Thursday, January 27, 2011

my no good very bad jaipur literature festival


ROSWITHA: * checks in for flight an hour and a half ahead of time*
ROSWITHA: * settles in to wait the long wait of the righteous and the once-bitten twice-shy *


AIRLINE OFFICIAL: * thinks Roswitha is a gigantic failure, but smiles politely *
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: I'm so sorry, the pilot's already signed off on the sheet for this flight.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: I'm also sorry that every other Bombay-Jaipur flight until Sunday is booked.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: I'm also sorry for your face.
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: * doesn't actually say this *

ROSWITHA: Also, didn't we go to school together?
AIRLINE OFFICIAL: Still can't get you on that flight though.
ROSWITHA: I am loving the drama of this reunion, old school friend. Don’t mind if I weep a lot.


ROSWITHA: * shaves several weeks off life in sleepless anxiety *
ROSWITHA: * goes to airport, takes flight to Delhi *
ROSWITHA: * goes to Delhi, undertakes four hour drive to Jaipur *


ROSWITHA: As Samwise says to Shelob in her lair: CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.



ROSWITHA: * is quietly sick *
ROSWITHA: * weeps *


ROSWITHA: * gets ten minutes to talk to Junot Diaz, has same reaction to him as 47239847543975 others at festival *
ROSWITHA: * is saying * Junot, can you talk a little about how you approach writing a short story? How does that differ from how you see a novel?



ROSWITHA: * eats lunch *
VIKRAM SETH: * comes by to eat lunch at same table *

VIKRAM SETH: Oh god no.
VIKRAM SETH: * doesn’t actually say this *
VIKRAM SETH: * smiles * Hi there.


REDACTED: * hushed whisper * I am never writing another book.
ROSWITHA: I know. You’re going to have to come back here if you do.
ROSWITHA: With all the crowds.



ROSWITHA: * has the same reaction to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as 47239847543975 others at festival *



ROSWITHA: * is beginning to hear Enya play in the background as Mount Doom approaches *
ROSWITHA: * is about to interview tremendously respected Basharat Peer *

BASHARAT PEER: * senses the force from afar - probably *
BASHARAT PEER: * cancels interview *

ROSWITHA: Well, whatever.
ROSWITHA: I was going to go and hang out with Martin Amis anyway.
ROSWITHA: * does not actually hang out with Martin Amis. *


AIRLINE: * announces departure for Mumbai *
ROSWITHA: * approaches boarding gate *
SECURITY GUARD: Your boarding pass please.
ROSWITHA: * has lost boarding pass *
ROSWITHA: ....I've lost my boarding pass.


ROSWITHA: * running towards plane *
AIRPLANE: * waits *


ROSWITHA: The scar has not troubled me for nineteen years. All is well.
ROSWITHA: Or something.
ROSWITHA: * goes to bed *

Anyway. I got some work done in spite of these several and self-inflicted sorrows. You can read my opening-day report here, my closing-day report here, and several blogs I posted here. More forthcoming presently.

I also met a great many wonderful people, some old friends, some new, some well-met in meatspace and some never before. I say to you that you are beautiful. It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the Sun yet shines, I could see you still. For you and I have both passed under the wings of the Shadow, and the same hand drew us back.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

metro mundanities, random classics

Versions of these short reviews appeared in Mint Lounge on January 8, 2011.

A brief and irritable note on the following:

The Premier Murder League, Geeta Sundar
With or Without You, Partha Sarathi Basu
Close Call in Kashmir, Bharat Wahkhlu

Penguin’s Metro Reads series is tagged with the line, ‘Every life has a story.’ Truth this may be, but justification it is not. In much the way commercial Hindi cinema serves up fanciful stories about improbable situations by disclaiming it as what ‘the public’ demands, the Metro Reads books dish up a slop of genre conventions – romance, suspense, action – in familiar Indian locations. There the implicit claim of the Metro Reads tagline, that these books are about people whose stories may not be otherwise heard, begins and ends.

And like their Bollywood counterparts, the novels are guilty of a host of narrative sins. In Wakhlu’s military-academic thriller about terror and a secret treasure in Aishmuqam, Kashmir, there are pleasant stretches of potted history in which readers are told – sometimes through clumsy expositionary dialogue – about Kashmir’s dazzling syncretic past and the Mughal intrigues that shaped it significantly. These chunks of information play out in a plot where an academic and a CBI bureaucrat attempt to outwit an unprincipled professor to a possible treasure, while in a related sub-plot, a beautiful young scientist attempts to escape her terrorist kidnappers (and with good reason. An Afghan mercenary who cannot ‘help noticing that she was well proportioned and full of youthful promise’ is hardly salubrious company).

If Close Call in Kashmir transplants Dan Brown to the subcontinent, then Partha Sarathi Basu’s With or Without You travels a much shorter distance, by taking the MBA-hero genre of Indian writing in English to its one true home, Gurgaon. Its cavalier attitude to workplace sexual harassment may be easily ignored by some readers. But how many will delight in page after page devoted to the minutiae of advertising agency politics? Great literature has been created out of plots in which there is seemingly little at stake, but With or Without You is more successful in mapping malls with coffee shops than the inner lives of its characters.

Geeta Sundar’s The Premier Murder League is probably the pulpiest of the three, with a delicious plot involving political murder and cricketing corruption, but even as it delves into different strands of public life – cop protagonists, cricket board shenanigans, middle-class crimes of passion – it ends up being about none of these in particular. Sundar’s book has more shape than the other two, but it is also prone to more bizarre narrative revelations that can throw readers out of the plot. Early on, police visiting the scene of a murder say to one another, ‘Lovely, isn’t it? …It seems unlikely that any crime could have been committed here.’

This sort of banality makes free through the pages of all three novels to such a degree that one is forced to wonder: do Penguin’s editors believe that readers on the Metro are somehow less demanding, or more easily pleased, than their stationary counterparts? This commuter feels bound to point out that even a distracted train traveler can generally tell the difference between easy reading and easy writing. By conflating the first and second, Metro Reads’ small, well-produced volumes come perilously close to being objects of annoyance. Like FM radio in written form, they make you want to change the channel.

Random Classics: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Durgeshnandini and Rabindranath Tagore's Three Women

Random House’s new series of translations opens its account with two beautifully-produced Bangla-to-English works. Translator and series editor for Bengali, Arunava Sinha, presents Anglophone readers with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini (The Chieftain’s Daughter), often remembered as the first novel ever written in an Indian language. Bankim adopted a high Romanticism familiar to readers of Walter Scott in his fervent, epic historical story of love and war in Mughal-administered Bengal. Modern readers may delight in Bankim’s playful elegance as much as the chance to read a cornerstone of modern Indian literature.

Sinha’s confident, unobtrusive translations not only shed light on Bankim but also succeed in one of Indian writing’s most fraught endeavours, translating Rabindranath Tagore. Three Women groups together three famous Tagore novellas, The Broken Nest (Nashtaneer), Two Sisters (Dui Bon) and The Arbour (Malancha). Each is a poignant consideration of women stifled and complicit in their deeply gendered societies, and together they recreate a powerful sense of Tagore’s artistry and his humanism.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

art in mumbai

Unbelievable but true. Below, two brief notes on ongoing shows in Mumbai. Versions of these appeared in Mint Lounge on January 8, 2011.

Ranbir Kaleka's Sweet Unease

Sweet Unease, Ranbir Kaleka’s first solo show in Mumbai, may lead viewers to wonder why it took so long to bring the extraordinary vision of this Patiala-born artist to this city. Bringing together new works with a retrospective of major Kaleka works over the last decade, the show offers a comprehensive look into his fascinating, unsettling trans-media art.

Ranjit Hoskote describes Kaleka’s work as imbued with ‘epic disquiet.’ It is a sense that remains consistent through the themes and concerns of each of his painting/video projection installations. Phantasms rise from tables and walk through eerie, intimate hallways (Fables from the House of Ibaan); history plays out along a railway line through a strange, half-alienating play on a film montage (Not From Here); birth, growth and death become the thematical underpinnings to a montage about a bird (Man With Cockerel). The ethereal effect of Kaleka’s use of media rests on strong structural and emotional patterns in each work; engaging with each installation can effortlessly take up hours at a time, and it’s not hard to imagine the works entrancing casual viewers just as intensely as they do serious critics.

Kaleka’s work sometimes evokes a joyous sense of the fantastical. As a man with a hammer pounds on the wall opposite which he is projected, to have a white horse manifest before him (Cul-de-sac in Taxila), it’s hard not to feel a spontaneous delight. But it is the multilayered, long-drawn out sophistication of the narratives of each of Kaleka’s installations that complicates them, even more than their conceptualism.

In fusing video art with painting, Kaleka’s work finds its most spectacular idiom. In works like The Kettle, repeated viewings can draw viewers in to a nuanced contemplation of time and its illusory effects. The intimate familiarity of a street scene is always present; it is as though Kaleka opens a window through which stories come pouring through. The centerpiece of this effect is perhaps the marvelous, extended Sweet Unease itself. As its characters provoke orientation and disorientation in their endless, ghost story of a dance, it is impossible not be torn away with an ineffable sense of the world made strange.

Ranbir Kaleka’s Sweet Unease shows at Volte, Mumbai, until February 15.

Sudhir Patwardhan's Family Fictions

Sudhir Patwardhan’s new works, which go on display in his show, Family Fictions, suggest a new direction for this veteran observer of the intersection between the social and the personal. His charcoal sketches and drawings demonstrate a bold, intimate engagement with people. In his paintings, sis gaze remains trained on urban life, as it has in many of his earlier realizations of Mumbai’s public scenes. But this time, it trains itself inward as he paints playful, poignant scenes of life inside apartment houses. Full Circle (acrylic on canvas) arranges old and young members of a family in a tableau of the ages of the man. Yet, the narrative it suggests is warmer and more personal than an abstract engagement with ageing and death. In the tightly composed, shadowed space of the city apartment, the painting creates a moving comment on the environment it invokes.

The theme of enclosure repeats itself through several of the paintings in this show. At the center of many of Patwardhan’s works is a window in an apartment wall, that cuts out of the enclosure of the observer’s room to show other enclosed spaces. Buildings, verandahs, and even streets become bound spaces in these works, poised on the edge of cosy suburban comfort and a quiet claustrophobia. In this, as his other work, Patwardhan affects a compassionate seriousness.

His playfulness illumines the eponymous Family Fiction, a work that interrogates fictionality by assembling a motley cast of characters and settings in its space. Uma Thurman from the film Pulp Fiction co-exists with a middle-aged Indian woman sitting by a bookshelf; a silhouetted gunman draws the eye to the figure of a nude, fleeing the edges of the canvas. The effect is delightful.

Sudhir Patwardhan’s Family Fictions, showing at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, from January 8-January 27.

man of the hours

The soundtrack of 127 Hours is the best proof yet that Rahman can push the envelope for Hollywood as successfully as he does for Indian cinema.

A version of this review appeared in Mint Lounge on Jan 8, 2011.

British director Danny Boyle’s last film, Slumdog Millionaire, had an A R Rahman score that sounded like Hollywood’s idea of Bollywood, but their latest match-up for 127 Hours eliminates that awkward sense of cultural crossover. 127 Hours is an unconventional Hollywood action picture, about a man trapped alone in a canyon trying to free himself, and its music is unconventional action movie music, too.

Listen, for example, to the overarching theme on the soundtrack’s Liberation triad of songs: quick-burning pieces for guitar, building up to the regimented violence of a strings-and-electronica crescendo. These are typical ingredients for blockbuster music, but in Rahman’s hands the refrain becomes flexible, bouncing from frantic to to contemplative to an uneasy euphoria. Each of the three tracks feed back to each other in earthy loops that suggest the heat and dust of the film’s landscape, a distorted mirror of the Wild West.

Interspersed with these and other Rahman compositions are selections that span an audacious range of genres, from Bill Withers’ classic Lovely Day and a Chopin nocturne to some stunning synthpop (Free Blood’s Never Hear Surf Music Again, Plastic Bertrand’s Ca Plane Pour Moi) and Sigur Rós’ epic Festival.

They may be distinct from each other, but threaded through with Rahman’s original score, they are an intriguing ensemble. Rahman’s Indian film music integrates complex, sometimes unlikely elements into his infectious brand of cinema pop; for years now, his music has been about getting listeners to re-evaluate the unfamiliar or the ignored – unusual playback voices, once-moribund genres of film music like the bhajan and qawwali, multilingual hip-hop, Chitra’s voice on a bhangra song.

Here, as with some of his Bollywood work, he produces a score bursting with international influences. The results are perhaps at their most artless on tracks like the instrumental R.I.P, and his ethereal, much-discussed duet with Dido, If I Rise, which also uses the voices of Mumbai’s Gleehive Children’s Choir.

But artless is not Rahman’s best mode, and on others, the effect is more layered. The somber orchestral Canyon would fit right in on any Steven Spielberg-John Williams soundtrack, but the crystal clear solo guitar on Touch of the Sun is a minimalist miracle. And who other than Rahman would create something called Acid Darbari, in ambient flute-and-chime tones that recall his gorgeous Rehna Tu (Delhi-6), to play in the background of a story about a hiker trapped in a Utah canyon?

None of this may strike the hammer blow of Trent Reznor’s thunderous rearrangement of Grieg’s In The Hall of the Mountain King for The Social Network, which has probably already power-chorded itself into an Oscar nomination, but 127 Hours holds its own. Its lack of Bollywood exotica may not earn it as many plaudits as Slumdog Millionaire, but it is a much better expression of Rahman’s range than the earlier soundtrack. It may not come as a surprise to Indians who already knew and loved him as a global composer; for others, the effects will be heady.

looking forward to jaipur 2011

A version of this story appeared in Mint Lounge on Jan 8, 2011

“About fourteen,” is William Dalrymple’s amused census of attendance at the first Jaipur Literature Festival in 2006. Then a small part of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation’s larger cultural programme called the Jaipur Festival, it ran on volunteer enthusiasm and love. “Our first international guest was Hari Kunzru,” Dalrymple, the festival’s co-director, remembered in his opening remarks last year. “We caught hold of him because he was en route to New Zealand to meet his girlfriend at the time.”

The number of people who heard Dalrymple’s address last year was nowhere close to fourteen. Over five days of the Jaipur ‘litfest,’ as it’s fondly abbreviated by fans, about 35,000 people flocked to the small, exquisite environs of the Diggi Palace Hotel. This year, Dalrymple says, attendance seems set to rise further. “The weather forecast predicts it’ll be colder than usual,” he offers. “So it probably won’t be a completely unmanageable number. Maybe about 50,000.”

How did a boutique literary conference, barely five years old, become what is now acknowledged to be the biggest festival of its kind in the Asia-Pacific? And how did it happen in Jaipur, a city whose tourist delights are generally considered more about forts and elephants than intellectual ferment?

Taking a look at the names the festival has drawn in the last five years may be a clue. From Wole Soyinka to Orhan Pamuk (who visits again this year), Steve Coll to Tina Brown, and Vikram Seth to Vikram Chandra, the collective roll-call is practically a who’s who of literary celebrity.

This year, Seth and Pamuk will return, along with some notable first-timers: JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh. To call them headliners in a festival noted for its egalitarianism – they will have to wait in the same lunch queues as their audience – may be inaccurate. Others making their appearance at the festival for the first time include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Ahdaf Soueif, and Etgar Keret.

And the festival’s offer of equal facetime for Indian regional language (or bhasha) writers is cause for some of the biggest hits at the festival itself. They may not be the primary reason for attendees from New York or Mumbai to fly in, but they are a reason to stay: where else would you see Malayalam novelist K Satchidandan shoot the breeze with Gulzar?

“Jaipur is a cosmopolitan city, so there’s a great local response to other Indian languages, too,” says Namita Gokhale, the festival’s co-director. “Its large Bangla population turned up in full force to the Bengali readings we did two years ago.” Last year, their organized readings in Sindhi were, she affirms, packed to the rafters.

For Ram Pratap Singh, scion of the royal inhabitants of Diggi and the current owner of the estate that includes the Diggi Palace Hotel, it had much to do with public-spiritedness. “We’ve worked over the years, starting with INTAC and Rajiv Gandhi, and have a long association with John and Faith Singh (of the Virasat Foundation). As one of Jaipur’s oldest families, we take an interest in our city.” And so Diggi House (the hotel, with its 70-odd rooms, forms about a quarter of the property), elegant, centrally located, fit for kings and international celebrity writers alike, became the focal point of a tide in the affairs of Jaipur.

“It’s great weather, great food, lots of thinking, reading people – everyone who comes here is on common ground,” explains Ritu Singh, who owns the popular Flow Café on the palace grounds. “Flow’s a bit slow for the rest of the year in comparison,” she laughs. But for those five days in January, her martini shakers start at 9 in the morning and stay until 4am. Singh says friends bus themselves in to help, waiting tables, mixing drinks, mingling with guests.

That informal camaraderie still forms the bulwark of the Jaipur experience. While over 200 people have been working for the last four months to prepare Diggi Palace for the festival, Ram Pratap Singh says that the key to the experience is still how laidback and unobtrusive its infrastructure is. “We’ve had Salman Rushdie here, and managed to allay the government’s fears about security.” Gun-toting guards are not their style.

“There’s nothing sarkari about it,” Dalrymple agrees. “It’s a product of the best sort of amateur love and enthusiasm, rather than greed, or a governmental sense of duty. “We’re fortunate that Namita’s enthisuasms and mine complement each other, and cover a wide range.”

And so the festival does. This year, it expands to cover other parts of the Diggi estate – including the royal stables. (Another change: unlike past years, these will not be occupied by their equine tenants this year. Past attendees will remember the distinct fragrance of horse, wafting through the fest’s baithak area while panelists talk about Soviet history and the art of criticism). On the festival’s various stages, just under 200 writers will discuss their preoccupations, themselves and each other in front of rapt audiences.

Why do they flock here? Bill Cinton famously called the pre-eminent Hay-on-Wye festival ‘A Woodstock of the mind’. By contrast, says Dalrymple, Jaipur is more about the feel of a gigantic Indian wedding. “The music and dance performances in the evenings just add to the feeling. Look, it’s late January. In the rest of the world, that’s miserable,” he laughs. “Jaipur is not a hard sell.”

“Jaipur has been a great way for new, unpublished writers to get a sense of what the public part of the job--speaking, engaging in debates--might entail, as well as for new writers to get a sense of the publishing scene in general,” says critic and writer Nilanjana Roy. Still, the best experiences at literary festivals happen to readers, she says, or writers who like engaging with their vast public.

What about publishers, who, as Roy says, go to Jaipur will full schedules chalked up? “It's a good platform for the writers they already have on their list, and it offers a chance to listen to, read and assess writers, especially those from outside Delhi,” she explains.

”But unlike Frankfurt, this is not a trade fair, where the focus is on signing contracts and making rights deals. It's probably the wrong time and place to try and get them to read your unpublished manuscript.”

Informal translation
Namita Gokhale, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, on the Indianness of an international festival. Excerpts from a conversation:

How do you balance the festival’s Indian aspects with its international profile?
International response has been gratifying, but it’s a primarily Indian fest for us. Writers appreciate the chance to be a part of a diverse programme, to interact with people from all over the world.

One of the things we do is create a dialogue between Indian English and Indian bhasha languages, where often there’s been a degree of resentment at not being treated the same way.

The earlier tendency was to look for acknowledgment from the UK or US – now here are equal stages on which new voices can find a public as well as presence.

You can see, for example, writing about Dalit literature, which didn’t get a lot of attention before.

How does the festival construct dialogue between Indian writers across languages?
Indians are a bilingual people: speaking in multiple languages is not a problem for us. At the festival, too, you can see we’re still working out our own bilingual challenges.

We recognize that translation is not just a physical act but also subtext; there has to be humility on both sides, there can’t be a dominant bias.

Last year, two days before the festival we did a ‘Translating Bharat’ workshop, which had fabulous outreach. This year, the session ‘Translating Classics’ will be very much a part of this.

Do international publishers respond to writing in regional languages?
French, Spanish, and Italian publishers look for a completely different register from what English-language publishers do. At Jaipur, we form a literary community which manages to make space for all these people, some of whom come every year. You have book lovers, academics, students for whom to encounter these writers is a big deal. It’s a group that feels a sense of involvement and ownership. There’s a vitality to it. This fest isn’t about linen suits.

The fest itself is an act of informal translation – not physical, or textual, but a multilingual act. As someone said to me, “The Jaipur lit fest is like installation art” – very temporary installations that lead to future acts of translation.

A South Asian Pulitzer

The DSC South Asian literature Prize, which will be given out for the first time at the festival, anticipates a watershed in South Asian publishing. The prize will award US$ 50,000 to one winning work of fiction by a writer writing about South Asia and its diasporas. Intriguingly, eligibility rules have no nationality requirement.

Nilanjana Roy, who is part of this year’s jury, says, “It's difficult and challenging to define the South Asian novel, but it's more fun than having to go through author's passports to see if they qualify.”

The Prize, which is open to translations, instantly broadens the range of subcontinental writing that achieves international attention. Its administrators may well see the DSC prize as the subcontinent’s equivalent of the American Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award for fiction.

“If the DSC can get two things right--a consistently high standard of judging, and a consistently fair and wide selection of books from South Asia--this has the potential,” Roy says.

This year’s DSC Prize shortlist:

Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals
Musharraf Ali Farooqi: The Story of a Widow
Tania James: The Atlas of Unknowns
Manju Kapur: The Immigrant
Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart
HM Naqvi: Home Boy