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A Formidable Fest

3 Feb

 

As look up when you enter the Diggi Palace

Look Up for A Riot of Colours

For a voracious reader, the Jaipur Literature Festival ’11, held at the Diggi Palace in the heart of the city, was something in the way of an elegant five course meal. Newer writers like Tishani Doshi, Sonia Faleiro, Ira Trivedi, Anjum Hasan and H.M. Naqvi, served as an amuse-bouche, along with interesting hors d’oeuvres such as M.J. Akbar, Gurcharan Das, Patrick French, Basharat Peer, Tarun Tejpal, etc. The entrée consisted of fecund discussions on topics as varied as ‘Mao: The Unknown Story’, ‘Aisi Hindi Kaisi Hindi’, ‘Kashmir Kashmir’, ‘A Painter’s Life’, ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Why Books Matter’, and so on and so forth, while the plat du jour offered that rare and exotic bird- the Nobel Prize winner, in this case Orhan Pamuk and J.M. Coetzee; as well as other literary and lyrical giants like Arthur Miller, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Junot Diaz, Liaquat Ahmed, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi. For desert were all the hipster lovelies, in their painted-on jeans, knee-high boots and off-shoulder H&M tops, massive SLR camera’s dangling from their elegant if somewhat scrawny necks, sipping cocktails at the Fab India café or twittering furiously on their smartphones.

But enough shop talk, this post is not going to be some tedious technical litany on all that was said and done at the Jaipur Literature Festival- by the journalists, the writers, the movers and shakers, the path finders, the heavy hitters, the catalysts, and other sundry persons of palpable presence. Rather it is a camera obscura sketch of what was seen, heard, smelt and felt, by the author of this blog.  There was so much conversation, so many sessions, so much discourse- that all of its 30,000 attendees can walk away with their own personal Jaipur Literature Festival, as reminisced and chronicled by them. And so I’d like to concentrate on the few instances that made it memorable in a way that can never be rehashed in the history of me. (A bit egocentric but there you have it.)

 

Blue Double Doors

Blue Double Doors

The Ajmer Shatabdi leaves New Delhi railway station at the ungodly hour of 6:05 am. You somehow find your seat in a daze of jerky somnolence and pray to god that you get off at Jaipur and not Ajmer, the train’s final destination.  The scene outside your cloudy double glass window gently undulates from the garbage strewn outskirts of Delhi, to the fresh green and yellow sarson fields of Haryana, topped with the slightest curlique of morning mist, to the more arid, bristly-haired and brushy landscapes of Rajasthan, until voila, Jaipur (if you’re still awake and lucid at this point of time I mean). And so, though tired and sleep deprived, by the early afternoon your spirit revived, as you made your way to that magical place, the Jaipur Literature Festival.

 

J.M. Coetzee Introduced by Patrick French

J.M. Coetzee Introduced by Patrick French

Beyond the Diggi Palace’s blue double doors,  J.M Coetzee was reading out a story named “The Old Woman And The Cats”- a heartbreaking narrative that elegantly devolves upon the perceived injustice of contraception.  Introducing his story, Coetzee said,

“I debated with myself whether this particular story would be suitable for an Indian audience, since it relies rather heavily on Roman Catholic theology, in particular on the question of whether contraception- the deliberate prevention of conception, is against the will of God. But then I thought to myself, ‘At least Hinduism takes seriously the question of where souls come from, and go to, which is more than can be said for the secular west.’”

At 70 years old, Coetzee looks like a lean, lanky hero from a spaghetti western. You know the kind- an hombre who speaks softly and carries a big gun, or, as in Coetzee’s case, a big pen. Stoic and South African, Coetzee restricted his exposure to an over-eager Indian sound byte mafia for a memorable if somewhat brief 45-minute reading of his short story which brought one to tears; not only for its content but also for its composition.

 

Vikram Seth reading out one of his poems

Vikram Seth reading out one of his poems

If you’re someone who has tons of questions about poetry, prose, allegory or irony, or just how to get started writing, then an open mike seminar with Vikram Seth is a chance in a million. He is somewhat of an artist when it comes to pleasing crowds. Seth smiled pleasantly and bantered lightly about his books, his writing and his adventures in glass blowing and about suggestions he had received for a prospective sequel to a Suitable Boy, which included A Suitable Girl, An Unsuitable Boy and of course, An Unsuitable Girl. He spoke about the book’s pivotal character, Lata, who would be in her 80’s by any sequel, her current zeitgeist, her probable takes on the perennial conundrum of the Arranged Indian Marriage, and about his poetry, reading out a few favorites. With his articulate manner and easy charm,Vikram Seth was like Professor Henry Higgins, only a lot less bearish. In fact I almost expected him to break out into the following lines from My Fair Lady:

“Well after all, Pickering, I’m an ordinary man,
Who desires nothing more than an ordinary chance,
to live exactly as he likes, and do precisely what he wants…
An average man am I, of no eccentric whim,
Who likes to live his life, free of strife,
doing whatever he thinks is best, for him,
Well… just an ordinary man…

The highlight of my trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival was when Vikram Seth read out “The Frog and The Nightingale”- a poem from his collection of ten fables in verse, titled “Beastly Tales From Here and There”- which every fourteen-year-old who studied under the CBSE board had to memorize, recite and possibly, (at least in my case) love.

For this formidable feast, among others we need to thank William Dalrymple – travel writer, historian and chronic Indophile, whose books include ‘City of Djinns’, ‘The Age of Kali’ and ‘White Mughals’. Dalrymple and writer/publisher Namita Gokhale have been at the helm of the festival, serving as its directors since 2006. The Jaipur Literature Festival is the largest literary festival in the Asia-Pacific region and is produced by Sanjoy K. Roy, Sheuli Sethi and Teamwork Productions. The festival is held every year in for five days in January, and is definitely worth a trip to Rajasthan. Then again, Rajasthan is worth a trip to Rajasthan. Session videos of this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival have been put up on its official website’s programme page.

 

 

 

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Jugni Rehndi Sector Char or How NOT to Party in Chandigarh

12 Mar

The Husband and I finally figured out that we’re a far cry from ever being invited to the cool parties in Sectors 9 & 10, where you will find the oh so de rigueur Mercedes (pronounced Marsadee!) or Audi or Beamer parked ass to elbow in every drive way. So we decided to make our own partaaay tracks in the Chandigarh party circuit by becoming frequent patrons of the hottest hot spot, wait for it, S-Lounge.

Haha. And I say haha first of all because S-lounge is actually an offshoot of Swagath South Indian Restaurants of Defence Colony fame. The second reason I say haha is because when you actually get to SL you find it populated with the likes of Bliss Chadha and Bunny Bhullar. Bunny’s real name is of course Gurnimram or Nimpreet or your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine-Deep/Preet/Jeet. Bliss unfortunately, is just Bliss. As are Lovely, Great and Baby.

The third reason I say haha is because both Bunny (who is a girl in this case) and Bliss (who is not a girl in this case) are effing drop dead gorgeous! You look at these people and you feel like you’re lacking a vital chromosome.  The men and women that I have noticed in Chandigarh are by far the most prime specimens of the Indian race that I have ever seen.

The Husband’s explanation for this is that Chandigarh is the locus for all the best looking North Indian strains in Punjab to congregate and proliferate. So, in short, you have the cream of the crop, Mughal Invasion Residual Genetic Legacy Heir-Apparents, generally hanging around doing their thing.

Being a piddly little Parsi from Vidarbha, where most people look like dried up licorice sticks, I thought that the Husband in all his Punjabidom, his Peshawari Potency,  his Rawalpindi Raw Sex Appeal, his Mirpur Khas Machismo,was the cat’s pajamas. Not anymore. The Husband is but a drop in the vast ocean that is 3rd Generation Post Independence Punjabis.

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Travel Guide: An Interview with an Idol

26 Feb

Tirupati Temple

The Temple Complex

On the Road.

“Beta, charger lidu ke?” Did you take your mobile  charger?

“Haan, papa,” Yes papa.

“Wallet lido?” Took your wallet?

“HAAN PAPA.”

“Bheju lidu?” Remember to bring your brain along?

“No papa, with you around, I’m afraid my brain will explode, so I left it back at the hotel,” I said huffily. This was vintage Dad, teasing banter peppered with a hundred inane questions.

Ever since I can remember, if my father decides to go on a trip, it will start with him obsessive-compulsively checking and rechecking that he has every single thing he may, or may not need, at arm’s length, preferably in a zip-lock pouch, sealed. It drives me cuckoo. Ergo the brains comment.

This particular exchange happened when we were on our way to Tirupati, a town about 150 kilometres from Chennai. Tirupati is at the foot of Tirumala hills, the seventh peak of which was our final destination. The peak is home to a very famous temple, dedicated to Lord Sri Venkateswara Swami.

He has about a million different names, in the northern part of the country he’s known as Lord Balaji while in the south he’s most commonly referred to as Lord Venkateswara. We planned to walk up the 4000 steps, covering a distance of 14 kilometres, which would get us to the temple complex.

This trip was a total fly by the seat of your pants kind of operation which left no room for my father’s neurotic strategizing. As we drove past sweeping green fields of ground-nut and paddy, he sat nervously in the front seat, squirming like a little child, talking on his cell phone to arrange accommodation and tomorrow’s darshan.

An appointment with Lord Balaji was serious business, not to be left to mere chance, and we had arranged to meet with a certain Mr. P., a contact who would arrange for us to enter the sanctum sanctorum to get a glimpse of the idol.

Travel Guide: Tirupati: The 4000 steps to the Temple Complex

One step at a time

We started our hike at about six a.m. It was still pretty dark but there were already a lot of people around. Men, women, children, young and old alike, all ready to scale these arduous steps in the cool blue morning. They were mostly barefoot, and I felt like a total geek, in my puma sneakers and my backpack full of Gatorade and potato chips (Dad’s idea).

We started walking up what seemed like a gentle slope, with a step every foot or so, “Easy,” I thought, “I could do this in my sleep.”

Hah! The gentle slope suddenly snow-balled into what seemed like a wall of stairs, almost at ninety degrees to the ground. After a while I started to feel dizzy, and my heart was slamming against my rib-cage. Puff, puff, pass out.

“Don’t look up,” my dad said. “Just look at the steps in front of you. If you look up, just the sight of how much is left will tire you out. Kind of like life, one step at a time, with the ultimate goal at the back of your mind, not in direct sight.” My Dad can be pretty smart.

I was very impressed that most of the women were climbing in saris, something I’d never dream of doing. Chubby, heaving ammas were lumbering alongside there slimmer daughters or daughters-in-law, whom they’d occasionally grab for support.

A pair of newly-weds passed us. While the husband carefully placed a camphor drop on each step, the bride would light it with a taper. The little flames looked very pretty, and if I squinted just a little, it looked like a tiny lava flow coming down the steps.

Each step was daubed with streaks of vermillion and saffron. I wondered about that till I saw a woman with a bowl, anointing each step as she walked up. Later, I saw a lot of women doing that, while their men just watched. It seemed like the women were holy menials, while the men did the important stuff, like asking God for favours and such.

The morning grew brighter, and we stopped next to a small shrine at the edge of the slope to take in the view. I could see the other peaks, which were covered in dense, rough forest, not a single patch of brown. The idol in the shrine intrigued me; it had the body of a woman, and the face of an animal bearing its teeth. I stared at it for a while, then shrugged, paid my respects and moved on.

A tall man walked by, with his two small sons on each shoulder. “A human tree bearing the fruit of his loins,” I thought. I think the climb had me a little light headed. Then the newly-weds again. They were both thin, with big, brown, solemn eyes.

The wife wore a synthetic, lurid pink sari and fake gold jewelry, and the husband was all in white, carrying a plastic bag with some food in it. They both had a thin gold string tied around their foreheads; they looked very young and very poor.

Travel Guide: Tirupati: At the summit

Govinda!

At about a quarter to nine, we were almost at the top. The last leg of the climb was on a footpath hugging the road that leads up to the temple complex. As we trampled on in the bright, cloudless day, cars and buses roared past us on their way up, rich people drove up in their fancy cars and imported SUV’s. Probably to pray to God to make them richer.

We reached the temple complex at about nine a.m. We called up Mr. P and arranged to meet him at one of the parking lots.

Mr. P stepped out of a white Indica. He was fairly tall, a bit unctuous, and had a gigantic thiurmann, which is a vermillion line within a white U, on his forehead. The Thirumann signifies that the wearer is a follower of Vishnu, of whom Sri Venkateswara is said to be an incarnation.

“Sir, I hope you don’t mind sir, but I have got five passes for VIP darshanam. I was hoping I could bring my wife and daughter along.” This “sir-sandwich” business always puts me off. It made me feel like the guy was a bit of an operator, and I soon found out that I wasn’t wrong.

Mr. P was a real pro at arranging darshanams. “Follow me and stay close!” he said to us. Then he kind of hunched forward, as if preparing to take off, tucked his leather pouch under his arm, and suddenly shot off in the direction of the queue complex, which one has to go through to get to the sanctum sanctorum.

I raced behind him, frantic that I might lose him in the crowd, yelling at my dad to keep up and keep close. The queue complex consists of a long, winding corridor, snaking its way to the inner temple. Human bodies are hedged in by iron grills on both sides, almost standing on top of each other, like the second-class compartment of a Bombay local. People stand for more than 24 hours in that hellish furrow, to look at the deity for less than a second.

Of course, us VIP darshan types don’t have to do all that. I felt quite sheepish and a bit guilty as Mr. P led us through obsequious side-entrances, bypassing the main queue completely. We rapidly covered ground outside the iron grills, while the pilgrims inside watched our progress placidly, without animosity towards the VIPness of it all.

The gates to the inner temple are thick wooden doors covered with gold and silver leaf. Images of gods, goddesses, animals, flowers, trees etc. were everywhere – beaten into the metal, carved into stone pillars, placed as statues, you name it.

The chanting was a faint murmur in the beginning, a soft rumble of faraway thunder; I didn’t even really notice it. A pot-bellied pujari approached us, he wore a simple white mundu with a red and green border. He was bare-chested and wore a Janayu, a cotton string across his chest, the sign of a high caste Hindu. His thirumann beat Mr. P’s hollow, in terms of size.

Mr. P folded his hands in a namaste, and spoke to him in Tamil. We were right outside the sanctum sanctorum now, and it was obvious that Mr. P was trying to convince the pujari to let us in. Finally, Mr. P. slipped him a hundred rupee note, the pujari nodded wisely and let us through the wooden doors with gold filigree. It was pretty slick, like slipping the manager a little something to be let into a posh nightclub.

My Dad the second time he visited Tirupati - in "Full Darshan Regalia" as he called it.

We were in the belly of the temple, the seat of Lord Balaji. There was gold everywhere, on the walls, on the ceiling, on the doors, just everywhere. The chanting turned from a murmur to a roar. “Govinda, Govinda, GOOOOVINDAAAA!” they cried, eyes almost rolling into their sockets in religious fervour.

They folded their hands and raised them up high, so that Lord Balaji should be able to see that they approached him with earnest obeisance. A father raised his newborn child high over his head, so that the deity may notice and bless him or her. Many of them had shaved heads, as a lot of devotees donate their hair to the temple, symbolically sacrificing their ego and offering it to God.

Something about these peoples’ blind, unswerving faith moved my father. An agnostic since he was a teenager, my father has never put much stock in God. This trip was more for my sake than anything else.

But as we stood there, I could see my father’s faith grow, like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas day, except instead of a bunch of carolling Whos, it was a bunch of bald headed pilgrims that had done the trick. The expression on his face softened and his eyes began to smile. I felt a great surge of affection as he looked on, quite upset as temple guards roughly pushed devotees out the exit doors, after barely a second’s worth of worship.

(NOTE: My Dad and I went on this trip in 2008, way before I started this blog. I lost my Dad in the summer of 2009 due to a massive heart attack.  This post is dedicated to him. He was my best friend and I miss him everyday)

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