THE BLOG
11/17/2016 08:10 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2017

The Writing Life: What Makes Anil Dharker And The Tata Lit Live Festival In Mumbai So Successful?

Anybody who's somebody in India's sprawling literary world -- author, auteur, acolyte -- will be at, or will want to be at, the Tata Lit Live, which runs November 17-20. Can't get in? Keep trying.

Its founder, the veteran columnist and social gadfly Anil Dharker, finds himself in the unenviable position of having to turn down pleas from literary friends in India and abroad. Along with the Jaipur Literature Festival organized each January by William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, the Tata Lit Live has become among the literary world's prime destinations.

Every author wants a book to be launched or highlighted at these festivals, knowing full well that the publicity can translate into high sales, media interviews, and more book contracts, not to mention adulatory fan following that can and does result in fleeting romances. No one has kept track of pregnancies and abortions resulting from chance encounters at these festivals, but surely there have got to be a few. As one writer told me, "It's easy to get laid -- all you have to do is prop up your book, and the anatomical congruence occurs."

But Anil Dharker, William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale don't put in the backbreaking work involved in hosting their respective festivals just so that authors can frolic with acolytes. The Jaipur Festival was founded in 2006, and besides the main event in "The Pink City" of India it holds mini festivals in Britain and the United States. The Mumbai event, started by Mr. Dharker in 2009, thus far has restricted itself to India's premier commercial and literary city -- although the highly energetic and ambitious 65-year-old most certainly would want to cast his net wide.

That's because literary festivals compete fiercely to draw big name figures. But there's only so much travel that these names can undertake. My friend Paul Theroux, the renowned novelist and travel writer, told me at the Singapore Writers Festival in October 2014, "If I went to all the literary festivals that invite me, I'd have no time left to write."

He famously went to the Jaipur event in January 2015, however, to publicly reconcile with his former mentor, the Nobel laureate Sir V. S. Naipaul. After a critical book he'd penned about his long friendship with the Trinidad-born novelist, Mr. Theroux and the laureate engaged in a feud-by-word that was as unseemly as it was poisonous.

But literary aficionados love these sorts of things. Perhaps the fact that Sir V.S. Naipaul was now confined to a wheelchair prompted Mr. Theroux to offer to push him around -- which the Nobelist appreciated by thrusting out his hand to repair their long ruptured friendship.

Such stories tend to add to the aura and legends of literary festivals, of which there are scores around the world in a multitude of languages.

In India alone, there are more than two-dozen. And more festivals are being organized, as the country's 16 regional languages clamor for their moments in the international limelight. Rahul Singh, son of the late famous Indian novelist and columnist Khushwant Singh, has organized an acclaimed annual festival in the hill station of Kasauli, not far from India's capital city of Delhi.

Naturally, the festival is named after Khushwant.

There is even an online festival, organized by a Mumbai management coach, Kumaar Bagrodia. He connects authors from around the world via Skype and other Internet communications channels.

His sponsors like those for the Mumbai, Jaipur and most other literary festivals globally, are drawn from the corporate world. Companies view the events as conducive for brand building. Their brand is enhanced by such activities organized by Mr. Dharker as getting sponsors and writers mingle over cocktails and dinner at some of the city's most posh homes. There's usually good chemistry generated when swells meet with other swells.

Sponsors are happy, writers are happy, and hosts are happy. Indeed, Mr. Dharker's main backer is happiest of all. That would be India's largest business group, Tata, and so the festival -- although it has many other sponsors, is eponymous with its first and largest supporter.

This kind of support is important because literary festivals cannot be organized by words alone. Invited writers expect that their travel, and room and board will be covered. Some writers even demand appearance fees, although Mr. Dharker doesn't often cough up the cash.

Mr. Dalrymple and Ms. Gokhale have never disclosed how much Sir V.S. Naipaul charged for his attendance at the 2015 Jaipur Literature Festival. But word is that his wife, the Pakistan-born Lady Nadira, typically asks for at least $100,00 and up. Also, the Naipauls only travel by first class -- as befitting a Nobel laureate and his spouse. Mr. Theroux told me that while he expects his expenses to be met, he doesn't charge appearance fees -- unless he's offered lucre.

And so this year's Tata Lit Live in Mumbai chugs along, with a hundred authors and hundreds more everyday Indians in daily participation over a four-day period.

What does Mr. Dharker get out of all this? Not money -- he volunteers his time, which he can afford to do because his wife Amy Fernandes is an influential -- and well paid -- media executive.

If not money, and more fame in the company of famous authors, what then?

Mr. Dharker shrugs, as if to say that there's no such thing as enough fame -- and that, in any case, any fame accruing to him on account of Tata Lit Live, is recycled into getting more sponsors and thus strengthening his festival's brand. If reports about his expansion plans are to be believed, he's going to need a lot more backers, in addition to holding on to the present lot. And so, bring on that extra curry spiced with fame. Or make that two. Or three.

The Muse of Literature and the attendant deities know how hard Mr. Dharker has worked to make a striking success of his festival in a relatively short period. The gods know that he deserves more success. But the secular Anil Dharker doesn't just pray for it at his family's local Hindu temple in Mumbai. In the months between his annual Lit Live, he's constantly on the lookout for more opportunities to expand and improve his brand.

He's always running. He has, after all, more goals to meet and that takes building more goal posts. Will he succeed. Of course. It's written in the stars.