When a Marcellus employee needs reinvigoration, they head to the cities of south India which have become India’s intellectual hubs with millions of people reading, thinking and discussing the ideas that will define India in the decades to come. Hence none of us were surprised to hear that Kozhikode has became India’s first UNESCO City of Literature (and only the second city in south Asia, after Lahore, to get that tag). Amongst, other cities to get this coveted tag are Edinburgh, Manchester, Prague, Lyon, Dunedin, Durban, Montevideo, Milan and Rio de Janeiro. Together these cities form the ‘Creative Cities Network’ [for a full list see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_Literature].

It is not easy to get the ‘City of Literature’ tag. As the previously mentioned Wikipedia page describes: “To be approved as a City of Literature, cities need to meet a number of criteria set by UNESCO.[2]

Designated UNESCO Cities of Literature share similar characteristics:

  • Quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in the city
  • Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels
  • Literature, drama, and/or poetry playing an important role in the city
  • Hosting literary events and festivals, which promote domestic and foreign literature
  • Existence of libraries, bookstores, and public or private cultural centres, which preserve, promote, and disseminate domestic and foreign literature
  • Involvement by the publishing sector in translating literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature
  • Active involvement of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products

Cities submit bids to UNESCO to be designated a City of Literature. The designations are monitored and reviewed every four years by UNESCO.”  Diya Isha’s piece in Scroll describes how a team of volunteers from various parts of India successfully piloted Kozhikode’s bid to become a ‘City of Literature’.

So why should the rest of us, who don’t live in Kozhikode, care about any of this? Because if we don’t create more cities and towns like Kozhikode where people read, think and discuss their ideas and their identity (the two are closely linked), then the ideas that underpin economic growth in a free market democracy will begin fizzling out.  Diya Isha writes [the square brackets are ours], “During their research [for the ‘City of Literature’ proposal], the NIT-Calicut team unearthed a diverse array of cookbooks, food science literature, and cultural/travel food writing in the local literary scene, highlighting how food is woven into the city’s latent literary heritage.

So the city corporation is keen on reviving the Kolaya culture, following the recommendation of the NIT-Calicut team. Their plan involves repurposing Anakulam Samskarika Nilayam, a cultural centre in the city, an initiative which also doubles as a space for local publishers to conduct cost-effective book launches, eliminating the need for expensive rented locations. “We’ll set up chairs around the pond and establish a small tea shop offering tea and biscuits,” said Phillip. “Just biscuits. For lunch they can go elsewhere and continue the conversations they began [at the cultural centre].”

Food is visually appealing, and the rise of social media platforms has led to the widespread sharing of food experiences. Even as this phenomenon took place, popular Malayalam films like Ustad Hotel and Salt N’ Pepper, whose title songs feature visuals of famous eateries across Kozhikode, such as Sagar, Paragon, and Bombay, only further reinforce this culinary milieu. The impact of Ustad Hotel was so significant that you can still see multiple eateries with a banana-yellow painted wheel serving as a restaurant signboard, just like the one featured in the movie.

When the protagonist of the film, Faizi asks his grandfather Kareem, the owner of the eponymous restaurant, Ustad Hotel – “hotel” being a misnomer for many eateries in the country – if he’s changed what he’s adding to the Sulaimani they were drinking, Kareem responds, “I’ll tell you what I’ve added to the tea, but what’s more important is the feeling in your heart.” He adds: “Every Sulaimani should have some ‘mohabbat’ in it. When you drink it, the world should slow down and stand still.”

In his article, “Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Indian Literature,” poet and scholar K Satchidanandan noted that Basheer spent the last three decades of his life sipping “Sulaimani” under the shade of a pet mangosteen tree, listening to ghazals and talking to “pilgrims” who visited his house in Beypore. A cup of Sulaimani in Kozhikode represents layered history. The tea leaf might be the most evident ingredient, but it will not taste as good without the spices, a direct manifestation of the multilingualism which accompanied the port city, forever altering how people ate, wrote, and read.”

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