Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d done an interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices, Palace of Illusions and One Amazing Thing, after returning from the Jaipur Literature Festival’11 for BookChums.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d read Palace of Illusions before heading to Jaipur and was mighty excited when I discovered Chitra would be one of the authors attending. That’s because Palace of Illusions was one of my favoritest reads of 2010 (I know, I know, review’s pending. Soon, soon) and she turned out to top my short list of Indian Authors I Like very soon.

The interview is finally up. Excerpts from the interview..

AM: Your latest novel, One Amazing Thing, tells the story of 9 people stuck in a crisis. I remember you spoke about how the idea for this book came to you at JLF. Could you give our readers a glimpse into that experience?

CBD: One Amazing Thing comes out of an autobiographical experience. In 2005, I, too, faced a natural disaster — Hurricane Rita was headed toward Houston, Texas, where I live, and we had to evacuate the city. There was a lot of panic, huge traffic jams, etc. It made me contemplate how human beings deal with catastrophe and the fear of death, and how we might be able to connect with strangers under such circumstances. That idea is at the heart of One Amazing Thing.

AM: Spanning a time of over 15 years, you have written 12 novels, contributed in various anthologies. You are often called a prolific author. Prolific authors sometimes tend to build a formula around their style and stories, but you have always taken up different narratives, even while keeping some similar themes. Where do you find the inspiration and the creative energy required to keep writing?

CBD: I don’t know. I only know that it’s important for me to set myself a new challenge with each book. For instance, with Palace of Illusions, I wanted to retell the story of an epic (Mahabharat) with a woman (Draupadi) at its center. In One Amazing Thing, I wanted to write a novel about creating community, and I used a disaster scenario as the setting.  In Mistress of Spices I used magical realism.

AM: We often see folk tales, myths and legends being retold in your various novels. Do you think as an Indian you have an advantage that you can mine into a treasure trove of stories that can be used as a trope in your narratives?

CBD: Yes, I feel very fortunate that I had a grandfather who was a wonderful storyteller and shared these folk/legendary tales with me. It gives me a very rich source to draw from, and I have used them amply, especially in my children’s books such as The Conch Bearer.

Palace of Illusions
Palace of Illusions

AM: Your novel The Palace of Illusions was a retelling of The Mahabharata through Paanchali. There have been several versions and retellings of the Mahabharata. Despite that, were you apprehensive with your retelling of one of our most sacred and beloved epics?

CBD: Yes. The original is such a great text, I wanted to do it justice & knew it would be the hardest task I’d set myself until then. I did a lot of research & reading in preparation.

AM: Following the same train of thought, Mahabharata and Ramayana are two of our most important epics. Both have women in a central role who have faced great injustice. What made you choose Draupadi over Sita?

CBD: I have always pondered about Draupadi, who is very timeless & modern (both) in her questioning of her role & rights as a woman. That said, I do want to write a novel about Sita.

You can read the full interview here.

Devil’s Workshop

They say an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Who is the devil and what is an idle mind?

Is that wily creature who visits once in a while to sow seeds of discontent and doubt known as the devil? Is a mind that has overcome the problem of crowded thoughts and now seeks solace in temporary, and necessary emptiness, an idle mind? What’s wrong if Mr. Devil wants to squat on Idle Mind’s property? No one’s occupying it at that moment it seems. Are you worried about encroachment issues? You think Mr. Devil will never leave? You think Mr. Devil and his spawn will corrupt your blank mind?

You needn’t worry so much, you are already taken, by lesser delights and virtuosity.

 

(To be continued.. maybe after my meeting with Mr.Devil)

The Storytellers’ Secret

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The sun had moved from over our heads and was making its journey westwards, towards the forests and she still hadn’t come. I had finished all my chores and was helping mother. But my mind was somewhere else, and my mother was going tut-tut at my distracted state. Though she pretended otherwise, I knew she looked forward to Nalini’s visit as much I did, possibly more. Why were we waiting for Nalini, you ask?
Nalini was one of the storytellers. She was one of them, those tellers and jesters, who traveled from place to place, village to village, telling stories, bringing news, providing a glimpse into the world outside our meager existence, offering relief. Storytellers’ tradition was such that they could tell a story to an audience of more than one, not less, ever. If you met a storyteller alone, and he or she, told you a story, it would not be a story, not a service, but something more and infinitely less. You could pay them whatever you owned, but even that would not be enough. They often held their sessions for a larger audience, where there was no chance of them breaking tradition. You could find the teller Prayag holding the villagers captive with his tales of battleships and kingdoms under the banyan tree near the temple. He was there once every week, and he would tell the same story, with the kings and places and the weapons changed, but the villagers all loved him. He was also very good-looking.  And his demands in return for a story were thus proportionately extravagant. He once asked for a cow, would you believe that? Mother never liked him, and so neither did I.
But Nalini, she was different. She would come to your house, talk to you, tell you stories on a whim, ask you for your favorites and retell them, and she never asked for much in return. A few kind words, some food and on occasion if you had any clothes or other items to spare, Nalini would be more than content with that. Mother said that she did actually ask for a lot when she asked after us, when she enquired about our life and living, and you never knew if she was asking because she wanted to know, or because she was looking for a story. As the saying went, “A teller can only tell what has been taken; taken is always what is given.”  One time, when I was telling Nalini about how our goat ate mother’s favorite ring, mother got very angry at me.  “Would you want the people in the next village to know that a woman can afford to let her goat eat her ring and still stay in this hut? Do you want to be a joke in front of strangers?” she yelled at me. After that I kept everything that could be taken, safe and secret. Sometimes, even from mother because I knew she would not like what I was thinking.
But I’m digressing, this is not about me. This is about Nalini. And there she was, one could hear her anklets falling in rhyme with her steps. I could hear it the moment she entered the threshold, and leave whatever I was doing and would run outside to check. And there she would be, taking off her bundle from her shoulders and resting it on the porch, shaking her head and muttering to herself, those gentle calm eyes, sweeping the surroundings as if memorizing the color of mud and the number of steps leading to our door. She would settle her eyes on me after an eternity, exclaim “Kairavima, how you’ve grown!” and rush to pat my head and validate if I had in fact grown as much as she had imagined, since her last visit. Mother frowned upon this showering of affection, but I liked it. I felt special, for I knew she greeted none of the other children in the village this way. Mother would ask us to hurry inside, get refreshed and begin, for she had many other things to take care of apart from dilly dallying with pleasantries.
Nalini would come in and sit next to the only cot, on the floor, while mother would perch herself as comfortably as she could on the cot and I’ll be left to find a favorite spot between the wall and the cot. Though Nalini didn’t belong to lower, nor higher caste than ours, she would sit at a lower position, and mother, the owner of the house, above. I could sit with my mother, as I did when I was younger, on her lap or resting my head on her lap, but now that I was no longer a small child, I could sit wherever I wanted, but not too close to the storyteller. And I had to sit like a proper lady, or as proper a lady from a place like ours could. A concoction of crushed herbs and lemon juice would be kept in front of Nalini for refreshment; she would sip it from time to time, taking pause from her story. I wondered what story she would spin today. The last time she was here, she had told the story of the Prince who wanted to be married to a swan in the royal ponds, and how he took swimming lessons and I had burst into fits of laughter at odd times for days afterwards. I hoped she would tell something less funny today, for laughing without reason, or because of past reveries was also one of the things not much appreciated.
Today she looked a bit tired and seemed to be as lost in thought as I had been sometime back. Mother began shaking her foot impatiently and making the cot shiver, waking Nalini from whatever daydream she was chasing. She took the hint and began. “What tale do you want to listen to today? The story of the King who wanted to learn flying from Jatayu, or about the Princess from the mountains who could stop rivers from flowing? Or do you want to hear the legend of the King trapped inside a mango seed that was eaten by fish? Or should I tell you about the girl who was born from the earth?” Nalini would often ask us these, but would tell a story of her own choosing. I suspected this was just her way to let us know what stories she had and give us a tantalizing glimpse of them and nothing more. “You know the tradition Nalini, the stories and the rules. Tell us what you please.” Mother would parrot her favorite line as the answer to this question, as she did every time. The storytellers, with all the stories and the places they visited, were trapped with many rules. And only they knew what those were, but one always heard rumor. One of the rules was that they could not stay with their families for more than a quarter of the year. They had to leave them and had to move from place to place and make their living. I don’t know why that rule was there, it seemed more like a necessity than a rule, but then as mother kept saying, there’s more that you don’t know than that which you know and don’t understand. I’m not sure if I completely understood that, but it was enough to intimidate me into silence whenever I got boastful in front of her.  
“Well then, let me tell you the story of the Curse of Minasmara. This one has never been told before, or maybe it has. You’d never know, but this is my story.” Sometimes she would tell the story from her own point of view, as if she was there, present, not just observing but also experiencing. I often felt that these were parts of her own life, and not some story passed down from tradition, and I also felt that it wasn’t just because she chose to tell it from her point of view. I’d see how her voice would go soft and slow and her eyes would dance with emotions when she told such stories, but I kept these observations of mine hidden, like the many other observations, from mother’s omniscient gaze.
“To begin, we’ll have to go back a long long way back in time. When I was just a girl as old as you are now,” she said, looking at me. I smiled at her, mother seemed to be suppressing something, but there was no time to look into that. “My father was a fisherman and I was the only daughter. My mother, they told me, had been taken by the lake’s deep waters, as a price for my father’s profession. My father took his living from the lake, the lake took my mother’s life in return. I was only a year old then. I don’t remember much of her, but father told me that she was very beautiful, like Ganga herself. It had been twelve years since my mother’s death. One night I got a dreadful nightmare. The lake, Minasmara, spoke to me, and told me that my father still had to pay his debt. I saw a woman thrashing and trapped at the centre of the lake, her silhouette in the sinking sun, her face invisible to my eyes. I didn’t know if it was my mother or me. But I saw her struggling to escape and was rooted helplessly at the banks all night, or was it all evening? The sun sank into the waters and dragged the woman with it. There was no dark figure against the sun, only the dark of the night descending in my dream. Daylight broke into my sleep and I woke up with a thudding heart and a very restless mind. I relayed my dream to father, as soon as I could. Now, when I think of it, it was perhaps not the best thing to do. Some things are best kept secret.” She looked at me, and I felt her eyes reading what I thought I had kept secret. This, fortunately, went unnoticed by mother, who seemed to be quite engrossed with the story.
“A few days later that dream left from my mind, for after unburdening myself of its weight, it seems I had passed on the nightmare to my father. Though he never admitted it to me, I knew he had not slept well at night. He would be distracted and lazy through the day, miss easy catch, get lowly prices for the fish and began to look like a defeated man. I’d try to help him, but being a girl, I couldn’t go and help him catch fish, nor could I go into the market myself and conduct the dealings. I was to stay home and look after the household chores. Summer was approaching and we needed to get whatever we could from the market, before the lake shrank. One evening, father returned from the market, with a woman. By what right was she to enter our house, I asked father. Her name is Harini, and as your new mother and my new wife, she had all right to enter our house and live with us, he said. I was deeply hurt. I felt rejected, a strong sense of betrayal was rising in my heart and up my throat and I threw a big tantrum, blocking the door and not letting them inside our house. Was the memory of my mother, as beautiful as Ganga, not enough for him? Was I not a good enough daughter to take care of him? I was myself nearing the age of marriage and he went and got married himself! What was he thinking? All my anger was directed at him. I didn’t know her, nor did I care. The way I saw it, she was here to take my place. And that was also how my father saw it. ‘You will be married soon, Nalima. Who will look after this old man, once you are gone? Do you want to leave your poor father, in his sick state while you start your new life with vigor and prosperity?’ That did it. He had put the guilt of selfishness on to me and my heart. What could I say to that? What choice did I have other than welcoming this woman into our house, our life and our world as we knew it?
“Days went by and I became friends with Harini. I couldn’t bring myself to call her mother. But I couldn’t call her by her name either. In my mind, she was always Harini. She was quiet and had the most beautiful eyes. I always thought she was quiet because her eyes said so much more than what could be said. It was difficult not to like her. She would help me with the household chores and tell me stories about her childhood in the forests, and how she had never seen the lake or the ocean and how scared she was of the fierce flowing rivers that winded around the forests. I used to make fun of her because of this, but she would take it well. I promised to teach her how to swim once the lake was filled with water again. She was more friend, and sister than my new mother, or my father’s new wife. That was something we never talked about, and never wanted to either.
“With the arrival of the monsoons, came the time for my wedding. I was going to be married to Iravan, who was the strongest and most handsome fisherman you would ever see. Despite the stern exterior, he was as gentle and large-hearted as the ocean. How we fell in love and how he got to ask my father for my hand is a thrilling story in itself, but I will keep that for some other time.” Her eyes had that brightness which convinced me that this was no mere story being recounted for the hundredth time in front of an audience.
“We were going to be married at the temple at the centre of the lake. That was where all our weddings took place. We would be married in the temple and then there would be a big feast at the bank of the lake, which was already decorated. As per our customs, we would get married at noon, when the sun was over our head and showered us with light and blessings in its full capacity. Since the temple was not very large and it was difficult journey and also because the monsoons had made it all the more difficult, only family members and the priest were to be present for the actual ceremony. It was an overcast day and we had no idea how we’d know if noon came and went.  Thus we got married under a hidden sun, and it seemed our feast would take place under a storm. But nothing could dampen my spirits, I was getting married to the man I loved, everyone I loved was around me and healthy. Harini had a glow around her face and a smile that spoke of fulfillment. I had asked her about it, but she had said that she would tell me after the wedding. In her words, she didn’t want me to go giddy with all the good news.  The clouds above had started gathering force and we began our hurried departure from the temple towards the bank. We were still a good mile or two away from the bank when it started raining. And such a gale it was! The likes of it I’ve never seen since. The lake and the clouds seemed equally angry and at war. Our boat dipped and rose dangerously with the waves. Iravan held me in his arms and I clutched on to him for dear life. My heart was beating with excitement and somewhere uneasiness was creeping in, but it got swept under the raging rainstorm that surrounded us. Harini was sitting scared, across me. I wished father would hold her, the way my husband held me and protect her. I wanted to say something to that effect, but didn’t know if my in-laws would find it appropriate for a daughter to speak to her father like that. I was just going to tell Harini to hold the flank of the boat tightly, when our boat gave a mighty heave and it seemed like the heavens and oceans had switched their places. There was utter chaos for moments and nothing could be seen or heard under the thunder and lightning. With another giant lurch, our boat settled back on a wave and seemed stable. And just as it had started, the storm was fading away. The clouds were fleeing as if a giant wind was erasing them away. The sun was making its descent into the lake, it was already evening and none of us realized. Neither did anyone of us realize that Harini was missing. I couldn’t believe how I didn’t notice immediately and then the creeping fear inside my heart exploded. I looked at the helpless figure thrashing about in the middle of the lake, against the dying sun. I wanted to jump in and swim across and drag her out. I had risen up and was screaming her name, but strong arms were holding me back. I beseeched my father to go in and save her, but he looked helplessly on. I begged and pleaded with others, for someone to go and save my mother, my sister and my friend. No one wanted to displease the lake. No one would interfere; no one would save its victim. ‘Why don’t you save her, she’s your wife? It’s your duty!’ I bawled at my father again and again. ‘I could only save you’ was all he said and as I saw Harini drown and sink into that bottomless depth from where there was no rescue, no respite, another truth sank into my heart. The heavy truth of betrayal. My father hadn’t betrayed me by bringing her into our life, he had betrayed her. And she had trusted him, she had trusted me. And what did we give her for her trust and care? We gave her to the lake, as a price, as our payback for its gifts. We sold a life for a living, with treachery. My father had not just tainted his life, but mine too. For I had shared the burden of my nightmare with him, and now he would share the burden of this crime with me.” 
“Careful Nalini, be careful. Kairavi, you too.” Mother’s voice interrupted us. I was sitting open-mouthed at the unfolding of events in Nalini’s story. I had expected this turn of events when the nightmare was mentioned, but to see it, to imagine it happening as expected was still a blow.  Mother got up from the cot and went into our kitchen. Though I was almost on the verge, I didn’t dare to cry in front of the storyteller, and even worse, in my mother’s presence. The look that mother gave me when she got up promised flaying if I broke the rule. This was one of the most confusing, yet strictest tenets of the storytellers. They were not allowed to make you cry. That’s putting it too simply. They weren’t allowed to affect you too deeply. They could entertain you, inform you, even preach, but there was a line and that was not to be crossed. They could not evoke emotions that would have no way to be paid for. They can make us laugh, make us angry, keep us in awe, keep us confused and questioning, but to make your audience cry, shed a drop of tear, was the gravest crime. They had no right upon that personal and private feeling.  Allowing that brought upon heavy punishment from the Keepers of Tradition of the tellers and there was gossip about storytellers who had been banished from their faction and used their storytelling skills for black magicians. I wasn’t worried about that, I was more worried about what mother would say and do, if I broke it. For it was a rule binding on both the teller and the listener. Both had to know their place and be aware of the boundaries. As mother had once tried to explain, when you let that innermost emotion be shown, be shown to a storyteller, it puts you in a bond and gives the storyteller powers over you. They would know what your innermost fears and desires are and would play with them to his or her advantage. The storyteller then could control you, your mind and your heart, for what lay inside was now for everyone to see, and exploit. I thought that rule about storytellers never seeking audience with one person was probably created to enforce this complex rule, but I wasn’t too sure. For now, I was primarily concerned with avoiding the wrath of my mother. Then to see if there was more to the story.
Mother came out and kept a plate of rice, some lemon pickle, and water in front of Nalini. She asked me if I wanted to eat, it was too early, but I didn’t want to refuse. She kept another plate of rice and pickle for me. “Eat and continue with the story, if there is anything left to it.” She went on to light lamps around the house, and after a while I heard her sitting further inside in the house, next to the pots that had been made in the morning. I didn’t know if she was going to begin working on them now, it was already dark and she could hardly see in this dim light. But I didn’t enquire, and sat and ate my meal quietly.  Nalini was eating as if she had not eaten for days. The rice and pickle had disappeared even before I had finished my third morsel. I kept my eyes to her plate, not wishing to go and meet her eyes. I wanted to tell mother that maybe we should give her more, but mother seemed to have read my mind and asked me to offer her some more. I gave her some more rice and extra pickle, she seemed to like that. I also gave her some more of the lemon juice concoction. I was going to sit and begin eating again, but I had no stomach for it, so I went in and emptied the rice back into the pot and ate up all the pickle. With all the scurrying around, I figured mother would not notice. I sat down, and for a minute there was no sound other than that of Nalini eating.
I went back to what mother had warned about, it seemed Nalini would continue only when she had finished. I looked at her and didn’t think she would take advantage of me, or bind me with her powers. It was hard to believe that she would make you cry, just to get some sense of control over you and your destiny. I sometimes felt that she could look inside my heart and tell me the stories that it wanted to listen to with furious longing. Her stories had brought peace and hope to my restless mind so often, had enlivened a bleak day so easily. How could that ever be a bad thing?
Before I could answer, Nalini indicated that she had finished. I took her bowl and plate outside, where it would be washed with the other vessels and gave her some water to clean up. She returned and sat down just beyond the doorstep. She spoke softly, I don’t know if mother could hear her or see me and I inched closer.
“Following that incident, I could never go back to speaking with my father. People told me I should be thankful to him for saving my life. When I asked them, ‘At what price?’ they would say nothing. I was resolute and didn’t talk to him till he was on his deathbed. Weakened by age and grief, he died just months after my marriage. I sat next to him like a dutiful daughter, but could provide no calm, nor comfort, nor peace in his last moments. His last words to me were, ‘I hope I saved you’.  I don’t know what he meant by that, and even if I did know somewhere in the back of my mind what it meant, I refused to go there, for it brought back the memory and guilt of betrayal. Something within me had died with Harini’s death.
“It had been three years since I had been married and yet we had no child. His parents blamed me, and I too blamed myself. There were sacrifices and ceremonies made, but to no avail. Iravan’s spirits were low and it seemed as if he cared for nothing but a child. Was I of no value to him? Perhaps I wasn’t but that thought still rankled in my mind. I feared he might leave me, or get another wife. That was nothing new; one could always get another wife to bear your child. I put all my heart into prayer and visited the temple in the lake every day. I prayed for one and only thing, for a child.
 “One day, Iravan came home excited and gave me the most exquisitely beautiful white lotus. He said they had found it stuck in a fish’s mouth and that it must have come from the temple. Yet it looked as if it had grown from the fish itself. He instructed me to eat the seeds of that lotus; it was bound to have magical properties. It might just help us conceive a child.”  Magical lotus from a fish’s mouth? White lotus in a lake first of all? My belief that this was indeed Nalini’s story began to falter, but another part of me remained stubbornly faithful.
“I believed in prayers, but I was always wary of miracles. Though I didn’t really believe that the lotus was magical, to humor him, I did as instructed.” This time, she definitely gave me the most fleeting of glances and I was glad we were safely hidden from mother’s gaze. “The thought of this magical lotus left my mind after some days. I had immersed myself in prayer again and would spend hours sitting at the temple, sometimes just sitting on its steps and looking for answers from the lake, the lake that held all the answers to all the problems in my life. One evening, after prayers, I was sitting on the steps when I heard Harini’s voice. I first thought I was just hearing voices inside my head. Then it came again, and again, and it seemed to be coming from the lake itself. And I looked down and there she was, looking up at me, with those eyes of hers. I thought the steps would vanish from under me and I’d fall into those waters, never to breathe air again. I was feeling breathless. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was, how foolish I was, how I had never realized. I wanted to hold her and cry with her. But she kept asking me to take something from her. I didn’t know what to make of it. All I wanted was for her to come back and be with me, or that I could go and be with her. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I kept walking down the steps into the lake. Before I knew it, it was cold and dark and everything seemed empty. I didn’t know if the lake had swallowed me, or if the lake was inside me.
“When I woke up, I was back inside our house. Iravan was sitting next to me looking worried and excited at the same time. He told me how some fishermen had seen me and had rescued me. They had seen me floating. ‘Floating on what?’ I asked. He said they didn’t know. They just saw me floating near the temple steps and had hauled me up and brought me home. And that I had been unconscious for hours. All this while, there was a bright spark in his eyes, as if he was very happy. I felt a rush of affection for him, imagining that he was happy to see me alive. Before I could say anything to that effect, he burst out with the news that was making him so happy. ‘And you are going to be a mother Nalini. And I’m going to be a father. Everyone is so delighted. We are going to hold a ceremony soon.’ I should have been happy, I think I was very happy, but I was more worried than ever. I felt slighted by the importance given to the news of me being with child and not that that I was saved, but I decided I was being too self-indulgent. It was my child, and he or she, too had been saved along with me. I had no recollection of what had actually happened at the temple steps. I sometimes tried to recall, but I would be left blank and restless.  I decided to instead be happy for my child, and for my husband.
“As the days turned into months, the memory of that evening faded. I was busy making arrangements for the child, busy getting pampered by Iravan. Monsoons arrived and the baby started kicking. Just another month the elders told me. Iravan would spend all his evenings by my side. He would rush home even before the sun had set, and would talk about his plans and dreams for his son. He was convinced it was going to be a boy. I disagreed, but didn’t express my disagreement. Any day now, the mid-wife who came to look after me told me. She was a young woman called Prakshi and she came from a far-away village. Though she wasn’t old like the other midwives were, I knew she would take good care of me. I would get horrible cramps every night.  Prakshi would give me a potion of juices made from herbs every night to help the pain, but those attacks still persisted. One night, I had the same dream that I had once, a long time back. The lake wasn’t satisfied. This time it would be my husband’s debt. And I saw the woman again, thrashing and screaming against the sun. I didn’t know if it was my mother, Harini, myself or my daughter. Or was it going to be another hoodwinked stranger. I woke up with terror in my heart. Even though it was as dark as night, I knew it was nearly morning. My heart beat rapidly with fear and my body was convulsing with pains. Prakshi, who was staying with us now, came to check on me hearing my screams. Iravan was out, preparing for the day, as he did every day, before the sun rose. It was only me and Prakshi. I hoped she knew what was to be done. I had no idea what was to be done and I wondered if I could survive the night.  White light was blinding my eyes and I feared I would cry myself to death. She helped me control my breathing and got everything ready. She held my hand in one hand and asked me to put all my strength and willpower in helping my child come out. After what felt like days of torment, we heard the first cry. It was a boy she said. He was to be named Divit, as decided beforehand. Iravan was right, it was a boy. It could also mean that my nightmare might never come to be true. I was happier than I could imagine. I just wanted to sleep, the ordeal was over. We all might live happily ever after. Prakshi shook me and woke me up from my drowsy state. ‘There’s another baby’ she said. I couldn’t believe it. There were two babies? I had been carrying twins and I had never realized. What was this supposed to mean? Before I could ponder upon this question, the pains returned. I was to go through that process once more. Again, I pushed and panted and a shrill cry broke out in the air.
“It was a girl, Prakshi said. I didn’t know what to call her. Though I had imagined from time to time that I might have a girl child, we had never decided upon a name. Worse, I was gripped by the fear of that curse following her. But what could I do? I asked Prakshi to help clean up the babies and set everything to order. I told Prakshi that she can put the babies to sleep and that I needed to rest a while. While she did that, I looked carefully at her. She was gentle and caring with them. I knew she would take good care of them. I pretended to be asleep. I wish I had forgiven my father. I got up before the sun was properly up. I dressed hurriedly; even though I felt weak, I knew there would be no other opportunity. I bundled up the girl, I had named her Saumyi in my head. I took her into my arms, and she was there, looking at me with those eyes and already speaking to my mind. I looked at Divit, resting peacefully, calm and confident like his father, and I knew he would be safe. The price had been paid for their lives. I left the threshold knowing I’d never return, I left the only place that could have been home. I knew Iravan would marry Prakshi after appropriate time had passed and they would live happily, for as long as it was possible. I understood that the curse was not of the Minasmara Lake, but of human heart. Who was going to pay the next price?”
I never knew Nalini had a daughter. What happened of her? Or was this really her story? Why did she tell us this story, to what purpose? What was she getting at? I knew maybe, but I didn’t like the answer one bit. I had a feeling everything had changed in the house. My mother came out of the darkness, and gave Nalini a pot to take with her and walked out with her. My mother asked her something, and she replied, though I couldn’t catch any part of that exchange. I watched as Nalini left and my mother returned home, having broken the rule and broken, otherwise.
As I looked at those gathered around me, I suspected one of them was about to break today. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it was necessary. And they never really understood the rule, their heart betrayed them much before their eyes, or their face, did. I knew there was going to be another storyteller joining us soon.

Doing Nothing

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It’s been a while since I came here to rant. Well, actually this is not going to be a rant (hopefully). I just noticed that I came here to babble long time back and since today I am in that mood, why not babble and “contribute” to a blog? 
So the weekend was a big active deal, compared to what it otherwise is, and left me quite tired. This is saying something for someone in the “prime of their youth”. I went for a party on Saturday night and went out in the evening for a good time on Sunday. Both had their share of good times and Saturday night had its share of fun and yuck-ick-flack-ness. But I don’t want to go on about that here. So yes, both these left me quite tired by the end of the weekend, and Monday morning I just didn’t want to get up and go to work. This is a state that usually accompanies every morning, when you get up and wonder why you have to go to work, what if you didn’t go today, what would you do if you didn’t go to work today, and then, after practical questions were asked and dismissed, you’d ask yourself the question – What if I never had to get up and go to work? This question when asked first brings about the best answer one would ever like to come to be real, “I’ll do whatever I want”. This goes away as soon as you begin pondering on what it is that you do want to do, and how, and when, and where and so on. I doubt any of us actually get beyond wishing for whatever it is that we want.
So there I was, waking up at an hour which would bring much rebuke and lecture from parents, and indifference from many others who have the same lifestyle that I currently do. I woke up at the indecent hour of 2 p.m. That is the time by which I should be at work, sitting in front of my machine, checking mail, trying to sort out the day and see what meaning could possibly be wrung out from a day that seems no different than any other. But today, I checked the time, asked myself if I wanted to go to work today, answered a very simple “no” and went back to sleep. After that I got up at around 6 in the evening and decided I’ll do nothing at all today. Which is what I did all day. I made tea, drank a lot of it, read a nice soppy romantic book, avoided people at home the best I could, ordered for groceries, made dinner that no parent concerned for their child’s health would allow you to eat, watched a movie, avoided some more people and came online to see what other people were talking about. 

DOING NOTHING:

Making Tea: Here’s the thing with making tea. It should be the simplest thing, but it rarely is. I for one can never know how much tea to put in and always end up drinking something that should kill me but doesn’t because I’m stronger than that. So I’ve now resorted to using tea-bags. I was going to make tea because I was too lazy to go make some real food that could serve as lunch/brunch/snackrunch whatever.. I did the usual boiling water, putting fancy things in it to boil like ginger that looked so dry and twisted that it made me feel as if I was really concocting a herbal drink, adding sugar etc, when the flatmate who was “helping” me out with this asked aloud that making tea with tea-bags is so much work as you have to boil the water too. She said some other things too, but they left my mind before landing on it. I was so indifferent by then that I didn’t even want to think of other less tiring and demanding ways of making tea. So, tea was made, and since I made her a cup too I thought I’d go sit on the couch and watch TV with her and see how the evening goes. The pointless banter that almost always seems to accompany “chai-sessions” and which many a times is very entertaining and interesting and all things nice, didn’t really happen this time around. I never understand how and why people expect others to listen intently to what happened to someone who’s not famous, and by the sounds of it not interesting nor worth the listening time. Which led me to politely excuse myself from the company by expressing my bored state and slouching back to my room to read this soppy novel I picked up on the weekend in peace, with my tea and tea-bag and the pleasure that comes with finding you tea’s still warm. 

Reading Soppy Romantic Novels: Of late, I’d not read any simple, romantic type book. I used to read a lot of those in school, as one of my mother’s best friend found it in my best interests to read all the Mills & Boons, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steels available. I’m sure she thought they would play a great role in educating my mind and I can safely say they did. For one they gave you the power to predict what is going to happen in a novel by reading just the first chapter, or in some occasions, the first four pages. Second, they reinforced beliefs that all women, even the most ambitious, feminist, and independent women, at the end of the day, want “love”. Everyone needs LOVE. No living without that, no Sir, not at all. As I grew up and learned many other things, these novels ceased to interest me, even remotely. Even the snippets featuring a man claiming that he wanted to take the woman, there and then with no heed for the world, stopped arousing any interest. And thus it was for quite some years, where reading “romance” novels just didn’t happen, mostly out of lack of interest and because by this stage I believed my education to be adequately complete. But on Sunday, I found this tiny bookshop and I picked up this book called Kate Kincaid by Henry Denker. I picked this up because I’d read one novel by Mr.Denker before, when I was quite young and was very moved back then. Based solely on that, and without even reading what the novel was about, I picked it up and began reading. Kate Kincaid is the story of our heroine by the same name who’s a nurse and feels very oppressed by arrogant young doctors and how she’s torn between two men who love her and all bangaboosh that happens in such novels. I don’t think it’s well written. But I’m liking it so far. There’s always something to like about a “pretty nurse who’s overdetermined and fiery” and wants to change the world. It’s always pretty faces changing the course of history, innit? That aside, I think one major reason why I like it is its purpose is clear. It’s aimed mainly to please and distract and provide escape. It doesn’t want to make you think too much, or at all at places. It doesn’t want to educate you, doesn’t want to spark ideas in your head, doesn’t want to push you under a running train, and all those things. It’s plain and pure, use and throw entertainment. (Ok, maybe not that harsh. Maybe I will not really throw it away, but am not sure. ) There’s something about your heroine struggling with choices, struggling to resist the kiss from a man who makes her forget things and to see a man, fall in love with a woman he can’t take his eyes off. At some stage in life, that something might have meant wishing and dreaming about such things happening in real life. At this stage, it means that there’s nice things happening, doesn’t matter if it’s “real world” or not, but that it’s there, that things belonging to reality and fiction aren’t necessarily exclusive of each other, that being happy at the prospect of it doesn’t necessarily mean wanting it. 

Avoiding people: This is something that I’ve been pushed to exercise in extreme over the past few days or maybe months. I’m not completely serious when I say I hate people, nor am I joking in hyperbole. I don’t really want to avoid people, I just want them to avoid me. (That’s such a classic “It’s not you, it’s me”!) As you grow up you realize how much more fun it was being a child. Yeah, I know EVERYONE says that, but this time my reason is something else. When you were younger, and knew lesser people because you had lived for lesser years and had thus accumulated lesser number of “contacts”, no one really cared much where you are as long as you made to school and meals on time. Now, if you stay at home, your office people will ask you where you are and why you aren’t where you should be. If you are at home, your people at home will also ask you why you aren’t where you should be. When you are not at home on weekend, then everyone wants to know where you went. If you are home on the weekend, then they ask why you are at home and not outside. I mean what is it that they really want? I know what they do, but that doesn’t stop me from being pissed at it. So today, I had to answer three flatmates about why and how I was home and I have a strong suspicion that would have led to more questions had I not escaped in time. From work, colleague asks where I am and even the answer leads to probing for reason. Why can’t one stay at home without a reason? Why have we begun to give so much importance to reasons? Why does it matter where and why someone is anywhere? To what use are you going to put that information? How much money are you going to make out of that knowledge?
As a child, when you sulked, someone will entertain you and give you some candy and get you to stop sulking. Now, people would rather talk. Yes, talking is the solution to everything. Everyone wants to talk about it. Sure, even I do want to talk about things and non-things, but I have people for that. And I go to them for that. And I tell others when they are not part of that unfortunate group. But then, they assume that because I’m closed to talking, I’d probably be open to listening. Which I am not, either. I was going under the assumption that “talking” covered for what is generally assumed to be a conversation (noun: informal interchange ofthoughts, information, etc., by spoken words; oral communication between persons; talk; colloquy.) and thus expected people to get it when I say “I don’t want to talk/I don’t talk much”. But it seems that most people don’t really understand this definition, and going by other things, this probably holds true for the definition and meaning of a lot of other things too. This comes as a surprise to some people I call friends, those who comprise that unfortunate group to whom I do go to “talk”. I used to be a talkative person, was also considered very social and friendly and all those things. I use the past tense because I believe the way it was said then is very different from how it is now. I still like to talk, to be social, to be friendly and all those things. But I have become more selective about the space and time in which I am so. Yes, I have become “boring”, that,  in fact, should be the biggest reason for people to avoid me. But it doesn’t seem that way. I don’t think I’m that popular or deserve to be so. Deserving or not, it is undesirable right now. And that should not be seen as such a major change nor challenge. 
Recently while telling some people that I am going to join TFI, the response that I got in return was quite confusing, at times funny, and plain annoying in some cases. What has being social got to do with being able to teach kids? Are all our professors and teachers social butterflies buzzing from one party to another? I was also called “cold and distant”, something which I do not challenge even once, but how does that come into what I am going to do? Were all the teachers who contributed to your life and learning warm, friendly and personal? Do you write “warm and lovely person” as one of your talents or achievements on your resume or CV? I know that personality matters affect how you work in any organization. But I’ve seen terms like “team player” and “leadership traits” being dropped around too many times to believe that everyone who’s termed as that can do his/her job damn well. So why enmesh a person’s behavior and attitude with respect to their personal life with their work? I agree teaching might be one of those jobs where a person’s disposition makes a big difference. But do you really assume everyone to be uni-dimensional personalities, that the way they behave with you, they would behave with everyone else too? In that case, with the majority of the people, there’s a reason I behave the way I do and take recourse to avoiding people. Think of it as your good fortune. 

Ordering Groceries: It’s one of the biggest delights of our age- to order stuff and get it delivered to your doorstep. Even though it might be more economical, faster and healthier to just get out and buy things, but it’s also another delight of our age to live in active denial. And reveling in its admission. That should get some brownie points. 

Making Dinner: This in my opinion is the single most enlightening indicator of how your life is. You know what kind of person you are and the life you lead by the way you make and have your dinner. Families eat dinner together, in front of the TV, while watching something, where the only noises are made by cutlery and crying women in the tube. Sometimes you have dinner outside, with friends, over laughter and conversation, but that’s not a regular thing. It can never really become a regular thing. Dinner is a regular thing, and it follows patterns. It is as regular and representative as brushing teeth- what time you do it, what toothpaste you use, and how much time you spend over it. If one begins your day for you, the other brings it to an end, never relinquishing its grip on making it a part of your routine. 
For some days now, my flatmates have been making dinner for me. Before that it was my colleague who used to get dinner for me. Something which I’m thankful for, but more anxious because that means paying back that favor. Somehow, whenever someone makes dinner for me, unless its my mother, I feel as if something’s owed between us. The debt to my mother for it is too great to be ever paid off, so I don’t ponder upon it. But anyone else making dinner for me, even if it’s not specifically for me, bothers me. Don’t do that, because I won’t do it for you. Even if I did, I’d expect you to make it back to me. It’s a transaction in which I don’t wish to be either party. Hence I like making dinner on my own, for myself. And that is rarely the healthy thing to do and which speaks a lot about my life and me, as a person. Left alone, I’d make dinner out of bread, eggs, instant noodles and anything that comes packaged and takes least amount of time to prepare and consume. Dinner is always a hasty and necessary affair. It is the cruelest of affairs and the most easy of them all. It’s all gain and so tasteless. 

Movie Time: Doing nothing without watching a movie is such an incomplete experience. I remember in college, especially during second year, not going to class and doing nothing meant staying home and watching movies all day. I watched the Social Network today. Quite liked it. Used to hate Jesse Eisenberg before this, but I think I might change my mind about that. All slick-slick-talk-talk, and an immensely entertaining movie. Something that might have been a lot better had flatmates not found it necessary to interrupt me and talk trivialities as if life and death depended on it. This is my latest grudge- that of the movie watching experience being spoiled thanks to company. Why can’t movies be watched the way they are supposed to be watched? Especially good movies. Why must you question and explain and point out and discuss and talk during a movie? I see that happening in the cinema so much these days that I think watching it at home might be a better solution. But even at home, there’s the thing about people asking what you are doing when they can see you are watching something with headphones plugged in and asking further details after you tell them that you are watching a movie. The most annoying experience was maybe last Sunday when I was watching a movie on TV, and people saw that I was watching a movie and still talked around loudly till I had to tell them to take their talk about matrimonial prospects of Engineer+MBA types somewhere else and sod off from where the TV and I were. 
Watching a movie should be like reading, you get lost in it and forget the world outside you. People don’t let that happen. People don’t even let you get lost in your own head for that matter.

Online People Watching: This I guess is the most time consuming act of our lives. We listen to and watch and pry and learn a lot from people online. Some we know, some barely, some not at all, but we feel like we do. The number of times we chance a visit to Facebook and Twitter may definitely outnumber our visits to the restroom in a day. I guess it gives some precious pleasure to see what others are eating, picking out, reading, drinking, sharing and talking about. To some extent it’s quite informative, and it provides for the distraction that helps you keep away from work that you so fear to embark upon. It’s the perfect procrastinator and one rarely ever complains about such things. I won’t. I like it. It helps me being hypocritical. And learn, at the same time. The number of times I’ve clicked on the Tweetdeck icon and gone to check on Facebook is something that is helping me live with myself better. Which is zero. As much as is it is a big attraction to go and check, it is an equal triumph in overcoming that need to do something that might be infinitesimally better. Overcoming addictive practices, I gather, always give such joys, and are also necessary, if one were to ever move from knowing to thinking, from experiencing to living.

That was I think most of doing nothing. I had hoped it won’t be rant, but if it turned out to be so, then, who cares? Doing nothing and describing it seems to have done a whole lot of good to me, and, and I’ve also “contributed” to my blog and kept up with my diatribes.

From Behind The Yellow Door

Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan is a poet, novelist, and a chronicler par excellence of our times. She has published two novels, a book of poems, short fiction, reviews and essays in various anthologies and journals. Her first novel, Lunatic in My Head was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award 2007 and her second novel Neti, Neti was on the longlists for the 2008 Man Asian Prize and the 2011 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Award. She is also the Books Editor at The Caravan.

I first met Anjum at a panel discussion titled These Hills Called Home at the Jaipur Literature Festival.I thought she was the quietest panelist present. I ran into her at some other events and I always saw her with a diary, making notes, intently listening to the various speakers. Following this interview and after reading some of her works, I’ve come to realize how keen and discerning an observer she really is.

Excerpts from the interview:

Before we begin talking about writing, books and other things, could you please tell our readers a bit about yourself and how writing came into the picture?

Writing is a kind of biography, an alternative one. I don’t mean that one always writes about one’s own life, but that one creates a life story in and through the writing.

In Shillong, I grew up in the protected and somewhat insular way in which most Indian English writers grow up – going to an English medium school and reading a lot in English. Writing appeared naturally – I was always attracted to literature and with a house full of books and teachers for parents, it didn’t seem like a very radical thing, putting pen to paper.

-Sophie Das is living in big-city Bangalore, with all the freedom that she can get and yet she feels unable to let go of that “out of place” feeling. Do you think that this feeling, of not finding oneself accepted, of not belonging anywhere, is something that never really leaves a person, but swings from one extreme to another with time and place?

It’s different at different times and in different places. I think it’s important to try and pinpoint the exact nature of 21st century urban Indian alienation. I think the lack that Sophie feels is a cultural lack. It’s about the values that are on offer. She likes her friends but cannot completely fit in with their world of hard materialism and functional attitudes. And she feels this as a shortcoming. She would like to be more like them but cannot. There is nowhere, no institution or space that she can turn to whose values fit in completely with her own unarticulated ones – the family is breaking down, religion has become functional in its own way, and as for literature and art, which she does fall back on from time to time, that is of limited help because she has only read 3 books! But even if she had read more, literature would offer a solitary recompense, while Sophie wants a social one. She would like to belong.

-Your characters migrate from one microcosm to another, from one faraway corner to a big city, across the vast diversity that is India. Where smaller cities are sprouting up malls, multiplexes and CCDs, youngsters are getting trendier and stylish everywhere and economical development is seen as a means to bridge the cultural gap, how wide really do you think is the divide between big cities and small towns? Can and should this breach be removed?

Yes, you’re right – smaller towns are increasingly becoming like bigger cities. The middle class everywhere seems to want the same things. That’s what Sophie Das discovers too in Neti, Neti. But what my characters are interested in and what I’m interested in are the ways in which these are place aren’t the same – how each place has a specific local character which is erased in the name of development. That’s what my novels and poems try to capture.

-You have published poems, essays and novels. Which form comes to you most easily and which poses the biggest challenge?
They’re all incredibly difficult! What I enjoy is not being locked into one form, being able to move from one to another. That movement itself is inspiring because when you’re turning from one form to another, there is a sense of freedom and possibility. I like that.

Petrichor

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They say rains sometimes wash away color and cloud vision. Not here. This grassy slope is as green as peace can be. This is not the green of envy, but of roiling calm. Young blades of grass tickle and tease, but never manage to cause irritation. I look out towards the gray lake. Somewhere along the horizon, it blends with the gray clouds. The gray doesn’t speak of indistinct evil and good. It doesn’t speak at all, it’s silent with weight. It contains a million little life sources. Each droplet will create life on earth. Each drop will fall on me, wash away something, will take away more than settled stale dust and blend me with the earth. All I need to do is soak them in, and offer myself for theirs to own.

There are woods behind, full of tall nameless trees. Those ageless witches covered by thick barks have taken over the lands with their dark long branches, and narrow spaces between themselves. The grass at their roots have obliterated brown. The earth there is sheltered, with grass and mighty goddesses of the forest. The rain falls softly on this cushion. It is more than water and moisture. It has taken the abandon of the clouds, the wisdom of grandmothers and freewill of the winds.

The lake ahead is trying hard to contain a turmoil erupting from within its depths. Tiny waves scarring its surface betray the secrets it wants to hold. The clouds tease him. They unleash a drizzle that will touch, entice and infiltrate its barriers. The spies within will get lost within the currents and rebel against their own mother. The revolt turns into a wild dance of passion and restraint. All water, held against its will by the greater powers of sky and earth. Where would the child go? It seeks to escape with the favorite uncle, the wind. But that traitor of the gods, he will drop them the moment it hears the roaring of the thunder from Zeus.

I sleep on the earth. Waiting for that stubborn, helpless son to make a choice and escape. He can rest with me, or take me along to whichever faraway land he seeks for adventure. I care not for my footprints to be left for worried search parties. All I ask is for him to leave the scent behind.

Calling Home

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She had returned to unadorned walls. The medium-sized suitcase was plundered and its contents strewn around in an orderly manner. Discarded paper and other items lay on the floor.

The neem tree outside the window looked bald and deprived. It had shed its leaves. The mango tree next to it was in bloom, as if mocking its neighbor. Little did she know that no one cared for its flowers, but someone definitely missed the neem’s jade green canopy.

Her mirror was missing again. She didn’t miss it, but she noticed its absence. That explained her barren looking walls. A lone lamenting voice coming out of a machine created disturbances in the air. The only kind she liked.

She sat down, trying not to look anywhere and to hold that moment to herself. To enjoy that solitude and peace, all by herself. The sun was growing weak, ready to sink into dusk. She wished it would hold on for a moment longer and not slip in to the cloak of evening, not just yet. She liked the way it fell on her window glass, touching it, not cutting across in a rush to reach the floor.

She looked at her overflowing book shelf. Part pride, part regret. There was too much white space around she felt. Birds outside were talking to each other, she wished she could know who they were. She didn’t want to understand what they said, that would be an uncivil intrusion on their freedom and privacy.

Her windows were left open, to let her room breathe. Her mother, had she been present, would have asked her to keep it shut, for fear of mosquitoes. But for now she wasn’t there and the room could behave however its owner wanted. This room was home. There was no one here, no one’s possessions encroached upon its territory. Everything inside was hers to call home. She would have wished for this to be an ever-present state, a perpetual ownership.

A knock forced her to pause her reverie. “Have you paid the rent yet?”, asked someone. She shook her head and went back to staring at a tiny screen. There’s a price to pay for everything. But it’s never too big a price if you can call the purchase home, however temporary.

The lament continued with another tune, with another softer voice. Her eyes returned to the flowers that covered every branch and caressed every leaf on the mango trees. It was said that the flowers had a mild sweet scent similar to that of the lily of the valley. She didn’t know whether she’ll ever be able to confirm that. She didn’t know if she would be around to see the fruits either. But that could wait, she didn’t need to concern herself with that at the moment.

For now, contentment was to be the flavor and rhyme.

What Happens in Jaipur, Doesn’t Stay in Jaipur

(Note: I know this blog has been barren and starved of attention for nearly two months now, but believe me, it was hardly my fault.  Also, this post is really, really long. I tried and tried to edit, but I couldn’t bring myself to commit any omissions.  So please be patient, and kind when you read this.)

Everyone has had their share of news to report, their accounts, and their observations and quickly arrived upon conclusions about the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, so far called the biggest literary extravaganza happening this side of the hemisphere, and being compared to cult festivals like Woodstock. Given it’s been a good 5 days since the fest ended; I thought it’s time I put down my two cents worth of experience.

Once the festival kicked off and people got into the mood and started being prolific about their #JLF experience on social media channels, there seemed to develop a dichotomy between the avid followers of the event- those who loved everything about the fest and everyone who was there, and those who attacked almost everything said and done there as elitist, for being pseudo-intellectual and whatnot.  I’d say it had its own balance of the good, bad and ugly and it’s entirely upon the participant at the event to take the best of it.

There were more than 100 different sessions, over 200 authors present with varying degree of participation in the sessions, and around 50,000 or more, comprising students, media people, book lovers, and those who just came to sightsee, at the fest this year.  From this cacophonous mix, I’m going to try to enlist my top five seven events (in chronological order, if nothing else) from the fest. These aren’t the most enjoyable or thought-provoking ones necessarily, but these events are representative of the whole festival for me and will remain in my memory for long.

The Opening Ceremony and Sheldon Pollock

Sheldon Pollock
Sheldon Pollock

The inauguration of the fest took place on a quite grand note (for a literature event methinks) with Dr. Karan Singh as the guest of honour and politicos from Rajasthan present. Sheldon Pollock, who delivered the keynote address, in my eyes, set the tone for the fest with his lament on the state of classical languages, and literature written in those, in India. If there are Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology, why can’t there be an Indian Institute of Classical Languages he asked. It was humbling to see an outsider remind us of our travesty, posing as a society that prides itself on a dying culture, not bothered enough to save the remnants. He spoke of the importance of poet who describes, but the necessity of the scholar to interpret and appreciate. The question he posed as a corollary is something that will be hard to forget. He asked, “Who do you think appreciates the beauty of the daughter, the father or the mother?”

Pamuk and the Art of the Novel

I think this was one of the most anticipated events of the fest and one that gave JLF the big kick-start that it needed to silence its detractors and validate its reputation as Asia-Pacific’s leading literature event. Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Laureate and author of novels My Name is Red, Snow and Istanbul was in conversation with Chandrahas Chowdhury. He spoke of his relationship with history, with painting and the subject of time (the darling subject of modernist writers  according to him) and how a novelist can draw personal inspiration out of these relationships to tell their story.

“I paint objects through stories, because I’m a failed painter”, he remarked before the Q&SA session with him was to begin. There were two instances in this Q&A session which made an impression on me. One involved this old gentleman who gushed on about Pamuk’s novel My Name is Red and wondered aloud about how good the translator was to have captured the essence and beauty of Pamuk’s storytelling. I’m not sure if the question was posed in the right way, but Pamuk’s dismissal of the point/question and person was a bit of a sad comment, more so after the topics that he spoke at length on and will do so in later events.  The second question came from another gentleman, slightly on the older side who asked “Which do you think is deeper of the two- philosophical love or physical love?” To this Pamuk joked, “I’d say that depends entirely on the penetration”. Amidst much appreciative laughter, Pamuk pointed out his urge to make that joke because the questioner has used the word “deep”.

A Eunuch’s Life

A. Revathi, author of The Truth About Me, was in conversation with Urvashi Butalia. Revathi, who was once a son of Armugam is now a member of the Hijra community. In her book, she has put down her journey, her trials and tribulations, and as far as I know, it is the first of its kind in English from a member of the Hijra community. There are three reasons why this event is on this list: A) This was a window to look at JLF’s aspiring culture to have an event where topics like this have been treated with such respect and maturity.  B) Despite the horrors that Ms. Revathi has gone through, what you see is not a defeated bitter person, but a brave, quite jovial person who makes no bones about her sexuality.  C) The lack of propagandist and sexist talk by the members of the audience.  Rest all was mere dressing for me.

A. Revathi
A. Revathi

Seated in the richly decorated Durbar Hall, dressed in a simple saree, Ms. Revathi fielded questions with a frankness that was quite endearing. When asked by an audience member why she chose not to write the book through a fictional narrative and thus avoid any probable stigma that might come with the event, Ms.Revathi did this enactment of how she would have to think and mull if she were to write it through fiction which had the audience in splits. She then went on to say that she didn’t have the time or knowledge to think of a fictional story and felt that it was important that people know her story the way it is, that she wasn’t ashamed to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, and that I think was what earned her the respect of every member in the audience.  In response to the abuses she had mentioned she had suffered, a member of the audience asked her opinions on perpetrators of abuse from the Hijra community. When asked this by Ms. Butalia, who also played interpreter, Ms. Revathi didn’t seem abashed at all. She answered quite honestly, with much humility, that there’s a case of bad apples in every basket. There are bad ones among men and women and the same holds true for the Hijra community. Someone posed the question of harassment women have to suffer and if this harassment made her doubt her choices and decisions to which she quipped, “India mein pathar ko bhi saari se lapetega toh aadmi haath lagaega.” (In India, a man would harass even a stone wrapped in a Sari.) For those who understood Hindi, her responses and animated delivery of those had the lot of us trying hard not to grin too widely.

A.Revathi was the Director of Sangama which is a non-governmental organization working for the rights of Sexuality Minorities namely, Hijras, Kothis, Bisexuals, Double Deckers, Lesbians, Gays and Transgenders. She is presently the advocacy co-ordinator at Sangama.

Out of West

This was a star-studded discussion to say the least. With a panel comprising Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai, Chimamanda Adichie, Leila Aboulela, and Nam Le, and moderated by Rana Dasgupta, what else could you begin with for a description?

Out of West
(L-R) Kiran Desai, Orhan Pamuk, Rana Dasgupta, Leila Aboulela, Nam Le, Chimamanda Adichie

Rana Dasgupta opened up the discussion with his interpretation of the topic, to be rudely woken up by Orhan Pamuk and receive an explanation of what the topic actually meant as envisaged by Pamuk when he suggested this topic to the organizers for a discussion.  Pamuk listed down lack of representation for non-English writers in the world, their marginalization, the provinciality to which their writing is subjected on basis of their nationality as some of the topics that should be covered by the panel.

Raising the issue of representation, Kiran Desai commented how writers are sometimes taken as diplomats of their respective nations and Chimamanda recounted how everything she writes is turned into a political allegory on account of her Nigerian nationality and the country’s political turmoil.  Pamuk touched upon provinciality and the subject of interpretation when he recounted how whenever he writes about love, international reviewers label him as someone who writes about “Turkish” love.  All the writers consented that they are all trying to write of human experience, not Nigerian, Turkish, Sudanese or Vietnamese human experience, irrespective of cultural, political and socio-economic influences and languages in which they write or think.

It would have been interesting if the panel had in fact debated upon the points raised by Orhan Pamuk, but it turned a bit farcical with the moderator claiming to make enemies out of all those present at the table with him. Pamuk clearly dominated the discussion, talking most of the time, talking a lot of sense but it didn’t seem like a discussion that you could take something from.  I think Nam Le’s comment towards the end of the session, “One good thing about the literary world is that you can always find some hurt feelings”, summed it all up.

Readings from Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee
J.M. Coetzee

Two times Booker Winner, Nobel Laureate, author of classics like The Life and Times of Michael K, Disgrace and Summertime, John Maxwell Coetzee was clearly The Man at the event (Though many I know would claim that title for Junot Diaz. Even I found Mr. Diaz quite entertaining, brilliant and full of acerbic humor, but there’s a reason why Mr. Coetzee is the clear winner here). Known for being extremely reclusive, it is a big deal in itself that he came down to a festival like JLF, teeming with thousands of people, eager fans waiting and milling around and wanting to “engage” with him.  In all other reading sessions, the authors read some pages, talk about the process and hidden nuances a bit, this and that, answer some questions thrown by the audience, but not so for Mr. Coetzee.  As Patrick French said in his introduction to the session, “Some writers perform, some write, John Coetzee will read.”  Thus, Mr. Coetzee read a short story called The Old Woman and Her Cats, the story of the character John’s visit to his mother’s place and his discovery that his mother is sheltering the local village exhibitionist along with many cats. Mr. Coetzee read out this story, without any break for forty-five minutes. For forty-five minutes, the audience was silent, of its own volition, rapt in attention, listening to a man delivering a “Lesson”. Some might not see why this would be exceptional, but again, Mr. French comes to our rescue by pointing out that Mr. Coetzee has performed a miracle of sorts by keeping an audience, that is largely made up of Indians, enthralled and quiet for a full three-quarters of an hour. That there is the reason for Mr. Coetzee to be crowned The Man at JLF.

The book signing line for Mr. Coetzee wasn’t as long and winding as the one for the trio of Pamuk, Desai and Dasgupta but the conditions set by the organizers while getting the book signed (it went from three books per person to two to one book quite soon) and the rate at which the festival book store ran out of stock for all of his books must give you some idea as to how big, important and essential Mr.Coetzee’s presence was at JLF 2011.

Veda: Ends of Knowledge

Roberto Calasso, author of books like The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka was in conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik, author of Myth=Mithya, Jaya and other popular titles covering Indian mythos and their retelling in today’s times.

 

Roberto Calasso
Roberto Calasso

I’d never heard of Mr. Calasso nor read anything by him before. I had gone there to try to secure an interview with Mr. Pattanaik and because the title of the event had immense appeal for me.  Mr. Calasso began with, what I remember as a breaking of the myth of myth. He explained how our times do not have any myths, what we have mere urban legends, and what myth really is. He spoke of the consciousness imbibing what has been told to us countless times, of myths that have a power even today, millennia later.

It was clear to me from the first few minutes of the session that Mr. Calasso is an authority on this subject.  From Greek mythology to Mesopotamian civilization, from the Brahmanas to the Odyssey, he impressed us all with his deep knowledge and recounting of stories, anecdotes, explanations and questions that were aimed as much at the audience as to himself. The passion with which he spoke of the human mind and consciousness, of its link with the rise and fall of civilizations was captivating, to say the least. At one point, he raised the question of research being done into the human consciousness by neuroscientists by saying, “Neuroscientists, paleontologists are now busy solving workable issues. They are a long way from studying consciousness.”

As he quoted from one of his books, “These things never happened, but are always”, he moved from mythology to metaphysics with surprising ease and grace, which felt only natural given the topic of discussion.

If human evolution, the journey from caves to the cornucopia of our times, were taken as a big jigsaw, Mr. Calasso’s retelling of myths, exploration of ancient texts and his attempts at connecting the dots and clues left from one civilization to another, one history to another, seem like vital precursors to pieces that would complete the puzzle.

The Alchemy of Writing: Truth, Fiction & The Challenge of India

I’m sure this is not an unique observation by any measure, but the number of journalist-turned-authors, journalist-cum-authors, media person-cum-authors was quite high at JLF.  Given that, it was no surprise that this event with Tarun Tejpal, the man behind Tehelka who made “sting operations” a catchphrase and Manu Joseph, editor, Open

Tarun Tejpal
Tarun Tejpal

Magazine and the man behind the Radia Tapes, was going to be a major crowd-puller. Both of them have written novels that have received some acclaim and positive reviews, but everyone present knew it wasn’t going to be about that. The session was to hear the man speak and be charmed by him and it is a difficult feat to keep one from falling for the words that come out of Mr. Tejpal’s mouth.

Another non-unique observation was the politically charged atmosphere at JLF. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but one had to concede that if not here then where would such discussions happen? From the now regular India-Pak debate that seemed to follow author Kamila Shamsie, to any discussion that comprised more than one media person (natural connection?), politics was a very dominant topic at this Literature Fest. Given our current headlines are filled with words like “scam” “illegal” “chargesheet” and so on, it wasn’t surprising that the session was all about what media is doing, should be doing, and how it has come to place where what it does matters a lot more. It was clear that Mr.Tejpal had the crowd under his spell with his charming and inspiring tale of how he started Tehelka, his struggles, his daily fights with the Indian judicial system, the red tapism, the bureaucracy. He spoke of young journalists from Tehelka reporting from Chhatisgarh, of reporters breaking news that matter to the public, of being an activist and of taking up journalism to serve some purpose and not just sell sensational stories.

Amidst all this, it wasn’t too difficult to not detect the subtle brand promotion that was going on.  Much blame was laid on mainstream media and its indiscriminate ignorance of news stories that are relevant for the public, which led one frustrated member of the mainstream media to question: Who’s to be blamed for this- our editors who pick these stories or the consumer who crave for these? I think he gave a very well framed answer without mentioning the two most relevant letters of our times: PR.

At the end of the session, you were very inspired and very charged up but it was difficult for you to let go of one question “So, what was new?”

These were my favorite seven events. There were five-six other contenders to this list, but I think I’m quite content with this edition. Most of the discussions were a bit of a sham with topics being left alone in a corner, many quotable lines being delivered individually but quite unsatisfactory when seen as a whole. I think I’ll refrain from any social commentary concerning the fashion scene, the sightseer crowd and the occasional slip in organization that led to chaos, because it didn’t matter. None of that mattered when you came to look at it. What mattered and still does is that there’s a forum now. Readers and lovers of literature can come here and take their pick in listening to the heroes they have adored through pages and tomes. Book lovers can come here and enjoy a moment of unrivaled excitement and pure joy when the writers they have loved and worshiped scrawl their name on their book and exchange a word or a smile with them. I had my share of high and low, jubilation and disappointment, wonderment and disillusionment with JLF 2011, but come January 2012, I think I’ll be there, struggling between chairs and choices.

Psst.. This is a sort of proper and official account. I’ve got some other tales to tell and many books signed that need showing off . I’ll do that here as soon as I am done with some distractions. 🙂

Also, you can read other posts about the #JLF Experience here.

>An Old Wives’ Tale

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This is the perfect date, no webcam between us, he thought.
They shared a Diet Coke and ate fries. 
“I’ll wait for your status update.” She received a text as soon as she reached home. 
She updated her status immediately : 2nyt ws awsm, gr8, lulzzzzzz.  
The boy, heartbroken, deactivated his account.
The End.

Drop Your Pants!

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It was a very tense situation. I’d never done this before.

“Drop your Pants!” The security guard yelled at me. This was going to be very very embarrassing.

I dropped the pair held in my hands right away. Whoever thought people would want to wear buff colored pants, let alone get caught stealing them?