Mahasweta Devi sits scratching her head absently while a documentary about her life unfolds on a big screen beside her.
Then it is question time and a young girl in a navy blue school blazer wants to know ‘which language to write in?’
‘The language you dream in,’ is the answer.
Mahasweta Devi is hitting 90 and the grand old dame of Bengali literature has no patience for long-winded replies.
The diminutive old lady with white dishevelled hair and a harsh loud voice (the cold hard voice of truth?) has a wry look on her face as she answers another question, this time about the female characters of the Mahabharata.
‘Go into the real world – not the middle class world you live in – and there you will find these women – Draupadi, Kunti, Gandhari – who are our contemporaries even today; you will find women leading similar lives, with similar stories.
We’ve arrived slap bang in the middle of things (our flight was delayed for a few hours), but we’re home now and that’s all that matters.
Too much miracle stories I don’t like,’ the Dalai Lama guffaws heartily at his own joke. A couple of thousand people laugh along.
Ishaan would have liked this man who says his tutor had a ‘stern face’ and that as a little boy of eight his mind was ‘always running to go play.’
He’s the exact opposite of the man I thought he’d be (stoic, calm, a little serious). Instead, like my friend pointed out, he’s got a childlike innocence and a sense of merriment and glee that is delightful; but just as quickly he can turn dead serious.
‘Indians are very religious,’ he says, grinning at a few ladies in the front row. ‘I’m sure you must get up in the morning and do your puja, pray a little, burn a little incense. But sometimes, I think, Indians are praying to God to let them carry on corrupted life.’
‘It can’t go together’, he says, looking questioningly at us (the crowd quietens down).
‘Religious life or corrupted mind. You must choose.’
He spoke about how he saw some poor children in Bombay recently, playing half-naked on the road alongside a hall where a huge wedding ceremony was in progress. He wished the ceremony could have been about distributing bread, cheese and fruit to the poor instead.
‘How to rid oneself of fear when you may not know what the fear is about?’ asked someone in the audience (a good question, I thought).
‘If you are struck by lightning – or there is an earthquake – then you have no time to think,’ he answered smiling at the man, as the crowd burst out laughing. ‘But otherwise, analyse, question, try to find out about this fear.’
Then with a bigger smile: ‘And if it’s not in your control, just accept it.’
Abraham Verghese, author of ‘Cutting for Stone’ had an audience that comprised almost exclusively of women (yes, he’s quite gorgeous).
‘Geography is destiny,’ he said. (Napoleon’s words, he added) and said that this statement intrigues him as it reflects his own life (he is an Indian who was born in Ethiopia, and moved to the US when the war broke out) and is probably also the reason why his book shifts from country to country; the geography is such an integral part of the story – almost like another character.
‘John Irving told me that if you don’t know the whole book in advance – the story, down to every detail, like he does – than I’m just an ‘ordinary liar,’ he revealed to peals of laughter. ‘Whereas Michael Ondaatje says that the pleasure in writing is not knowing what’s in store next – especially for the writer.’
One of the last sessions was on photography. Posing for Posterity: Royal Indian Portraits is a book by Pramod Kumar that is a little gem in its own right.
We learnt many things during this riveting session: The earliest photography started in India from 1840; A picture of a woman in total purdah (Afghan style) turns out to be an interesting dichotomy: you cannot see her, yet she must still be photographed.
However, as against the popular idea that the Indian Princes never allowed their women folk to be photographed as they maintained strict purdah, there are many hundreds of women from the royal zenana (especially from the state of Hyderabad) who have been photographed without purdah, as this was considered an educated ‘forward’ thing to do. Painted photography was big and is now considered an art form.
But the funniest anecdote was of a king who was afraid to have his photo taken (he thought his soul would be sucked up by the camera), so he got all his courtiers photographed instead! Nice guy.
And so, at the end of another day – smaller, more intimate, more ‘serious’ than the previous year – it’s full paisa vasool.
p.s. Sharmila Tagore’s ‘friend’