his home city of Mumbai. But what to celebrate in a city of religious festivals and great institutions and huge phenomena like Bollywood?

Then it struck Mr. Dharker that Mumbai was a cauldron of publishing, a city of writers and poets who compose in a dizzying variety of languages. Why not celebrate those writers? Why not celebrate words?

Which was how the Mumbai Literary Festival was born. That was five years ago, and now men and women from all over the world of words scramble to participate, and the crowds that attend the sessions held over a three-day period are vigorously engaged with those on the dais. And in the evenings, plays are performed and songs are recited.

In short, the LitFest -- as it's colloquially known -- has become a phenomenon. Mr. Dharker, of course, didn't need to put together a literary festival in order to become a household name - after all, his writing, his TV work, and his public appearances had already made him one. But the Mumbai LitFest was a way for him to give back to a city that had traditionally produced so much profound literature yet never quite fully appreciated the lives of wordsmiths.

That is not to say that this is a provincial festival. It isn't only Mumbai-based writers such as Shobhaa De, Ranjit Hoskote, Naresh Fernandes and Sidharth Bhatia whose works are highlighted and hailed. English writer William Dalrymple -- founder of the Jaipur Literary Festival -- comes. The celebrated TV journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt and Shekhar Gupta come from New Delhi, as does perhaps contemporary India's popular author-politician, Shashi Tharoor. So does the Bangalore-based historian Ramchandra Guha. So does TV anchor Nik Gowing from London. So does Vijay Seshadri of New York, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. And so does a certain author who was born many years ago in what was then Bombay and who now lives in Dubai.

The LitFest is a riot of clashing ideas and, as can be expected in the disputatious world of publishing, a roaring competition of personalities with outsize egos. Sessions feature political themes such as the impact of the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They feature a troubling question of whether Indian journalists cozy up far too much to politicians. They feature discussions on the future of journalism. They feature workshops on digital publishing.

The LitFest is illuminating to its packed audiences. It is also a huge education for the hundreds of volunteers who are drawn from Mumbai's colleges. One such volunteer, Manan Mehta, a hirsute man with quiet manners, is a tiger when it comes to ensuring that transportation is in place for the many authors, that hotel rooms have been booked, and that meals and refreshments are provided for everybody.

And the LitFest doesn't only get people to come to the National Centre for the Performing Arts at Nariman Point, and the Prithvi Theatre in Juhu; it gets its authors and artists to dinners at the homes of Mumbai's influential, where other celebrities join them. The idea is outreach, says Mr. Dharker.

He's a very hardworking man, a veritable whirling dervish who manages to be at many sessions at the same time. I have often wondered what he consumes at breakfast that fuels his kinetic energy, but I've never asked him. Maybe it's the mere company of his wife, Amy Fernandes, who's a senior executive at Zee TV, and a vital component of the LitFest's management.

Another important part of Mr. Dharker's team is the congenial Shashi Baliga. She's the LitFest's executive director, and she helps assemble the programmes, placate authors suffering from perceived slights, and oversees just about everything at the festival. Not an easy job, but I never saw her peeved or irritated, even though a sound roundhouse to some of the annoying complainants might well have been in order.

Mr. Dharker says that he's surprised by how much the LitFest has grown. He shouldn't be. His personality and reputation are draws in themselves, as is his formidable network of literary friends around the world. His association with the Canadian and British Consulates, the British Council, Tata Sons, and other prominent sponsors, has helped enormously. Next year, the Mumbai LitFest can be surely expected to be even bigger.

It has made its mark in what Suketu Mehta memorably termed "Maximum City," which was also a best selling book. Mr. Mehta was missing at this year's LitFest on account of authorial obligations in New York, but he would not have been surprised at the LitFest's success. But perhaps he might have been surprised - pleasantly - at the number of times various participants referred to "Maximum City."

Indeed, it's tempting to say that of all the 70 or so literary and artistic festivals that are held in India annually, the Mumbai LitFest certainly has become the "maximum." Don't miss it next year. I won't.