Saturday, 30 January 2010

Final day festival fun

After the crushing crowds of the previous four days, Monday's final day attendance was probably a quarter of what it had been over the weekend, which was comfortable but probably a little disconcerting for authors used to heaving audiences. 

(Inside the Mughal Tent - actually the Merrill Lynch Mughal Tent thanks to some saviour sponsorship - where there were actually empty seats)

Again, I spent much of the day stalking interviewees for a long piece I'm doing for Australian radio (which I'll post up once it's done) so again missed out some interesting sessions, such as Andrew O'Hagan, Hanif Kureishi and a session called Voices of Sindh, which I presume involved oral storytellers from Sindh.

I managed to nab Penguin India publisher Ravi Singh as he was walking off stage after an "in conversation with", and asked him about the next big thing in Indian publishing. His answer? Dalit writing and chicklit. He didn't say anything about Dalit chicklit, however. 

He later appeared in a session, coincidentally, on Publishing in the Next Decade, along with writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia, journalist and author Amitava Kumar and Harper Collins India publisher VK Karthika. The panellists agreed that publishing in India would never progress until criticism of books becomes more informed, intelligent and independent. 

(from left: Ravi Singh, Penguin India; Urvashi Butalia; Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka; Amitava Kumar, VK Karthika, Random House India)

"There is so much PR machinery attached to reading and writing in India," said Kumar. "Critics are in cahoots with publishers so there's not enough critical culture around."

[Hopefully that is soon to change; I know of at least one blog in the works that is going to be dedicated to independent criticism of Indian writing.]

A session on Imperial Cities, featuring Delhi journalist Malvika Singh, British writer Sam Miller and publisher Pramod Kapoor turned into a thorough dissection on a subject very close to my heart, What's Wrong With Delhi's Urban Planning and Infrastructure. In particular there was much delightful bemoaning over the utter lack of footpaths in the city. Yes! My very thoughts. 

Sam Miller - whose book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity is sitting next to me as I type - drew a parallel with New York in the 1960s when it too was under threat of losing its pavements. "A great movement [began] to preserve the pavements, they said that pavements are necessary in cities as that's where life takes place - people meet, have conversations, shopkeepers conduct business. It's where daily life occurs."

Malvika Singh, a fantastically feisty and funny woman, pointed out that Indians had in the past worked out their own methods, using 'galis', or gullies between buildings for a similar purpose - women would sit there, shaded from the midday sun by surrounding homes, pick through their vegetables and gossip with the neighbours. 

The final night debate had the topic of: State  vs people: the state has declared war on its poorest people in the name of development. A big topic, likely inspired by the situation in some mineral-rich regions of India, such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkand, where tribal people are being forcibly removed from their lands in favour of corporations. 

Journalist Shoma Chaudhury, from the brilliant investigative magazine Tehelka, said of the connected Marxist struggles: "You have to make the state more attractive to to the poorest people and bombing them and killing them is not the way to do that." She also pointed out that during the building of the upscale Select Citywalk shopping centre in south Delhi, workers were housed in nothing more than corrugated tin sheds, in Delhi's searing, 45 degree summer heat and bone-chilling winter cold. 

[When I was househunting last summer, I was appalled to see new builds that had servants' quarters on the roof, like stables, but shabbier than you would want to keep a horse in. In brand new buildings.]

There was a degree of rancour, a degree of solipsistic soapboxing (as with any debate) and surprisingly, impassioned, informed questions and commentary from audience members. One young woman, a journalist, told of her recent visit to the northeast where she saw the full effects of childhood malnutrition and no resources in sight.

The outcome? Despite almost all speakers agreeing that development, while necessary, was to the great detriment of India's most needy, the nays had it. 

And that was it; over for another year. Even as the debate swirled, stagehands were at work dismantling the sets and props and returning Diggi Palace to its usual state of graceful humility. 

There was one more event: the Writers Ball, last year held at the City Palace and this year on at Amber Fort. We had originally hoped to get a last-minute invite but decided that the possibility of being the Salehis of Jaipur was too real and too potentially embarrassing so returned to the hotel, beer and takeaway in hand, and watched Happy Feet. A fitting end to a highbrow week. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Festival fun part two

Jaipur is soft and balmy compared to Delhi's flinty, radiant cold. All those who've made the trip, 250-odd kilometres away and five hours by car, seven hours by bus, and about a day by plane, have cast off their city aggression and are seen throwing back drinks or tea at
Flow cafe/bar with abandon.

Day three was a late start, and I missed seeing a session on Bin Laden featuring Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens. But I did make it to a session called In A Tough Neighbourhood, which I thought would feature writers from troubled parts of the subcontinent but in fact had a far more political bent with Pakistani political activist Asma Jahangir and former Indian foreign minister Shyam Saran joining authors on stage. The discussion was one of many that took the festival beyond books and into the realms of debate starring top minds.

Asma Jahangir spoke eloquently about the lack of freedoms in Pakistan; all agreed that the kind of debate taking place here in India, would be unthinkable in Pakistan, in Sri Lanka, in Nepal, or Burma (Myanmar to my non Australian and British readers). But at the same time, Shyam Saran was forced to defend India's position, with the regional giant not always moving to sever ties with neighbours where democracy is suppressed, or human rights are threatened.

"We actively supported Aung Sung Suu Kyi's democratic movement for ten years and the result was we were actively marginalised by the military rulers. Should India actively engage with the current forces to try to effect change? It's not a point between supporting and not supporting democracy, it's how to best effect change. The situation for diplomats is far more complex than people think," he said.

Next up was Migrant Words, starring Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Surburbia) and a trio of young, attractive female writers: Sadia Shepard (who produced the film The September Issue, about Vogue magazine), poet and dancer Tishani Doshi and writer Tania James. Kureishi could barely contain his boredom and disdain for the facile topic and was the combative, surly member of the panel, while Shepard struggled valiantly to deflect his barbs and keep the thing together. I wandered off after about ten minutes; nothing they were saying was anything I hadn't heard before.

Historian Niall Ferguson, despite his dry economic subject matter, proved to be a highly entertaining guest. His session, The Ascent of Money was great fun; he spoke of how Indian companies are spreading their tentacles worldwide - even to his hometown in south Wales, where Tata has bought the local steelworks.

He also predicted that the major political flashpoint in coming years will continue to be in the Middle East. "Every morning I check online where the US navy has deployed seaborne aircraft carriers. If there are two or more in the Persian Gulf, I suggest you go long on oil. That's my bit of investment advice today."

The last session of the day was eye-openingly bad: India's top-selling author, Chetan Bhagat, who writes simple ditties on life on college campuses and in call centres, moderated a discussion by three young women who've all written about single girls in the city.

(From left: Chetan Bhagat, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Ira Trivedi, Anjum Hasan)

It turned out to be less a discussion and more of Chetan Bhagat appearing to be angling to get laid by one of the panellists, Ira Trivedi, a former Miss India contestant, who's written about sex and drugs in Delhi high society. She's a Columbia Business School graduate and quite possibly has a brain cell or two in her head, but this certainly was not on show at Diggi Palace. Her fellow panellist Anjum Hasan sat tersely on, arms folded, looking like she wanted to grab the closest mike stand and clobber both Trivedi and Bhagat with it.

Day four Another late start, this time on *cough* let's say health grounds.

I also spent much of the day nabbing interviewees in the corridors so didn't actually make it to as many sessions as I would have liked. I poked my head into historian Maya Jasanoff discussing her book Edge of Empire, about the British in India and Egypt. She was fascinating and engaging and later I ran into her as she juggled her two toddlers on the lawn and nearly asked for her autograph but desisted on the grounds of not wanting to be uncool.

Under the Kilt was a session, sponsored by Scottish Tourism, starring Scottish luminaries:Andrew O'Hagan, Niall Ferguson, Alexander McCall Smith and, natch, William Dalrymple. It was great fun but lacking in any conceivable literary angle, apart from the panellists. The authors seemed intent on disseminating Scottish stereotypes to a willing audience. "National self-deprecation is sometimes the best mark of a nation," said O'Hagan. "Taking yourself down is part of what it means to be a Scot."

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Festival fun part one

Day one of the Jaipur Literature Festival was a write-off thanks to heavy fog while leaving Delhi, logistical issues at the hotel, then a lovely garden with peacocks and a fountain and good company. Consequently, we didn't actually arrive at the Diggi Palace festival venue till the end of the last session of the day, right before dinner.

Despite an invitation to the polo, I was determined to get in as much as possible on day two. First up was a session on Social Activism and the Arts: the panel featured two popular actors,
Rahul Bose and Shabana Azmi, so was packed out. (Although all sessions are packed out: there are thousands and thousands of people here.) French philosopher Catherine Clement was also a panellist and spoke passionately about her long-standing commitment to social activism, particularly for women's rights. Shabana Azmi - someone I grew up watching on the screen - spoke of growing up in an activist household. "My parents, their colleagues, people from the Indian theatre, all believed art should be used as an instrument for social change," she said.

"All were involved in the freedom struggle [against British rule], so it was inevitable that I should also get involved." She then pointed out that it was no good for actors like herself and Bose to commit to making films about social issues if audiences didn't go to see them.

"I believe all art has the potential to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur," said Azmi.

Next up was a session on Ancient Indian Knowledge in Modern Times. I was slightly sceptical about this one but loved it: the panellists, in particular
Oscar Pujol and Upinder Singh, were engaging and passionate, and spoke of how ancient Indian texts - such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Puranas - were indeed far more progressive, creative and wide-ranging than many believe. "I think we underestimate the level of debate in ancient times," said Singh. "No country has as vast and varied an array of ancient texts and knowledge, and treats it with such disdain, and something really needs to be done about it," she said.

Later was one of the key events of the festival: a panel chaired by eminent Indian television journalist Barkha Dutt featuring Tina Brown of
The Daily Beast and a heap of others, including author Vikram Chandra, the poet Gulzar, and American journalist Steve Coll. The topic was: Can the Internet Save Books? I was fresh from a conversation with another festival-goer about how her new Kindle has changed her reading habits so was particularly interested. Unfortunately, as with many panel discussions with too many panellists jostling for the microphone, this one was a disappointment: not focused enough on the topic, no resolution. Although we did hear the best way to read in the bath: a Kindle in a 5x7 plastic bag.

It was, however, interesting to hear Tina Brown, who threw some acerbic barbs out at the modern media: "Newspapers are declining because of the corrosive, cost-cutting process of the evil organisations which run them," she said.

"There are only a couple [in the US] left doing any kind of proper narrative journalism. The rest are firing their best senior writers and getting cheap or free young journalists to fill the gap. People want quality, something that's true and real, and they're not getting it from network television news, they're not getting it from papers, so they're going online."

[Barkha Dutt didn't say anything to this; indeed her channel NDTV is part of a number of Indian 24-hour channels relying on sensationalist coverage and overuse of the 'breaking news' strap to hook in viewers.]

My favourite session of the day was The Queen's Hinglish. It was a discussion on how English language is used and how it's evolved to become uniquely Indian: something that's dubbed
Hinglish. The panel starred former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully, as well as screenwriter Prasoon Joshi and English professor and editor Ira Pande. The discussion was lively, funny and most importantly, on topic. Tully argued that the time is right for Hinglish to emerge on its own and for Indians to embrace it. "I mean, the Americans have made English their own, why shouldn't Indians?"

The panel pointed out that in coming years, there will be more English speakers in India than the rest of the world. "Language is a window to one's culture," was a recurring theme and comment. "Language is an evolutionary process," said Joshi. "In India we've seen so many different cultures, exposed to so many different languages, we've learnt to adapt. English or any other language can't destroy Indian culture, we know how to protect ourselves and rebirth to create a third culture."

Friday, 22 January 2010

Bloggies nod!

How did that happen? I have blogged sporadically for just over a year, have a half-arsed layout and a still-blank About section. I write too-long posts and ignore SEO rules, I have roughly three readers - even my mother doesn't read this - yet somehow I have been nominated for a Bloggie award in the Best Asian blog category. Bizarre. A very welcome, yet strange, development. So please click through and vote for me, I would be ever so grateful. I might even post my photograph.

I am currently at the Jaipur Literature Festival where it's day two of the five-day affair; I had hoped to blog regularly however am a little hindered by the crap internet access here. I hope to post later tonight when I'm back at the hotel, but for now, it's off to prop up the bar and seek out Om Puri.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Jaipur literature festival

Early tomorrow I'm off to Jaipur to attend my second Jaipur Literature Festival. For lovers of books, ideas and indeed all things South Asian and cerebral, it truly will be the centre of things for the next five days.

I had a marvellous time last year, which I wrote about here. I've spent the last week immersed in the program, having written a preview piece, while Jason's written another. I'm also preparing at least one long piece for Australian radio.

Last year, it was a spur of the moment decision to go, the day it started. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the year. One day there was Amitabh Bachchan greeted by a mob of thousands of fans; then there was a standout session starring the gently humorous Michael Wood talking about his temple travels in the South; the final night ball at a private part of the City Palace:

Shashi Tharoor was there, before he got all busy being the all-travellin, all-Tweetin' minister of External Affairs:

Interweb access pending, I shall try to blog from the festival and provide highlights from each of my days there.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Marriage Bureau for the Dull and Untrusting

My local market, Greater Kailash 1's M Block Market (as opposed to Greater Kailash 1 N Block Market and Greater Kailash 2 M Block Market) is often known as the Womens Market, such is the proliferation of women's clothing shops, jewellery shops, lingerie outlets. Even thought it's convenient I dislike it immensely: it seems to be where the rudest of Delhi rude-ites converge, meet and gather in doorways, oblivious to the progress needs of neighbouring walkers. Nevertheless there's no end of amusement: watching pampered Delhi princesses (Jason calls them Pinkies, after the sister in Bend it Like Beckham) in their tight jeans and sunglasses, glowering as they swing their Chanel/Dior bags like a crowd-clearing baton; auntijis in tent-like salwar kameez, inspecting 30,000 rs sheer chiffon saris and long-suffering maids, trying to deflect the flying fists of the four-year-old charges they're clutching as they trail two feet behind the kid's parents.

And then this:

If you can't read it, under Special Services this sign lists: Events, Astro Advice, Photography, Personality Development, Detective Services.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Carnal desire in Shimla and other tales

Shimla is a glittering jewelbox of a town, cleaved into the side of a steep hill in the foothills of the Himalayas. The former summer capital of the British Raj has long been on my India must-see list, and we finally got the chance to take a three-day trip up between Christmas and New Years. It marked my third trip to the "hills", as locals refer to the sprawling Himalayan mountain range, and certainly won't be my last.

First stop was a small cantonment town, so clean and well-maintained I'm loath to divulge the name of it. We stayed here for just 24 hours, but managed to fit in two long walks, The Golden Compass and a couple of delicious rooftop meals. The air here was so clean: after six months in dusty, polluted Delhi I'd actually forgotten how nice it is to fill up your lungs with deep breaths of fresh, unadulterated air. Not a rickshaw in sight, and views like this:

The town is very hilly and full of retired military types (I know this because residents carve their name and status into their gates). Consequently, there are a number of rest stops along the walking paths:

Oh okay, the town is called Kasauli. It's an hour's drive from Kalka train station, which is connected to Delhi by the super-fast Shatabdi Express train.

Next up was Shimla, a little piece of Surrey transplated into India, built with British military needs and aesthetics in mind. Some buildings are well maintained:

Others, not so much.

One of the highlights of this little trip was a tour of the 100-year-old Gaiety Theatre, made famous by Michael Palin in Himalaya. I got chatting to a girl selling tickets out the front, she turned out to be an actor in that night's play and offered to show us around. It is a fairly small theatre, seating about 250 people, but complex is vaster than it appears: there are corridors and rehearsal rooms and even a whole other auditorium on the upper floors.

In the orchestra pit, there is a locked door. Sanam, our beaming guide, pointed to it and said "torture chamber". Apparently that was where the British rulers took Indian miscreants to instruct them in the ways of the Raj (relations between the rulers and the ruled decidedly soured after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny), Alas, the door was locked and no amount of fist-hammering by me would dislodge it. Sanam said there are still instruments down there.

Palin, you missed the lead on that one.

If we could afford it, we would have happily holed up at Wildflower Hall. Unfortunately we had to make do with the lesser of Shimla's three Oberoi properties, Clarkes (actually the very first hotel ever owned by Mr Oberoi, bought by him in the 20s when he'd been working there as a concierge. How did he afford it on a concierge salary?) Clarkes is lovely but in urgent need of a makeover and a decent breakfast buffet.

Wildflower, on the other hand, is grand in a silk-rugged, hand-blown glass chandeliered, pine-cone scented, Venetian mirrored kind of way. Staff waft around on their toes, speaking in hushed tones, and there is no muzak, just quiet. We did go there for a couple of martinis in the Cavalry Bar, whispering as the empty bar was deathly quiet, and the grandeur made me exceedingly conscious of the missing buttons on my coat and smudge of dirt on my jeans.

But oh, what a view from the bar's window:

In Himalaya, Palin recounts staying at the Cecil in Shimla, opening his window to take in some of the glorious mountain air, and promptly receiving a call from reception instructing him to close the window to stave off monkey attacks. Monkeys are everywhere in Shimla: picking nits out of each other on the side of the road, cavorting in rubbish bins, racing across the road in search of a dropped crust of bread, copulating in trees.

Despite the cold, I stopped for an ice-cream at Shimla's main - only? - ice cream stall, Swirls. Swirls offers a range of lasciviously-named ice creams: Luscious Lychee, Vicked Vanilla, Exotic Desire, and so on. Naturally, my flavour of choice - vanilla with chocolate and caramel swirls - had the most suggestive name of all, plus an empty carton.

"Do you have any Carnal Desire?" I asked the ice cream server.

He looked suitably crestfallen. "No, Carnal Desire is finished. We have no Carnal Desire left."

"None at all?" I pressed.

"Wait, maybe there's some in the back."

There was none, so I had to be happy with merely a French Kiss: mocha chocolate that is, not a juicy smooch from Mr Swirls.

Monday, 4 January 2010

New year, new blog

So it's the start of the new year and I've been in India for one year and three weeks now. A lot has happened in that year: I've made two new cities my home (Mumbai and Delhi), I've met copious numbers of new people, I've made new friends, rekindled old friendships. I've hung out with Tibetan fortune tellers, Danish philosophers, crazy old wandering sadhus, rapacious bankers looking to get a BRICs foothold, literati glitterati at the literature festival, British High Commission types, kind-hearted, warm-smiled philanthopic tailors, professional Expat Wives, and family. I've freelanced for great publications - among them, Monocle and CNN Traveller - interviewed a couple of big names, finally settled on a book conceit and, thrillingly, have actually committed to it and started writing it .

After years of staring hopefully at atlases and maps and planning routes, I've actually ticked off a heap of travel destinations from my list: Darjeeling, Himachal Pradesh, Pushkar, Kerala, Matheran, Mysore, Tamil Nadu jungle, and others. I've developed a deep love for the mountains and outdoor pursuits - in fact, my proximity to the Himalayas might just keep me in Delhi for longer than initially thought. I've stayed at some remarkably wonderful hotels: Mumbai's Four Seasons, Matheran's Verandah in the Forest, Cochin's Malabar House and Shimla's Clarkes. (And that, precisely, is why I don't have a mortgage.)

I think the new year is a suitably fitting time to give this blog a makeover. For various reasons I have decided to switch over to a new blog - actually the main reason is because I no longer live in Mumbai and Desiderata is, confusingly, monikered as such. Plus, I seem to be getting a lot of spam.

I'm working on a new one and in coming days will be starting the arduous task of shifting all this content over. Thanks in advance, Gora.

Also a massive thanks to my favourite blogger, Liberty London Girl, for the brilliant plug. One of my resolutions is certainly to blog more regularly.

I already have a killer post in the works about my massage yesterday at an establishment I'm pretty sure is a cover for something less innocent than an Asian spa. Stay tuned.