Laundry Work Deadlines Emails Personal deadlines I want to bake cinnamon rolls The cat has brought a squirrel in Is the squirrel alive But then I kind of don’t like squirrels they’re just rats with better PR so yeah thanks cat Chores Finances Oh dear December was a heavy spending month I really have to do laundry There are excel sheets to be tackled and emails to be written Argh emails I don’t want to be that person who sends work emails on a Sunday Groceries My head is full of tweet drafts and Instagram captions Welp I write so much for work that I don’t know how to write for myself Work calls I have to buy a gift for two baby showers Why is everyone having babies Two books to finish An overdue library book to renew Why aren’t there puppy parties Need to workout Is workout one word or two It’s so warm today What is my wordpress password Should this be on medium All the cool kids are on medium or instagram Also this feels a bit stupid and passé Should I be writing about Topical Very Serious Things instead I can write about Very Serious Things it feels like I’m worrying about everything these days What if blogging is just so 2009 What if this is trash Who is going to read this anyway ffs.
If you and I have made plans at any point in time you’ve probably heard the refrain “I have some writing to finish” or “I have a deadline” multiple times. You’re also probably tired of hearing it.
These days, life revolves around stringing words to make coherent sentences.
Every other day, I fall into research rabbit holes, wrangling with academicspeak for my studies, emerging with garbled theories and thick footnotes. I barter words for a pay check (and not always the fat kind. The kind that you look at, sigh and wonder if you should just listen to your dad and get a proper job instead). At night, you’ll find me in rumpled pyjamas, swatting mosquitoes and squinting at hieroglyphic handwriting while transcribing interviews. Or tiredly trying to sidestep words like ‘game-changer’, ‘number one’ and ‘unique’ in adjective-padded press releases.
Often, I switch from corporatespeak, newspaperspeak and academicspeak while grappling with deadlines. Most days, I enjoy it. On other days, I wage wars in my head.
There’s a kind of false grandiosity perceived about writing. There’s also this myth that writing is easy and that anyone can write. Both myths are irksome in equal proportions.
The myth that anyone can write? Well, of course, everyone can write but there’s a vast difference between writing and writing well. Writing well requires a fistful of talent and a truck load of hard work and is refined over time – much like any other skill.
Perhaps there is a fortunate breed of writers who have a muse they can summon on command and produce a cascade of beautifully crafted sentences. Perhaps writing really is an effortless activity for some people or a form of catharsis and joy to others. For some of us, writing isn’t easy
I have a pleasure/pain relationship with writing – I enjoy writing but I also struggle with it. My undergrad years left me with a voice constantly self-criticizing and scrutinizing my writing. Often, a certain percentage of the work I do is paid per word. When the rates are low there’s a tendency to fall into the dreaded freelance trap – when you spray your writing with needless adjectives and adverbs just to fill up the word count (…perhaps I shouldn’t be confessing to this). On these days, I have to chloroform my self-critic or I’d never get any work done. I’m not proud of this and the opportunity cost is terrible because either way, your writing suffers or your back balance suffers. When the voice of reason which dictates my finances takes precedence, my writing pays the price. Sometimes to my utter dismay, I find myself wading miserably in bloated, voluble paragraphs when something half its size would have sufficed.
But the self-editing and criticism prevail on most days. Often I delete more words than I type and during a deadline crunch, exacerbated by stress, my productivity is 10 words per biscuit. There are times when all I have to show for hours of work is a frail paragraph which sways, sighs and dramatically collapses after the third read. The perfected procrastinating also doesn’t help things, but that’s another malaise altogether.
And the perceived glamour associated with writing? What most people see is the manicured finished product – not the work in progress. Not the frustration of multiple dead ends or the back-and-forth editing loops with clients, monosyllabic interviewees and the inability to find the right hook. It’s easy to take a finished piece of work at face value and to forget what goes on behind the scenes before the curtain call. We’re all guilty of doing it.
I can assure you there’s very little glamourous about transcribing interviews at 2 in the morning, being forced to hear your nasal voice and polite laugh slowed down, while stress-eating your way through a 1000 word article, knowing that you also have an early meeting the next day.
In the middle of all the work-writing, I soon realized that I had gradually forgotten how to write for the sake of writing. Little bits of solipsistic prose which only I would read. To selfishly write, not for an audience or for client approval, but for myself – for the sheer love of it. To remind myself why I started writing in the first place.
Like all unhealthy relationships, it was easy to ignore my own imperfections and evade responsibility for my dearth of non-work writing. One self-perpetuated myth was that it was hard to get any writing done at home and so I began making my way through coffee shops in Colombo in search of The Perfect Writing Spot. I’m not sure what I was expecting – multiple epiphanies? A muse who would magically appear and dictate my swan song? Shockingly, I didn’t find what I was looking for.
My favourite coffee shop is great but is so small that everyone can hear everyone’s conversations. I would rearrange my features into an expression which befitted a person who is working on important things, order an iced coffee, type a few throwaway sentences and then promptly (and unintentionally) drift into other people’s conversations. I would listen to earnest visiting scholars use words like ‘impuissant’ and solve the world’s problems, armed with theories and linen pants. Aunties would come and gently grumble about their children over plates of butter cake while nervous entrepreneurs pitched investors (“This is an idea for a start-up… ”). Disappointed, I traipsed in and out of more coffee shops in search of the elusive, perfect location.
I didn’t get much writing done but my foray into all of Colombo’s coffee shops taught me three things:
1. I’m not a very sophisticated coffee drinker
2. I’m definitely a tea person
3. Drinking tea in a coffee shop is a terrible idea. Have you tried it? Who spends Rs. 300 for a tea bag floating half-heartedly in a mug of hot water?
Determined, I briefly expanded my scope for the perfect location. The beach was also futile – the notebook was pushed away, a bag of manioc chips were devoured and I proceeded to have a nap instead. Then, I flirted with pen and paper in place of the laptop (rationale – let’s go old school, back to the roots) but that was also just a fling. After developing a dull neck ache from lugging my laptop everywhere, I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a shiny, sleek Macbook – because when have you ever seen TV shows where the earnest writer character slaves over a bulky HP Compaq?
Today, I am in one of my more unconventional locations – a lopsided bench in a mall, waiting for a cab. Every time someone sits on the other end, the bench seesaws upwards and we exchange awkward smiles.
Here’s the thing. It’s just so easy not to write. It’s easy to be paralyzed with disillusionment and lapse into long periods of stasis in the fear that what you are writing is absolute rubbish. There is no editor or client on the other end, awaiting your writing and no deadlines. There is no sense of urgency that what you are producing is needed out there in the world (is it ever?). There will always be a vortex of excuses. The weather will never be right, you will never have enough time or the right tools. There will always be distractions and you will never, ever have your mojo.
I wish I could tell you that by now, I have neatly packaged answers for this dilemma. I don’t, but I’m always trying. So here I am, sitting in a crowded mall, on a broken bench, writing about writing.
A man (Gihan, he tells me his name later) catches sight of me surveying a stencil of a smiling child sandwiched between a photocopy shop and a dilapidated building on Dawson Street, and signals from across the road: “There’s more over here”. Cheerfully appointing himself as my guide and with a number of wide eyed, bashful children in tow, we weave our way through a path punctuated with bird droppings, ceramic bathroom fittings, criss-crossing clothes lines, concrete debris, drains and enter the unlikeliest of art spaces.
Lately, I’ve been juggling multiple lives. I secretly revel in the bustle that working divergent jobs bring. One line of work brings in a hint of order and solidity. The other brings in an element of uncertainty and creativity — never know if I’ll land up at a fish market, a five star hotel or as in this instance, alleys in Slave Island.
Occasionally during my moonlighting work, there’s a story which lingers long after I’ve transcribed the interview, wrestled with the deadline and then laid the article to rest. An interview with French artist C215, who was in Colombo recently, was one of those which stubbornly persisted. I’d mentally dog-eared his work when I had come across one of his graffiti stencils in Delhi years ago and was pleasantly surprised when I saw his cube shaped signature in Colombo. After our conversation, I found myself returning twice to Slave Island on a graffiti hunt, retracing the artist’s path, in search of pockets of colourful graffiti tucked away in unexpected nooks and crannies.
If you’re a fan of street art, C215’s work abroad is worth browsing. Favourites include the Caravaggio series, the stained glass series, this one of a couple (she has such an interesting face) and a recent tribute to Robin Williams. Christian Guémy’s technique is a head-on collision between the scrupulous detail of the classical and the unaffected spontaneity of street art (“You plan nothing and begin something – things happen with interaction”). There’s a gentle hijacking of standard, flat stencil art with layers of colours and minute details giving his work an unexpected depth.
His choice of locations in Colombo were especially intriguing. I liked that he deliberately stepped out of Colombo’s rarefied art bubble and transformed non-spaces into visual poetry — all with polite permission from the residents and owners, mind. “I’ve always been interested in exploring the world. This kind of painting is a kind of exploration,” he shrugged. During our conversation, Christian pointed out that he liked people to follow his path, to wander down a street where they have nothing to do or no reason to go. “I think that the little street I have been painting in are not the streets you put on the tourist guides,” he remarked wryly, “but maybe rich people are making the right Colombo”.
Christian’s stencils painted in Sri Lanka varied between those from his existing library of stencils from his work around the world to site-specific ones of the people of Slave Island themselves. Creating site-specific stencils is laboriously meticulous work and is a back and forth looping between the virtual and the real. It entails multiple visits to the same location, photographing people, printing the pictures out, carving out the stencils by hand from the printed portraits and then finally returning to paint. Once the painting is complete it is again documented and distributed online – almost a tango of sorts between multiple layers of the virtual and the real.
Street art has a short lifespan. While the rest of the art world battles time and decay in the fight for preservation, street art is resolutely temporal with an oddly poignant acceptance of the inevitability of aging, decay and deterioration. “Nothing is permanent, everything is ephemeral. And this is something that I believe deeply […] In some way, creating art outside in a public space is also a kind of comment or a meditation about giving up with yourself, with your ego, with what you are — because it is something you leave behind you — you know you have to abandon it every day. And every day when you pass by, you have to abandon it [the art] for a new one,” voiced Christian, referring to the natural decay wrought on street art.
“You cannot look for being permanent by yourself as a human being — it’s the same with art. When I paint, I know it has a birth and it has a death. And that’s interesting because it (I speak for myself) helps me to accept that I am alive and I will die”.
Public art can heavily impact a city’s visual culture and there’s a lot of potential for street art in Colombo – hence my enthusiasm for the manner in which artists like Christian have employed the medium.
Martin Irvine sums it up eloquently in the Handbook of Visual Culture: “Whether the street works seem utopian or anarchic, aggressive or sympathetic, stunningly well-executed or juvenile, original or derivative, most street artists seriously working in the genre begin with a deep identification and empathy with the city: they are compelled to state something in and with the city, whether as forms of protest, critique, irony, humor, beauty, subversion, clever prank or all of the above. The pieces can be ephemeral, gratuitous acts of beauty or forms of counter-iconography, inhabiting spaces of abandonment and decay, or signal jams in a zone of hyper-commercial messaging. A well-placed street piece will reveal the meaning of its material context, making the invisible visible again, a city re-imaged and re-imagined”.
For the most part, graffiti in Colombo have been school boy scrawls (RC ROX 2 DA MAXX) of neither literary nor artistic merit and is understandably linked with vandalism. In terms of street art, the only public murals — as far as I know — are ones on school walls (which are tediously didactic in nature), a rather gruesome mural on Baseline Road and a few works here and there. I remember Artists Collectives like CoCA having plans for public art projects and it would be great to see more around Colombo.
One work of street art which is almost indelibly imprinted on my mind is this simple black and white line drawing which was done in 2006 in Kollupitiya during the war- I wish I knew who painted it. Days after an attack was carried out in Colombo, it popped up on the shrapnel pocked wall (remnants of the attack), only to be speedily taken down afterwards.
Ps: Shout-out to T for the early morning company on the second leg of the photo-jaunt.
Update: Hat tip to Janith for linking to more street art in Colombo.
(Written a few months ago, posting now. Fervently hoping this has lost its relevance.)
I’m not sure when it happened but Running in the Family has become one of my favourite books. I’d read it years ago and I stumbled across a battered copy at a Sunday book bazaar last year and pocketed it (50 Rs!) with little hesitation. Over the months, I would head for it almost instinctively whenever I needed a pick-me-up or a reminder of home and my already worn copy now bears the brunt of public transport, marginalia and dog-eared pages.
‘You know, I honestly haven’t been homesick in months’, I muse to my mother the other day. 1506 miles away I can almost hear her bristling over the phone and I hurriedly repair my tactlessness. Tonight though, I’m overcome with a wave of melancholy and I push away my mini mountain of readings and reach out for the book. An exercise in nostalgia, I think one of the many reasons I love it is because Ondaatje manages to combine just the right eccentricities of Sri Lanka with his perfectly imperfect family, reminding me so much of my own.
While reading, I suddenly remember an incident—I think it was during the late nineties when the terror was slowly reaching its zenith and Colombo’s comfortable little bubble was in danger of being punctured. It was around this time that security was drastically increased and warning posters about unknown parcels containing bombs dotted bus interiors. Emergency training was conducted in schools. All I remember was that we were told to put a pencil between our teeth and scramble under a desk in case of an explosion which, between you and me, seemed quite pointless.
My cousin sister was a member of the national netball team and had been out of the country for a tournament. The entire team had arrived back to Sri Lanka earlier than planned and there had been little or no time to make arrangements for accommodation. Most of the girls hailed from far flung parts of the island and so the entire team and coach apologetically arrived on our doorstep with nowhere else to go. The army had suddenly started doing spot checks around this time, and just after we had settled into bed that night, the doorbell rang.
Awakened by the voices, I crept halfway downstairs and sleepily observed the motley crew assembled in my living room—My mother in her pastel housecoat; four perplexed army personnel unsure of what to do; a dozen girls rudely interrupted from their sleep, scrambling from their makeshift beds, and my father unsuccessfully trying to explain in fragmented Sinhala why there were a dozen unknown girls asleep in our living room. I think my parents managed to convince the army personnel that their house wasn’t a front for nefarious night time activities and the army personnel saw the humour of the situation. They finished their security check, patted my head awkwardly, as adults usually do with children, and with a few parting quips, headed out.
Lately, in light of the recent events unfolding in Sri Lanka, I’ve been trying to reconcile three ideas of home. One is the sanitized, selective history propounded by the state. The other is a far more sinister side siphoned off information sources on the internet and international news. The final one is the version of home in my mind and the limited geographical space I grew up in. All three meet rather jarringly. There’s a quote by Julian Barnes which seems apt as I attempt to untangle my own notions of personal identity and geographical space; ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’.
It’s been years and I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in school our text books conveniently trailed off after 1948. We would spend months memorizing kings, cataloguing their bloodthirstiness and making lists of their achievements. We dutifully memorized the advent of the Portuguese (1505), the Dutch (17th century. My social studies teacher should be proud of me) and the British. More names were memorized—colonial governors, freedom fighters, dates of quelled rebellions. Certain changes in the constitution after Independence and elements of parliament were included in the syllabus like an afterthought and then it conveniently trailed off into ellipses. Like a person hurriedly using a napkin to blot stray specks of sauce before it congeals on his shirt, insurgencies, political parties, uprisings, tensions were blurred away.
While living away from home brings an enviable sense of detachment, it also brings about an augmented anxiety in times of crisis. The recent wave of violence in Sri Lanka has left me in a state of agitation. I’m writing to you because I’m scared and sad and I’m struggling to make sense of this madness.
News alerts, snippets from blog posts, articles from dubious sites with even more dubious grammar, racist rhetoric in the guise of opinion columns, information compressed into 140 characters, grainy videos of mobs led by monks storming commercial establishments and places of religious worship, pictures of torn Qurans on Facebook—I devour all of it in an attempt to wrap my mind around what is taking place at home.
All the information I siphon is second-hand and I don’t know enough to differentiate if this recent eruption of violence is a result of professional agitators and higher political powers staging a decoy or if this will snowball into a repetition of the conflict we have only just emerged from. I’m sad that selective amnesia was and still is the norm. That memory and an acknowledgement of the past are dismissed as irrelevant and that our country seems to be approaching the future with all the arrogance and brash indifference of an adolescent teenager.
I feel helpless because I’ve seen enough of the world today to know that violence is now the first impulse and not a last resort. Everything I’ve read about the riots in the eighties suddenly come to mind—the betrayal of neighbours, mobs drunk on power, men stripped naked and burned on the streets, houses looted and families forced to flee. I’m scared because my Muslim family lives in a staunchly Buddhist neighbourhood and while this never seemed important all these years, I’m suddenly acutely aware of it.
Yours in anxiety,
July 2013, Delhi
It’s finally happened. I’ve put down roots. They’re hesitant, frail tendrils with a propensity to wither at the slightest provocation but they’ve been planted. After nodding my way through conversations with potential landlords/ladies and looking at one dubious room after another, I’d wearily head back home, climb up to the fourth floor and gratefully seek refuge in my room. The thought of adjusting to a new place seemed awfully cumbersome and I was surprised to find that despite its many limitations, the place I reluctantly lived in for three years had actually grown on me.
I can distinguish between 19 different footfalls; I can tell you where the domestic hides the excess supply of tea leaves and tomato sauce; which step you need to watch out for while climbing up; the perfect hot/cold water combination during the monsoons; the best spot on the terrace for a moonrise; how to jiggle the wire of the blender to get it to work; I can show you how to gauge the Help’s mood purely on the basis of the sink symphony of dishes and point out the warmest place during winter.
I’ve gotten so comfortable with my neighbourhood. I know its geographical placement well enough to snort with derision and pretend to walk away when the rickshaw driver tries to overcharge. There’s a market a stone’s throw away, complete with a dairy, pharmacy, multiple salons, momo, egg-sandwich, filter coffee and kathi roll-man, Chinese take-out, samosa-man, Namkeen lady and stationary shop. I will remain forever indebted to the seamstress at the market who chided me for wearing clothes three sizes too large for me and refused to make my clothes to the measurements I asked for. “Your clothes,” she seized the sides of my kurtha to emphasize her point, “They are too big for you. A young girl like you. You look old”. My waxing lady is from Chennai and is well used to my appallingly low threshold of pain. I think I’m even going to miss the two sylph-like wretches who bring chips and coke, occupy a bench in the park nearby and watch with amusement as those of us who aren’t endowed with high metabolism attempt to get rid of our love handles.
If you walk on further, you’ll come to a better stocked market abundant with food shops. From a curiously located bistro serving the standard ‘fusion’ fare, a South Indian restaurant, a few bakeries to a fantastic array of street food (think shawarmas, kebabs, burghers, paani-puri, vada pav, grilled corn, ice cream, parathas). Sandwiched in-between are a smattering of clothes stores and a dance studio. The courier man in this market greets me enthusiastically and reaches for the Sri Lanka price list as soon as I walk in. My digs are extremely close to one of Delhi’s nicest clothing markets and while my friends with finer tuned sensibilities turn their nose at shopping there, my inner tourist and bargain hunter loves it. Exploring it over the years has been an endless source of enjoyment.
There isn’t much room for originality in housing complexes in Delhi. With little room for horizontal expansion, the box-like buildings grow vertically with very little to distinguish one from the other. A redeeming feature of my place is the terrace. A large expansive rooftop, it’s not the most picturesque and it contains all kinds of flotsam and jetsam –the remnants of a swing which served us well for a year and then promptly collapsed in the next, a bathtub, old piles of wood. But from my fourth floor vantage I overlook a lovely park, dotted with vast heart shaped trees (On rainy days it metamorphoses into a pool. Two views for the price of one), lights of buildings dot the horizon and best of all, I can see the metro. If you know me in real life you will know that I adore the metro and there’s something comfortingly solid about hearing it in the distance. The terrace has seen many moon-gazings, rain dances and confessions. I’ve paced it in frustration and sought refuge from all-nighters with large flasks of tea and pale sunrises.
If you come up to the terrace early morning, you’ll see an old gentleman on the rooftop directly opposite, welcoming the day with a cigarette at sunrise. Always just the one cigarette, after his last drag, he’ll stretch and plod inside for his morning cuppa. The apartment on our right has had a steady stream of expats. During the first year, there were the gaggle of white boys who seemed to have perpetually misplaced their shirts both during summer and winter. The only interaction we had with them was during Holi when their eggs and water balloons would unerringly find their marks while ours would falter halfway, to our intense embarrassment. The Lost (Shirt) Boys gave way to the Staid Couple who always threw interesting parties with bad music. They had a black and white canine horror which was the bane of all the girls on the street and would try to hump everything that moved. Three years of living next door to pigeon breeders has not alleviated my phobia of pigeons. I think it’s the perturbing 360 degree turning heads and beady eyes. It’s beautiful, however to watch the handlers climb up to the cages, form silhouettes against the sunset and call the pigeons with low, musical cries of ‘Aaao, aaao’.
The apartment, for the lack of a better word, comfortably accommodates 7 people but houses 20, inclusive of the Help/caretaker and her son. Also, I think it may be an illegal commercial establishment. I vaguely remember when our air conditioners were removed and large calendars of Hindu deities were pasted over the gaping holes, in preparation for a tax raid.
The Help possesses the unique ability to translate my Hindi monosyllables into evocative sentences. We communicate through a smattering of English and Hindi monosyllables and charades. With a penchant for the dramatic, when she talks, her hands mime gestures, her eyes widen and her tone modulates according to her anecdote. On a winter day over a plate of pakoras, she told me about her village in Nepal and her mum’s green thumb and gesturing enthusiastically to highlight the profusion of produce back in her hometown. The Help’s back-story is intriguing. All of us are privy to her doomed love affair (tired of waiting for her, he got married last year. They still talk furtively at night and she receives mysterious gifts periodically from her ‘friend’) but stories about her husband vary on the theme of tragedy. To one girl, she confessed that he was in a mental asylum. To another, she said that he died in an accident. On my last night, while she was teaching me how to make paranthas and chapattis -mine remain woefully flat and just refuse to puff-she wistfully told me that her husband was an excellent cook and made the best lemon chicken she had ever tasted. She knows that whenever I potter about in the kitchen at night, she’ll find a bowl of pasta or chicken waiting for her in the fridge and she reciprocates by keeping some sabzi aside whenever she cooks for herself. She steps in to the role of surrogate nurse when any of us fall sick, administering an inedible watery dhal-rice concoction called kitchidi which all of Delhi seems to swear by, in times of sickness.
Her son, who has mysteriously remained 14 over the past three years, centres his life on cricket. If you walk in to their quarters you’ll see a shrine of newspaper cricketers adorning the peeling walls. Every Sunday, he takes out his threadbare sports shoes and carefully scrubs the remnants of the week off it. His disinclination towards school remains a perennial source of heated arguments between him and his mother.
Her daughter is a younger photocopy of her mother, has all of her shrewdness but none of her mother’s warmth. For a child so young, she has surprisingly adult-like mannerisms and has perfected the hand on the hip stance, the hair flick and the disapproving lip-twist. Recently just returned after a year of Boarding School in Nepal she has now graduated from cartoons to soap operas and reality TV. Notoriously light-fingered, biscuits, clips, nail-polish, shiny things and stationary left out are assumed lost for ever.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this neighbourhood or my apartment. Despite all my romanticizing, you’re going to find imitations nestled all over Delhi, superior terraces and far more interesting flatmates. But it was my little niche in the big city. Granted, there are lots of things I could have done differently but I’ve built a life in a new country from scratch. From not knowing anyone in this city, I’ve advanced to a stage where I walk into a random literary reading and will be likely to spot a familiar face. Whether it’s being warmly greeted by a shopkeeper or a chocolate and post-it note professing affection being left on my desk, its little things like these which ward off the overwhelming obscurity and loneliness of being a small fish in a vast pond.
Have you seen how dogs sniff warily at a spot, circle it a few times and only then flop down for a nap? I’m a bit like that these days with my new digs. Perhaps, minus the sniffing though.
When I started this letter, I was apartment hunting. A few drafts later, I’ve said goodbye to the place I called home for three years in Delhi, and am cautiously getting acclimatized to my new surroundings, flatmates, unwelcome surprises and quirks of the place. The pinkness of my room is unsettling (The walls are pink. The cupboards are pink. The shelves are pink. It’s like living in an Aerosmith song) and I keep hitting my head on the multiple wind chimes my landlady seems unduly fond of. I’ve stacked up on biscuits and made friends with the two strays who have taken it upon themselves to guard the gate and got my game face on.
This letter is already too long and I can feel your exhaustion.
Yours in flux,
Heavily pencilled-schedule in hand and books in backpack, I walk past the lines of people waiting to greet his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and navigate past the formidable bodyguards (a new addition to this year’s festival). The Dalai Lama, wagging his finger informs the packed front lawns that money fails to bring inner peace and the ultimate source of happiness and joyfulness lies within ourselves. There’s a curious disconnect between the shadow of the lurid pink tent, the large sponsor banners and the calm spiritual leader as he draws parallels between science and religion (both seek reality through investigation) and solemnly informs us that corruption is the cancer of the whole world.
Under normal circumstances and armed with a healthy supply of scepticism characteristic of our times, most people might have dismissed this as rehashed wisdom but a quick glance around reveals that the sheer charisma and endearing simplicity of His Holiness has the audience absorbed. He shared anecdotes with writer, Pico Iyer about a life of eternal learning and anecdotes about his early years. Themes of home and belonging shadowed most of the sessions at the festival and the reminder that the 77-year-old who has devoted his life to the promotion of secular ethics, human happiness and inter-religious harmony has spent 54 years in exile is a sobering one.
Walking in to the Diggi Palace this year was like coming back home and finding the furniture rearranged in your absence. You’re a little disconcerted but then it starts to grow on you. The ingredients for the sixth edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival consisted of five days, 174 sessions (with new locations being added to the existing venue, hence the initial bewilderment), 275 speakers, a footfall of 200,000 visitors, a handful of music events and customary hullabaloo all shaken and stirred.
From debates on the literatures of 9/11; the role of the writer and the state to Sharia Law; nationalism and Arab Literature as well as an added emphasis on Buddhism and literature, the political and religious overtones which occupied a chunk of the schedule seemed curiously apt. The concept of readymade religion dropped out of heaven devoid of cultural and political influences was swiftly unpacked. As was the idea that religion has a monopoly on violence around the world. The cheerful conclusion of a majority of these sessions was that humans don’t need a reason to kill each other.
The strands of academic thought emphasised during the run up to the festival in an effort to make up for last year’s pomp were augmented with academic heavy weights Gayatri Spivak, professor at Columbia university (old literary theory joke about Spivak’s convoluted writing runs along the lines of ‘it’s not a question of whether the subaltern can speak, but whether they can Spivak’); literary and cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, head of the Humanities Centre at Harvard University; Diana L. Eck, from the Harvard Divinity School and political philosopher Michael Sandel, also from Harvard University. Michael Sandel was a personal favourite as he held forth on the cost of market economies warping into market societies where anything can be bought if you flash the right amount of cash.
My gift to you today are two fun if slightly startling facts from Sandel’s session. A prison cell upgrade at Santa Barbara prison will cost you about 80 dollars and writer Fay Weldon was paid a hefty sum to advertise the jeweller Bulgari, taking product placement to whole new heights. The 2001 novel titled ‘The Bulgari Connection’ mentioned the jeweller 34 times and was studded with literary gems such as ‘A Bulgari necklace in the hand is worth two in the bush’.
British born author of Indian origin and currently residing in Japan, Pico Iyer sums up the concept of home poignantly “Home is not a piece of soil but a piece of soul”. Laleh Khadivi likens her hyphenated identity to a migratory bird. Author of Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese bluntly acknowledges that medicine is his first love and that he could give up writing but not practising medicine. The schoolgirls in front of me debate whether to get Ariel Dorfman’s autograph as he shuffles in front of us. After minutes of furious whispering, they shyly approach him with their well-worn exercise books. Dorfman peers at them and obliges. “Have you read any of my books though?” he asks. They smile and shake their heads.
The phantoms of Homer and Vyasa deign to make an appearance in Jaipur as the Epic is dissected -“Mythology lives by retelling. It is constantly renewing itself. To retell the myth is to honour the myth”. College students hold up the line for Madeline Miller’s book signing by vociferously airing their opinions on Achilles and Patrocles. A session on ‘Reimagining the Kama sutra’ is well attended. I wonder if it is perhaps a little too well attended as a five – year- old perched on her mother’s lap stretches in boredom. Both panellists have reimagined the Kama sutra in two very different ways. Pavan Varma insists that it empowers women while K.R. Indira refuses to budge on the stance that it sees women as objects. The audience leaves happily divided.
The steady stream of sessions continues and as the weekend progresses, the literary tourists have swollen in numbers. “Nobody knows this but we [Latin American writers] are very funny,” quips Santiago Roncagliolo. Roncagliolo compares himself to a dictator (“My characters do what I want them to do. If they don’t, I kill them”) as he and Ariel Dorfman banter about writing and their Latin American identity. Both speak about the deep seated relationship Latin American writers have with their readers – something I wonder if those of us of the subcontinent will be lucky enough to have. As evening descends over the festival, the silhouette of a boy on a rooftop attempting to fly a kite is projected on the blue backdrop of the tent.
Five novelists on stage debate about the novel of the future which deviates into a conversation of the future of the novel. All of them unsurprisingly agree that the novel isn’t dead. They touch on the curious case of the decline of reading and the surge in writing – clearly everybody wants to be a writer, but no one wants to read other people’s writing. At first, words come hesitantly to British-Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam (“My deepest conviction is that there is nothing extraordinary about me”) who then proceeds to charm the audience – “Novelists don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about”. Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson dismisses most readers plaintive request for ‘likeable’ characters – “When did you last read Shakespeare and want to have Macbeth & Lady Macbeth over for dinner”- and uncannily hits the nail on the head about the tragedy of our times – “Has the literary event replaced reading?” A festival favourite this year, Jacobson had his fans from the moment he cheerfully tore into fifty shades of grey.
Jeet Thayil wins the DSC prize for South Asian Literature and dedicates his award to fellow nominee Jamil Ahamad. The 10 finalists for the Man Booker Prize (which is given for a body of work by an author, not an individual book) were announced at the festival, with three writers from Asia making the list. Aminatta Forna, Ahdaf Soueif, Zoe Heller, Sebastian Faulks, Reza Aslan, Christopher Ricks, Elif Batuman, Gary Shteyngart are few other names which punctuate the list of speakers at this year’s JLF.
Sebastian Faulks obliging a fan
I bump into one of Sri Lanka’s additions to the festival. Ashok Ferrey and I bond over a mutual nostalgia for spicy Sri Lankan food (This is starting to sound like one of those name-dropping gossip columns. A thousand apologies) Ferrey describes his first time at the festival as “absolutely mindboggling” and remarks on the expansive demographic and democratic nature of the festival.
The pen may be mightier than the sword but it paled in the presence of the bat and Bollywood as Rahul Dravid and Sharmila Tagore proved to be two stars of the festival. A section of each session is devoted to questions from the audience. Unfortunately there are questions and then there are solipsistic life précis. The sense of power a microphone bestows on a person boggles the mind and is every moderator’s nightmare. After the end of one particular session, we receive the literary equivalent of a move trailer – a slim booklet with the first chapter of a book soon to be released in February.
Sitting on the lawn on the final day and observing the mixed bag of humanity which makes up the festival, it’s a little hard to imagine that the first edition started off with 2500 people. The economic repercussions of the loss of 1.5 crore (278,000 dollars) this year however poses a credible threat to the festival bubble. Where is the festival headed next year? Simultaneously the larger the festival, the larger scope for ruffled feathers, sulks and tantrums. The political repercussions in the past certainly haven’t left the festival untouched. The festival was preluded by threats of violence from Muslim fundamentalists if either of the four authors who read excerpts from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses last year, attended this year. Not to be outdone, the Hindu right-wing group RSS and the national opposition Bharatiya Janata Party promptly warned Pakistani writers from participating in the festival, citing escalating tensions along the ‘line of control’ – the border separating Kashmir. During the course of the festival, academic Ashish Nandy’s remark about caste and corruption was stripped of context, taken in its barest literal meaning and used as a vaulting pole for stirring agitation. The absolutist response to the controversy (I’m a little tired of this word becoming synonymous with the festival now) garnered by a poorly articulated remark is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s foul tempered monarch’s refrain “Off with their heads” in response to the slightest offence. Who says life doesn’t mirror literature?