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Mezze is widely served in the Greek and Middle eastern world. An assortment of little dishes and tasters which accompany a nice ouzo or a glass of wine. So when you read mezze moments you will have tasty snippets of life as I live it, India for four years and now Brisbane Australia, all served up with some Greek fervour and passion.

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Friday, 28 January 2011

Mao loved books- The Jaipur Literature Festival 2011

Apparently one side of his bed was taken with stacks of books so I bet he would have loved the festival...but then again perhaps not. Listening to Jon Halliday and Jung Chang talking about Mao was a  fascinating insight into a man who they wanted to investigate impartially and who after 12 years of research was found to be brutish and authoritarian and uncaring of the people, the stories and accounts of his life illuminate hundreds of pages of their book "Mao". The man had four marriages but seemed pretty detached to the fate of his wives or children.Worse however, was his indifference to human life and suffering which saw him accumulating weaponry paid for with Chinese exports while the people suffered famine.
For me, interestingly, it was not the crowd pullers who appealed to me Pamuk, Coetzee and Adichie. I was more drawn to those authors, journalists or writers who through their works had made me curious and wanting to know more about their subject matter.
So perhaps I should start from the disappointments. Pamuk a little standoffish, impatient with the adoring crowd, Coetzee,well, he should have been left at home where I suspect he is happiest. I am still grappling with the reasons why he chose to read a story to an Indian audience about the sanctity of life (lets say a treatise against contraception ) knowing that somewhere in India, in all probability, a baby will be born that will put the world beyond the 7 billion mark. It was bizarre to say the least and newspapers were just too polite in their reviews of this. Frankly, unless he or others tell me otherwise to good effect I found him to be dull and quite off the boil with his audience. Adichie whinged about being Nigerian and the fact that it took her three weeks to get her Indian visa to which I am sympathetic but she seemed bored with her subjects and bored with the questions. So that is it - my bad bits done.

NOW to the good bits and my goodness they were so many they left me heady and dizzy every day. John Lee Anderson talking about how he decided that he was going to write about " Che". Going to Cuba living there and visiting the house daily where Che and his wife lived. How she eventually gave him access to Che's diaries and the fascinating detail that emerged from this man's life, elevated to status of hero, who hated taking baths ( Something he had in common with Mao ! ), who suffered from asthma and who was such an idealist that he would not allow his wife to use the official car to take their child to hospital as it was paid for by the people so she had to take the bus.  He was of course eventually found and killed by the CIA.

What makes the Lit Fest such a joy is the array of subject matters so when I went to listen to Liaquat Ahamad talking about his book " The Bankers who broke the World " I was really not sure what I would hear. This is an investment banker who having suffered the effects of the recent crash turned his hand and his curiosity to a period in history which was strikingly similar to the recent recession at the time of the Great Depression. He wrote about four bankers, the English, French, German and US heads of their Central Banks at the time grappling with the crisis. His aim was to write history in an exciting way as he laughingly confessed that " we all know the end."

Ahmed Rashid's "The Taliban" and "Descent into Chaos" tells a similarly remarkable story of the way the Taliban was funded and formed in the run up to the 9/11 crisis and the aftermath when Afghanistan became lawless. His first book was printed in 5000 copies and when the crisis hit he got a phone call from the White House asking for 400 copies. It sold 1.5 million books worldwide and is considered a text book by politics classes the world over. The remarkable thing about his work is that he did this at great personal danger and cost and survived to tell the tale. I suppose more remarkably given what is stated in the books about Pakistan and the role it played in feeding fighters to the Taliban was the Pakistan Ambassador's public acknowledgment that he is a fan of his work.

Turning to India, the 1857 session with William Dalrymple, Mahmood Farooqui and Rena Pandi was the account told from an Indian perspective of this important time in Indian history." It has many names, "The Mutiny", "the First war of Independence". Farooquis work in the national archives has produced a collection of documents entitled  "Besieged" where the police are very much the organisers and the unexpected leaders in the uprising. Rena's work which has literally just come out is the story of two Brahmin beggars who decide to make the journey across India at the time of the uprising. The reason why this is so important is that it is a record of the uprising and the ordinary peoples response to it from an Indian perspective. So far most of the records Dalrymple acknowledges have been British.

Following on from the Indian history theme came Alex Von Tunzelmann's "Indian Summer". A stunning truly unputdownable acount of the period from March 47 to June 48 - the brief period of  the Moutbattens time in India. Karan Thapar as the anchor was himself outstanding and provocative and asked Alex "Were Edwina and Nehru in love ?" to which she answered "Definitely". "Were they lovers ?" he continued. " Does it matter ?" she replied diplomatically. "No" he admitted "but it is so terribly interesting."
They were in her words " kindred spirits" and had the same energy and passion to face the difficult times that India was going through while Mountbatten was concerned more about pomp and ceremony.
Their letters are still being closely guarded by the family but if and when they are released they will add even more light on their love and the role that she played in determining India's history.

Having Patrick French there adding his Biography of 1.2 billion people in his book "India A portrait" completed my thirst for knowledge about my host country. He wrote the book knowing it is almost impossible to write authoritatively about a sub continent of such dimensions but he chose carefully and constructed the book in such a way that history, lead to society and money chapters in the book which are immensely telling and accurate of today's India. He comes to this subject having done a biography of VS Naipaul so perhaps well qualified to take on complex subjects. He talks about money and how it has been acquired by perhaps too few but in ways which are also indicative of the freedom and democracy that is so important in this country. An illiterate Indian who is now mega wealthy was responsible for marketing shampoos and soaps in little packages thereby enabling all society to afford them rather than just a few.

The icing on the cake for me however was listening to Vikram Seth on the last day in conversation with Somnath Batyabal. He was engaging, witty and wonderfully erudite and his poetry, which to date had been unknown to me, will now be very much part of his work. He talked about the sequel for want of a better word to " A suitable Boy " - how everyone was trying to persuade him to produce the obvious "A suitable Girl ".
He has decided to write his next book and it will be based on the grandmother who spoke the first sentence in the Suitable Boy but placed in contemporary Indian life. He was wonderfully self deprecating and confessed to being quite lazy - he read a poem about getting out of bed, or his failure to do so which was probably close to his heart. His mother, a judge, also produced a book, late in her life called " On Balance". which he was hugely admiring of.

I wish I could say that was it - it wasn't - there was so much on offer and I know the longer this is the less chance that it will be read. I want to register my appreciation at having listened to so much and so many not least," Reporting the Occupation" listening to Jon Lee Anderson, David Finkle and Rory Stewart talking about reporting from Iraq and other war torn areas. "Why books matter " with insights from Patrick French, Sunil Sethi,Kiran Desai and John Makinson to " The books that made me" with Egyptian Ahdaf Souief , Gita Hariharan, James Kelman and Pauline Melville from Gyana talking about the books that influenced them,  to a Winter on the Nile where Anthony Sattin talks about his enchanting story of having discovered that two very dissimilar characters from Europe, Florence Nightingale and Auguste Flaubert  travel on the same ferry to Egypt and visit the same places. They return to Europe where each in their own right becomes one of the most famous persons of that era, Nightingale to pursue her calling at nursing in the Crimean war and Flaubert to write Madame Bovary to huge critical acclaim.And to add a little fluff Candace Bushnell with outrageously high heels and matching handbag giving very good advice to young people to be people first and then their gender.

Finally a note on the other bits ...food lunch and dinner to masses of hungry people. Interacting with writers journalists, professors and students, high commissioners and ambassadors fighting for seats just like anyone else. The enthousiasm, the liveliness and the thirst for knowledge and inspiration in the young. The wonderful music programmes in the evening and the lyrical music played, the folk bands from Rajastan and the more funky contemporary groups. People and the press moaned about how crowded it is now and how popular. In my view I would not have it any other way. A superb sojourn full of shared knowledge, inspiration and discovery.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Republic Day 26th January 2011

A grand celebration for the adoption of the Constitution and grandly done. They have been practising for weeks and we were happy to take our seats in the enclosure just as the President and the Prime Minister were drawing up behind a cavalry of proud horsemen.
This year, unlike the last, the day was bright and clear and you could see the avenue stretching from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate. We were greeted with a flyover of four helicopters and what made it uniquely and quintesentially Indian was the fact that the orange stream coming out of the helicopters was none other than myriads of marigold petals. We were showered and shimmered in orange.
A huge rocket launcher lumbered past to the cheers of the crowd. The pipes that connected one part of this rocket launcher to a generator or some such object were lovingly covered in aluminium foil. I am able to recognize this now as all the pipes from my airconditioners are similarly carefully coated.
The cockades were innumerable and as varied as a rainbow. Red, orange, black, green, the uniforms crisp and clean, the regiments too numerous to mention, Punjab dating back to the 18th Century. Proud upright and hugely diverse were the faces of the soldiers who marched past.
And perhaps a sign of the times,  soldiers in a movable war room complete with fans, air-conditioners and computers. Women pilots in the airforce, floats on the response to chemical warfare and the all weather clothing.
Contrasting this with 6Guards as they are called suited in red and black with leapord skins on their shoulders playing their shiny instuments. Bands on camels, camels on parade, and floats from every part of India and every ministry showing Buddhist temples, sikkim dancers, huge locusts sitting on mushrooms,tigers and birds and schools being held under a tree of knowledge. My favourite was this one which was done entirely with Indian flowers showing the fragility of the world of tigers and birds.

The motorcycle formations-upside down and the other way round. Riding in perfect lines and without a tremble or a turn. They gave way to the fly past, this year stunningly shining in the bright light ending with the release of balloons and flags celebrating India, its colours and its might.  

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Freedom to March

As a foreigner living in India I am often drawn to events or art which can illuminate some of the complex history of this very complicated land and so it was with considerable expectation that I visited the "The Freedom to March Exhibition" that is taking place at present in the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts,CV Mess, Janpath New Delhi.

To put it into historical context this is all about Ghandi's walk to Dandi  when on 12th March of 1930 he set off to produce salt without paying the tax and as he marched towards Dandi on the coast many people joined him. This was the beginning of an act of civil disobedience against the British who had imposed the salt taxes on the Indians.
In this context the artists were asked to go on the walk and produce art that was inspired by this experience.The list of participants is impressive and the art is warming and magical and well worth seeing.

For me what was a particular joy was seeing two of the works of Vicky Roy who is one of the Salaam Baalak "graduates" who has established himself as a well known and respected photographer. Here are both of his works, the second of which I am very drawn to.

There was a plethora of works that caused us to dawdle and circle and come back to. This one , part of a diptych was a real favourite not least because of the technique which went into producing it.

These footsteps composed of rubber soled shoes all carefully sown together makes even the casual bystander  keen to follow the route and explore the path within.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Amazing Anish

Modern Art sometimes doesn't do it for me or perhaps I just dont get it and so when an exhibition comes up and it is modern art I hum and I ho but eventually go ..prepared to take it all with a pinch of salt, wondering whether a friend's analysis of Anish Kapoor's work as Big Boys Toys hits the nail on the head.

The first upset of the day was cheering - the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi was not only hosting this unique exhibition but for once there was available material to take away with you in the form of a booklet and some postcards.

The exhibition has been installed with great care and attention to detail. I cannot begin to think of issues like transport, installation and insurance for something so unique and in some cases fragile. Another reason to be cheerful. They did it. I am sure he is an exacting taskmaster.

And then the cherry on the cake- a one to one with Anish ( well three if you count Alan Yentob presenting )  in the form of a really informative filmet with Anish being terribly matter of fact about his art and the reasons why he does it. A must see to begin to understand just how different this man is.

Indian / Jewish Iraqi in origin brought up in a liberal and progressive household. Privileged life at the Eton of India Dera Dhun.Leaves and spends a couple of years in Israel before going to art college in the UK- A turning point for him.He took himself seriously and he worked very hard at his art realising soon that his was a little different. Up until he won the Turner prize in 1990 and then represented the UK at the Venice Biennale in 1991 he was little known but these two events changed his life and as he put it quite plainly:  

"Up until I won the Turner Prize I was telling people what I was doing. After that people were telling me what I was doing."

There is something quite amusing about that analysis and perhaps indicative of a man who doesn't take himself too seriously though he takes his art very seriously.  

 He sees the final product in his mind and others are there to put it together for him. He dares to go where he doesn't know and he dares the viewer to go along too.The end product can be staggering or quietly subtle. 

So what is his art about ? He says he doesn't have any messages or hidden meanings. It is what you make of it and what it means to you and in so far as anyone can see it is not art that leaves you cold or indifferent or wondering what the hell it is all about.

You are there, engaged and transfixed, disorientated and dizzy but definitely affected by it. Not everyone has the ability to touch you in this way with great big inanimate objects and I felt I wanted to stay longer, circle around this black hole, see my reflection in the vast distorting mirrors, wonder in awe at how he achieved a visual effect which seems to change perspective depending on where you are standing.

If you have ho hummed like me - get up and go you will be engaged and whether you hate it or love it it will touch you where perhaps you least expect.On until the 27th of February.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Inner warmth on the coldest of Delhi days

We are all looking for it are we not ...that happiness that should be with us all to keep a permanent smile on our faces. Most of us struggle terribly and find it hard to do what it takes and so with that perhaps in mind and out of sheer curiosity I went along to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama talk about ways of attaining this elusive happiness in our lives.
The whole auditorium rose as he walked in. A small figure in his maroon robes and covered only with a bright orange shawl. He is not a big man, stoops a little and wears glasses and as soon as he came in he prostrated himself in front of the images of Buddha. When he got up and climbed on the flower decorated dias he wobbled and giggled and my neighbour said " there is happiness already."

He is not an orator like Clinton or Obama, nor phlegmatic like Sarkozy all of whom visited Delhi recently but out of all I think he holds the most enduring appeal. People come to listen to the soft voice and the sweet laugh. To enjoy his jokes, and there are many, and take away his wisdom.He has the essence of experience and age and yet the joyfulness and sparkle of youth.  He is a complex individual who has a lot of depth and responsibility which bears down upon him and may add to the slight stoop, yet he can choose his words knowingly to tell his audience in the simplest of terms to love in an unbiased way, to make efforts in what they want to achieve and to do good for the benefit of others.

The messages he gave were of universal appeal and thoroughly practical, addressed to all, believers and non believers and his humility came out in everything he said. A young man sitting in the front was ill half way through his speech and he stopped and asked the audience for a doctor and waited until the person was looked after. He answered questions with an honesty that was disarming and amusing and he left us all feeling that much warmer on this cold of coldest days.

He rose and so did the hundreds of people who had come to listen to him but he didnt leave, he came to the front of the stage and he greeted each and every one, giving blessings and thanks to all.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A place called home

I pushed that boundary today. I went to a slum that to me is special and I walked around while it was abuzz with activity as the sun was finally out and people were coming out of their little houses to warm themselves up. Yesterday which was probably the coldest day of the year so far, many may have remained inside for warmth, inside their hovels, their cardboard frames, their tarpaulin slung over two pieces of corrugated metal.  The slum is built on the corner of two highways, perched on a hill, brimming with people too poor to go anywhere else but in that squalor and the misery of their unbelievable poverty is also their hope for life and their determination against all odds to create even out of this a place called home. The homes are decorated with bright colours and painted with flowers. There are children playing in the dust and women putting the clothes out to air. Men sit smoking or playing cards and dogs, well this one in particular, is loved and looked after and found its own place called home, dressed for the cold and lying in a metal pot warm from the sun.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Starting the New Year

I am starting the New Year with so many thoughts in my head, so much to do and so little time. Perhaps the expected follow on to that is to talk about New Year resolutions.The Dos and the Donts.
BUT I am not going to tell you to give up alcohol and chocolates.
What on earth would be the point of evenings without them ??
What I am going to say is

Push those boundaries
Enter the unknown
Be your own.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Goa 2010 and beyond

What I enjoyed about Goa this time round was the sense of the familiar - we knew the beaches and the nice restaurants to go to.This is the starting point for discovering more than just its coastline in this tiny indian state.  So some of the time this trip was spent exploring the hinterland, driving through lovely little villages with their portuguese style houses, their nativity displays and their Xmas lights.

We walked through fishing villages and saw the men fixing their nets and displaying their catch.

We caught the beauty of the sun rising, marvelled the enormity of the iron ore barges and took  ferry rides to islands and off them.
We took a dug out into the mangrove swamps and visited the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary.

A few words about this man. He is India's original bird man.Born into a Muslim family in Bombay in 1896 and orphaned of both parents he was brought up by his maternal uncle and aunt.Alis chance encounter with an unusually coloured sparrow apparently started off his passion for birds.If you are interested to read more pick up his book " The fall of the Sparrow " - full of delightful stories of his childhood and his own experiences travelling in the country and recording some of the bird life he came across.

We watched the majestic Brahminy kites warming themselves in the early morning sun.
Saw the silhouetted outlines of the cormorants and the egret.
Enjoyed the wonderful view of this Marsh Harrier.
We got lost on the back roads and used our noses to follow the smell to the sea.
The making of most, to end a year and start another, at a cracking pace.