18 March, 2011

Indian Odyssey, Xmas 2010 (Part 4 of 4), including the Jaipur and Galle Literary Festivals

In our fourth and final exciting episode, our heroes complete their tour of the north-west Indian state of Rajasthan, then head off to TWO Literary Festivals at Jaipur (near Delhi), and Galle (in Sri Lanka). But first, grab your sword and don your armour for a trip back to old India...

Johdpur  and nearby Mehrangarh Fort
Introductory local scenes around Johdpur...
(Play the game called "Spot-a-Fort"...I bet you miss this one)
Mehrangarh Fort guards the city against its most currently feared enemy,
known internationally as "A Drop in Tourist Numbers".

 Boundaries & borders: the perfect metaphor for India's cultural-religious divide.

 Mehrangarh Fort near Jodhpur: just when you thought Indian architecture couldn't possibly provide any further superlatives, this 15th century fort/palace raises the 'wow' bar. Pictures shall tell the story...

 Brahmin Alert!  Johdpur is known as the "Blue City".

The Mehrangarh museum was genuinely interesting, clean and well-lit. There were many old palanquins, mostly equipped with a dicky-seat for the servant holding an umbrella and/or weapons to protect the royal passenger/s. This can be understood as the forerunner of 'Business Class'...

 They made the next one specifically for the visit of Queen Victoria to India...

... but weren't warned about how fat she was - so quickly had to whip up this one::

Fifty Ways To Kill Your ...........................
 [insert Relative of your choice]:

 Imagine the havoc this could wreak on the world gold price:
 No, that's not the Wallies

...and the Ladies Quarters [read: 'prison'?] on the way to the Exit. The fine mesh screens are the giveaway - the architectural equivalent of a woman's face-veil:

 ...plus musicians busking. They may sound (to the unschooled western ear) as if they're freely improvising, but the voice is paralleling the instrument (Ravanahatha*) almost exactly. The woman rarely peeked out from under her veil:

* Info about the bowed stringed instrument in the video, the 'Ravanahatha' (Wikipedia.com): "The primary version of the violin which the West boasts of to be their creation was first played by Ravana of Ramayana. History behind this string instrument is as follows:

Ravana's mother Kaikasi, an ardent devotee of Shiva, was eager to go and live in the god's abode on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Ravana opposed the plan vehemently, but to please his mother he promised to bring Mount Kailash itself to Sri Lanka.
As Ravana was lifting the mountain, an angry Shiva trapped his 10 heads and 20 arms. Writhing in pain, Ravana prayed for mercy. When Shiva let him off, Ravana decided to sing his praise and instantly made an accompanying instrument using one of his heads, an arm and some of his hair. mmm

 Jaipur   ...the 'Pink' City. 
Maybe pinky-orange doesn't show the dirt as much as blue...
(I trust you found the fort already?)

The Hawa Mahal ("Palace of the Winds/Breeze") is located in the town centre.
 From behind its 953 carved lattice windows, the royal wives/concubines
were permitted to perve on the daily activities of commoners.
It was built to imitate the shape of Krishna's golden crown.

The famous deco-style Raj Mandir cinema, Jaipur, venue for many Bollywood hits

Jaipur... rather prosaic, even unlovely, seen from the incoming train, but coyly begins revealing a few hidden assets. Draped over fifteen kilometres of rocky ridges, the 'Great Wall of India' encircles the iconic Amber Fort atop the mountain, and is still the home of the current (nominal) Maharajah. The carefully planned city is painted largely in a pastel shade of salmon-pink, but royal palaces try to distinguish themselves with amber yellow... perhaps suggestive of gold. Despite the Amber Fort's tourist reputation, I wasn't as overwhelmed as I was at Mehrangarh... but maybe after two months on the road I'm either suffering fort-fatigue or just becoming [sigh] more Indian.
So I'll show you a pic of our hotel room instead ;-) 
We stayed here for several days and also throughout the
Jaipur Literature Festival.  The hotel's owner, a Mr Singh,
complete with turban, choofed off every night on his old
Royal Enfield motorcycle to listen to music at the Lit Fest.
In this last fort pic [hooray], convoys of gaily-caparisoned and coulourfully painted elephants ferry tourists up and down the hill to the Amber Fort. In the distance is the so-called Great Wall of India, snaking over the mountains:

Meanwhile, back in town, an itinerant donkey (wearing a tie) eats a kite. Jaipur had its kite festival just 2 days before, and every tree and electricity wire was festooned with dead kites:

I'm inspired yet again. A kerosene iron.

I felt a mysterious empathy with the white cow.

Festive purple powder decorates the street as Ganesh arrives on a float...
...while a camel team stops to admire:

A camel is a horse designed by a committee.
Sorry, Kalu, you deserved better.

One of the 19th century Maharajahs was a smart astronomer/astrologer. This huge sundial is one of the many interesting devices he made in a kind of theme park. It is accurate to 2 seconds per 24hrs:

One Jaipur Maharajah owned this prototype of the very first Honda Jazz Model-T.

Mandawar Desert Resort
We were decidedly underwhelmed by the Mandawar's 'Desert Resort', a classic tourist trap disguised as a rural Rajasthani village of round mud-brick/cow-poo thatched huts. The less said the better:

Isolation encourages their restaurant to charge sadistic prices. Refusing to play their game, we simply slipped out to a chow-house in a nearby village and ate well for less than a quarter of the price. And although we were entitled to watch the resort's dance show while other guests ate dinner, we were made to feel so unwelcome that we bristled and turned on our heels. Why? They expected us to buy their obscenely expensive drinks. By their predatory attitude, Mandawar actively undermines the interests of Indian tourism. We left a day earlier than scheduled and headed back to Jaipur to prepare for the....
Jaipur Literary Festival ...the contradictions continue...
Jaipur... as much filth and degrading poverty as we've seen anywhere in India. Every morning, thousands of pavement families are sleep in rows, bundled side by side in dirty blankets, making streets resemble morgues. Human shit provides a daily-renewed obstacle path along most pavements ...or what's left of pavements. The confronting pungency of urine lances the nostrils. Even street dogs recoil from the stygian puddles of foul black ooze and trampled rubbish.

Abruptly the pall of squalor melts away as the colourful entrance arch of the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) materializes before us. Stroll through this Indian Looking Glass into a world of wealth, erudition and incisive intellect. As always, India manages to contradict itself at every turn.

A bagpiper welcomes visitors on the first day:

There are 4 venues, starting at the Front Lawns...

...two other similar tents, and the exotic Durbar Hall (which, curiously, resembled a expansive version of our hotel room)...

The sub-continent excels at Chaos, and the JLF is a noble example. The opening address begins a quarter of an hour late, unhinging the schedule for the rest of the day... and the printed programs have yet to arrive. Each of the four event venues is only half the size required, so competition for seats is intense. Many resign themselves to standing in the sun, listening from outside. Crowds shuffle in all directions simultaneously, vertical sardines squashed claustrophobically together in a vast slab of multi-coloured humanity, moving glacier-slow in a hapless attempt to reach the next venue on time.

 Free masala tea from the chai-wallah, served hot in traditional recyclable clay cups :-)

 Lunchtime: at the Festival's tiny cafe, it requires a full twenty minutes before an overwhelmed waiter takes your order - and eventually the (expensive) food arrives. They forgot the cutlery. But as I eat, my mind reluctantly wanders back to the hungry eyes and gaunt faces in the dusty streets outside this manufactured middle-class sanctuary. Do I feel Guilt? Shame? Gratitude? What is appropriate... or inappropriate?

Having so comprehensively bagged the festival's organisation, I must say that some of the events themselves did provid satisfying moments of insight, wit and shared literary experience. Nam Le, Antony Loewenstein, Orhan Pamuk, Moshin Hamid, Kieran Desai, William Dalrymple, Marie Burrows, J.M. Coetzee, M.J. Akbar, Patrick French, Izzeldin Abuelaish, William Fiennes,  etc. Dozens more, including many excellent Indian writers. Organised minds helped to counterbalance the craziness which otherwise raged around us. But as Indians themselves often dispassionately quip, "That's India!". And Festival Co-ordinator Patrick French has acknowledged the need for a larger venue next year. And - it's all free admission.
Irvine Welsh engagingly read an extract from an as yet unpublished book,
then discussed his style and influences in the Baithak tent.
Earlier, a special treat was hearing J.M. Coetzee read one of his works.

The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka.
Our SpiceJet flight wobbles late into Colombo at 2.30am after a turbulent flight from Chennai. Next morning, buy two simcards. Travel by car to a hotel at Unawatuna Beach in order to attend the Galle Literary Festival (GLF). En route, local election rallies periodically block progress (grr), armies of tuk-tuks bristling with loudspeakers and excited men (not one woman!) waving their preferred team colours. The new simcards turns out to have almost no coverage (grr)... buy new simcards (grr). An afternoon thunderstorm prompts leaks in the hotel room (grr), flooding the floor. Nothing seems to be going smoothly for us.

Perhaps these inauspicious happenings were just premonitions of the unfortunate literary turbulence here at the Galle Literary Flop. Many of the major invited writers boycotted it, either out of concern about the Srilankan government's shocking human rights record, or, according to rumour, due to visa problems.

In the recent past, many writers have rightly expressed particular concern over the unsolved 'disappearances' of more than a dozen local Srilankan journalists who had written critically about the autocratic regime of Mahinda Rajapakse, now a democracy in name only. We too had discussed whether or not to come to Srilanka, but had decided in favour on the grounds that a mute absence may actually be less effective a protest than a live and actively vocal presence. So we purchased only one day pass instead of our usual four, and told all and sundry in Galle and Colombo that this is our last visit... and openly citing Chairman Mah's bad behaviour as our cause célèbre.

The wife and son of Prageeth Eknaligoda (the Sri Lankan journalist who disappeared
on 24 Jan 2010) made a highly courageous appearance at the Galle Literary Festival.
A group of ladies from the East Melbourne Book Circle, chatting nearby over cups
of tea, probably had no concept at all - or care - about the adrenalin-pumping risk 
this pair was taking.  Sri Lanka's present political environment can turn deadly
 poisonous if you cross Rajapakse, his family or cronies.

Local Sri Lankans who may be concerned are less at liberty to speak out. Most, however, are just seem relieved that the long un-civil war is finally over, and prefer to overlook any gory details as to how it was executed. It's always the victor who writes - and is privileged to selectively conceal - the "history". By way of footnote, I suspect the the Chairman is most grateful that so many of his potential critics at the festival have 'disappeared' themselves so willingly... with not even any need for him to waste precious bullets.

Also, due to the last-minute absence of star bills such as Orhan Pamuk, Kieran Desai and Damon Galgut, it turned out that only one day out of four was marginally attractive enough to us to merit attendance. Even so, we decided to skip one of the sessions, and departed Galle a day early.

Unsurprisingly, attendance was noticeably down compared to previous years, significantly among western visitors. This boycott represents a possible death knell for the festival as we know it, as customer trust is damaged if not destroyed. Oh dear, "Brand Galle" is going down in flames. It's a shame, because the boycott by the authors wasn't the fault of the festival committee - the authors have all had plenty of time to consider their political stance or visa status, and should have decided whether or not to absent themselves long before this (as indeed some more considerate ones had done). Doing a last-minute no-show like this constitutes a rude slap-in-the-face to the very people who are their most devoted readers and customers, people who have paid for international airfares, taxis, hotel rooms and meals, not to mention festival tickets. Do the sums.

Accordingly, we won't consider returning in 2012 unless (a) trust can be re-established, say, by means of writer contracts AND (b) a number of higher profile writers are engaged. Galle may morph into a good local Asian forum - we saw budding signs of that this year. Certainly the large majority of audience appeared to be the Colombo middle class, (ie, mostly mute or unaware apologists for Rajapakse). A former prime minister of Srilanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, visited this year's festival - how about that for government endorsement! It's all getting rather uncomfortably cosy and incestuous in here....

Any serious literary festival professing to be of international status, however, will rise or fall depending on the variety and quality of its invited authors - assuming they can be motivated to actually turn up (grr). The GLF must now decide what it wants to be.
This nuclear sunset over Unawatuna Beach, just south of Galle on our
last day of the Festival, suggested an obvious metaphor.

Thus ends the 4th and final part of "Indian Odyssey".

Click here if you would like to return to Part 1.
Click here if you would like to return to Part 2.
Click here if you would like to return to Part 3.

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