Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Women's Day

I am not a big supporter of days – Valentine’s day and Mother’s day and the like – I consider them hokey and made up. And the way that International Women’s Day has come to be represented in society and the media certainly makes it no less trivial – every brand ‘salutes’ women and then goes on to offer discounts for beauty and fashion products as if that would suffice to celebrate womanhood the world over. It is not a day to be ‘celebrated’ and certainly not with sales offers and free spa offers and mani-pedis, as if all we need to distract us from the gender imbalance of society is a few beauty treatments or a shopping outlet. And then the next day we can go back to business as usual!

International Women’s Day should be a day to remind us of the distance covered and the millions of miles to go before we sleep. It is a day on which, as members of society, and the many stakeholders, from government to corporations, political parties, entertainers, artists - we all need to reflect on the injustice done to 50% of the people who hold up the earth and think about what we can do to make it better. We need to have debates and critical conversations on how the needle can move. We need not only men to think differently but we need women to think differently, to stop accepting those rules of society that work better for one gender. It is a day on which we need to remind ourselves – We should all be feminists!

Since I’m going to miss being at a meaningful panel discussion organised by a friend, I thought I’d put down some of the thoughts swirling in my head around the issue of where have we reached and how far is there to go yet.

Firstly, though, we must recognize that I and many of my friends and family members are daughters of privilege. We were born to families that prized girls and boys equally. We were given the same opportunities and food and education that a boy would get. Our right to express our opinions, our freedom to be who we were, were more contingent on the texture of the family than our gender.  I have also been lucky and privileged to work at workplaces that never let my gender be a factor, one way or another. I was subject to the same expectations and judged by the same yardsticks as my male colleagues. As a result, I have always thought of myself as a person, just Priya, rather than as a woman.

I feel grateful for the extreme privilege that gender has not been a factor in my life. It has not shaped my identity, my choices in life, the expectations that people in my life have. And I recognize that this is a powerful and rare privilege that millions of women do not enjoy even today. And that’s why it’s a privilege.

Millions of girls, not just in poverty-stricken families but in educated, urbane ones, do not get their rightful share – be it of nutrition, opportunity, choice, agency, inheritance…Millions of women even today struggle to adhere to outdated, patriarchal notions of ‘their place’ in society, in families, with a medieval boundary to their role in the world. So many women are harassed or paid less or bump up against the glass ceiling all too early. Everyone, from rightwing political outfits in India to America, thinks they have the right to decide what we can and cannot do with our bodies. The outdated notions of honour and thus by contrast dishonour and revenge which are rooted in a woman’s body still permeate the world. The so-called self-appointed moral custodians of society around the world are far more busy judging women than looking inwards, because it comes much more easy. Survey after survey among both men and women proves that an easy notion of patriarchy is ingrained in millions of people across the globe, with attitudes frozen in time.

Just recently, the number of things that have had me frothing at the mouth range from the parents in Haryana who drugged and threw their teenage daughters into a canal because they suspected them of having boyfriends, Maneka Gandhi saying girls need to have curfew times at hostels because their hormones will run amuck otherwise, the Film Certification board which prevented the screening of a film because it depicted the sexual fantasies of women to the US government's decision to defund any NGO that talks about or offers abortion anywhere around the world to the hardliners tweeting rape threats to a 20 year old whose opinion they disagree with...the list is endless!

That doesn't include long-standing issues like the fact that a woman I know - a corporate CEO who earns an 8-figure salary - has to get up early and cook for her family before leaving for work because her in-laws won't eat food made by a cook. That someone once said proudly in a focus group that 'my husband is very supportive; he has no problem with me working as long as the house and kids are taken care of'. A scene from Dil Dhadakne Do hit the nail on the head when Priyanka Chopra's husband says proudly that his wife enjoys plenty of freedom because he allows her to have a career.

There are millions of miles of distance to be covered, and sadly this is true in every country (except perhaps the Scandinavian ones), to provide equity to 50% of the people who hold up the earth. The issue lies in the way we bring up our girls from day one, and the way we bring up our boys. Training girls to expect less, to grow up with the notion that they should know their place ( whatever that means) and that they must not get used to being pampered at home because once they get married, they will have to follow the rules of their in-laws - these attitudes are long past their sell-by dates. Raising girls to be the 'good girl', to be quiet and compliant and believe that to be liked is more important than being herself - it is ridiculous! Teaching boys that they are special, more powerful, raising them to expect to be waited upon hand and foot and teaching them that girls are inferior are equally outdated. Yet these attitudes prevail, in so many homes around the world!

And the sad part is that women as much as men propagate these regressive attitudes which are frankly good for neither gender. These attitudes are deeply ingrained not just in men but women, who either believe these are traditional or heritage values to be preserved, have given up thinking that these are too deep to be changed or are benefitting from following the status quo.

I would love for the day to come when I don’t feel uniquely privileged because of my upbringing. I’d love it if every girl in every country on earth could just take for granted her rights, her freedoms and her place in the sun, the way that boys do. I’d love it if the concept of gender were to become as insignificant a factor in shaping one’s life as the colour of one’s eyes. I'd love for the day to come when International Women's Day becomes redundant!

Monday, January 9, 2017

“ ‘Tis nobler in the mind…”

Looking at the objective third party facts that seem to be emerging, it doesn’t seem like Prime Minister Modi’s gamble of demonetization has paid off in terms of the black money conundrum. It has so far produced arguably mixed results on the fronts of black money, preventing corruption or counterfeiting. Further, there is a quantity of anecdotal evidence and data on lost jobs, micro and small sector troubles and the return of thousands, if not lacs, of rural migrants back to the homestead, in distress. Given that, it seems to have become quite the puzzle as to why poor Indians aren’t up in arms against demonetization.

Hamlet once questioned whether
“…Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind
To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles…”
That, Hamlet, depends entirely on how you frame the argument, as Sir Humphrey would tell you!

The entire narrative of demonetization has been masterfully constructed by a skillful communicator to ensure that the outcome is less relevant than the act itself. Firstly it was pitted as an act against black money, and against black money hoarders. Very few people living in India can argue against the scourge of black money and the fact that it has always been seen as the victory of the rich and powerful amoral few against the vast majority of law abiding middle class and poor citizens. Thus the argument that it will lead to the downfall of these hoarders has met with a frank schadenfreude from millions of humble citizens who hoped to see the mighty tremble before the law of the land.
Secondly, the PM spoke about it as his move and not that of ‘this government’. It was “I, Narendra Modi”. Much as some of his party members may resent the absolute power that implies, it also makes the act more relatable and heroic. It is not a formless institution, the BJP, which is vowing to fight against corruption and dark powers, it is one man. Institutions can be and are seen as venal, subject to outside influence. But when it is one man pitting himself against forces older and superior, it becomes the stuff of mythology. Irresistibly, David vs Goliath!

Thirdly, the PM spoke about the possible danger he faced – “they could try to assassinate me, but I will not retract the move”, he cried. And he also spoke about the fact that if it didn’t work, he would renounce his post and move away with his ‘bori’. While there were no public threats to his life, his claimed willingness to risk his life serves to underline his authenticity. And his willingness to renounce it all turns him into a saint, and one who is disinterestedly working for the good of others rather than to line his own pockets, as many Indians have come to expect of their politicians.

The final masterstroke was exhorting ordinary Indians, the poor and the middle class, to join what was tantamount to an almost holy war against venal forces.  Indians have always believed in ‘No pain, no gain’. So the inconveniences, the standing in lines and the many days of going without money to pay for basic goods and services was turned into the common man’s ritual purification through which he proved his moral cleanliness and superiority over those who complained, a sacrifice he made for the greater good. It became a nobler act to stand and suffer in silence, rather than take up arms against this sea of troubles, because the cause was far greater than minor inconveniences!

In Indian philosophy, morality is never black or white; it is the context and imagery around an issue that determines its morality. If Arjuna were to kill his grandfather when he was unarmed, in a fit of pique – would that still have been considered moral? Or was it the context of the war in the Mahabharata, which pitted grandnephew against granduncle? The PM understands this basic truth of the Indian psyche extremely well and thus has turned demonetization into a Satyagraha. In a Satyagraha, even if you lose, there is no indignity or defeat, because taking up the cause is worth far more!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Sephardic Almond Cake

JLF, or Jaipur Literature Festival has now been an agenda on my winter horizon for the past 6 years. Every year, with some of my dearest friends, I spend 3-4 days soaking in panel discussions about eclectic topics, readings from books I haven't heard of before and interviews with new authors to be discovered. For the most part, we have stayed focussed on the festival itself, with a rare break for coffee or a shopping and lassi run during a one hour lunch break.

But a couple of years ago, it began pouring on day 2 of the fest. One of the trio was stuck on a flight that got directed from Mumbai to Delhi, Ahmedabad and then Jaipur due to the downpour, thus postponing her arrival time to sometime that evening. The other two - my soulsister M and I - rattled around the environs of the sodden Diggi Palace for a dispirited hour or so before we decided to make tracks.

We had heard about some interesting stores around Jaipur including Dhora, so we decided to head there. Anokhi Cafe happened to be a hop, skip and jump away so we landed up there for lunch. Unfortunately, so had half the litfest crowd, so we had a pretty long wait before we could finally sit and order. We opted for the salads with blue cheese and other fixings, which were absolutely marvellous - the rocket and lettuce about the freshest I have ever seen. And then we opted, rarely for us, for dessert. The Sephardic Cake sounded interesting and we decided to try it. Love at first bite!!! It was simply the most moist and flavourful cake we had ever tasted, with a fragrant citrusy tang to it.

Ever since, I have wanted to recreate it myself, and this year, for New Year's Eve, I finally did. It was magnificent - truly a worthy cake to bring in a new year, with enough comfort and exotica to be the perfect mix. And most of all, given my predilections, easy to make!!! Try it, you won't regret it.

2 oranges
200 grams almond meal
200 grams sugar
6 eggs
1 tsp baking powder

Boil the whole oranges for 1.5 hours or until they are soft - peel and all. Cut, deseed and puree the whole thing - peel and all!
Beat the eggs until fluffy. Beat in the almond meal, sugar and baking powder. If you like, add a splash of vanilla and some saffron.
Bake in a preheated oven in a lined or floured 9 inch tin at 190 degrees for an hour or until the inserted knife comes out clean.

Sprinkle icing sugar on top if you really want to decorate this masterpiece of simplicity, or curls of orange peel. But frankly it doesn't need any gussying up. Serve warm, with a side of mascarpone or cream if needed.

Sunday, December 25, 2016


Sports films are a relatively newer genre in India and there have been very few films in the genre. Dangal is a classic sports film in the sense of an underdog (underbitch?) who fights against the odds to get to where she is, the early success, arrogance, fall and then the clawing back to victory. The classic redemption story.

But the true story is much more gritty than that. It is the fight against patriarchy, against social norms, against gender dominance by the male, against the stereotypical role of daughters and the traditional father-daughter equation that prevails in Haryana, which is one of the states with the highest gender imbalance. Dangal does a decent job of portraying all of this, even while it glosses over the many struggles that must have taken place in real life against the expected mores and behaviours society dictates for women, in favour of a focus on the relationship between father and daughters.

What Dangal does even better is to underline the terrible conditions that most of India’s sportspeople train in, apart from cricketers. There are no facilities, no training grounds, hardly any money especially for women. Officialdom is notably apathetic and disinterested in the cause of sports – which was evident in the disparate treatment officials enjoyed at the Rio Olympics versus our sportspeople. It is really heartening yet heartbreaking to see how our sports people are given short shrift by the establishment, who is all too eager to corner the glory, the moment one of them triumphs against government-created odds.

The first half of the movie is very funny, with many laugh out loud moments, while the second half expectedly gets more dramatic , with the emotional crises and the denouement. There is a touch of melodrama added in the end to ratchet up the EQ, which didn't quite hit the right note, but I suppose for a movie to create catharsis, you need heightened dramatic tension and you need a villain of some sort. That was the only wrong note in the movie.

Aamir Khan has done his usual fabulous job, nailing not just the Haryanvi dialect but his body language, expressions, the cauliflower ears. He inhabits the role of Mahavir Singh Phogat completely and is able to convey so much by a moment of stillness, a look of pain in his eyes, without saying a single word. Sakshi Tanwar also does a great job as the mother, though her role is limited to a few scenes. But the scene stealers are the two girls and the cujjan – both younger and older. The actors live the roles so beautifully that it is difficult to believe it is their first film. The wrestling scenes are filmed so realistically that it doesn’t seem like we are watching actors enact the matches. The audience was clapping and cheering along, just as it happened when we watched Lagaan all those years ago!

The music fits in well, with some of the songs becoming earworms – my kids have been humming Dangal all day, while I preferred the Bapu song. The Haryanvi dialect too is ear-wormy, and we have all been producing execrable versions of it since yesterday.

It is one of the best films I have seen this year, highly recommended. Do go and take your children along!
On a separate note, the national anthem played at the beginning of the movie. Despite being an objector to this random playing, I stood up for it. For the first time in all my life, I did not feel chills up my spine while hearing it.

Later on in the movie, when Geeta Phogat won a gold at the Commonwealth Games 2010, the anthem played again. This time, though I was sitting down, I felt goosebumps. That brings me to my fundamental disconnect with the playing of the anthem. If you play it before every single movie, it begins to lose its relevance and actually becomes cheapened. The mood before a movie is far from reverent, it is fun, irreverent, focused on popcorn and nachos and a giant coke and the entertainment to follow. Playing the anthem at such a time means that you don’t listen to it in the right spirit. And thus, it loses all significance.

Whereas when you hear it in Republic Day or Independence Day, or at a sporting event when India wins – the history of our country overwhelms you, you remember all the freedom fighting stories you ever heard, you feel a renewed sense of pride in your country. And it sends shivers up your spine, because in that moment, the anthem means something to you. It is not a perfunctory, state-mandated respect but a deep and inborn sense of respect, pride and love for your country that sends you to your feet, to pay homage to this beautiful country to which we belong.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Demonetisation; or The Confusions of a Failed Economist

I’m no economist, despite an undergrad degree that claims the contrary. So, to be honest, I fail to understand the rationale behind the demonetization move. I mean, I’m sure (and hopeful) that someone somewhere has thought this through and that somewhere in the longterm cost-benefit analysis, the pains of poor people going without meals and real middle class people (Not my friends on social media – all of us must now admit that our origins may have been middle class but we are firmly in the fatcats class) dying while queueing up to withdraw money for their daughter’s weddings will all prove to have been worth it. Hopefully the epitaph will read ‘Never before have so few sacrificed so much (55 lives at present count) for so many’ and not the other way around (Never before have so many sacrificed so much for so little)!

But as of now, I’m honestly stumped. Can someone explain to me how this scheme is supposed to benefit the country? There were a few rationalisations given:
1        1. Root out black money
2       2. Prevent corruption
3       3. Curb terrorism by weeding out fake notes
4       4. Make the unbanked into banked citizens

On 1: Most people with serious amounts of black money have long ago ceased to stash it under their mattresses – for the simple reason that it pokes, I imagine, if nothing else – and converted the bulk of their holdings into other assets – land, apartments, foreign currency accounts, gold, designer loot etc. The relatively small percentage that they hold in cash must have left them distressed but it probably accounts for very little. While the nation anticipated the Schadenfreude from Mr. Ambani or the like sweating and lining up to pay in his hoard, all we have gotten to see is salwar-kameez-clad aunties, grey-haired uncles and other assorted neighbours bonding at the bank. Much as this move seems to have roused a patriotic spirit of sacrifice, I'm unconvinced that this is the Dandi March. If rooting out black money is a serious objective, what are we doing about the Panama papers? If the government is investigating it, I haven’t heard anything so far. What about the huge amounts reportedly stashed overseas which will yield Rs. 15 lac into the bank accounts of every Indian? I’ll take mine in Rs. 100 notes, please.

On 2: How exactly will this prevent corruption? Is it harder to bribe someone using Rs. 2000 notes or new Rs. 500 notes than the old ones? Corruption is caused by a system of draconian and opaque regulations that allow petty bureaucrats to hold up basic services to citizens unless palms are greased. Or by unpetty bureaucrats holding up permissions for larger commercial undertakings unless said axle grease is applied. So far, it has helped to keep the creaky wheels of this economy turning. If one actually wants to prevent corruption, the rules need to be made less draconian, more transparent and easily available and comprehensible to the average citizen. Further, strong and immediate, public punitive action must be meted out to anyone caught being corrupt. Moreover, it must be made simpler to lodge a complaint against a corrupt official than to get one’s work done by greasing palms. Bizarrely, what we have seen recently in Maharashtra is regulation stating that no FIRs can be filed against bureaucrats or MLAs without the permission of the Chief Secretary or the Speaker of the Assembly.  Qui Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? Hopefully other states will not follow suit.

On 3: It is possible that many fake notes of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 are currently the white elephants of terrorist groups financing their activities in India. The withdrawal of the old notes and issue of new ones may curb terrorism for some time. But isn’t it a matter of time before the new notes are copied and circulated, unless there is some fundoo technology hack that makes them uncopiable? Same with the new Rs. 2000 note, about which I have seen a story on fb (so may well be faking news) that some teenagers in Bhopal or somewhere photocopied and passed these off as real notes. So there may be a temporary lull in the supply of fake notes but it is a temporary one at best – like the boy who plugged the hole in the dike with his finger.

On 4: Yes, people must have bank accounts. (Though, why, when the nearest bank for many villages is anywhere between 10-15 kms away?). Most people in India, especially the large mass of poor and rural ( not necessarily the same thing) prefer to keep cash because they can access it at a moment’s notice. They are yet to reach a state of financial wellbeing in which they feel that their cash should be earning money for them rather than be a measure of how much they have managed to amass, and comforting simply by its presence and their ability to easily lay their hands on it in an emergency. The daily wage labourers do not have the luxury of time in which they can queue up at a bank or an ATM and withdraw or deposit money; most of the time their home runs on the money they have made that day, with a scant few rupees left over, on occasion.

Anyhow, admitting that people still need bank accounts and that we must move to a “cashless economy”, is this the best way to railroad people into doing so? Weren’t there easier and gentler options available – like effectively advising and educating them on the benefits, incentivising them by paying a day’s wages or mandating an official holiday by all businesses, like on Election Day, to make it more convenient for them to go and deposit their money? Like giving even small businesses a minor incentive by asking them to open accounts for their employees and making payments via the banks?

If there is a plan and a longterm one with multiple initiatives and policies that come together to defeat the politician-bureaucrat-industrialist nexus and genuinely break the back of black money, one is yet to hear of it. Campaign finances remain shrouded in mystery. 

While admittedly not a bhakt, I’m happy to applaud the government for a good move. Can someone convince me that this is one?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

It's Black, it's White

Increasingly we seem to live in a world where everything is Binary. Perhaps it began post 9/11 when the US started looking at the world outside purely in terms of friend or foe. Perhaps it was an outcome of George Bush’s policy of ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’. It seems to have cascaded around the world ever since, be it the outpouring of support for either side post Charlie Hebdo or the current public discourse in India. We seem to have become incapable of seeing finer shades of colour rather than pure black or white, or being able to appreciate a hundred and fifty shades of grey.

Each event, each utterance has to be reacted to, and the only way is either total condemnation or wholehearted praise. It shows in the wave of indignation that has greeted Bhagwat’s pronouncements on Mother Teresa for instance. Isn’t it a fact that Mother Teresa was a Christian misisonary and therefore as such her first duty was to proselytize? How does that negate or decry any of the wonderful work she did in tending to India’s poor and sick, many of whom found no other doors open to them? Why should Bhagwat’s stating a fact have the Church or politicians cry foul and hurl opprobrium at him? But the popular reaction today is – either you support Mother Teresa or you support Bhagwat, there is no space for one agreeing a little bit with both sides of an argument.

The discourse against Pakistan runs so deep in some parts of the country that it is impossible to have a reasoned argument in which Pakistan could ever be in the right. Jaswant Singh and Advani provoked indignation not only among the BJP but across the country for merely saying a few positive things about Jinnah. Similarly, God forbid anyone say anything scandalous or remotely critical about Nehru when the Congress was in power. If someone laughs at a joke in a private setting that someone else disapproves of, FIRs are filed faster than you can buy a pack of chips. An average Joe thinks it’s perfectly fine to slap a female actor in public because he disapproves of her wardrobe choices.

The moral absolutism that seems to have become the esprit du jour means that we fail to note that there are hundreds of opinions, each of which could have nuggets we agree with and nuggets we disagree with. Each of those nuggets however put together, could enable us to have a much richer, deeper understanding  of key issues. Be it on religion or sports, nationalism or politics, nuance seems to be on the verge of extinction, replaced with an absolute moral certainty that is probably based on pure emotion.

Tolerance is born out of the fundamental notion that there are many ways to do something and they can all be correct. But to an ignorant or uneducated mind – which by no means denoted ‘illiterate’, mind you – it is dangerous to admit new or different ideas because then the way ahead is not crystal clear and the mind will have to stress itself to actually think and evaluate choices. Far simpler, then, to merely discard or preclude such dangerous developments and insist on one’s own. Totalitarian regimes, from Nazi Germany to China under Mao did precisely that, burning books and libraries and carefully prescribing and proscribing what citizens could read.

When you’re lost in the darkness and can’t see anything except one path, you assume it’s the right one. But when the darkness lifts a little, you can see hundreds of paths and they may all be correct. Lord Tennyson said, well over a century ago “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds”.  It increasingly seems to me the mark of an educated, open mind that there must be doubt, there must be uncertainty as to which is the right way. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

JLF 2015

After much kwetching over whether to take the train down or fly, eventually I decided to drive down with the new driver, and hope for the best. As usual, given that I had planned an early start ( 5:30 am) the next morning, I ended up with two meetings in Gurgaon that got me home past 9 pm and left little time for thoughtful packing. Serviceable clothes and boots were chucked in, along with spare cape and puffa jacket with hood, keeping last year’s 2 degrees plus windchill mornings in mind.
Then of course, due to work events, I found myself unable to sleep and eventually dozed off only past 3 am, making 5:30 untenable at the outset. Resigning myself to seeing whatever little of day 1 I could manage, I set off, tucked into the middle seat with a pillow under my head and a blanket on me, catching some much-needed zzzs. Imagine my surprise when I found the car pulling into the hotel by 10:30 am, a bare four hours after I left! Though late for the inaugural session, I arrived by the tail end and snagged a seat by Mimi, my soul sister.

The first session, on a new biography of Lawrence of Arabia, was fascinating. Jonathan Shainin was a great moderator who asked thoughtful questions without hogging the mike (something most Indian session moderators could learn from), and Scott Anderson narrated the amazing story of West Asia politics in the post-world-war era, where 20-somethings in the UK drew up lines that divided up countries and set up the roots of the present-day conflict. Greater Syria had said it wanted to remain united, in a poll, while present-day Iraq had said it wanted to be split as per Kurds and others. Of course, precisely the opposite was done, and the Sykes-Picot agreement split the nation that wanted to remain together into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, while Iraq stayed a united nation-state. This also negated the promises made to King Feisal by TE Lawrence with the full agreement of the British side…was this where the seeds of distrust that continue till date were sown?

I tried to attend the next session on the decline of reading, which features Girish Karnad and Nayantara Sahgal – the panelists I was interested in – but possibly due to the presence of Prasoon Joshi, the Ford Samvad venue was so full it seemed it would burst if anyone in the audience so much as sneezed! The tail end of Devdutt Pattanaik’s session on the power of myth was quite interesting, though, as an alternate.

The Nordic Noir session by Hakan Nesser and Nils Nordberg was really rousing, punctuated by their very dry and wry sense of humour. When asked what about Scandinavia led to the growth of such lurid crime fiction, Hakan blamed it on the weather!

Jung Chang’s session on the Empress Cixi was a deepdive into Chinese history, starting with her own life story. As a young girl, her family was pro-Mao until the Cultural Revolution, and thus quite privileged When her parents turned against Mao, her father was arrested, tortured and turned mentally unstable due to the treatment he received, while Jung Chang worked as a steel-worker and a doctor, all without training, as Mao believed that training was too bourgeois! Her mother too was physically assaulted by various Red Guards and quite viciously beaten. Once Mao died, Jung appeared for a scholarship exam and became part of the first Chinese contingent of students sponsored by the State to study abroad.  

She spoke eloquently about how all the while she was in China, she had the urge to write but had to keep her thoughts hidden in her mind for fear of reprisals, but when she came to England, free to express herself, words failed her. It was years later when her mother came to stay and narrated the story of 3 generations of women from the family that Jung began to write again, the output of which was Wild Swans.

Her research on Cixi revealed some fascinating facets of the Empress who is otherwise reviled as a temperamental despot. Jung found evidence of her feminism in the banishing of the custom of bound feet, and said the Empress had a very strong will to protect and strengthen China, leading to her support for the Boxers and antipathy towards the Gai-jin, and many measures that served to bring China from medieval to the modern age.

God’s Traitors was yet another fascinating biography of a family of Catholics under Elizabeth Ist’s reign. Historian Jessie Childs maintained that the kind of religious control sought to be exerted during her reign was later wall-papered over with the legend of ‘Good Queen Bess’ and through contrasting Bloody Mary’s reign that brought the Inquisition into England. However, I feel she missed stating that much of the persecution of Catholics was due to Elizabeth’s own legitimacy which would be called into question by allowing Catholicism free reign. She was only legitimate if Henry VIII’s repudiation of the Catholic Church was upheld, and Catholics were all too keen on not only practicing their faith but bringing a Catholic heir to the throne – Lady Jane Grey, Mary Queen of Scots and others. Therefore it was more a pragmatic way to hold on to power rather than deep religious faith that drove Elizabeth, in my opinion.

This session was followed by a crackling conversation between Shabana Azmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi and poet Ali Husain Mir (who looks like a young and delicious Muzaffar Ali). They discussed their very different circumstances growing up, the influence of their fathers on their values and their decisions, the routine their celebrated fathers followed when they wrote…all punctuated with the most apt poetry of their times. A very poignant letter from Faiz when he was in prison, written to his wife, stated that pain and unhappiness are two very different things and the sooner we come to understand that, the better we will be able to deal with life. Pain is caused by external circumstances, while unhappiness is caused by one’s own reactions to events around one. Pain is not in our control while unhappiness is. Quite in line with my philosophy of life - Happiness is a Choice. Now to implement that!!!

Day 2 unfortunately was a wash out, quite literally. It began raining by evening on Day 1, and the organisers hadn’t prepared for that eventuality. Therefore all the open air venues were awash in water, with seats stacked under tarpaulin and pukka venues were so full with a sea of humanity that they looked like Churchgate at peak traffic. Mimi and I decided to take the day off and go wandering about Jaipur, browsing through various unusual boutiques, eventually fetching up at the Anokhi CafĂ©. Only half the Litfest attendees seemed to have had the same idea and we had a 40 minute wait for a table. The food, when it came, was well worth the wait, however, with the most lusciously fresh greens and cheeses in the salad, and fabulous desserts. The only letdown was the mezze platter which was inedibly bland!

Meanwhile, the third of our JLF trio, Sonya was due in that morning from Mumbai but hadn’t reached. Finally we managed to contact her to find out she’d been doing a Bharat Darshan. Her flight had been unable to land at Jaipur due to the torrential rain. Diverted to Delhi, they found that one runway was not functional due to fog, and followed two other similar flights to Ahmedabad. After twiddling her thumbs half the day, she finally made it to Jaipur by 2 pm! She excitedly called from the venue to tell us that sessions were resuming as scheduled at 4 pm.

Mimi and I rushed back to attend the last session of the day, Hamlet’s Dilemma, with Vishal Bharadwaj and Basharat Peer, Tim Supple – theater director specializing in Shakespeare and Jerry Brotton from the Global Shakespeare project, moderated by Suhel Seth. It turned out to be a terrific session, discussing the universality of Shakespeare on the one hand, and the fact that he’s best enjoyed as a theater piece on the other.  The director and Basharat Peer discussed that Kashmir, rather than Haider, had become Hamlet in the film. Irritatingly, the audience seemed more interested in why Vishal had chosen to focus on Kashmiri Muslims rather than the Pandits in the film. While Basharat sportingly defended the decision by stating that he didn’t see how the theme of exile fitted into Hamlet, whereas fratricide did, Vishal frankly lost it and stated that he was not making a documentary but a story. If Kashmiri Pandits were so worked up about it, why didn’t they ask Vidhu Vinod Chopra who had made Mission Kashmir and was a Pandit to boot?

Mimi and I ended our day with a trip to 1135 AD in the Amer Fort. It’s a beautiful ride to the fort, along the bypass road up the mountain. The Fort looks surreal, with the moat reflecting the starry night, and the twinkling lights in the courtyard emulating those stars. It’s a pity that the menu isn’t either more imaginative or more authentic and robust; however the place is worth a visit just for the setting.

On Day 3, we set off bright and early, determined to maximize the day at JLF. The previous day’s rained out situation had left us feeling somewhat hungry! We began the day with Selfie, the art of memoir, which had a very diverse panel of guests. First was Brigid Keenan, a hoot a minute, who regaled the audience with some pet stories of a diplomat’s wife’s existence. Then came Anchee Min, whose harrowing story and searing honesty was quite incredible. We were underwhelmed by Joanna Rakoff who came across as superficial, while Mark Gevisser gave us an incredible insight into South Africa and into a writer’s mind. As a child, he used to curl up with the automobile map and the phone book, sending imaginary letters across. Imagine his surprise when he realized that while Alexandra, a black neighbourhood in Apartheid South Africa was only 2 pages away from his own white neighbourhood, yet it didn’t show up on the roadmap because black neighbourhoods were never mapped!

We next wandered across to the session on Wanderlust, where Brigid read out some truly chuckle-worthy bits from her memoir. Each of the 7 panelists read out an excerpt, the second most interesting being from William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, which I’ve always relished.  But overall I realized I don’t enjoy readings unless they are truly skillfully done…I’d much rather attend a panel discussion or an interview, where you hear the author’s opinions, about his or her struggle and what shaped their writing, as opposed to a reading which frankly you can do by yourself sitting at home.

The session on The End of Antiquity, while articulate, was a bit too erudite for my liking, and I felt a little lost in the sea of information that was pouring out. Then followed the Murty Classical Library session, but that too turned out to be a reading from which I beat a hasty retreat and attended Samit Basu’s highly humorous and entertaining Q&A session. The Fox and the Crow was being moderated by my friend Sayoni, so I toodled along and saw the most amazing illustrations I’ve ever seen in a children’s book in India – dramatic, evocative and not at all kiddy. I attended half the session and then joined Javier Moro’s Red Sari session. He sounded quite the Gandhi champion as he naively stated that he didn’t believe they were a corrupt family and brushed her involvement with the Quattrochis escape from India under the carpet, but it still sounded like an interesting book to read.

The last session we attended was The First Firangis – two Indophile authors had written amazingly similar books interweaving stories of early foreign visitors to India with their own life stories. Jonathan Gil Harris discussed how weird he found the multiple conversations that are on-going in any Indian gathering, and discussed how the early Europeans had to literally remould their physical entities – from eating habits to what they wore – to adjust and cope with India.

We attended the music session at Clarks Amer, which featured Coke Studio’s Sain Zuhoor with a fabulous Sufi performance. We followed up by a ritual visit to Tablu, Clarks's open air bar which was sadly quite deserted this year and played sad trance style music as opposed to the rock we had enjoyed all these years.

I decided to stay back longer than planned on Saturday so I could get my fill of JLF, since I had the car and thus a flexible schedule. I raced across to attend the second Murty Classical Library session, this time thankfully a discussion between Arshia Sattar, Girish Karnad and Sheldon Pollock. They laid out the aims of the MCL, how the thought had arisen, what they planned to do, how they were sourcing translators and the 100 year aim of having at least 500 books from the MCL. The only thought I found disconcerting was that they planned to issue the translated text with the same type of syntax as in the original – Sheldon Pollock said it was part of the experience of being ‘not you’; I just wondered if I wanted to be not me badly enough to struggle through the grammar of an ancient language. What was interesting though was his assertion that it would take only two days to learn Sanskrit.

The Twilight Zone was one of my favourite sessions, verbose moderator notwithstanding. (As an aside, can someone please take all the Indian moderators aside and tell them their job is to give the floor to the speakers, not join them or dominate the conversation wholesale.) Gideon Levy was so fierily on the side of justice and so anti the Zionist policies against the Palestinians in Gaza, it was truly delightful to hear. Gideon’s point on patriotism was that if you love your country, it’s your job to make sure it’s the most just, that it is on the side of what’s right.

As usual, in discussions on West Asia, the lone Palestinian on the panel barely got the chance to make a point, especially since the anchor, Hardeep Singh Puri was so enthusiastic at the sound of his own voice that he drowned out almost everyone else except Gideon. Finally, during the Q&A session, an audience member asked if we could hear Fady’s opinion, which had the whole audience cheering, Fady included! After a weird start to Q&A in which the moderator went about collecting all the questions before handing them out, he again started dominating the answers until I couldn’t bear it any longer and started a football chant of ‘Fady! Fady!’ at which point the moderator had no choice but to hand him the floor. Fady read an excerpt from a Palestinian poet that said that when a victim starts to commit murder, he should no longer be viewed as a victim. It was harrowing to hear both Gideon and Fady talk about the plight of the Palestinians and how badly they are treated. Kai Bird was very hopeful of a 2-nation solution, while Gideon and Fady, for different reasons, felt the time for it had long gone by. Curiously enough, after that I read Brigid Keenan’s Packing Up in which she discusses what they saw during the Palestine Literary Festival, and the mindless, conscienceless exercise of power demonstrated by Israeli soldiers to festival panelists as well as Palestinians they saw there. It really breaks the heart!

The last session I attended, quite paisa vasool, was the one on the 2014 elections in India with Rajdeep Sardesai and Mihir S. Sharma as panelists, chaired by Madhu Trehan. It was a rollicking discussion with much humour, trenchant criticism and many jokes of which baba was the butt. It was fabulous to hear the in-person accounts of election stories and the worries of what lies ahead. One of the worrying aspects of post-Modi India was the shut-out of the media by the government. The panelists discussed how all news was now released late at night, too late for analysis and the government was withholding direct interaction, thus leading to the media just printing up the PIB releases of the day. Moreover, Rajdeep felt that many journalists were so hungry for a newsbite or exclusive that they were busy taking selfies with Namo and towing the line in hopes of favour being shown, letting down the purpose for which the Fourth Estate existed. The session and the Q&A were crackling, and a terrific end to JLF. Still felt I had got cheated out of Day 2 but the last day sort of made up for it.

I made my way to Rawat’s for some kachoris and pheni, and curled up in the car with my stash of books, to wind up my Jaipur sojourn in true Rajasthani style.