Well, I was lucky enough recently to be invited to the Kolkata Literature Festival at the start of February to talk about Scottish crime fiction. Accompanying me on this amazing trip were fellow author Lin Anderson and agent Jenny Brown, our remit to spread the word about our work, Scottish crime writing in general, and the Bloody Scotland festival. We were also hoping to learn as much as possible about Indian crime fiction and the wider literary scene, and I think we were successful on all counts.
After thirteen hours of flying we pitched up at Kolkata Airport in time for breakfast on Wed 1st Feb. The fun started straight away, when Jenny’s fingers refused to cooperate with the scanning machine at immigration. Rumours that she’d had her prints burnt off in a previous Jason Bourne-esque life remain unconfirmed.
And so to our first taste of Kolkata traffic. Jesus H. Basically, it’s the Whacky Races meets the dodgems. Just close your eyes and hope for the best. Oh, for a working seatbelt. Anyhoo, we were taken for breakfast by the lovely Esha Chatterjee, who runs the festival as well as the supercool publishing house BEE Books. A couple of masala omelettes later and we checked in, had a quick nap, then headed for a wander around the Kolkata Book Fair.
The literary festival is a small part of the larger book fair, which has a staggering 2.5 million visitors a year. It’s mind-boggling in size and scope, and was astonishingly busy whenever we visited. So great to see such enthusiasm for books and publishing from the public.
After that headfuck, we went to meet some Welsh writers who were also visiting the festival. They were Natalie Holborow, Sophie McKeand, Sion Tomos Owen, Gary Raymond and publisher Richard Davies who runs Parthian Books. Needless to say we found them in a bar, and they had a lot of astute advice for us, having been travelling in India for a few weeks already.
The next day we pitched up at the festival for our own events and others. Before that, myself and Lin visited the Shri Shikshayatan Girl’s School and talked about our work to seventy very smart and sharp girls, more than a few budding writers amongst them.
After that, Jenny had her first panel event discussing translations then we were whisked off to the first of a number of meet-and-greet type events, chatting with local writers, journalists, publishers, festival organisers and members of the British Council, who had helped fund our trip.
On the third day we were busy again. Before the festival kicked off we managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the Victoria Monument, a colossal marble building set in huge grounds. Like much of Kolkata, it leaves Westerners with a lot of negative feelings about empire, and the ridiculous British tradition of destroying other countries and their culture in the name of progress. Ho hum.
And so to the festival, where myself, Lin and Jenny shared the staged with local authors Monabi Mitra and Krishnendu Mukhopadhyay to talk crime writing. Turns out we had a lot in common with our Kolkatan counterparts, and we learnt a lot about the crime scene there, as well as spreading the word about our own writing. Ideally, we ‘d love to have some Indian writers come over to Scotland in the future, and I hope we can make that happen.
Lin then had another event with a wide range of other authors, some Indian, some Welsh, and one Egyptian. It was fascinating, seeing the different attitudes to readers and the work across the different continents, a real eye-opener, like all of the trip, to be honest.
Another evening, another meet-and-greet, another crazily luxurious hotel, the kind of place that 99.9% of the people in the city could never afford to visit. That juxtaposition is everywhere in Kolkata – the poverty right next to the extreme wealth, and it’s disconcerting to say the least. Also, lovely to have your car searched for bombs before you can get into a hotel. But a free bar is a free bar, we are Scottish after all.
And so to our final full day at the festival. Myself and Lin did some rehearsing for a musical evening (which never happened in the end), then we went with Jenny on an absolutely amazing walking tour of the city courtesy of Calcutta Walks. The tour was called Confluence of Cultures and that was very apt, taking in Hindu, Christian, Chinese, Muslim, Jewish and many more influences in a four-hour walk that started in nice quiet streets and ended in a chaotic jam of people, animals, markets, cars, vans, rickshaws and general madness.
With our heads spinning we bombed it over to our last social event of the trip, a British Council evening where we bonded with our Welsh colleagues again, got bit by loads of mosquitos, made a ton of new friends and contacts, and Esha from the festival could relax for two minutes after a brilliantly run festival from start to finish.
Huge thank you to everyone we met in Kolkata, the friendliest and most helpful bunch of folks you could ever wish to meet. And thanks also to the British Council for facilitating, and to Bloody Scotland for asking me along. It was a mind-boggling and transformative trip, one that has seriously broadened my literary and cultural horizons, and a journey that will burn brightly forever in my memory.