This edition of The Book Review (TBR) marks the second year of a wonderful collaboration between two institutions devoted to celebrating the ‘word’ in all its myriad manifestations. With this we bring to you incisive reviews of the thirty-six titles shortlisted for the 4th PFC-VoW Book Awards, curated from over five hundred nominations of books published through the last calendar year in seven categories: English and Hindi fiction, non-fiction, and translations from regional languages; and bilingual writings for Young Adults. The quality of books received has been truly exceptional, making it a difficult job for the Jury and Advisers to decide on this shortlist—it will be even tougher to choose the final and best!
Valley of Words has been grappling with COVID-19 in the same way as most other literature and arts festivals, but as a young and nimble organization we have been able to largely take it in our stride. Indeed, to some degree, we have leveraged technology to our advantage. I would like to share here some of my aphorisms on these pandemic times. Some of them are counter-intuitive. For example, I believe that social interactions have increased for many of us, albeit on virtual platforms. Going online is so natural these days that ‘offline’ has also been added to our lexicon to demarcate those interactions which are still face-to-face! I must mention that I have always preferred the term ‘physical distancing’ as opposed to the ‘social’. If anything, there has been more time to socialize with family and friends in the last few months than before. Cutting down on travel, commutes, and office meetings in favour of work-from-home has meant more time for books, music, yoga and catching up on old friendships.
In the context of our festival, distance and time are no longer salient factors in deciding schedules for sessions, resource persons and participants. True, one has to factor in time differences for meetings in which the speakers are trans-Atlantic, but it is certainly easier and far more affordable to get them online.
Our debates have now become pan-Indian. The Kendriya Vidyalaya debate was limited to schools in the Dehradun region, but now is joining with the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas to bring together students from across the breadth of the country who will question how online classes are impacting personal relationships between the teacher and the taught. Likewise, VoW’s annual college debate organized with DAV’s Mantrana Society has become more expansive; the four finalists will be drawn from distinct zones across the country to engage on whether India should recognize Tibet and Taiwan. This will certainly get young participants to avidly follow our conversations in the Military History and Strategy vertical sessions, search the net for relevant updates, as well as perhaps visit digital libraries to check their facts on this fascinating subject. Very excitingly, we have added an inter-college Sanskrit debate to our portfolio this year, which is being curated by the Rishi Valmiki Sanskrit University in Haryana. We also pay our tributes to a keen supporter of VoW, the late DP Tripathi, in the Parliamentary Vox Populi debate forum where MPs from across the political spectrum will debate on the asymmetries that exist in India, our nation, in terms of both its size and population.
The RS Tolia Forum on sustainable governance and ecology issues will be addressing COVID and its impact on migration, public health, and regional economies. Simultaneously, there will be music and mushaira, mantras chanted by Buddhist monks of the Mindrolling Monastery in Dehradun, various book launches, a workshop on translating Hindi and Urdu to French and vice versa, plus much more.
Given the nature of the virtual platform, all our discussions and conversations are for eternity. Up until the last edition, paucity of funds meant that we could record only some sessions and there were many queries about the ones that were not recorded. Now all sessions will be preserved for posterity, available for all times on various social media channels as well as our website. Our visual archives will also be enhanced through shifting online our photography competition, which now requires entries in the form of portfolios rather than single images on the theme of nature healing.
It is undeniable that we have been able to engage with many more individuals, and organizations as varied as the pan-Indian youth debating forum Voice of India to the Centre for Study of Human Security Systems in Hyderabad, colleges in the Arabian Sea’s Minicoy Islands and a presentation of the higher Himalayas by the Looms of Ladakh… What a connect! And of course that brings me to VoW Connect, the bi-weekly podcast that we began earlier this year, which has pushed us beyond our comfort zones in pursuit of ensuring a continued relationship with our diverse patrons.
The exhibitions of Iti Kriti and Iti Smriti, which focus beautifully on sustainable crafts and creative artistry, are also moving to a virtual experience which aims to retain their distinctive carnivalesque flavour even as they are digitized. We continue to focus on those smaller units and livelihood SHGs, especially in the Himalayan States, which have not significantly established their online presence yet. Thereby we will be able to open up a global supply for really local products, which had lost market on account of the closure of the haats and bazaars upon which they have traditionally depended. Although travel restrictions and advisories continue to be in place, one can still explore and browse through a variety of ethically-sourced products in this transformed iteration of our VoW Bazaar. Do drop in to pick up a copy of any of our shortlisted books, or an intricately embroidered leaf bookmark to mark your place!
Collaborating with our event presentation partners at Wizcraft is making all of us, volunteers and Logistics Team especially, work more effectively with technology. We are learning to understand basic IT systems, integration across platforms, onboarding of content, pre-recording of sessions and their seamless interface with live engagement on the days of the festival. The physical space will be closely replicated in the virtual, to create an experience not easily forgotten. It is for us a learning curve—one that is often difficult and discomfiting —but also, equally, rewarding. This has been an unprecedented year in the history of humanity, and our festival too reflects this shift in the pace of life and time. We hope it will serve as reflection, distraction, provocation, conversation… the very best of our Indian literature and arts, brought to you in your homes by VoW @ Savoy 2020.
Sanjeev Chopra, Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, is Honorary Curator, Valley of Words International Literature and Arts Festival.