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South Asian literature celebrated in London

The DSC South Asian Literature Festival, now in its second year, continues until Monday.

Elephants roamed through the opening weekend of the DSC South Asian Literature Festival, now in its second year, in London. They weren't the real creatures, but imaginary - in storytelling sessions that included Afindica: The Story of the Ethical Elephants - a powerful children's tale told by Hogarth Brown.

It was just one event in a festival that caters to both children and adults, and which showcases established talents such as Christopher Ondaatje and Romesh Gunesekera alongside up-and-coming writers. A host of projects thought-provokingly reflect contemporary themes in South Asian writing, such as the new wave of women writers, tributes to Tagore, the art of translation, as well as an ambitious project that aims to write and publish a book in a 24-hour period before the end of the festival.

A blindfolded man touches an elephant and is asked to describe what he feels. Truth might come in all shapes and sizes, depending on your perspective, is the moral of the tale: it might feel long and swishy if touching the tail, or rough and wide if touching a trunk.

The Rich Mix festival venue is aptly situated in an ethnically diverse area of London with many south Asian residents. Nearby is Brick Lane (immortalised in Monica Ali's novel of the same name), where silks and scents spill on to the streets.

The festival continues until Monday, with events held in locations ranging from the British Library to the Women's Library, from the National Maritime Museum to the Nehru Centre.

There is a sense of excitement in the air as the festival returns to the very grassroots of telling stories with a children's storytelling segment. Considering the number of south Asian children in the UK from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and beyond, south Asian characters are rarely featured in their books.

Bhavit Mehta, a book publisher and distributor from India and the director of the festival, predicts that there will be a renaissance in south Asian children's publishing, possibly going straight to the e-book format, and encompassing comic books and books for teenagers.

"The moment people start having children, they wonder how they are going to preserve these cultural stories; and so young mums and dads start writing stories themselves but don't have the outlet to publish. It's a real shame for more people not to benefit."

Mehta got into the business after seeing good-quality books being published in India but lacking distribution in the UK. That kind of entrepreneurial spirit is prompting a new wave of publishing in India.

"The few publishers in the UK who do dabble in multicultural books prove that it can work," he said. "I hope that some of the bigger publishers such as Penguin, Puffin and Macmillan Children's will also expand this side of their publishing."

There have been charges that the UK publishing industry is not very ethnically diverse, something that the industry is trying to correct, explains Mehta. Parents could also help by encouraging their children to pursue studies in the arts.

"Asian families are more encouraging of going down the science and maths route, which will bring more financial stability and would be less encouraging of say, their child pursuing an MA in children's publishing," he said.

So far the festival has also placed a strong emphasis on the spoken word - after all, this is how people originally told stories.

Oral discourse at the festival is being used to powerful effect, as well as echoes of "Kathas" where people would mix words with music and song, which was - and still is - a powerful way for people to learn these stories and what they mean. A specially commissioned musical piece, Borderland by the young artist Soumik Datta, pays colourful tribute to Tagore, while there are also themed exhibitions related to literature and films with a literary connection.

The DSC South Asian Literature Festival runs until October 24.

Updated: October 19, 2011 04:00 AM