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. 

No comments: