IAAC Literary Festival – Big Apple turns into the Big Read



Salman Rushdie in conversation with Akeel Bilgrami

Salman Rushdie in conversation with Akeel Bilgrami – photo: Tej Pattison


Booked!  Big Apple turns into the Big Read

  Move over Jaipur Literary Festival! New York is joining the fray with its first ever South Asian Literary Festival,  organized by the Indo-American Arts Council. (IAAC) in collaboration with the South Asia Institute of Columbia University and India Abroad.

The event kicked off with the book launch of Aasif Mandvi’s  hilarious ‘No Land’s Man’  with music by Gold Spot and a reading which was pure performance art by Mandvi.

The opening day of the first ever IAAC literary festival had the literary daddy of them all, Sir Salman Rushdie, being interviewed by Professor Akeel Bilgrami, Director of the South Asia Institute, Columbia University, at the Smithsonian’s  fabulous National Museum of the American Indian. Top it with wine, food and music by Zoya – and what more do you need?



The festival with its noted writers, its upcoming wordsmiths and its wanna-be writers attracted literary agents and publishers, as well as legions of readers. Anything and everything to do with books and writing was there to be discussed and enough experts to guide newbies through rough waters.


Aasif Mandvi with Aroon Shivdasani at the book launch of 'No Land's Man'

Aasif Mandvi with Aroon Shivdasani at the book launch of ‘No Land’s Man’ – Photo: Paresh Gandhi


The Writing Life

A session totally in the spirit of New York was ‘ Writing in the City – Tales from the Metropolis’ with the Maximum City author Suketu Mehta with Kalyan Ray and K.Anis Ahmed, moderated by Arun Venugopal of WNYC.  Another thought-provoking session was ‘Unpacking the empire – colonial histories and modern interpretations’ by Rajika Bhandari, Kenize Mourad, Sujata Massey, moderated by Angana Chatterji.

Mira Nair and Nandita Das along with Mohan Sikka were part of ‘From Page to Celluloid – Adapting Books for the big Screen’ which was moderated by Vibhuti Patel.  Yet another panel dealt with the importance of South Asia in today’s world and the panelists were Mahmood Mamdani, Gary Bass, Neil Padukone and Jaya Kamlani. The session was moderated by Mitra Kalita of Quartz.


Mira Nair and Nandita Das at a panel discussion with Mohan Sikka and Suketu Mehta.

Mira Nair and Nandita Das at a panel discussion with Mohan Sikka and Suketu Mehta. Photo: Paresh Gandhi


A Gathering of Writers

‘Amar Chitra Katha and Beyond: modern south Asian tales for children’  had authors Meera Nair, Preeti Singh, and Rajnesh Domalpalli and was moderated by Mara Thacker.  Almost everyone in the US has a migrant history so these compelling stories were discussed by Marian Budhos, Vivek Bald, Balwant Bhaneja and moderated by Johanna Lessinger.

There was also a special session on finding one’s digital voice – totally necessary in this age of social media. The panel had some expert voices – Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, S. Mitra Kalita, editor at Quartz, Ajit Balakrishnan, CEO of Rediff among many other things, Rashmee Roshan Lall, e-author of  ‘the Pomegranate Peace’, and Preeti Singh, who has been the head of content in Disney Publishing, India. The moderator was Lakshmi Gandhi, an editor at Metro NY.

On the last day there was a session on play writing moderated by Sunita Mukhi and on which the panelists were some well-known New York names – Samrat Chakrabarti, Aladin Ullal, Paul Knox, and Neilesh Bose. Yet another session addressed comedy writing with Aasif Mandvi, Rakesh and Rajiv Satyal.

‘Cooking Up Tales: the hot new genre of food writing’ was fine except after titillating us with mouth-watering stories of food by master chefs like Floyd Cardoz, Jehangir Mehta and Surbhi Sahni, book editor Beena Kamlani and professor Krishnendu Ray of NYU – there was no food on the table! We had to take their word for it!



Preeti Singh, Ajit Balakrishnan, Lakshmi Gandhi, Mitra Kalita, Rashmee Roshan Lall and Sree Sreenivasan (photo – Paresh Gandhi)



A Literary Feast

Be it fiction, poetry, food writing or comedy writing, there were noted writers to talk about the various genres and book lovers and emerging writers ready to lap it all up. On closing night festival goers got to listen to Ayad Akhtar, author of ‘American Dervish’ and the Pulitzer Prize winning play ‘Disgraced’ as he conversed with Patrick Healy, theater reporter for The New York Times, once again at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Actually I should have titled this post ‘How I Managed to Fast in a time of Feasting’ for that is what actually happened. What should have been a time of Literary Feasting turned out to be Literary Fasting for me as I was unable to attend many of the events due to an important prior commitment.  Since Lassi with Lavina was a media sponsor of the festival, I’m sharing the photos and videos of the event, along with an interview with Aroon Shivdasani, the whirlwind behind the festival. You know very well that  if I’d been able to attend all the events, you’d have a book-length report!  Next year I’ll surely be there, an erudite fly on the wall!

I did attend the fun party for Aasif’s  book launch,  the session on food writing with the food celebrities and the final closing night event with the amazing Ayad Akhtar. You’ll see those stories in Lassi with Lavina shortly.

However this first IAAC Literary Festival bodes well for future events – imagine Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta, Mira Nair, Nandita Das and Ayad Akhtar under the same roof.  There were so many important journalists, writers, poets, artists, chefs there as well as emerging and aspiring writers. For writers and the hopefuls there was also an insightful session into publishing led by some important names: C.P. Heiser, the publisher of the Los Angeles-based Unnamed Press and executive director of its sister nonprofit Phoneme Media; Amrita Chowdhury, the country head and publisher of Harlequin India; noted literary agent Ayesha Pande, Amber Quereshi who has been executive editor and associate publisher at Seven Stories Press; Parul Sehgal, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, Vicky Bijur of  Vicky Bijur Literary Agency; Beena Kamlani, senior editor at Viking Penguin; Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary Agency; and last but certainly not the least Susan Shapiro, award-winning professor and author. What a feast of words, ideas and anecdotes it must have been!

With so much rich material, talents, books – past, present and future, and so many possible collaborations,  the next IAAC Literary Festival is bound to be one to be relished – and gorged on!

Six Questions for Aroon Shivdasani, organizer of the South Asian Literary Festival


1. New York is a natural for a South Asian literary festival – why did it take so long to do it?

 We have presented numerous book launches and realized it was time we formalized this process in order to showcase the myriad South Asian authors in a structured festival highlighting each of the different genres. There ws no way we could have individual book launches for every one of the authors we presented at the Lit Fest.


2. What do you think were the absolute highlights?

 Opening Night with Booker of Bookers Sir Salman Rushdie; closing night with Pulitzer Prize winning author Ayad Akhtar; Metropolis with Suketu Mehta and Anis Ahmed; Page to Celluloid with Mira Nair and Nandita Das; playwrights, digita – there were so many good sessions – most of them had standing room only.



3. The fact that you have so many young people, so many students and aspiring writers must make it a very potent place. What surprised you the most about the festival?

 It was our first Literary Festival and it was one of many this fall. I did not expect to sell out or have such a super audience. I was delighted.


The IAAC Literary Festival in New York

The IAAC Literary Festival in New York. Photo  – Tej Pattison


4. What are the plans for 2015?  

We intend presenting New York with a second edition this fall.

5. What feedback have you had from the big names?

Everyone without exception has written to tell me what a fabulous, exciting, fun festival it was! And ALL the authors told me they’d love to come back!

6. Is New York going to become the new Jaipur?

I hope it will get there one day…


 Related Articles:

A Family Snapshot from Akhil Sharma
The Next Rushdie?
The Writer-Healers
Siddharta Mukherjee – Battling the Emperor


About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

Comments are closed.