India’s First Non-fiction Festival: A Platform for New Ideas

Be bold, stay real. This was the theme of India’s first non-fiction festival, held recently in Mumbai. At the inaugural session titled, “India: Bold and Real,” moderator R. Jagannathan, editor-in-chief of Firstpost.com and Forbes India, noted that “India is very complex and diverse and its huge population of 1.2 billion seems so daunting that to bring about even the smallest change one has to be really bold. At the same time, to make it work one has to be very real, too.” According to co-panelist Tavleen Singh, a journalist and author, however, “In India, we are neither bold nor real.” Her recent book Durbar, Singh said, “did not get a single good review because it attacked the system of dynastic democracy [in India].”

The non-fiction festival, one of the few globally, was an attempt to create a platform for interaction and dialogue that can give rise to new ideas. “As a growing and aspirational society, we need to move beyond reading only fiction and engage in discussions around economic, political and socio-cultural issues,” Kumaar Bagrodia, founder and CEO of knowledge media firm and event organizer LeapVault, told India Knowledge@Wharton. “A platform like this allows readers to interact directly with thought leaders, and the authors to understand the pulse of the readers and co-create the next body of work.”

In a session on “Non-fiction for an Informed Electorate and Better Policy Making,” Ajit Ranade, chief economist at the Aditya Birla Group, and Govindraj Ethiraj, a journalist and managing trustee of data-based news portal India Spend, highlighted the importance of data-driven journalism. “In order to ask the right questions and have a meaningful discourse, it is imperative that one must be empowered with facts,” said Ethiraj. “As a society we have to understand various trade-offs and the trade-offs become more visible and stark when data is thrown in,” added Ranade.

Citing three examples — the budget of the Mumbai municipal corporation, the Food Security Bill and India’s demographic transition — Ranade pointed out various anomalies. For instance, he noted that while the cost of producing a kilogram of rice in India is around Rs. 16 (27 U.S. cents), the Food Security Bill, which proposes to cover 67% of the country’s population, promises to give it at around Rs. 3 (5 U.S. cents) a kilogram. “At this price, even a farmer will want to collect rice rather than produce it. This will mean that India will need to import rice, which in turn will result in the price of rice shooting up in the global market,” said Ranade, adding that while the Food Security Bill “makes sense on humanitarian grounds, unless you put it in the context of correct and relevant data, one cannot get the complete picture.”

Evolution of Non-fiction

Sharing their experience on what it takes to write on “the politics, communalism and the social fabric of India,” journalists and authors Meera Menon (Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation) and Harish Nambiar (Defragmenting India: Riding a Bullet through the Gathering Storm) said that it requires tremendous sensitivity to open up a productive and honest conversation about these issues in the country. “You need to be completely non-judgmental,” noted Nambiar. Menon added: “Initially, people may be reluctant to open up and talk, but once you show that you are willing to listen they will be willing not only to talk but also go on record and be identified.”

Malini Aggarwal, a popular blogger and founder of MissMalini.com, observed that with the advent of social media, anyone can be a non-fiction writer. “We are all part of the evolution of the non-fiction genre,” she said. According to Aggarwal, her blog, which has a team of seven writers and covers the Hindi film industry popularly known as Bollywood, lifestyle and fashion, has 600,000 unique visitors a month and 1.5 million followers across social media.

“If you write well and are well informed about your subject then you can make a pretty decent living as a blogger,” noted Aggarwal, who turned to blogging as a full-time career in 2011. Her revenues, she stated, are derived from advertisements. Aggarwal added a note of caution though for burgeoning bloggers: “You are only as relevant as your last blog or tweet. You need to update your posts every day. And you must offer unique and quality content.”

The Unconventional Path

In a panel discussion titled, “Bold Decisions, Real People: What it Takes to Defy Convention and Follow a Career After Your Heart,” author Amish Tripathi, chef Rahul Akerkar, food critic Rashmi Uday Singh and Praveen Tyagi, founder and managing director of coaching institute IIT-ian’s Pace Education, shared their stories with moderator Sonia Golani, author of My Life, My Rules: Stories of 18 Unconventional Careers.

“Life is a process of self-discovery. Your passion gives you the energy to do what you want. It is the only driving force,” said Akerkar, who was pursuing a doctorate in biochemical engineering before shifting gears to the restaurant business. Singh, a former Indian revenue service official — she was the deputy commissioner of income tax when she decided to quit the revenue service to become a full time food critic — added: “You must learn to let go of one shore and be prepared to not see the other shore for a long time.”

What are some key triggers for an individual’s philanthropic journey? Responding to this question in a panel discussion titled, “The Role of Individuals, Government and Corporates in Promoting Philanthropy,” writer and columnist Ameeta Chatterjee, who is involved with Ekam, a non-governmental organization focused on improving the infant mortality rate, said: “A lot of people believe that giving back is a function of material success. I believe that the real tipping point is the level of connectedness to an issue.”

K. Ramkumar, executive director at ICICI Bank, pointed out that execution has been one of the biggest challenges for ICICI in its corporate social responsibility journey. “We found that the execution capability of our partners was not as good as we wanted it to be. To spend a lot of money and not see tangible outcomes is very frustrating.” To overcome this hurdle, ICICI decided to “directly touch the lives of people” and launched its own skill development program. Headed by Ramkumar, this initiative aims to skill and place 12,000 young people in jobs every year. “This is an outcome-based initiative and not just effort-based. In June 2013, I will be evaluated on having placed 12,000 young people in jobs. This puts a whole new perspective on our approach to the program,” noted Ramkumar.

Rishikesha T. Krishnan, professor of policy and corporate strategy at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and author of books on innovation, spoke about the challenges that India faces in this area. According to Krishnan, while Indians are adept at creative improvisations, their innovation outlook is very short term. It is not impactful, sustainable or scalable, Krishnan noted. Most Indian companies, Krishnan said, face three key problems: They are not able to generate enough ideas, ideas get stuck or lost and ideas are not able to create a tangible impact. “Leadership can play an important role in building a culture of innovation within the organization,” Krishnan stated, adding that India needs “government policies that encourage innovation-driven small companies and this needs to happen at a much faster pace.”

Spread over three days, the non-fiction festival included many other discussions across a wide array of topics, including politics, economics, business, leadership, ethics, governance, philanthropy, health and fitness, cinema, spirituality and sexuality. The audience comprised corporate executives, entrepreneurs, academics, cinema and theater personalities, school and college students, homemakers and others. Bagrodia now plans to take the non-fiction festival to other cities in India. “The response in Mumbai has been very encouraging,” he said. Krishnan of IIMB added: “Non-fiction can have a far reaching influence on the social fabric of the country. The time has come to give it due importance.”

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