Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Jaipur Literature Festival - Diana Chronicles

24 Mar 2010
 This event was initially planned to be held at the Durbar Hall. Fortunately the organisers realised that it would be more practical to accomodate the crowd building up on the Front Lawns (which weren't being used in this time slot)

A conversation between Tina Brown and Vir Sanghvi about Browns latest book -

Vir Sanghvi is a brilliant speaker. Well Read, well prepared, who takes care to be well informed before conducting any interview. Tina Brown has worked with Tattler, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. She claims that her special relationship with Diana gave her a little more intimate insight into the life of the Princess. To add to this, she interviewed at least 300 people for the book. Some of whom haven't spoken to any other Diana biographers before.

Sanghvi quickly questioned Brown to extract the main highlights of the book. How Camilla was having an affair with Charles long before his wedding was ever finalised. In fact, she gave her stamp of approval to the marriage, thinking that Diana would be a quiet country mouse. Unfortunately for her plans, Diana turned out to be the mouse that roared.

Diana, was the first person to use her celebrity status to fight for a cause and take it global in a globall massing of attention. The press became her lovers in a sense and she garnered so much attention, that it was often humiliating for Charles when he travelled with her to see people rush to be by her side and speak to her.

It has since emerged that the Royal train is the safest place for a monarch to have an affair as it is exclusively used for them and their security detail, not a single papparatzo in sight.

She paints Diana as a lonely woman constantly trying to find a man who would love her for what she was and always coming up short. The contrasts between her and Dodi could not be more stark, but he seemed able to love her and handle the immense media attention that followed her everywhere. Brown thought that this was one relationship that could have really worked for her, if it wasn't cut short so tragically.

Jaipur Literature Festival - Against the Wind

24 Jan 2010

Namita Gokhale in conversation with Sister Jesme, author of Amen: An Autobiography of a Nun and P Sivakami - the first Tamil Dalit Woman to write a novel..
Sister Jesme is a Malyali Catholic Nun who has recently left the convent in protest against the abuses she faced within the walls of the convent. Her book is a real life account fo what goes on behind those walls. While it was a struggle for her to go through it all while she was on the inside, she feels the struggle isn't any easier on the outside. The only thing that gives her encouragement is that her courage to come forward is prompting others from within the priesthood and nunnery to haltingly come forward with their own horrifying experiences.

P Sivakami is an an ex-IAS officer. Her books speak of the poor and downtrodden and the misery they undergo. When she was first called a "Dalit writer", writing about the "Dalit Experience" it upset her, but she now welcomes the terms because she feels that it brings awareness to the Dalit problems.

Both courageous women in their own way, it was inspiring to hear of face how they conquered their fears and overcame their battles.

Jaipur Literature Festival - Under the Kilt

An absolutely hilarious conversation between 4 Scots. Niall Ferguson, William Dalrymple, Alexander McCall Smith and Andrew O'Hagan.
Itwould be impossible to try to recreate the electric tension, the wit and the repartee of this session on a blog, so I will not even attempt it. Just to sum up, the theme of the discussion seemed to be Scottish Miserabilism.

If the conversation doesn't seem to flow it is mainly because I was laughing so hard, I often missed parts of the conversation :)

The question: Are Scots, really serious about their independence from the UK? was responded to with "In 2006, the National Scottish Party realised that Independence would also mean stop of funds from England, so they have brought their plans almost to a standstill"

There are supposedly deep divisions in Scotland between Edinburgh vs Glasgow. The obvious reason could be their religious orientation Catholic vs Protestant, but it could as well be because of their football teams - Celtics vs Rangers.

A simple question like "How are you?" is normally answered with a gloomy "I'm surviving" or even worse "I'm doomed" Perhaps Scottish Pessimism is the perfect antidote to American Optimism?

If you try to brighten up the mood with the standard American "Nice Day", it would most likely be answered with "Aye, and we'll have to pay for it"

While they are terribly pessimistic, they consider the English far worse. If Ireland has an inferiority complex in their nationalism approach, then the trouble with Scotland is that it has a superiority complex.

As evidence - the East Indian company was full of Scots who saw more opportunities abroad than across the border.

National Self Deprecation seems to be the norm for the Scots. It was indeed remarkable to hear 4 well known authors and hence brand ambassadors for Scotland speaking so about their native land even with the Scottish press in attendance. I Don't think they will be troubled by anyone asking them to apologise or say they were misquoted and revoke their statements any time soon.

Being able to laugh at yourself could be a great antidote to the myriad organisation pop-ups across India who seem to take themselves too seriously

This session was a laugh riot and a wonderful final session for us, before we began our drive back to Delhi.


Jaipur Literature Festival - Nine Lives Readings & Performances

23 January 2010

This was a sun down program. While the rest of Jaipur was dry for some elections/rally (or some other political reason), permissions had been got at the Diggi Palace to provide liquid fortification to the attendees and authors.

The evening started with Readings and Performances from William Dalrymple's Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
The readings were interspersed with vocals by Paban Das Baul and Kanai Das Baul & Debdas Baul. The latter two being the main protagonists of the 9th tale - The Song of the Blind Ministrel

The words, the lyrics, the chanting, the atmosphere, the crowd, the open air seating all just combined to make this a mesmerising and magical evening.

There was more to come. Susheela Raman - a British Tamil Musician came on stage to perform with Sam Mills, Nathoo Lal Solanki and Chugee Khan. The music was absolutely out of this world. This is true World Music. Tamil classical raagas sundg with a stong husky voice, jazzed up with rock and other beats. Its a CD worth buying.
This picture was taken in the afternoon while they were reheasing. In the evening, we lost ourselves in the music and completely forgot to take pictures!


Jaipur Literature Festival - Vatsayan & the Erotic & The Caferati Meet

23 Jan 2010

Warning: This post discusses adult content

This was a session with Sudhir Kakar and Ruchir Joshi. The former read from his fictional biography of Vatsayan - The Ascetic of Desire: A Novel of the Kama Sutra and the latter from his contemporary erotic anthology - Electric Feather.

Since very little is known about Vatsayan himself, this biography is mostly fictional with Kakar ascribing his knowledge to being born & brought up in a brothel, although he himself remained chaste and faithful to his wife.

Kakar read a portion of his book and then went about dispelling some myths associated with Vatsayan and the Kamasutra. The Kamasutra is not all about sex. Only Chapter 2 of the 7 chapters deals with the subject. (Parallelly, only 10% of the sculptures at Khajuraho are sexual in nature) and it is a text book of sensuality rather than sexuality. It stresses on how pleasure needs to be cultivated.

When Vatsayan originally write the Kamasutra, he recommended that every woman read it before she was married (sometime as early as the age of 14-15). The first translator of the book brought his own chauvinistic attitude to the fore when he recommended that women should read it , but only with the permission of their husbands!

In Western Literature, a woman is seen as a fort that needs to be captured, especially when you look at the language used to describe attraction and mating rituals. The focus is on sexual not sensual love which is in complete contradiction to Vatsayan who introduces "love" in marraige. According to him, the goal of marriage is love (which went against most dharam shastras of his time)

Vatsayan was a believer in womens emancipation to the extent that one of the chapters even details how to get rid of a man - do not laugh at his jokes, look at him like he is a fool, etc. Way before his time!

Ruchir Joshi, read a passage from his book, which didn't sound too interesting. He used his time trying to market his book, but didn't do it very effectively.

We couldn't stay on for the question answer session, because we were to leave for the Caferati meet. since so many book lovers and aspiring authors who are members of Caferati (a group of writers in English spread across the globe) were planning to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, a special read-meet was planned at the Caferati Jaipur haunt.- Samanvai Art Gallery on MI Road. There were at least 35-40 members who attended the meet and it was good to put names to faces from across the country. Would have loved to post a picture of the meet here, but as a rule, I do not upload personal photos of people on my blog (unless they are used to being in the media glare or its is a group shot where faces aren't distinct) Facebook friends can see the pictures in my Jaipur photo album.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Jaipur Literature Festival - The Lonely Planet Story

23 Jan 2010

We were truly fortunate to have the honor of hearing Tony Wheeler - the Founder of the iconic and essential Lonely Planet guides in conversation with William Dalrymple.
Tony seemed a little reticent when it came to speaking and Dalrymple skillfully guided him on a memory trail by questioning him about the key turning points in his life.

Tony Wheeler started his life by living in Karachi and the Bahamas before his family moved to Detroit. He remembers feeling at that time that "You should always be slightly uncomfortable, if you aren't uncomfortable, you can't enjoy it"

While Tony loved travelling and writing, it was his wife Maureen Wheeler who kept the company running, even going as far as to say "Lonely Planet would not have started without you Tony, but it would have fallen flat on its face without me"

When he first started travelling independently, there were very few guide books available in the market, the notable ones at that time were Merry's Guide to India (1970) and the Bit's Guide.

In those days Thailand saw maybe a 100,000 tourists in a year. Today the number stands at 8 Million a year. In those days Singapore had character, but today it is an air conditioned shopping center.

He recounted his passport being stamped "SHIT" at the Malaysian border, allegedly standing for Suspected Hippie in Transit.

The first Lonely Planet was started in October 1973. He and Maureen had landed in Australia with no money and he had to pawn his camera to be able to buy food. 8500 copies were printed of the first edition of the LP. Today these originals are collectors editions.

He is sometimes asked if it is ethical to puiblish LP guides for places like Burma. Isn't there a moral responsibility? His response is that the more people that visit, the more the points of contact. Engaging with countires on a non-diplomatic platform has its own effect and makes a difference to the traveller and the people from the host country that he/she comes in contact with.

LP was recently sold to BBC worldwide (he declined to specify the price), but he and Maureen have retained a substantial minority of the shares. The reason they sold to BBC was that they felt it was a good, responsible company which shared a similar vision to them.

He also promised that the LP magazine would soon be launched in India.

When asked if the internet and other modern technologies like Kindle and internet access on phones would kill travel guides like the LP he closed the session by saying "If you drop your LP in the water, you can pick it out, dry it and reuse it. If you drop your kindle in water, throw it out and forget about it."

Jaipur Literature Festival - Wanderlust

23 January 2010
Wanderlust - A Session with Travel Writers of different kinds.
Brigid Keenan who travelled and relocated across the globe with a young family as the wife of an EU Ambassador who spent 35 years in 9 different countries with Vietnam being the only move by her own choice. She tries to recreate her English home in whichever part of the word she moves to. She read a piece from her book

Isabel Hilton is a journalist who also writes about her travels. Hence her writing is a journalistic viewpoint that is heavily fact based but also slightly humanised with stories. She read a piece from her book about Greenland.

Geoff Dyer who writes travel as fiction, read an extremely humorous piece from 

William Dalrymple who described himself as the stereotypical Single White Male, off with a backpack into the Oriental world, weaves in a lot of history into his books.Even his narrative style is extremely poetic, where he describes a city before naming it.

Travel Writing is a very ancient form of writing, originating perhaps with the Japanese and Buddhist monks who came to India and each of these writers has broadened the genre in a different style.

Jaipur Literature Festival - In Search of Sita

22 January 2010
I absolutely loved the book  - In Search of Sita : Revisiting Mythology and I just had to be there for this session.
An anthology compiled by Namita Gokhaleand Malashri Lal. (Namita is also one of the 2 Festival Directors of the Jaipur Literature Festival) it has contributions from numerous well known and not so well known authors. (I will review this book seperately). 3 of the other contributors who were part of this session were Lord Meghnad Desai, Reba Som, Chitra Ghosh Jain and Devdutt Pattanaik

Namita started off the session saying that she was once asked if her book was about Sita - the wife of Ram. She responded "No, this book is about Sita whom Ram was the husband of" and this truly encapsulates the spirit of this collection.

Lord Meghnad Desai then expounded on his view of Sita. That he originally believed in the role of Sita as victim, but as he read more about her and researched more about her, it wasn't so. He was fascinated by her married life. By most accounts, Sita was married when she was around 12-13 years old to Ram who was about 14-15 years old. They weren't sent to the forest until Ram was around 28 and by the time they came back to Kosala they were around 40 and 42 years old. During all this time Sita did not have children.

An interesting point to note is that most men in the epics are impotent and child creating is outsourced. Women who are portrayed as passive are also autonomous to the point were they had complete control over reproduction. Since very little is mentioned about Sita in Valmiki's Ramayana, hence there is a lot more room for speculation about her. Perhaps she did not want to bear children until Rama was king and she could be assured of a throne for her children?

Malashri Lal read an excerpt from the book and commented that what was most noteworthy is that Rama never remarried even though he lived in a time where monogamy was an exception, especially for a king. so perhaps he had found the ideal woman in Sita and needed no other or no other could match up to her.

Dr Reba Som spoke of her contribution, where she took an approach to the symbolism of Sita in the political sphere going right back to Democratic India's First Leaders - Nehru and Gandhi.

Gandhi chose Sita as the ideal woman for the Indian woman to emulate. He advocated women to show their resistance through methods involving boycotts, picketting, weaving Khadi. These roles for women exemplified the silent, stoic embodiment of Sita. He did not seem to want women to overstep these roles. He was against them joining in strikes and courting arrest. He did feel that women had a role to play in the freedom struggle, but they were vastly different from the roles he defined for men.He actively projected the role of Sita onto the women who wanted to participate in the Freedom Struggle.

Nehru preferred to project Chitrangada on the Indian woman. Chitrangada from the Mahabharath was a Manipuri Princess (who later married Arjuna) who was brought up by her father the king, as a son. A warrior princess. Equal and No less to a man. Hence what impressed Nehru most about women's participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement, was its equalising impact (between women of diverse socio-economic backgrounds & as co-sharers with men)

Chitra Ghosh Jain read from her contribution - a piece of speculative fiction called "Sita's Letter to her Unborn Daughter" which she reimagines the tale of Sita conceiving a daughter instead of 2 sons in the time of rampant female foeticide.

Devdutt Pattanaik started with an extremely telling statement - "When in India, if you write about Ram, you will invariably be gagged by someone. If you say something positive about him, the left wing will get all upset and call you patriarchal. If you say he was a good husband, the feminists will jump in to say that he was definitely not a good husband. If you say anything negative about him, the entire right wing gets upset and says that he is a God, how can you say anything against him?"

Coming to mythological symbolism, In any Indian temple depiction, you will see "Dampatya" - man and woman together. They cannot be taken in isolation. Whether it is the mother-son relationship of Renuka and Parashuram, the friends Krishna and Draupadi or husband & wife/consort - Shiv and Parvati they form two halves of a whole.When People referred to Ram, it used to be as Siya-Ram (Sita-Ram).

Sita is an embodiment of a woman who can be as wild as Kali or as Domesticated as Gauri. Whereas in the commonly followed versions of Ramayan (Valmiki & Tulsidas) it is Sita who is portrayed as a delicate being needing protection and Surpanakha is portrayed as a demoness for stating her wants and being open about her needs.

Once the authors had summarised their visions of Sita, there was hardly any time left for audience questions. But the one that was asked by an angry man in the audience was "How can you say all these things about Sita. There is no evidence of it in the Ramayana!" This was when he was corrected saying that "It might not be there in the popularly followed Ramayan of the Hindi speaking belt of India which formed the basis for the TV serial, but you will find these stories and more in the other versions of Ramayan which abound all over India and beyond her shores.

Read my book review on "In Search of Sita"

Jaipur Literature Festival - Found in Translation

22 January 2010
The first session that I attended. Ira Pande wasn't around so Malashri Lal was moderating the discussion between Arunava Sinha and Gillian Wright.

The translator/authors both read out passages from their books and  then answered audience questions. It seemed like a lot of members of the audience were genuinely interested in Translation as a field of work.

The questions ranged from:
How would you translate a colloquial term like "jhit pit"?
-If its a word that resembles a sound made, I would leave it as it is, because it will sound the smae in any language.

If you have to use terms like anklet/pallav repeatedly would you keep replacing them with terms like leg bracelet, open end of a sari?
- I would use the term as is and then include explanations in a glossary at the end
- I would let the sentence be self - explanatory about the term
"She tucked the open end of the pallav in at her waist"

Do translations take away from the original?
- Translation enables a wider readership even though there may be some losses in words/phrases that just cannot be translated.

What are the biggest challenges faced by a translator?
- to recreate the vibrancy of the original.
- Which form of English to use? The English that was in vogue during the time perios the story is set in/written in? the English, I think the character would use? Or the English that I would use in that situation.

It was an interesting session because of the audience interaction and it seemed like this was the first chance the budding translators had got, to speak with people well established in this line.

The January Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) - A Roundup

I was very excited when my husband told me in late December that he had a conference coming up in Jaipur on the 22nd and 23rd of January. I had been wondering how to convince him, for us to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival in the middle of our maddenning househunt and relocation to Delhi.

The fates were working in my favor and given our common interest in literature,  I was set to join him as we also tagged Sunday into this break, aiming to attend at least 3 of the 5 days.

We had decided to drive to Jaipur to enjoy the Indian countryside and mustard fields in bloom.
It had been over 4 years since we had eaten @ a dhabha, so we had to stop midway for breakfast of paneer pakodas (cottage cheese fritters) and anda burji (scrambled eggs, Indian style)
With sated tummies and the fog lifting mid-way through the (normally) 4 hour drive, we were now much more relaxed and able to enjoy the rest of the journey.

The company had provided really lovely accomodation at the Le Meridien, Jaipur But, while this was a brilliant property - well suited for conferences. It is a fair bit out of the city and almost an hours drive (in traffic) to the Diggi Palace Hotel where the Literature Festival was on.

So with the fog and late arrival at hotel necessiating immediate lunch :), by the time I reached the venue on Friday (22nd Jan) it was already 3:30 and more than half the scheduled programs for the day were over.

When I got out of the car, the first venue I saw had a "We the People Debate"  on the topic "Can the Internet Save Books?" being moderated by Barkha Dutt on the Front Lawns. Not being a great Barkha Fan and finding little new light being shed on the subject, I decided to wander around and get a feel of the place.

The online program (which I had duly transcribed into an .xls file - highlighting the events that I did not want to miss) indicated that events would happen simultaneously at 4 different locations of the grounds - Durbar Hall, Mughal Tent, Baithak and Front Lawns.

At this point, I should mention that entry to the Jaipur Literature Festival is completely free. This being its 5th year, it has since last year received immense media coverage and hence the crowds were really thronging the venue. Yet the crowd was extremely well behaved. No shoving or jostling. Seating on first cum basis. Those who did not get seats would politely sit on the floors in the aisles or stand on the sides or at the back. Best selling authors would also politely stand at the sides if the venue was full by the time they arived. But then authors are overall a very well mannered lot.

There was a delegate pass on a sliding scale costing around 2500Rs on the first day, (and 500 less on each subsequent day if I remember right)  which entitled holders to eat all 3 meals on the premises and a wonderful goody bag. But since breakfast and dinner was included in our hotel package, it did not make sense for us.

Just one of the little suprises - At one of the sessions; a quiet gentleman was sitting beside me, who raised a very intelligent question at the end. He was actually the Chief of Police of Jaipur. Where else would you see that in this country? (a quiet, unobtrusive, non assuming, non attitude throwing, well read Police Chief?)

Vasundhara Raje was present almost everyday for at least an hour or so with just one plain clothes person guarding her with nary a gun in sight. The media was falling over themselves to get a soundbyte from her (I wouldn't call it an interview), but I overheard a group of school girls saying "woh aurat kaun hain? aur media un ke peeche itne paagal kyun hain?" (Who is that woman and why is the media hounding her?) - Just the ex Chief Minister of your State darlings!

There were a few film personalities around - Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Girish Karnad, Rahul Bose, Neena Gupta, On Puri among others. But the "celebrities" at this festival were undoubtedly the authors.

A few bookshops like Full Circle had set up tents on the premises where you could buy books if you liked. Bestsellers and books by the authors were being sold, for those who wanted to pick up something after listening to an author speak or wanting to get an autograph on.

Girish Karnad for example was polite but clear that he would not sign on the notebooks that were being pressed on him by gaggles of giggling schoolgirls. He was very polite in saying that "My books are avilable at the bookshop, I am here for awhile. If you bring one of my books, I will sign it for you, but on principle, I will only sign on my own books"

Other authors were either of similar viewpoints or generally obliging all their fans. But even William Dalrymple(WD) was forced to draw the line when one of these schoolgirls(SG) took out a pirated copy of his latest book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India and asked him to autograph it. I was right there when it happenned.
SG: Sir, Please Sign this book for me
WD: This is a pirated copy. I have not yet seen a pirated copy of Nine Lives, is it out already? I'm sorry, but I cannot sign this.
SG: Please sir, please sign it for me.
WD: I'm sorry, but I will not sign a pirated copy. (In an aside to Geoff Dyer-GD standing nearby) Geoff would you autograph pirated copies?
GD : (self deprecatingly) I don't think I'm popular enough for my books to be pirated, I've never been faced with one myself.
SG: But what is the problem Sir? Why will you not sign my book?
WD: Please buy an authorised copy of my book from the store here and I will be happy to sign it for you, but I will not sign a pirated copy.

I must mention that these schoolgirls I speak about are from a very reputed school in Rajasthan. The girls were all from Highschool (14-16 year olds) or engineering college (16-19yr olds) so old enough to know better. For the most part, they were well behaved, but there were some of them who were treating the whole thing as just another picnic.

They were at their worst when Chetan Baghat walked in. Of all the fantastic authors around, he, the least significant, who has written so much cr@p (Have you Read "One Night at the Call Centre"?) was surrounded by hordes of girls who were later heard whispering "You know? he smiled at me." Shows what a little controversy (3 Idiots and the credits for it - the orchestrated drama was still in the news) can do to a persons recognisability.

What I did like about the festival was that every session started on time. 4 parallel sessions, multiple award winning authors, eager fans and public wanting more time for question-answer sessions - yet every session started and ended on time. Authors politely asked fans to step out of the tent or off the main area, so the next group could get started and patiently autographed books for their adoring public on the side.

Brilliantly managed. Although I do think they will need to shift to a larger venue next year as the location was bursting at the seams this year.

Will write seperate posts about some of the sessions I attended - individually.

But to sum up, this is a wonderful idea with fantastic implementation, co-ordinated by Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple and I hope and pray that it continues to grow in the coming years.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Kim's Review : Palace of Illusions

For the first time, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes about Indian mythology rather than just characters influenced by it or stories inspired by mythology.

In the genre of speculative fiction, she retells the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view. Draupadi plays an essential role in the epic. If not for her, perhaps the Pandavas might not have lusted for revenge against their cousins as much.

Divakaruni takes the commonly known episodes of Draupadi's life, starting with her "birth" from the fire with Drishtadyumna and the prophecy at her arrival, her swayamvar and subsequent marriage to five husbands, her laughter when Duryodhana accidently falls into a pool in her palace at Indraprastha, her being staked and lost in a game of dice and the attempt to disrobe her in front of Dritarashtra's entire court and the miracle by Krishna, Krishna's assistance at the time when Durvasa and his numerous sages arrive at the Pandava's residence during vanvas, Kechakas infatuation with her and his death at the hands of Bhima during their year of being incognito, the loss of her 5 sons in the war and her being the first to fall by the wayside when she and the Pandavas begin their trek towards the heavens.

With this framework, Divakaruni fills in the blanks. What did Draupadi think about being the "girl who will change history"? What was her relationship with her father, her brother, her mother-in-law, her 5 husbands?

The introduction of the character of her nurse - Dhai Ma - helps to bring in a lot of background and history, which are narrated as stories. Divakaruni's Draupadi is an immature, impatient feminist who is filled with anger and the desire for vengeance (against Drona on behalf of her father and then the Kauravas).

She paints Kunti as a controlling mother who did not want to let go of her hold over her sons hearts and the obedience she commanded from them. Kunti in "The Palace of Illusions" constantly tests Draupadi and chastises her often.

The feminist Draupadi bemoans her empowerment of being granted 5 husbands yet having to follow an arrangement which has rules made by men. - 1 year in turn with each husband while attempting to put the others out of her head completely. She says "instead of a boon which turns me into a virgin before I begin my year with the next husband, I would have much preferred to be given the boon of forgetfullness - being able to forget the time I spent with the other 4 while I am with my current husband".

While the Mahabharatha has many strong female characters, Kunti, Draupadi, Gandhari, Amba, Subhadra they do not have much of a voice. Divakaruni attempts to give that voice at least to Draupadi.

This is a brilliant work of fiction and definitely worth a read.

Rating: 4.5/5

Also published on

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Kim's Review: Cuckold

After Ravan and Eddie I was itching to read "Cuckold" as this is a book that Kiran Nagarkar himself considers his masterpiece. In the midst of packing and leaving, I did not have the time to buy or read the book. On subsequent visits to India, we bought up all the latest best sellers (Egypt takes time for new books to be relased due to censorship issues) but sadly the Cuckold lost out in the race to my baggage, primarily because of its size and weight.

Once we moved back to India, this was one of the first books that I picked up. The premise itself had seemed very interesting. A fictionalised biography of Maharaj Kumar of whom little is known except that he was the son of the famous Rana Sangha of Mewar and the husband of Meerabai(hence the title).

Nagarkar has carried out a lot of research into Rajput history of those times and he sets his story against the backdrop of real events.

Although Nagarkar says "I was writing a novel, not history. I was willing to invent geography and climate, start revolts and epidemics, improvise anecdotes and economic conditions and fiddle with dates. As luck would have it I didnt get a chance to play around too much except in the case of the main protagonist, about whom we know nothing, but the fact that he was born, married and died"

The period during which Meerabai lived was momentuous. Rana Sangha her Father-in-law had united the in-fighting Rajputs for the first time, Babur was showing interest in conquering Hindoostan, Rana Sangha's kingdom was surrounded by the hostile Lodi Dynasty in Delhi, Muzaffar Shah II in Gujarat and Sultan Mahmud Khalji II of Malwa.

Nagarkar has used known incidents and woven them into his tale. His hero Maharaj Kumar is a brave warrior and a forward thinker who plans many grand and innovative schemes like a water and sewage system for the fort, a brilliant tactician who prefers to watch his enemy in action and then plan an attack as opposed to the straight on confrontation preferred by Rajputs of those times, who ultimately becomes a victim of his circumstances.

The book is a wonderful introduction to Rajput history and culture which can reinvigorate interest, in someone who has been inured to history by lacklustre textbooks.

Politics, scheming, spies, romance, affairs, eunuchs, concubines, cheating wives, dancing queens - this novel contains them all. Nagarkar is a wonderful story teller on the lines of the bards of yore. Each characters development is well etched out and their actions become completely believable.

Its a wonder Bollywood has not yet seized on this book. It would be a far more gripping story than Jodhaa Akbar.

Rating: 4/5

Also published on

Monday, 22 March 2010

Penguin Spring Fever - Trickster City

Today was a fitting finale to the Penguin Spring Fever celebrations. This evenings program encapsulated everything that the festival stood for. The theme for this finale was  - Discover the uniqueness of Delhi
To start off the evening, was the recent release "Trickster City". Shveta Sarda is the translator of this unique anthology whose stories have been written by a group of 20 somethings who live in neighbourhoods like LNJP colony, Dakshinapuri and Sawda-Ghevra in Delhi. What is unique about this collection is that it gives voices to stories which otherwise may have just been statistics in a social workers register. Neelofar, one of the writers and Shveta alternated reading passages from the book in English and Hindi and had the audience spellbound. I've read some of the stories from the book (they are short stories) and will review it when I'm done. But this is definitely a must-read.

Sam Miller then read an excerpt from his last years release "Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity". Sam Miller was a BBC correspondent in Delhi in the early 1990's. He has returned and lived in Delhi since 2002. His book is more about Delhi as seen through his eyes while he walked about the city.

William Dalrymple, then read from his novels set in Delhi. "City of Djinns" and "The Last Mughal" effectively tying up the Delhi of Millers book to the Delhi portrayed in Mahmood Farooqui's upcoming book. What can I say about him? He is an author who always has his audience eating out of the palm of his hand!


The last reading for the day was by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain from Mahmoood's yet to be released "Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857" It was a pleasure to see the two of them in action again. Its been almost 4 years since I last saw them perform in Bombay. While todays reading was not half as flamboyant, (You have to try and watch a Dastangoi performance at least once in your lifetime, they are next performing in Pune on April 12th) it was very illuminating. Mahmood has been researching papers at the National Archives and his book attempts to explain 1857 through the voices of the common man rather than the parroted lines in History text books. The book is a collection of translations of letters of various people during the time of the uprising and seige on Delhi. There are letters from butchers, hawaldars, thanedars and the like. We could have listened to the 2 of them all night.
The audience who had foregone the IPL, Liverpool-ManU & Navroze celebrations, to be here, was completely spell bound.
A beautiful end to the evening was the 2 hour Qawwali performance by the Nizami Brothers. Ghulam Sabir and Ghulam Waris. They performed the traditional qawwals and sang about national unity and integration among other traditional themes.

Listening to a performance like this can truly put you into a spiritual trance if you stop trying to control your mind, close your eyes and just go with the flow. the little kids who are training to be qawwalis gave us a short performance and there was so much potential there. The eldest of the 3 boys already has remarkable control over his voice for his age and they are sure to take this performance art further.

Wonderful evening, beautiful memories. Waiting for the next literature festival now.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Penguin Spring Fever - Advance Booking

Today was a different kind of an evening at the Penguin Spring Fever. 2 theater personalities read out sections from yet to be released Penguin Books.

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel; Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna and Jimmy, the Terrorist by Omair Ahmad.

The crowd was way thinner than last Sunday and  Monday. I guess that was because there were no authors around.

I had hoped that even though the previews were to be read out by theater personalities (something they really should have done last Monday for the Metro Reads) the authors would be around to discuss their work. A lot of people seemed to have the same idea, because once they realised that there were no authors around, a major portion of the meager crowd also left.

The actors were doing a good job of reading out sections of the novels, but the main reason people go to a Literature event is to hear the authors talk about their thought process and interact with them.If its just a reading, I might as well wait for the book to be released and read it in the comfort of my home.

"One Amazing Thing" sounded interesting and I think I will pick this one up. I left after the "Beatrice & Virgil" reading as it was already quite late. (Today for the first time, they started late. Were they hoping / waiting for more people to arrive?) So I missed the third and fourth books. But then I guess I'll just decide whether or not to buy them, the normal way I browse for books.

Read my review of "One Amazing Thing"
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