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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.


  1. How fun and interesting. I had no idea. I will put this on my list for next year, that is, if I can get away from my boys...xo, Caitlin


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