29 January 2011

Jaipur Literature Festival 2011

Disneyland for the reader – again
Why am I posting this four full days after the fabulous Jaipur Literature Festival ended? I suppose it’s because this year I was there on holiday, not work. As a result, I attended very few sessions and didn’t interview anyone. Still, there were precious moments in abundance and this one was one of my favourites. It also shows you what the festival is really like – a place with quiet corners too, and here we sat and chatted – my mother and my daughter and a very close friend who we hadn’t met for several months. And yes – that’s my knitting on the seat and I was going to pick it up the minute I finished taking this photograph and go clackety-clackety-clack once I sat down again. Because, and pardon me for bragging, particularly because this is nothing to do with Jaipur or literature or festivals: I can knit pretty much as fast as I can type. Ahem.
Well – I think I’ve proved how much I love this event and admire the way it is organized and written endlessly about how grand it is and made everyone I know want to go too by praising it without cease. In fact, to me it’s pretty much perfect – it has a true festival atmosphere; the participants and spectators are relaxed and friendly; the setting is beautiful and exotic; you get to hear writers whose books you’ve enjoyed tell you about themselves, their work and their ideas and often even to meet them one to one; everyone has special encounters and hears special people say special things that they can put in their memoirs. Best of all, the Jaipur Literature Festival is completely democratic and everyone there is equal in their aspiration to a Life of the Mind!
Having said all this so many times, there’s only one thing I can do that would be different, and that is to list here what I would wish for to make perfect even better:
  • More space. This year, as anticipated, the festival venue was badly overcrowded with people from all over the country and many from abroad who had heard about this wonderful event and naturally wanted to be part of it too. Over the weekend it was apparently claustrophobic.
  • More security. In a crowd, even in a place where everyone’s heard of Baudelaire, nasty things can happen. My friend the poet, novelist and journalist CP Surendran was hit on the face by someone he asked for a light. More here
  • Better interviewers. Most of the people the festival authorities invite to conduct sessions are intellectuals with doubtless a great deal of reading and teaching experience. However, they are not performers. Many of them have a diffident stage presence. Many of them miss question cues that even the audience wants to jump on. This is one of the biggest differences I’ve found between Jaipur and the Hay Festival where every single event is entertainment of the highest quality. Naturally everyone can’t be as compelling and articulate as William Dalrymple – but most, barring a few professionals, are really rather mediocre.
Back from the festival, the only thing I ever want to do is read and read and read. And write and write and write. And I’m waiting eagerly for next year …

20 January 2011

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Good book, super festival, sorry controversy
I first read Nine Lives in November 2009, during a journey that lasted nearly all day. The long flight and transit melted away with the compelling style and fascinating story of the nine people chosen to feature in this book. Each one is related in some way to religion and through this book you can see, more clearly than in daily life, how much India has changed and how much it remains the same and will perhaps never change.
I enjoyed it all over again when I read it aloud to my friend Gladys a few months later.
It’s always interesting to me that, though we are so similar in many ways, our perspectives differ so much – doubtless on account of our differing cultural backgrounds. For instance, I was rather awestruck by the young Jain girl who ran away to become a nun, and went through a process of plucking out each hair on her head and later stoically watched her companion (and dearest friend) perform a ritual starvation to death. Gladys, however, has no patience with this sort of thing; she thought the girl was rather foolish and it was a waste of a life.

I had wanted to write about this book in my Sunday Mid-day column but the editor felt it would be better if the review was done by the mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik who was better qualified than I to assess this subject and in the end it never got done.
I remembered that when, in June 2010, I noticed with surprise and disappointment that Nine Lives was not on the list of nominations for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award. It had apparently not been eligible because William Dalrymple is not an Indian national - odd, since The Last Mughal once won a Crossword prize for non-fiction. And in any case, he has lived in India for twenty years or more and written more detailed, interesting and scholarly as well as lay books about various aspects of India than any of us. AND this really was one of the best books I’d read in that year.

I knew I must write about it here, and finally decided to do so now because this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, one of William Dalrymple’s biggest contributions to the Indian literary scene, begins tomorrow.
As it happens, everyone is talking about William Dalrymple these days. Just yesterday I received a press release about a signature campaign launched by him, along with Gurcharan Das and two associations of Indian publishers, to petition the Union HRD Ministry against the proposed Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2010 to Indian Copyright Act, 1957.
And he has been making news ever since 2011 began.
First, Hartosh Singh Bal (the man who “broke” the Niira Radia story) wrote an article (also in Open magazine), The Literary Raj, about how insular the Indian literary scene is, and some of our cultural tendencies, all well described.
Furiously accusing someone of being racist in a case like this is kind of like a vengeful sexual harassment charge. Sadly, that’s just what William Dalrymple did: The piece you ran is blatantly racist. To which Hartosh Singh Bal’s wrote a good rejoinder, Does Dalrymple know what racism really is?
Now all this is unbearably longwinded and all, but what struck me is the fact that, even though Dalrymple has done so much undeniably good quality work, so many of us seem to resent him so much.
Why could that be? What is it about his manner that we find annoying? Perhaps it’s a fundamental pomposity - many of the Delhi journalists I know consider him faintly ridiculous. You can catch a glimpse in this photo of him preparing for a session at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, with a residue of his reflex long suffering “Ahem, can you please go away? Bloody tourists!” look.

Some of this is also reflected in his writing style in this book. It is over-dramatised in parts, and uses the type of slightly exaggerated storytelling style generally reserved to recount tales of great valour or legends of yore. I was amused that his publishers called it “an almost biblical simplicity”.
At the same time, I did appreciate the fact that this style, once you’re already in and enjoying yourself, draws you in even more.

07 January 2011

Tales in colour by Kunzang Choden

The soul of a country

Bhutan was always a place of dreams – sheltered, peaceful and idyllic. When I visited a few months ago, I found that it was indeed a dream come true. The heart-stopping natural beauty, the ages-old architecture and the calm and smiling people gave me a healing interlude in a time of pain which will always soothe me when I look back at it.
One of the key features of Bhutan is its fundamental inaccessibility. Partly it’s the distance and the mountains that protect it. But the country’s visionary and benevolent government has also been restrictive in admitting outside influences. It’s not easy to enter Bhutan. And in any case, as a tourist, you only see the most superficial aspects of a place. It’s this that made Tales in Colour really special to me – because it gave me a much more satisfying look at the life and culture of its people than I had had in person.
This collection of thirteen stories is prefaced by the author’s own experience of cultural battering as a child by a Reverend Mother at her Indian boarding school who found the Bhutanese system of names intolerably barbarian.
Each story takes you into the life of a Bhutanese woman and through it we learn about life in the villages and how different it is from life in the towns, the way people think and how they spend their time, and their dreams and aspirations.
In one story a deformed woman tells her brave and lovely story – and in one, it’s a mouse that speaks. In another, a ring in the belly button makes one very special; in another we have a philandering husband; yet another has teenagers exploited by older men. The desperate love of a son for an errant father makes another particularly touching. I also found it very interesting to get a brief glimpse of the ancient Bon tradition that gentle (and trendy) Buddhism once rudely displaced. And that medication in Bhutan follows a familiar third world approach.
The language is simple and gentle and very suited to the thoughts and actions in these lovely stories.

Some of the women in this book are strong and balanced, and some are badly oppressed or succumb and fall apart. So it also struck me when I read it that though our situations differ, women all over the world feel and think so much alike. I liked that too.

04 January 2011

Where the serpent lives by Ruth Padel

Real, imaginary and figurative serpents
Where the serpent lives is basically about what a beautiful, marvellous world we live in, and the terrible, disastrous things that are wrong with it.
As a book about the environment it paints a picture of magnificence but also takes us to wildlife reserves in different parts of India where officials entrusted with protection are the ones responsible for depredation and slaughter. In tracts of forest in Devon, a county in England, louts kill badgers for sport. And in London, illegal traffic in goods such as African bushmeat, luxury products and Asian medicine endangers animals as it funds criminal networks across the globe.
As a book about relationships, its lovely heroine is so frailly human that she walked away forever from her father on the basis of a few malicious sentences, by a drunk at a party, which she never bothered to verify. Only to marry a man who turned into a clichéd philanderer, fuelled by a large income and an unlimited supply of Viagra. Then the bubbly son once so easy to please transformed into a surly, uncommunicative adolescent.
A supporting cast includes a man through whom we learn that one may live with an intrusive fantasy but when the time comes to fulfill it, a lifetime of craving may prove unequal to a real relationship. A young woman shows us something of Croatian culture and expatriate life. There are real, imaginary and figurative serpents. We even get glimpses of the London bombings and the Tsunami.

As a book based partly in India, Ruth Padel’s observations are insightful. The diversity in the forests provides a context for the diversity in the gods. The nuances that pass between two Indians who meet for the first time will tell them more about each other in a few seconds than someone from another culture would ever know. But then, alas, we encounter an unlikely Englishman working in Indian forests who eats dal and rice for not just lunch and dinner but, and hard to imagine in reality, for breakfast too. He even cooks his own dal, because the plot requires him to be alone in the house.

The language in this book is clean and descriptive. Paragraphs pertaining to scientific matters stand out self consciously, a little like gleaming patchwork on rich tapestry and quite unlike the insider approach to science of others like, say, Ian McEwan. Ruth Padel is, after all, one of the most famous poets in the world, partly because of a short and controversial stint as the very first, ever, female Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford.
Disappointingly, all turns right in the end: the devil gets his due, and satisfying closure is experienced by every character.

01 January 2011

My best books in 2010

The books I enjoyed most in 2010

Most of the books I read are sent to me by publishers and authors. Every few weeks I visit the bookstores looking for hot titles I might have missed – though when I hear or read of an interesting book I want to read, it’s usually much easier just to buy it online.

In 2010 I finally faced the sad reality that I will never be able to read all the books that I want to. Not even all the new books published in any given month; not even if I restrict myself to just the best Indian books of that month. There are just too many. Publishing a book has become easy. And there are so many people who write well, or have a story to tell, or who want to get in on a new business, who are now making use of the new technology to do so.
This makes it very hard to choose and I’m afraid I do so mostly using the well-known scientific eenie-meenie-mynie-mo method.
I have often been accused of liking all the books I read. The truth is that I very rarely write about a book which I can’t find anything good to say about. That’s ok, I suppose?
It’s hard to rate enjoyment of a book but I have picked the ones that held me bound to their pages by plot or prose and the ones I admired for their skill or knowledge. They are listed here alphabetically because I really can’t rate one over the other. By a coincidence, there is a combination: two are non-fiction; one is poetry; one is a children’s adventure story and one a collection of short stories. By a coincidence, there are ten on this list. Many are writers of small readership, some from thatched-roof publishers and some of the authors (my stepmother persecution complex compels me to admit) are known to me: three* happen to be dear friends. And there are three books I’ve added to this list which I wouldn’t rate as extraordinary. They are here because I liked them enough to buy several copies during the year as presents for friends who enjoy reading but would otherwise never have heard of them.

Bala Takes the Plunge by Melvin Durai
Lost and Found by CP Surendran
Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha
Palpasa Café by Narayan Wagle
Plain Truths by Arun Kumar
Quarantine by Rahul Mehta
Sahyadri Adventure by Deepak Dalal
The Counsel of Strangers by Gouri Dange
The Goat, the Sofa and Mr. Swami by R. Chandrasekhar
Victoria & Abdul by Shrabani Basu

* Luckily reasonably big-ticket guys: CP, Deepak and Shrabani :-)