JLF – The End.

Today is the last day of the Jaipur Literary festival. And I don’t feel so good. It’s cold, I’ve got a cold, I’m tired. But James Shapiro, an expert on Shakespeare (Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?) is talking to William Dalrymple and I want to hear him, so I rush through breakfast and sit through the talk. It’s lovely. But I’m still tired – and cold.

I leave the Mughal tent, the venue for another promising talk, and wander around.  First of all, I find a patch of sun and sit down to bask in it (I swear I’ll never again snigger at sun-crazed whites lying out all day in the blazing sun!) I drink two cups of boiling tea, my lips kissing the small mud pots, and feel new strength flow into my tired body. I head up to the room and sit around, doing nothing. Nothing. I don’t read, work on the laptop or even think.

Then, as I begin to relax, to slow down, I  give thanks for this wonderful (and warm) moment that I am privileged to experience. I’m surrounded by literature, books, inspirational words, clever authors, my friends; all is well in my world, I am indeed blessed.

And on another note

Muslim hardliner groups objected to Salman Rushdie’s teleconference. The book is banned, but obviously they want the author to be banned too. Not a happy day for a moderate Muslim like me. But then, thankfully, there were some delightful discussions on how this whole freedom of speech issue should be taken forward – and what was better, one of the hardliners himself, was included in the panel. He, of course, was unable to defend his ridiculous position about not even wanting to ‘see’ Mr Rushdie on a TV screen, but it was important to have him up there and hear his side of the story, rather than shut him out and alienate him further. It is important that we give everyone a voice – and listen to this voice respectfully – as discussions, talks, an exchange of ideas and concepts seem to be one of the best ways forward.

The festival ended with a debate on ‘Has Man replaced God?’ which had us in splits, as Javed Akhtar, Suhel Seth and a bunch of others tore into the arguments of Swami Agnivesh, Salim Engineer (leader of a conservative Jamaat), and another lady. It was good fun, but not really fair to pitch a bunch of fairly straight-forward godmen against some of the cleverest poets and writers that we have. Most of us came away with the feeling that the idea of God as we see it, was not represented at all. Now if only Oprah had been on that panel, the discussion might have turned out differently.

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JLF – Day 4

Fatima Bhutto is gorgeous, intelligent, and was, by far, the best moderator at the festival. The morning session had her moderating a panel of writers representing Palestine, Kashmir and Burma. The writer from Palestine, Raja Shahadeh, a small old man with a thoughtful smile, touched out hearts when he said ‘It is a privilege to be part of a struggle, a resistance, as it helps us empathise with other suffering in this world.’ I have been depressed about the Palestinian-Jewish problem for the longest time and have resisted being drawn into even more hopelessness and despair. But now he has inspired me to read ‘Palestinian Walks’, a book that Raja put together about the history of his country, while on many long walks in the Palestinian mountains. I think it will help me understand – in a hopeful manner – the issues of a country and a people, that is so much a part of our collective angst.

Iftikhar Gilani, a journalist from Kashmir, told some tragic-comic stories of prisoners in Tihar Jail and how on being acquitted just before the finals of the ‘Tihar Olympic Cricket Matches’, one prisoner actually begged the judge to send him back so that he might captain his team (Ward 3) to victory! The judge was so incensed that he ordered that the prisoner be released straight from the court, not even be sent back to complete the usual formalities in jail, as he was convinced the man meant to go back and start up a gang war or some equally sinister thing. Of course the tragic bit about all this is that Tihar Jail is a time portal straight back to medievalism:  where the wardens own and terrorise the hapless occupants, where being hung upside down for three days and beaten through it all is commonplace, where men prefer a 2-hour beating to being sent to  ‘special’ solitary confinement cells. Gilani had been released after 8 months, as the government couldn’t find charges that would stick; he had been threatened with a term of 14 years. He is one of the lucky ones. And his book ‘My Days in Prison’, tell his story.

We went shopping next. Riddhi Siddhi is an old favourite and has the prettiest bedspreads, jackets and cushion covers. Everyone kicked back and enjoyed the next two hours and then hurried back to listen to the new flavour (hopefully, not of the moment) – Ben Okri. The session was about Afropolitans, a new term coined by the gorgeous Taiye Selasi, in an essay she wrote for the Granta magazine. Later, Ben Okri signed a copy of his book for me, and on that happy note, the day ended.

Riddhi Siddhi is on Amber Palace Road and is a must-visit for any tourist.

They serve some nice tea as well 🙂

I could eat those colours!

JLF ’12 – Day 3

I saw Oprah today. Heard her talk, felt her spirit. The lawn was soaked in a green and gold energy that softly wrapped its arms around us and told us to hush up and listen to one of the world’s most influential women. And we – a few thousand people – did.

Oprah talked about vision boards – how she had one up for Obama when he was fighting his presidential campaign; how she had one up for India – a woman on a camel – and how that dream came through three years later.

She talked about the chaos that is India. She also talked about the river of calm that runs beneath all this confusion – about a ‘lack of rage’ that makes you feel secure and safe. She talked about how she was horrified by the widows of Benares, locked away simply because their husbands died. And then, how she suddenly realised that this discrimination exists everywhere, more subtly maybe, but it does. Widows are simply not as welcome as wives are. Things change imperceptibly after one’s husbands dies, and all women, everywhere, experience this. Of course, Oprah being Oprah, wants to help alleviate the plight of the widows of Benaras, and Oprah being Oprah, may actually be able to do so.

She talked about her book club; apologised for her brutal attack on James Frey, author of ‘A Million Little Pieces’ when she discovered that some of the stuff he had written was not true, and explained that she ‘demolished’ him because her ego had been hurt. ‘I should have shown him more compassion,’ she said.

But it was her unabashed belief in the power of God that did it for me. She’s a believer, and so am I. She believed quite simply, and blindly, that he would work things out for her (and we all know how that’s turned out). So I love the fact that she is talking about Him – loud and clear.

Oprah being interviewed by a very star-struck Barkha.

These girls came down from Mumbai just for this! They were super cute and Oprah waved to them and said a deep-throated "thank you".

Deepak Chopra was on next. He talked about metaphysical worlds, atoms, neurons, the universe, and our role in it. He didn’t quite cut it for me. However, I did like his take on stress, which he believes, is a result of seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes. Know yourself, he said. Damn the world.

Deepak Chopra waved hello to his friend Shekhar Kapur in the audience, who is looking a lot older, but is still quite dishy.

The session on Kabir was also interesting. Arvind Mehrotra’s translations of Kabir’s dohas into contemporary English reach out and grab you by the balls. The panelists called Kabir a poet of love – and hatred. He hated the autocracy of all religions equally. He was also a poet of death, and this leitmotif recurs again in again in all his poems. We all have to go, he says. What’s the use of hanging onto your bag of gold coins? Chant the lord’s name; carry him with you to your grave.

And so, on that note, let me just say again that it was a lovely day. The power of O is alive and well people. More power to Ms Winfrey.

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt played up a storm at the concert that night.

Old Willie at the concert, chilling with his little boy.

JLF ’12 – Day 2

It was a nice day. Busy, but nice. Made a late start and got to hear the last 10 minutes of Chetan Bhagat’s session, as he tried to mollify sections of the (jam packed) audience that wanted him to stop writing ‘love stories’ and write something more ‘serious’. Poor Bhagat tried to explain that the serious stuff bored him! That while he supported Anna Hazare, he also believed in being associated with Mercedes. And what was wrong with that? What indeed?

Amy (far left) & her daughter Sophia (look at her! she's skinnier than her daughter!) Photo courtesy: Susan Fernandes.

Amy Chua of ‘Tiger Mom’ fame was on next, and she turned out to be quite a pussycat after all – her older daughter who was there as well, promised us that her mom wasn’t as bad as she’s made out to be – and though the moderator, Madhu Trehan, confronted her with all the awful stuff she’s done to her kids – called her daughter ‘garbage’, made her children practise the piano for hours a day, didn’t ‘believe’ in sleep-overs, didn’t let her children try out for the school play – Amy rose to the moment and defended herself quite ably. Chua’s biggest strength though, is her absolute honesty – you can’t help but like the woman, especially when she confesses that she just can’t ‘live in the moment’ and drink a good cup of coffee and enjoy it or when she says that ‘it’s no fun doing something unless you’re really good at it’ – and you know she means it.

Arshia Sattar was back with Amish Tripathi (The Immortals of Meluha) and Gurcharan Das, discussing mythology and the role it plays in our lives. Sattar has some really good one-liners and ‘A myth is a lie that tells us the truth’ was my clear favourite. Amish told us two stories, one Hindu, one Islamic, that proved the same thing: that Indians believe that worship that is innocent, that springs unalloyed from the heart, is superior to worship that stems from knowledge. Moses taught a man to say his prayers the ‘right way’. The Hindu hunter offered the bloody carcass of his kill to the shivling. Allah preferred the man’s ‘sweet blasphemy’ to his newly learnt ‘correct’ prayers. Shiva blessed the hunter and not the temple’s pundit. Simple. Then why do we keep getting it wrong?

Ben Okri and his luminous smile. Photo courtesy: Susan Fernandes.

And finally, Ben Okri, that beautiful beautiful man, who I could have listened to forever. ‘The Famished Road’ is an ode to suffering and pain, to poverty and hope, to life and death. Here are some of the things he said (sort of).

Reading is like life, because you are in a total state of consciousness when you read, and hence that is when you’re most alive.

Universities need to teach The Art of Reading, as reading is never as innocent as it seems. Reading is a meeting of consciousness of the reader and what exists between the pages of a book. And to understand what one reads, one must first understand onself.

I like to take my sentences for a walk.

Great books change you.
Really great books change nations.

p.s. Prasoon Joshi sang a lovely Hindi song for the audience (he has a nice voice). I heard only the last stanza which was about a young girl asking her father  to marry her to an ironsmith, so that he might break her chains and set her free. Sigh.

Gulzar reciting his poems to a packed audience. Photo courtesy: Susan Fernandes.

The audience - this is only about one third. And Oprah's on tomorrow. God help us! Photo courtesy: Susan Fernandes.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2012

Day 1

Jaipur feels good in the morning. The air is as clean and fresh as I remember. The ‘kulhad’ chai (tea that is served in tiny terracotta pots) is piping hot and much-needed after a 5-hour flight from Bangalore, for which I left home at 3am. The tea is chargeable now though – 10 bucks.

It’s 11am and I’m racing from the airport to make it in time for Michael Ondaatje’s session, who is the author of the magnificent ‘The English Patient’. I manage to make the last 15 minutes. Ondaatje spoke about how he wants his books to be ‘montages’, about how he is influenced by Japanese art – to ‘follow the brush’ and see what comes of it – and how this frees his pen from the dictates of plot, storylines and structures. Made me want to pick up my pen and start writing right away!

Managed to also hear Rosamund Bartlett, a biographer, speak about Leo Tolstoy, who is one of my favourite authors. Learnt that he was a vegetarian pacifist, who gave up his copyrights (and subsequent earnings from them) on moral grounds, even though he had 13 children and a wife, who were all but starving! But that’s the worse of it (I think). He redeemed himself in many ways, as a socialist and a reformer, not least when he spearheaded a movement against a famine, that went on to kill millions of people and would have probably killed many more if it were not for his efforts. Today depressingly, Tolstoy is redundant in Russia. They don’t get him anymore. Putin and his bare bodied machismo is in. Vegan pacifists are out.

After these sessions I took it easy, wandered about a bit, let it all soak in. There are more restaurants this time, more people of course, more foreigners, more Louis Vuittons. No complaints though, it’s all good.

I can’t end without talking about Mohammed Hanif, Pakistani author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (whose name I confused with our very own Jaspal Bhatti!). Hanif is unassuming, witty, and prone to rambling, and was visibly disturbed when a man stood up in the audience and explained, in halting English, that he was a Hindu from Pakistan, now in exile in India, and wanted to know when Hanif thought things would be well enough for him to go home? It breaks one’s heart, this business of living.

And of course, Salman Rushdie has confirmed that he is not coming to Jaipur and will probably talk to us via a tele-conference or some such thing.

In one of the sessions, Hari Kunzru read a few lines of the banned Satanic verses in protest – and then was promptly told to stop reading that as well! He went on to read an excerpt from his book, Gods Without Men – which was not such a bad idea actually, as he’s a super writer (and very pleasant on the eye!) My only complaint was that the moderator insisted on calling Kunzru ‘”bro” at least three times. Eeks! Get a life “bro”.

This brave young neurologist from New York has brought her three little girls down to Jaipur for 4 days - armed with three strollers and a song in her heart. It doesn't get any sweeter than this.

Though we do have a contender here 🙂 This fiesty lady is down from Queensland with four of her (grown-up) daughters, and turns out she is quite the serial Literary Festival Goer. I think I'll grow up to be her.

‘Lost Loves’ by Arshia Sattar: Why Rama did what he did to Sita.

Lost Loves

Was he a god or was he a man? Why did he publicly humiliate his beloved wife by insisting she prove her chastity – not once, but twice – inspite of knowing she had a spotless character? And why is any of this relevant?

Arshia Sattar masterfully answers these and many more questions. But what is more interesting, she leaves you with a whole new set of questions that mirror (rather uncomfortably), your own anxieties and issues, and force you to think about them; if nothing else, see them with new eyes.

The Ramayan needs no introduction. We love its romanticism; we’re inspired by its protagonist’s integrity and devotion to dharma; we long for a Ram rajya of justice and peace for all, especially in today’s kalyug when everything that can go wrong, does.

This book however, explores something else: Rama’s humanity and its tragic consequences for him, and those he loved, Sita, most of all. It opens him up, dissects him, and then puts this otherwise flawless genetic makeup under a microscope, to discover the rogue gene that managed to mutilate the perfect love story.

What I loved most though, was Sattar’s open passion for her hero, Rama. He infuses her book with his unique half-god half-man charisma and leaves you gasping for more.

So is Rama and Lord Ram one and the same? Find out for yourself. It’s a journey that promises much pleasure – and some pain.

I want an Egg!

He comes home from his regular play date, angry and mutinous, almost crying. The watchman had been sent to the neighbour’s house for the second time that evening, with clear instructions to ‘drag him back’ if required. This seems to have happened.

‘Why do I have to always be the one to come home first?’ he yells at his mother as soon as she opens the door. He’s not even inside yet.

‘It’s not fair! I’m always the first to leave. Chinmay is going to Ishaan’s house now!’

The latter is improbable; there is however, no time for arguments. It’s a quarter to seven already.

‘Come in before I slap you.’

His mother is in the midst of baking fifty cupcakes that have to go out first thing tomorrow morning. She’s running low on patience (and flour! she realizes).

He comes in and glares at her, and the maid, who is hovering around.

‘You have to let me watch TV then – before I go to bed!’

‘Ok, come in and wash up.’

‘And there better be non-veg for dinner!’

Mother and maid look at each other, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

‘There’s no non-veg tonight, I’m sorry.’

His scowl deepens.

‘Then I want an egg!’

Kids know how to make things better. All you need sometimes, is an egg.

p.s. Thank you Ree, for sharing this story with me 🙂 I can’t stop laughing every time I think about it.

Change? What’s that?

I’m talking to the man in the mirror,’ I warble as I soap her little brown body; her soft curls are safely ensconced in a green frogie shower cap (she hates head baths and soapy eyes).

I’m asking him to change his ways…oh yeah!
No message is going to make it any better,
If you want to make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself – and make a change!’ (Ok, this is my version).

I love MJ. So do the kids. Ishaan used to break into some mean dance moves when he was about 5. He shocked the daylights out of me once, when he came dancing onto stage at school (to MJ’s Beat It), the obvious star of the show. I was so excited that my hands started trembling, and the video I was trying to record came out all wobbly and shaky. He’s too cool for all of that now.

‘What does it mean, Mama?’ she asks, opening her mouth to collect the water raining down on her from the shower. She likes to have enough water in her mouth before she takes aim at the drain and launches a watery-spit missile.

‘It means that if we want to make the world a happier place, we must change our behaviour. We must do nice things for other people, listen when we’re told and be kind.’

Silence. She knows when she’s been lectured to, and today has been an incredibly tantrumy day.

‘But who is the man in the mirror?’

I point to the foggy mirror in the bathroom and explain about men in mirrors. She understands. She asks about change again, and I explain again. She mulls it over.

‘You must also change your place.’

‘Your place?’

‘You must change your hiding place. Rahul hid in the same place and Ishaan and Chinmay shouted at him. It’s not nice to shout at anyone, no Mama?’

Poor Ba. In the end Mimi always manages to make him the villain of the piece.

I bundle her up in her pink butterfly towel and carry her out of the bathroom, humming, this time, to myself.

Learning to be.

I suffer from verbal diarrhoea. Being a writer is an extension of what I do best, I guess. Talk.

To myself, to the help, on the phone, and in the bath. However this is especially true when I walk in the park and try to squeeze in thirty minutes of exercise into a sixteen-hour day, all the while yakking away about I-me-and myself to whoever will oblige me at this early hour.

Until I returned from a vacation where I discovered the Sweet sound of Silence.

The holiday had been a chilled out affair – no sightseeing, no itineraries, no place to go but to relax and read and play with the kids and eat three hearty meals. Interspersed with long, quiet walks in the sprawling, green resort.

I came back determined to try to prolong these moments of peace and incorporate them into my busy life. My walks in the park lent themselves beautifully to this little experiment, and so it began.

I reach the park. I spend the first five minutes inhaling the clean, fresh air, feeling the warmth of the sun’s rays on my face, phone firmly ensconced in my jacket pocket.

The next few minutes are spent observing the other walkers – middle-aged men making up their own exercises, as they bent and stretch and twist into shapes I am sure can’t be good for them; young mums like myself, who were racing around the park in a desperate bid to fight the inches that are adding up slowly and relentlessly; senior citizens all wrapped up in scarves, caps and thick sweaters, the ammunition of the elderly.

I check the time on my phone. Just five minutes have passed since I entered the park. How is that possible, I wonder? My fingers itch to punch the familiar buttons. I control myself and try and focus on the trees.

Another round passes with difficulty. Maybe I should calculate how many minutes it takes to do a full round of the park. I soon find out it takes about two minutes. Which means I have about 11 rounds ahead of me. Not bad. I begin to keep track, but lose focus after a (very short) while.

Damn, it’s tough to do nothing. Is it healthy I wonder?

Then I remember the beautiful old fable of the monk who pours tea into his disciple’s cup until it begins to overflow, and still he does not stop.

‘Master, why do you continue to pour tea into the cup when it can hold no more?’ the puzzled disciple asks, knowing the master is trying to teach him a lesson.

‘To show you that until the mind is emptied it cannot appreciate any thing new,’ the wise master replies.

This then, is my truth. I consciously try to ignore the different streams of thought that enter my head, one after the other. ‘Not now’, I say kindly. ‘Maybe later.’

And slowly I begin to relax. I can hear the birds twitter and call to each other in the canopies of green above. I know nothing of flowers or plants, yet even my untrained eye is able to pick out the beauty of their structure:  an elegant pale yellow flower is the perfect receptacle for the delicate morning light; a leaf stands to attention and threatens to scare off intruders with it’s serrated edges. The water gushing out of the tap makes a pleasant sound as a gardener washes his brown feet in it, even as I pad past in my worn-out Nike’s.

Now everything is a discovery, everything is beautiful, and mine for the taking.

I practise everyday and somehow hold out to the temptation to lose myself in words and more words. Some days are good, while others see me distracted and frustrated with the effort of trying not to think and ponder and plan – like I do every second of my life.

Then slowly, the results begin to shine through. Besides my walks, I have begun to be more aware of the small joys and blessings that surround me. A purple carpet of flowers welcomes my daughter as she toddles into pre-school. She knows they are the Jacaranda, something I learnt a few days ago and promptly shared with her. I begin to feel the hot water run down my legs and massage my tired muscles. I play more with my kids, I sleep better, and I have more energy and enthusiasm for another day.

We all carry our own miracles inside us. We just have to slow down and allow ourselves to find them.

p.s. Sadly, I have reverted to my old, hyper ways. But the spin-off of all that ‘taking-in-the-world-around-me’ has been that I now discovered a new interest in plants – especially flowers (I love flowers – my earliest childhood memories are of our beautiful garden in Ooty, where we used to spend the summer). From knowing next to nothing about flowers, I now know a little bit more. And what is more, my kids know it too. I’ve also decided to try practising some quiet time all over again. Have to run off now though – the phone’s ringing.

Who needs parents?

‘Beat it Ishaan! I can see the fish!’ a vindicated voice exclaims, from the back seat of the car.

Brother is also in the back of the car, leaning forward between the two front seats, minding his own business.

It’s the Pog. She’s been trying hard to focus into her viewfinder (the eye that is peering into the camera is scrunched up tightly; the other is open) and suddenly – eureka – she manages to see something (a fish we are told), and Ishaan is her immediate target.

‘So who cares!’ he snarls, hurt and indignant at this sudden attack.

‘Talk to her nicely, Ishaan…’

‘So who asks her to say ‘beat it?” he demands.

She’s quite unconcerned of course, and continues to squint into the Dora camera. Brother glares ahead. After a while though, they forget about this little altercation and things go back to normal.

Another time, we are watching Masterchef Australia, Ishaan on my lap, and Laila on the carpet, playing with the Woody and Jessie dolls that belong to Ishaan and her respectively. Billy, one of the contestants, is on his way out.

‘Ishaan’s name is Billy…’ she says; his nickname amongst some friends is Billy.

Ishaan says nothing. He has come to terms with this other name of his, some time back.

‘Billy Bumpkin!’ she laughs, ‘I will call you Billy Bumpkin, Ishaan.’

‘Like Billy the Kid,’ Dada’s lying on the sofa and turns around to look at Ishaan.

‘He was a famous cowboy Ishaan – like Woody. Ishaan’s like Woody.’

‘And what about me?’ Laila wails.

‘You be Jessie…or Mimi the Kid,’ I suggest (she’s called Mimi sometimes); secretly happy for poor Ba aka Billy.

‘Nooo….’ wails the Pog, ‘I dn’t want that name.’

She sulks for a while and then forgets all about it and runs off with Ishaan to brush her teeth – ‘by herself’.

It’s like this a lot. She tries to boss him and thanks to her loud screechy voice, she often gets her way. But only for the moment. He has his ways of getting back at her: he’ll refuse to play with her; he’ll ignore her (this really riles her up) or he’ll threaten to *not share* his latest plaything/candy/gadget that automatically becomes the one thing she wants most.

Not to mention the countless times he will try to get her into trouble: ‘Mama, Laila is writing on the wall’ – when all she is doing is walking around with a pencil, in search of a book.

Or he will yell: ‘Laila! Stop doing that!’ and reduce her to tears (‘Mama, Ishaan is talking like an adult’) making me super guilty as I hear myself in his loud voice.

But the fights, the tears, the whines and complaints, they rarely last long. Often, when I step in and begin to shout down the villain-of-the-piece, the victim turns the tables on me –  ‘Don’t be so mean to Ishaan, Mama!’ – and I am left in the cold, as they walk away from me, united once more.

But I don’t mind. That’s what the fabric of this relationship is all about. The fights and squabbles, tears and laughter, naughtiness and mischief, are sewn together over the course of one short childhood; until a beautiful patchwork blanket emerges: all the better to wrap around oneself on cold, stormy nights, that ever so often threaten to engulf us in this big, bad world.