Saturday, 30 January 2010
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Saturday, 23 January 2010
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
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
Monday, 18 January 2010
Sunday, 10 January 2010
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
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.