The session titled “Literature from the Newsroom” (about journalists writing non-fiction books) at the Times Literary Carnival* last weekend wasn’t half bad. The panel was made up of journalists Geeta Anand (“The Cure”), Rahul Pandita (“Hello Bastar”) and Samanth Subramanian (“Following Fish”). Jonathan Shainin was the moderator. I’ve read and enjoyed the panellists’ books and am a subscriber of the Shainin-edited “Caravan”. Shainin is American and seems to be the sort who shouldn’t be given too much coffee. Next to his energy levels, the journalists seemed almost comatose and blandly polite. Anand was prim, Subramanian was somewhat Zen and Pandita seemed to be just a little sleepy. But after a little bit of Shainin’s super enthusiastic questioning, the panel — Pandita in particular — came to life. He has a story about being surrounded by Republican Guards near the Iraqi border (during the post-9/11 attack on Iraq). Pandita had the brainwave of singing some Arabic song to communicate to the Guards that he and the two journalists with him shouldn’t be arrested/killed/manhandled. The Guards doubled over with laughter, dropped their guns and made Pandita sing the song again and again. “By the time I’d sung it the 50th time, I was ready to ask them to shoot me rather than make me sing it one more time.” My favourite story from Pandita was one concerning Kishenji, a Maoist leader who was recently killed. “One day — I’m in Delhi then — at 5.30am, I get a call. I’m sleeping. It’s Kishenji. He says, ‘What are you doing?’ I tell him I was sleeping. He asks, ‘Why are you sleeping? The revolution is round the corner.’”
However, the star of the session, at least for those of us seated on the left, was a fellow audience member: The Man With the iPad, henceforth referred to as iPad Man. For me personally, a further distraction was an extremely sprightly mosquito that had identified me as its personal blood bank. However, the mosquito, annoying as it may be, was following a natural code of conduct. Humans, on the other hand, are not biologically compelled to prop iPads on a dock-like thing that has its own keyboard and proceed to go through their Twitter timeline, check email, read other articles, post on Twitter, and generally engage in an e-lounge-about session while a panel discusses how to get subjects to open up to a journalist. At first I thought I was the only one unable to focus on anything but the iPad. However, this was not so. Essentially, since iPad Man was sitting in the third or fourth row, all us back-benchers found our eyeballs rolling uncontrollably away from Shainin & co. and in the direction of the glowing screen, stupefied by all the things that appeared on it as iPad Man’s fingers swiped and swooshed and tapped and typed.
Someone behind me hissed, “Is that Flipboard?” I noticed iPad Man and I have quite a few people in common on our Twitter list. Someone else said, presumably to the person next to them, “That’s the article I was telling you to read!” Yet another person said to their companion, “Can you see his Twitter name? I should follow him. He’s got cool shit.”
Now my point is, if you’re going to fiddle around with gadgets because you’re bored or a brilliant multi-tasker or both, then sit at the back so that the rest of us aren’t distracted. Don’t sit near the front. It’s as rude as sitting and messaging someone, or playing games on one’s phone, while a panel yabbers on. It’s worse than keeping the phone’s ringer on because at least the phone rings once, you glare at the person and then you can forget about it. In case of the iPad, you just cannot ignore it. There it is, with its tempting glow and beautifully-designed apps, with a screen that’s brighter and clearer than the video projection that’s about 20 times bigger.
Much, much later, I learnt iPad Man is the newly-arrived head of Financial Times’ Mumbai bureau, James Crabtree. His Twitter feed, incidentally, is quite fun.*NOTE: The Times Literary Carnival: Mumbai Fully Booked probably had to be called a carnival instead festival to create a brand that stands out because suddenly, it seems like there are more cultural festivals in India than there are religious ones. Goa has two, there’s one in Kerala, the famous one in Jaipur — if only someone would ask me to write a diary of that festival, I swear I wouldn’t let any gadget distract me. Sigh — and there are now two in Mumbai. Literature Live! began in 2010 and was held this year at NCPA. 2011 saw the first Times Literary Carnival: Mumbai Fully Booked. The major distinguishing factor between Literature Live! and the Times Literary Carnival seems to be that the Times recognised it’s time to look beyond NCPA and towards the suburbs when planning events in Mumbai. Apparently, there was a lot of bitching about how badly organised the Times Literary Carnival was. But if there was mayhem behind the scenes, I certainly couldn’t tell as a random visitor. While I didn’t attend as many sessions as I wanted to, the few I saw were very well attended. The registration process was painless. The kids at the desk were polite and helpful. Venue A was the big space (the precise studio where Anish Kapoor had his show) and since Venue B was small, there was a television screen set up outside which played a live feed of what was going on inside. So, I don’t know what all the sniping was about.