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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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Book Review: Animal’s People by Indra Sinha

24 Feb

Jaanwar walks on four legs. He is rude, bawdy, irreverent and has a heart the size of an ocean. He lives in the fictional city of Khaufpur, where his spine was melted when a poisonous gas leak from a factory ravaged the city slums, on a night which is always referred to as “That Night”.

Jaanwar or Animal, is the nodal character of Indra Sinha’s book Animal’s People. His world consists of the Khaufpur slums and the people who live there. Ma Franci – the fossilized French nun who has devoted her life to the people of Khaufpur, the kind and elegant Nisha, the Christ-like Zafar, Elli, the “Amrikan doctress”, whose tight jeans keep Jaanwar’s loins in a state of turmoil, and finally, little Aliya, a fellow orphan of that night, whose cheeky spirit Animal cherishes. Over them all is cast the malevolent shadow of the “Kampani” – the absconding foreign owners of the factory, and the fear that the night which disfigured their lives will come again.

Animal, a street urchin and small time trickster, is wrenched out of his self-serving existence by Nisha, who gets him involved in Zafar’s crusade to seize justice for the gas victims. As he struggles to deal with this larger picture, Jaanwar is beset by the troubles of love, lust, fidelity, trust and truthfulness. He bilks all of Nisha’s attempts to repatriate him to “human” society and prefers to remain an “animal, fierce and free”. At the same time, he falls hopelessly in love with Nisha, and ends up trying to poison Zafar, with whom Nisha is besotted.

Animal insists on living in the bowels of the deserted factory, the proverbial “heart of darkness”. He prides himself as being the only person able to negotiate the poisonous jungle that by now has overwhelmed the factory’s skeleton. He describes the “pink and white powders” still lying about and the dry grasses waiting to catch fire, so that the poisonous gases may gush out once again. From the highest smokestack is a view of the Kampani’s killing grounds – the multitude of slums and hutments around its periphery.

Along with being incredibly poignant, Animal’s narrative is also at times grotesquely funny.  Most of the humour originates from his hilarious pejoratives for the people and circumstances around him, and the truly Indian mispronunciation of certain English words (Namispond, Jamispond – say it quickly). He also makes cynical fun of the bureaucratic clap-trap and political double-speak which Zafar and his fellow philanthropists have to combat  to bring the “Kampani” to book.

The book occasionally slips into magical realism, though it feels very real in the composite sense. The story swallows the reader from its very first sentence – “I used to be human once.” And at the end of it, you emerge with the feeling that the characters in the book are people that you have encountered in real life. Even Animal’s occasional drifts into imaginative gibberish only serve to buttress the corporeality of the story.

Even though Animal’s People is a work of fiction, it takes little effort to draw a line of inference from its narrative to the real life tragedy which occurred in Bhopal. The fact that it is fiction is doubly advantageous as it gives the author the freedom to write without the fear of lawsuits, and it has garnered attention to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy from corners  hitherto unaware of its occurrence.

Animal’s People in its entirety is an indictment of corporate terrorism and a stark reminder that the “Kampani’s” victims, real or fictitious, still seek retribution for what they have undergone. Animal’s People was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best Book From Europe & South Asia.

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Travel Guide: The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Bhangra

23 Feb

Twilight in Kasauli

On weekends, the good folks of Chandigarh might pack up a picnic lunch and go careening up the hills to spend a day or two in quasi-high-altitude bliss.  We decided to follow suit, and after getting out of  Panchkula our rattletrap  Indica shuddered its way up through Pinjore, Kalka, took a left turn at Dharampur and voila, Kasauli.

See you soon you big baboon

Kasauli is about 60 km from Chandigarh and you can  probably travel up there in about an hour and a half if you don’t mind taking on those hair-raisingly blind hairpin turns at suicidal speeds. Never mind all those cautionary spectacles of the Mercedes  pichkaoed into a Santro, or the Maruti that looks like it’s being force-fed a boulder, or all the trucks that go OK TATA BYE BYE over the hillside.

Kasauli isn’t too far off but otherwise I’ve noticed that when you travel up to these places you kind of fall into a pleasant pentameter of hill, town, hill, town, hill, hill, town, town. Traffic usually bottlenecks when you get to a town and you have to crawl along its narrow streets lined with  dusty denizens selling patent leather handbags, ‘best’ furniture, furry caterpillar mufflers, home made fruit wine and pictures of gods, among other useful items.

Our driver Boviji got a little too carried away and drove us straight to Monkey Point, alternate spellings- Manky Point and Manki Point. Much Punjabi blusterings from the husband and Sardar grumblings from Boviji followed,  after which we had to backtrack about 5 k.m. through Garkhal to get to our resort. However, I wasn’t disappointed because there were many mankies at the resort also. Nice little mankies, who would scurry up the Chir-Pines at the slightest approach, not like the big Langur pricks we have in Maharashtra who just sit there and leer at you.

Outside the Firang Club Cafe

Kasauli is pretty much like any other hill town,  with magnificent vistas,  majestic Himalayan oaks, blah blah, yada, yada, yada. Frankly, I was much  more interested in making googly-eyes at the husband than playing the intrepid journalist,  so think of this post as more of a camera obscura sketch rather than an actual tourist guide report or a source of  tourist information. No breathtaking panoramas  in this post, sorry.

The Church

The highlight of our trip was probably the yummy leg of Raan we had for dinner, and this quaint, very Edgar Allan Poe-ish church near the bus stand. It had interesting gothic arches, a solid granite structure, a very laconic caretaker and Jai Yesu type music playing inside. The pews and the rafters also seemed to be of a very respectable solid oak and the few stained glass windows were unshattered and kept quite clean. Plus, the spotless alter cloth and dozens of candles were witness to the fact that people actually prayed there. I don’t know why but I found that surprising.

Another thing I loved were all these furry dogs running around like such mawalis, growling and bullying small children and these  miniature cows with a Napoleon Complex who look very placid but I’ve heard can be quite vicious.

Church Caretaker

Something or someone has definitely given the Up North Experience a face lift from what it was in the nineties. I remember going to Manali when I was thirteen and being disappointed at all the deforestation, the choked roads and the junglis roaming around in their gypsies – whose idea of summer fun was raping women. My family and I were with another couple,  who were a bit younger.  One evening, the reasonably sexy young wife decided to go for a walk  alone down one of Manali’s main streets, where she was accosted by a group of ominous men in an Omni, and was told to get in. But then she screamed and some stoned hippies came to her rescue. True story. I guess I have globalization to thank, because now those same junglis probably go to London and Switzerlaaand, making the north a relatively safer place for us day tripping yuppies.

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Art for Art’s Sake- Sara Abraham’s love affair with Contemporary Indian Art

18 Feb

Phulki and the Akundo Flowers by A. Ramachandran

Contemporary Indian art is big, no, it’s huge. While art paintings of top-selling contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya and Subodh Gupta go for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, older generation artists like M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, and A. Ramachandran, rake millions in the international markets. According to the Economic Times, Christie’s, contemporary fine art auctioneers with their headquarters in London, realized 10.1 million dollars in South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art alone in an auction held in September 2007.

Given all these heady figures and glamorous economics, it is a bit disorienting to sit next to a rather unlikely looking original prospector of the gold rush that is Contemporary Indian Art – a 79-year-old grandmother, who sits in her stylish but comfortable drawing-room in Chennai, sipping her mug of tea, her close shorn white hair silhouetted against the golden light of a tall brass lamp.

The first thing that you see when you enter Sara Abraham’s home is a painting of a lotus pond by A Ramachandran, which takes up almost an entire wall. You feel almost accosted by its deep rich colours, and it demands that you look at it for more than the polite minute. Yes, when you enter Sara Abraham’s house, you get kidnapped by Indian Art.

Other contemporary artists that her walls feature are M.F. Husain, F.N.Souza, Ganesh Haloi, Gogi Saroj Pal, Ramanujam, Bikash Bhattacharji, Tyeb Mehta, Vivan Sundaram, Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chawdhury, and Janaky Ram. In a brightly lit corner sits her pet – a portrait of Sara by M.F. Husain, a present for her sixtieth birthday. “Sara at Serene Sixty”, proclaims the wooden overleaf, in a childish, comical scroll, presumably the artist’s.

Sara Abraham found Contemporary Indian art, but in a way Indian Art found her as well. When she was a new bride in the 1960’s, with nothing to do, Sara started looking at art the way other women of her time looked at saris and jewelry. Three years at the Government School of Arts in Madras and another year in Bombay gave her the eye she needed to fire up and sustain a passion that would last the better part of a lifetime. “Being a student of fine art, I saw real quality in Indian Art, and pushed it till others saw it too.” she said.

She tried her hand at painting herself but soon gave that up. “I felt I was a mediocre artist, so I decided to promote others instead of promoting myself.” Now Sara can sit back and see the culmination of her life’s work, in the form of an exhibition held by Gallery Sumukha in Chennai, to commemorate the occasion of her eightieth birthday. The exhibition will showcase every piece of art that she has collected over the years. There will be almost 200 pieces on display.

On the night of the opening, Sara is wearing her trademark cotton sari- black with a geometric pattern in dull gold on the pallu and border. The exhibition is on two floors and guests slough their way from one painting to another, as if on a pilgrimage of beauty. A woman in a pink sari snaps open a gossamer fan and started fluttering it, even though the air-conditioning is on full blast. On the landing between the two floors was a family portrait by Vikram Bhattacharya – a much younger Sarah Abraham seated with her husband Zachary, surrounded by her three teenage children. The second floor has an entire wall full of paintings by M.F. Husain, including a charcoal sketch of Zachary. The place is teeming with friends, family, artists, the press and every shape and size of Chennai cognoscenti. Sara stands there, unfazed by any of it, basking in all of it. She greets people as they walked in, and poses for tons of photographs with her children and grandchildren.

“I will always remember Sara for her great generosity,” said the contemporary artist Lakshma Goud. “In the early 80’s, when no one knew me, Sara offered me a piece of land in Banjara Hills. I told her I couldn’t afford it. She told me to pay her back in water colours,” he grinned. “I was amazed that someone would put so much faith in an artist.”

Later on, people gathered downstairs in the courtyard for the unveiling of a book to commemorate Sara’s life and her achievements. As they stood under the mango tree sipping their cocktails in the tepid evening, Sara’s brother-in-law, Bobby Sistah, gave a celebratory speech. “If anyone deserves a celebration of her life, it’s Sara,” he started, smiling.

However, as the saying goes, even the longest journey begins with a single step. “My first piece of Indian Art was an Akittan Narayan. It was painted on a board of Madras Kirk. Unfortunately, the board wasn’t prepared and the paint dropped off over the years. I was very sad, but I didn’t let that discourage me.” she said. “I bought art whenever I could all my life.”

Sara Abraham bought Contemporary Indian Art at a time when nobody else wanted it. At that time, people were more interested in buying foreign prints to decorate their homes than the works of Indian artists. “My sister pointed out that instead of buying prints; why not buy original Indian contemporary artists for the same price. I believed in Indian Art when no one else did. But I did my best and kept pushing peoples’ awareness. To the extent that I even gifted paintings to my friends and relatives to increase appreciation for Indian art. And finally, people began to be aware of the quality of Indian Art.”

Talking about the time before the Christie’s and Sotheby’s of the world swooped down on Indian Art, she said “Back then, foreigners who bought our art were only interested in exoticism, they weren’t interested in India. The popular themes amongst foreign buyers were things like temples, or poverty.”

In the mid to late 70’s Sara’s close association with the artist M.F. Hussain, who was already a known name then, inspired her to start “Kalayatra”. As the name suggests, “Kalayatra” was a roaming contemporary art gallery whose purpose was to showcase contemporary Indian Art and make it popular. “Kalayatra, because it wasn’t a static gallery, created a lot of awareness. We traveled all over the country, exhibited in all the metros and in some smaller towns like Hyderabad, Nagpur and Kochi as well.”

The gallery did about one or two shows a year and was a huge success. Other art dealers that were doing similar work at that point of time were Keku Gandhi of Chemould, Dadabhai of Pundole, and Alkazi of Art Heritage.

Talking about how she met M.F. Hussain, Sara said “It was in the 70’s, me and my sister Suzy were outside Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, when Suzy suddenly yelled “There’s Hussain!”. She opened the car door and ran after him. He took us to his house, where Suzy bought a painting and a sketch. I bought my first Hussain later, from Chemould Art Gallery in Bombay. It cost Rs. 2000, I couldn’t afford it so I went to Jhaveri Bazaar and sold my diamond earring for a thousand rupees, and paid the rest in four installments.” M.F. Husain and Sara Abraham have known each other for over sixty years now. “His wife once joked that I was the only woman she felt secure about leaving him alone with.” She laughed.

Although she has now retired from a professional role in the art world, Sara is always happy to assist people in buying good art. When asked the all important question – What is good art – “Good art is something you can look at every day of your life and not get fed up of it. There is not one piece in my house that I wouldn’t be happy looking at, at least ten times a day.” She replied, smiling contentedly.

(Note: I had written this piece two years ago for an ACJ assignment, but I really like it so I thought I’d publish it here)

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Well I’m Here

17 Feb

I don’t know how soon i shall be bored of this, but i hope not too soon.  For now i’ve joined the unwashed hordes of graphomaniacs out there desperate to feel important. Since this is my first post, let me explain the name. Ahuna Vairya is the name of an Avestan language Zoarashtrian prayer. All you Parsis out there  probably learnt this prayer by age 5. It starts with yatha ahu vairyo… Yeah, even i didn’t know that’s what it’s called till i started searching for a blog name.

I’m not super religious but i needed to bank on my parsiana to sound exotic so people will read my blog. plus i can use avesta names without sounding like a pretentious prick, something that i’m consciously going to avoid throughout my blogging career.

On the other hand, this prayer is super effective for panic attacks and to shoo away bogymen who like to stand in corners of dark rooms. You need to say it five times though, five is the magic number for some reason, and then top it up with some Artem Vohu (Ashem Vohu), three times. Its cool because the language is so old, it sounds made up. I remember the first time my husband heard me muttering this prayer under my breath, and he thought i was having a seizure.

Blogging is kind of like talking to yourself, only crazier. But that’s ok, because as it happens, I do talk to myself, so I don’t mind adding another feather in my crazy cap.  I’m just another sad, mad individual who wants to believe desperately that the world gives a shit about what I have to say. Little do I know that no one goes on the internet to read, for god’s sakes. So here I am, basically talking to myself, basking in my own wordiness. I wish there was something like a cyberspace echo, because I bet I’d hear it right about now…Helloooooo,  is there anyone there??


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