Saturday, 31 January 2009

Literati glitterati

Back in Bombay after a 23-hour train journey, which saw me packed into a compartment with six Indian men and, thankfully, air conditioning. Interesting in an anthropological sense, and it's always lovely to be rocked to sleep by the gentle movements of the train, but it was even better to get off the train. We must have looked like shell-shocked tourists because we were immediately accosted by a Sikh cabbie touting his wares. He turned out to be a shyster and after raised voices before 9am in the courtyard of our apartment building, a neighbour intervened to help us out. She then ran to the lift (old style cage door) and called out, "Never take a sardarji cab".

But the festival, oh the festival! It was truly a delight, like being in the kind of alter-universe in which you KNOW you belong but haven't really done anything to deserve. It was held in the grounds of Diggi Palace, which was resplendent in fuschia and marigold streamers. We had press accreditation, which turned out to be extremely useful, in more ways than one.

Highlights? So many, so many. But because I mentioned it in my last post, I'll have to talk about the Big B. Yep, Amitabh. Amitabh and me. And, oh, perhaps 3,000 of our closest friends.

He was at the festival to launch a book on his life on film. Now I'd heard about the frenzy that surrounds this man everywhere he goes, but I, somewhat naively, thought that a sedate literature festival would be a little less desperate.

Not so.

Launch time and I found myself a good possie about five metres stage left, wedged between some big speakers and the PR chick, and got comfortable. Jason slipped into the photographers' enclosure, which was guarded by these fantastically moustachioed Rajput security heavies.
As soon as Big B was sighted, a collective gasp came from the crowd. He appeared on stage and immediately the photogs and cammos jumped to their feet, leading to the stage manager to leap to the microphone and exhort everyone to sit down and calm down.

Amitabh - perhaps reciting an much-repeated script? - told the crowd how humble he was for their support, how he was an ordinary actor and not a star, and thanked his fans, his family and God for all he had.

[An aside: a few days later I visited the Rambagh Palace and stood inside the presidential suite the festival had apparently put him up in for his Jaipur stay.]

As he took the stage, a surge of people appeared from the wings and took over any available centimetre of space still available. Behind me was some guy in a polyester suit who held his mobile phone out to record the entire thing, his arm arched above me, curled around me like a prawn - spooning me, if you will. I assumed my usual crowd-deflector stance: elbows out, feet square, small of back arched to avoid having my neighbour use the crush to press their nether regions into me. But I needn't have worried. It became clear very soon that if there was any activity going on down there for my friend, it was less to do with me and more to do with what was up on stage.

The launch over, it was question time. Questions were generally fairly benign and banal - although one guy did get up and SING VERSES OF A SONG HE WROTE FOR BACHCHAN. And then when the moderator declared there was time for just one last question, the journalists around me started urgently calling out and surging towards the stage, like ants towards a sticky trail.

If you want to know what he looks like in the flesh, you'll find some better photos over at G-G-G - Jason had a better spot and has a way better camera.

The festival wasn't just about Amitabh Bachchan. There were many, many literary luminaries there. And the great thing about it was the fantastic access you had to Major People. You would literally find yourself standing next to William Dalrymple or Colin Thubron in the lunch line, or striking up a conversation with Michael Wood in the bookshop. Not that I did anything of the sort, of course. Well maybe once. But more on that in a later post.

And then there was the final night of the festival. Like Cinderellas with press passes, we got to go to the ball! At the City Palace! Magical! From the moment we arrived on foot (we got the rickshaw to drop us around the corner; everyone else was arriving in AC cars with drivers) it was surreal: from the painted elephants at the gate, to the rose petal-strewn passageway, to the private lawn area where the ball was on. (And it is indeed private: we went to the palace as tourists a few days earlier and that section had been blocked off.)

Of course, being a literary festival, the crowd around the bar was deep, so it took us a fair while to get a drink, but it wasn't long before we were meeting Interesting and Accomplished people.

I really wish Blogger would let me post my photos - that way, you could see how the lights at the palace were on - indicating the Jaipur royals were home and watching our little shindig from up high. I like to think they were sprinkling little sachets of good tidings onto all us proletariat down below who were inhabiting their private lawns. Or maybe they might have been tossing gold coins down. I was a bit too squiffy to know.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Shiro and more

Oh, Shiro, you reaaaallly need a website. Judging by the number of hits I seem to get based on a brief mention of Shiro below, there is a dearth of online information about the place.

But because I'm unashamedly a total SEO slut... Shiro Bangalore UB City cool bar Shiro Bangalore UB City bar Bengaluru Shiro Vittal Mallya Shiro Shiro Shiro.

(And there may be a few more commented out below.)

In other news, Jason and I have a new maid. After a few false starts, we've found one we're happy with. She's been with us four days and already the neighbours are trying to steal her.

We are off to Rajasthan tomorrow, for the Jaipur Literature Festival , where I will be plumping for an interview with Vikas Swarup. Vikram Seth, Simon Schama and (swoon) Hari Kunzru will also be there. Oh, and some guy called Amitabh Bachchan who I'm told has a cult following here in India. I have the fiery combination of media accreditation and no shame, so stay tuned for photos.

I wrote a blog post last night while watching the inauguration but, upon rereading today, now seems woefully out of date. Everything that could possibly be said, has been said, I feel. But how SHEER was the complete, unadulterated JOY of seeing Bush glowering while Obama was ripping him to shreds up there?

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Jobhunting blues

Since returning to Bombay much of my time has been taken up with searching for a job. Part of the reason I wanted to come and live here for a while was to work as a journalist in a region where there's actually stuff happening. Not that Melbourne isn't a hotbed of activity, but there's only so much AFL one can avoid in a career. We opted to chuck in our jobs at home and go travelling, rather than line something up before we arrived; mainly so we wouldn't feel hemmed in, but also so we'd have more of an informed choice of what direction we'd go in. Back in Australia I was looking forward to getting a toehold into the local media here, but after a few weeks of watching India's many 24-hour news channels, I've decided it's probably not for me. In any case, the salaries are reportedly dire: in the region of $A100 per week, as I was told the other day.

But as I've quickly found out, the midst of a credit crunch-driven downturn that has significantly affected India is probably NOT the best time to be looking for a job in the media. "Didn't you think of that when you came?" asked the guy I met today to sound out about a gig at a to-be-launched TV channel. Yes I did, mate, but I made the decision to leave months ago when the credit crisis was limited to McMansion owners in Tennessee.

So today, another friendly chat, no bites, "but if you'd been here a few months ago when they were hiring you would have had no trouble". Jason, too, had a chat at a newly-launched magazine in town but got exactly the same response. So we are both throwing a little pity party tonight.

I may have shed a few tears in the cab on the way home, much to the dismay of my Sai Baba worshipping driver. But I dealt with the sadness in the only way I know how: retail therapy and ice cream. And now I have a PLAN. If this media in India thing doesn't work out, I can happily ride out the downturn for the rest of the year by doing something else. Like be a tour guide. Or something. Or maybe I'll try to eke out a freelance existence. Or maybe I'll stop stressing about finding work when I've been looking seriously for exactly four days.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Snap-happy Sunday

Back in Bombay after a too-long stay down south, and we are now embarking on getting organised in earnest. And that means making lists, which can be roughly broken up in to three main areas:

1. Get connected and contactable
2. Get jobs
3. Get lives

Little progress has been made on the first, but incremental changes on the second and third. I have a job "chat" tomorrow, and Jason has one later this week. And I made two cold calls today with the aim of network building: "Hi you don't know me but I'm a friend of blah and have just moved to the city", etc. Hard but necessary if I don't want to spend every night watching cheesy Indian TV.

Getting a mobile phone SIM card has turned out to be more difficult than we initially thought. For safety reasons, we not only need a fixed address and proof, we also need a local to vouch for us and fill out a no objection type form. We have lots of locals around who could vouch for us, and offer to, but getting this to translate into actual action is a whole other story. Nevertheless, I've enjoyed the break from the fear of brain cancer that washes over me every time I take a call.

The rest of the day was spent shopping, meandering, coffee-ing. Lunch was at Crepe Station at Pali Hill's Carter Road:

And this is its proximity to the mudflats-masquerading-as-beach at Carter Road, Pali Hill:

On the way home I was accosted by perhaps the most masculine hijra I've ever come across. I mean, he wasn't even trying! He may have been in a sari, bindi and with long hair tied back, but his loping gait was like a cricketer with a strained groin and he made no attempt to heighten his voice. And even though I desisted from donating, he/she happily smiled for a photo - which I can't seem to post at the moment, but I will endeavour to do so soon. Maybe Blogger is a nanny-type tool?

Speaking of cricket, I spent the past few days immersed in Indian chicklit: The Zoya Factor. Naturally, Indian chicklit involves joint families, the threat of an arranged marriage and, naturally, being squired by the captain of the Indian cricket team. Still, quite enjoyable, and now available for loan to visitors.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Bangalore: high times and hijinks

You're not allowed to take photos inside the Bangalore Club. There is a big sign at the entrance telling you that, below the sign banning mobile phones and above the chart outlining what is proper attire. I didn't notice, I took a photo, and I got told off twice: first by a surly staffer, then by my disapproving uncle, who had just signed me in.

Although about 30 seconds later he took a call on his mobile so that act pretty much negated my own misdeed.

SO apparently the Bangalore Club is pretty exclusive and elite. It has changed in the ten-odd years since I was last there: a bit of repainting here and there, a bit of garden maintenance, some new brass plaques on the walls, and you have a club fit for the elite of India's - nay, the world's - booming IT hub. No more peeling paint in the main hall, stench of mothballs in the Mysore Room and faded curtains in the dining room. But the stuffed animal heads are still there, next to the mounted displays of rifles. Down the hall is the 'mixed' bar (more on that later), which is a lovely dark room, all wood panelling and brocade furniture, and a bar top so shiny you could redo your lipstick by looking down into it. Around the corner is the billiards room, and in a little building away from the main action is the card playing room.

Over on the lawn is where the action happens: the Christmas Day buffet, the big New Year's Eve bash. The lawn is like a green pool: so well-watered it gleams with good health, studded with little plots of birds of paradise and those palm trees shaped like fans. It is the very model of what you would expect of an elite club in a money town.

But to what got me in trouble: the Men's Bar. For men only. The mixed bar is where you go if you want a mixed drink in mixed company. But the Men's Bar is the sole preserve of those blessed with dingle-dangle, so they can belch and fart and scratch their balls discreetly but publicly. As my uncle, who spends a lot of time in the Mens Bar, once told me, the bar is for those times when you just want to get drunk and not worry about embarrassing women.

And what a bar it is. Half under cover, half exposed, it has a high ceiling, shiny polished wood and brass everywhere, and low chairs. Oh to be able to freely drink in a bar like that.

So here is the contraband photo:

Note just how severely chuffed Jason looks. I think he likes the idea of drinking in comfort and style while I loiter out the front, hoping he'll run out with a shandy and a packet of chips. HAH. He can't get far without me. I am currently the sole holder of our joint credit card.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Bangalore: the town where the evil kids reign

Bangalore has always been described as one of India's most liberal cities, full of nightclubs and parties, fiery hedonism lit by old money and fuelled by new. But all is not as it seems, and the state government of Karnataka appears to have been keen to bring Bangalore and Bangaloreans to heel by imposing idiotic and archaic restrictions to the nightlife: for example, a closing time of 11.30pm; even a short-lived ban on dancing.

En route to one of the newest happening bars, Shiro, my cousin Shonali fills me in. Shonali is one of Bangalore's original party princesses; even now with a child, she still makes sure she heads out to a bar or club at least once a week.

"See, you could be carrying a tray of drinks and swaying under the weight, and you'd get a tap on the shoulder reminding you not to dance. If you were in a bar and someone stood up and started dancing, the DJ would get on the mike and ask them to stop."

Luckily the ban has recently been overturned, although the 11.30pm curfew remains in place.

Jason, in the back seat, quotes Kenneth from 30 Rock: "Do you remember the movie Footloose, where those evil kids won in the end?"
Like many inane government policies, this one was rooted in morality. In 2005, the Karnataka state government decided the good people of Bangalore had better use for their time and money than nightclubs and dancing. Hundreds of police were deployed to enforce the order. Even New Year's Eve was barely spared: the curfew was extended only until 12.30, meaning most Bangaloreans opted to decamp to Goa for the night.

Shiro is housed inside Bangalore's gleaming new monument to wealth: UB City.

It's the brainchild of Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya, who oversaw the conversion of a former brewery to a complex of bars, restaurants, offices and luxury shops.

Open just five months, already the favourite catchcry of Bangalorean party-goers is, "let's meet outside Louis Vuitton."

Inside, it's all high escalators, marble and Victorian-style freizes. Is this India? You could easily be in Monaco, or the Gold Coast, or any other preserve of the newly rich.

Shiro is beautiful, so beautiful I forgot to be cool and started pointing and saying things like "oh my god look at that water feature", etc. I even nearly whipped out my camera to take photos, before I was reminded that taking photos in bars is the epitome of uncool and the best way to mark one out as an interloper.

When you enter there is a massive carved stone head, about the size of a room, greeting you with an expression of serenity and calm. Inside is a dining room with dark wood chairs and tables; turn left and you are on a massive balcony, where all the action happens. There is a long bar lit with bamboo lanterns, clumps of tables and round wicker chairs, and towards the back, two open-air teppanyaki stations and long family tables. The crowd is chi-chi Bangalore at its best: all hair flipping, tight kurtis, high heels and full makeup. (And the girls also make an effort.) The soundtrack is decent too: tongue-in-cheek '80s retro. They even play Footloose, without a trace of irony. Perhaps it is a secret signal that the evil kids always do win in the end?

Almost. At 11 on the dot, the music fades and the lights go up. Just then our food finally arrives so we loiter and pick at plates of chicken, marinated potato and fantastic cheese spring rolls. (India has the BEST, most inventive, vegetarian food, seriously,) We manage to stretch things out till about 11.45pm, when it becomes very clear it's time to leave. After a few failed attempts at drinking elsewhere, we end up back at Shonali and her husband's home: eight 30-somethings sitting on the dewy front lawn, drinking vodka from the bottle, eating chips and keeping the neighbours awake. Thirty-somethings acting like teenagers, thanks to a nanny state.