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.

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