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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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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Jaipur Literature Festival 25th January 2016

Today is the last day of the Festival- already the crowds are beginning to wane and even this lovely four legged friend did not entice more people though the gates. For us of course it means an ease of movement as we wander from venue to venue and a better than ever chance of sitting down in a session. 

I walked into my next session- Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms- Gerard Russell in conversation with William Dalrymple. The author brings up the destruction of monuments by ISIS and the killing of people of all faiths but particularly the ones closest to that region of fighting. This is their attempt to suppress memory and change the course of history to matters that are only of their persuasion and faith. I think of talks with my sister Anna, about the destruction of cultural heritage and how important it is that we should draw the worlds attention to these acts of war. He spoke about faiths that go back a long time and are almost in danger of being eclipsed, snuffed out. He lived in Bagdhad and spent many months finding people and documents which increased his knowledge about the Yazidis from Northern Iraq, the Maneans and the Druids, the Zoroastrians and the Khalash in Pakistan. The irony is of course that in the rise of Islam as the dominant religion most of these faiths existed in that context. Faiths have survived in these remote places, despite these terrible events but it is getting increasingly difficult and people are losing the place of their faith and their faithful. Part of the essence of this book is to make sure they are kept alive. 
If you want to read more go to :

We hear Tristan Hunt Labour MP and Shashi Tharoor talk about Empire. Shashi's call for reparations from the Uk for the loss of life and general losses while they attempted to rule the sub continent made headline news. His view is that British rule impoverished the sub continent and led to loss of life through famines and conflict.  It goes back to the debate - should we commemorate Empire or condemn. Shashi was of no doubt that it should be widely condemned and Tristan Hunt was guarded but diplomatic in his responses. Interestingly both agree that empire is a part of history that does not appear to be taught at all in schools. Even so the institutions of Britain are replicated in Delhi which may not have been suitable for such a big and diverse country down to having fish and chips available in the Lok Sabha's canteen !

The UK of course is facing its own breakup with Scotland and the EU referenda looming. A huge response to both speakers on the subject from an eager and engaged audience. 

This years closing debate Is Freedom of Speech Absolute and Unconditional - the conclusion after a heated debate was that the motion was not carried - that reasonable restrictions should be applied to freedom of speech in order to retain its sanctity. Even though this comes as a surprise there is no disputing that India has encouraged freedom of speech and expression, and recent attempts to impose censorship and constraints have been widely condemned. 

Each evening I go back and contemplate all that I have heard in a room which could not be more perfect. More about that in my next blog. Sweet dreams everyone. 

Friday, 29 January 2016

Jaipur Literature Festival 23rd Jan

Who doesnt know the Afghan Girl ? Steve McCurry took that picture all those years ago and it was probably what made him world famous. He shared his early experiences of becoming a photo journalist with William Dalrymple. He wanted to explore the word and his first stop was India. In those days he shot film and sent it back to the States to be developed. He soon found himself in Afghanistan and Baluchistan where he was arrested and thrown into jail for five days.  He took pictures not so much of the war but of the way ordinary people were affected by it. The Afghan girl was an outstanding example of this- her found her after 17 years. He now sells his books and pictures all over the world.


The day offered a double helping of Stephen Fry, a great favourite with the Indian audience, first talking about the Fry Chronicles and then about Oscar Wilde. He talked about what a difficult young man he was and how when he got into Cambridge he was hoping to make it up to his parents for all the years he was so evil.There he met Emma Thompson who introduced him to Hugh Laurie and perhaps the rest is history. They were able to work together and write together and make each other laugh and be the creators of so much wealth of British Comedy - Blackadder being one of many. 

His session on Oscar Wilde was deeply moving. You could see that this is what first affected him when as an 11 year old boy he watched "The Importance of being Earnest" where for the first time he heard people using language in a way which he had never encountered before and in particular the phrase "the visible personification of absolute perfection". He devoured every thing written by Oscar Wilde and about him - including the Trials where Oscar was disgraced and sent to prison.He talked about what an exceptional child and scholar he was and when asked about his ambitions he famously answered that he wanted to "live up to to his collection of blue and white china."  I love that idea and thought of my own collection of Adam's Singapore Bird - not a hope of living up to that. 

People were perplexed and amused by the way he dressed and the way he defied authority. He also famously told the US customs that "he had nothing to declare but his genius" as he embarked on a series of lectures and tours designed to cement his fame in America and make the play Patience that Gilbert and Sullivan had written about him successful. His relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas however was deeply troubling to Lord Alfred's father Lord Queensbury who tried to boycott his first night of The Importance of being Earnest. He provoked Wilde by leaving an open postcard addressed to Wilde which said he was posing as a sodomite. Oscar Wilde sued him for libel. He lost the case and he was tried and jailed for two years with hard labour. On his release he left England and went to France where he lived unhappy and broken years until his  death at the age of 46. He thought of himself as a failure and as a fallen person. Yet he became a hugely significant figure and continues to be so, as much for the marvellous literature that he wrote as well as the stance he took over his sexuality. 

And as if this double dose of Fry was not enough we were able to enjoy Atul Gawande on "Being Mortal" - this surgeon from the US of Indian extraction wrote this book to explain the importance of addressing the issues of mortality in simple but significant ways - as we grow increasingly older, the importance of medicine is not so much about prolonging life but affording a life that is worth living or that the elderly person is able to enjoy. He said his publishers were a little dismayed when he presented them with this book which was essentially about dying as they felt it would not sell much over the Xmas season - perhaps not at all. Of course they were wrong and this book has become a best seller but perhaps half of it is because Atul Gawande had the ability to talk about this subject in the most absorbing and sensible way which kept the attention of this Indian audience who sometimes are not famed for their ability to keep quiet.

And it doesnt end there - Thomas Piketty had a lot of advice to give the Indian government when talking about his book "Capital "and about the inequalities in the world. He called on the government to adopt a proper and transparent system of taxation and to maintain records which apparently don't exist.

To end the day we travelled to the Amber Fort just outide the city to listen to sufi music and to attend the book launch of some of Steve McCurry's books. The fort was lit up with small lamps, there were rangoli everywhere and all this was under a full moon. 

The launch was in a part of the palace decorated with large candles and lamps, a saxophonist playing in the background while tandoori chicken and champagne circulated in large quantiities.

A jazzy end to literature overload - only remedy - a good nights sleep ! 

Jaipur Literature Festival 24th January 2016

For some reason the crowds kept away today, perhaps because no Bollywood stars were making an appearance or because it was Sunday and everyone was going to have a lie in.

We walked to our first session and sat to hear Helen MacDonlad talk about her book “ H is for Hawk”, moderated superbly I thought by a slightly hung over Chiki Sarkar who asked the most probing questions of the author.

Perhaps because of this I found it one of the most fascinating sessions, listening to this woman talk about her father's death and what a devastating loss this left in her life. She coped or worked through it strangely enough by training a goshawk, as she descended into a rather dark and bleak time of loneliness and separation.

As she put it – a death, a miserable woman and a bird – doesn’t seem the most exciting subject matter but she had a fascination with birds of prey as a young child and kept a kestrel which she brought home on the train and somehow this became part of the answer when she was grieving for her father. 

When Chiki probed, why a bird? Most people keep cats and dogs, Helen made the point that they become a part of the family, while birds of prey did not – they have a presence but also an absence. It was a relationship that had to be based on kindness and trust, so Mabel as the goshawk was called, was her companion on long and muddy walks into the countryside. Training it was a distraction as well as an addiction.

Walking around Cambridge with a goshawk on her shoulder she received some strange comments and stares. She fell into a terrible depression and isolated herself from family and friends but finally she realized that she needed to incorporate the grief into her life and seek the help of anti depressants.It took her five years to write the book which is as much about loss as it is about the environment and the changing landscape of the UK. 

My burning question was, what happened to Mabel. You need to buy the book to find out about that. Helen's reading describing meeting Mabel was captivating. 

Today was also the day when Swacch Bharat - the need for Cleanliness in India was debated in a session and for the first time I hear speakers pronounce loudly and clearly how unacceptable the lack of civic duty has become all over India,  how necessary it was to introduce young children to differerent norms of cleanliness and to give communities a sense of ownership to their community matters. At the base of it - something that I have always said - is the existence of the caste system. Until that goes these issues will still remain. 

Listening to Peter Frankopan talking about "The Silk Roads" was wonderful because the author, who spent many years researching and travelling in the area, wanted to take away the Eurocentric focus on history and return it to the areas of the Middle East, Iran and the East where it all began. Even Alexander the Great described the area as the Omphalos - the navel of the earth. This is where all the religions were born as well as major languages and trade interacting. It was along these silk roads that all this was played out - until Britain and other European and US forces tried to exercise control. This is the area which is the most crucial to the world at the present time, and how the powers will deal with it will determine the outcome for this century. 

The Literature festival isn't just about literature - it is also a place where scientists can put forward their points of view as Sharad Paul did with his session on "Skin." I learnt some fascinating things from this session. Skin darkens to preserve folic acid which is necessary for reproduction. As populations moved northwards, people needed a more effective cooling system and their skin lightened to enable it to absorb vitamin D. 

The day was not even half way through when Anthony Sattin gave a most rewarding and illuminating session on "Young Lawrence" - he has written the biography of Thomas Edward Lawrence- Lawrence of Arabia with an emphasis on his early years.He was the product of an illegitimate liaison between his father Sir Thomas Chapman and his nanny. He eventually left his wife and changed his name to Lawrence and Ned was raised in this family with the secret of his birth casting a shadow. He was not tall, but he was fair and blue eyed. He was always interested in archaeology and became the youngest donor of artefacts to the Ashmolean. He travels to the Middle east and undertakes long walks and campaigns which are unusual but he is determined and curious and above all fearless. After Oxford he ends up heading an archaeological dig in Carcemish in northern Syria and becomes acquainted with Dahoum with whom he develops a lasting and deep relationship though there is no real evidence that it was sexual in nature. 

 Anthony Sattin
As if this was not a surfeit of speakers and subjects I ended up listening to a panel of Biographers. They were Victoria Glendinning whose recent biography is on Raffles. How he came to be in Singapore, the difficulties he has to face, the intricacies of his personal life and the building up of his massive fortune.Tristram Hunt, a Labour MP, has written about Frederich Engels who was an industrialist in Manchester, supporting Marx in his efforts with Das Capital.- He was a cotton magnate and a great Capitalist supporting Marx even to the point of adopting a child that Marx had with his maid. The correspondence between them was voluminous and there is plenty of fascinating insight to this era of industrial development in Manchester. Hannah Rothschild was fascinated by the story of her great aunt Nica - who escaped from the clutches of the family and ended up in New York supporting Jazz musicians, at one point living with Thelonious Monk. Her book which has become a bestseller is called "The Improbability of Love".Ben Macintyre, author of "Agent Zig Zag"also spoke about his recent publication which deals with the life of the double agent Kim Philby- a character who he still feels is morally repugnant particularly given the relationship that Philby had with a very close friend Nicholas Elliot who he betrayed to the KGB.Ben concluded that there is private element to everyone - but Philby's was an extraordinary tale of betrayal and duplicity. 

So what is your dark secret ? 

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Jaipur Literature Festival - Jan 22nd

The doors are as always open to everyone and this is what makes JLF so important and why it must not change, despite the calls for controlling the crowds and the numbers.The pressure for these soldiers seems to have well and truly lifted. 

The day starts with Margaret Atwood in conversation with Naomi Alderman, her Rolex Mentee on her latest book "The Heart goes Last" about Stan and Charmaine who are deeply affected by the economic downturn and end up living in their car. They then agree to participate in a programme where they do time in prison and time in the community and the novel takes off from there into one of Atwood's interesting and often bizarre dystopias. She was inspired to write this novel when she participated in a protest to prevent the farm programme from being shut down in the local prison. 

Margaret Atwood
The Art of Memoir was explored by a whole panel of writers. Brigid Keenan of "Diplomatic Baggage" fame, reciting little Miss Muffet to us in Hindi to the delight of the crowd,  launching her latest book about her childhood in India.  As a trailing spouse the act of writing was an act of desperation for her. She had grown up in an era where it was frowned upon to talk about yourself, yet the writing gave her some sanity as she moved from Kashmir, to Syria to Kazakstan and a host of other places with her diplomat husband. 

For Blake Morrison the author of "When did you last see your Father" it was about paying homage to his father after his death and to discovering so much about both parents, which he did not know. Facts which took him by surprise such as his mother's objection to being identified as a Catholic.  

For Stephen Fry who has written three memoirs about his life, on his bipolar depression, his addiction to cocaine and his homosexuality he found the whole process important in solidyfying who he really was but not necessarily cathartic. 

For Helen MacDonald writer of "H is for Hawk" it was five years of trying to deal with the death of her father and going off the rails while training a goshawk.

Christina Lamb did not feel as if she fitted into this panel as she was reporting from a war zone but with her photographic eye and realising that she was the one who could tell the story she was the Eye and the I in her story. 

For Esther Freud of "Hideously Kinky" her starting point was some years of childhood spent in Morocco which made her choose her narrator as a young child. What she was able to remember were the smells, the sensations of that time. The detail was filled through imagination. 

"Bernini's Beloved" by Sarah McPhee was a staggering session listening to the author talking about her years in uncovering the story of Constanze, Berninis mistress who was having an affair at the same time with Berninis brother Luigi. Bernini ordered that she be slashed for her behaviour and she faced court and jail as a fallen woman. The starting point  for the author was the marble bust of Constanze which had all the passion and perfection of Berninis art in it, together with the emotional turmoil and bond which clearly this lover had evoked in him. 

Sarah McPhee
The day ended with a show stopper - Bharka Dutt in conversation with Shobhaa De to launch Barkha's new book "The Unquiet Land"- a collection of columns that Bharka has written about her past, about current politics, the Kashmir question and reporting from the front line as well as her relationship with Congress and BJP. Two wonderful examples of women who are confident and outspoken on all the glaring issues in India today whether it be the empowerment of women or religious tolerance. 
The power house of Barkha Dutt and Shobhaa De

The night fun began with Scavengers and Midival Pundits playing for a large crowd. 

Art dimension at JLF _ Tall Tales

In the central courtyard of Diggi Palace is an interesting exhibition of art work by Orijit Sen who in his installations called Tall Tales features seven characters from world Literature.

They represent Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Snowball from George Orwell's Animal Farm, Alex in Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess,  Madame Precious Ramotswe from No 1 Ladies Detective Agency from the prolific and wonderful Alexander Mc Call Smith, Anna Karenina from Tolstoy, Scherezade, 1001 Arabian Nights and the imposing General from The General in his Labyrinth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I arrived early one morning and was able to enjoy the installations without the crowds.

Anjana Sen this one if for you. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Jaipur Literature Festival 2016

The morning of the first day did not start well. Our driver did not know where to take us. Not an uncommon problem and one which drivers think can be remedied by asking anyone the way. Sadly most dont know either so we are sent in all sorts of directions before finally arriving at the wonderful Diggi Palace where the festival is held. This was followed by another hour of frustration while we were issued with our delegate badges - there were many chiefs as they say ...but little action while the queue got longer and longer. Something of the deja vu was beginning to creep in to my thoughts, but I kept it at bay saying the day was splendid, we were able to get to know the people next to us in the queue and surprisingly they all came from Melbourne and Sydney. To their credit however they have improved security, if not the crowds, and having to deal with a third of a million people is a mammoth task and they do in the best way they can. In the famous words of my lovely Greek neighbour in Delhi, Lola who is here with me - 'its all so worth it'.
The JLF is like going into labour, excruciating and painful in the beginning, and there is a moment when you swear you will never do this again, but once it is underway you forget the pain and the frustrations and next year you are prepared to explore it all afresh. 

Why ? Margaret Atwood was there to give the key note speech after a colourful opening ceremony with a Rajasthani band which included a didgeridoo as well. Must find out more. She was followed by Colm Toibin and Marlon James among many others on this first day. An impressive line up.

For Margaret Atwood who has resisted the invite for a good 9 years, this was a moment when she was centre stage and perhaps a little surprised by the attention she was receiving putting it down to either being very important or very old - she decided that in her case it was because she was VERY old.
She talked about how literature festivals sprang up in so many countries, Adelaide in the 60s, Toronto and many others and which are now major events in the calendar. She characterised writing as a very optimistic art, one which sheds light on oppression and darkness. The writer writes but it is the  reader  who lends life to the words like a musician who plays the musical score - giving the words meaning and interpretation. Human beings are narrative creatures- spinning stories from young- a romantic tragedy at 19 is recalled as an amusing anecdote in middle age and forgotten completely in old age. She noted that today at JLF was a happy beginning for writers and readers. 

I was prepared not to be very attracted to Colm Toibin, not necessarily because he himself described himself as an overweight middle aged bald man who did nothing but write but because I had read his book Testament of Mary and I have to confess I resisted it on several levels. I was not fond of the religious undertones and Mary expressing some truly odd feelings about her son Jesus, but perhaps this is another story. All I know is that after listening to him talking for an hour I was captivated and curious about his new book Master - written on Henry James but also about his explanations about the small triggers that became the reasons for some of his books. Overhearing adults talking about a young girl was the impetus for Brooklyn. Imagining his cousin Minne Temple's life had she not died of consumption at an early age was another. Using his novels to complete lives in ways which have drama and emotion in them. 

There is lots of drama and emotion in the Brief History of Seven Killings - if we are to read Marlon James this years Booker prize winner. A melodious Jamaican accent which he has not lost in spite of now living and working in the US, a booming voice, an impressive Rasta hair on top of a big burly body, a great sense of humour and a clarity of conscious in all his actions and indeed the actions of other people. A book about Jamaica in the 70s - some 700 pages, partly he says as he couldn't kill off his characters very easily. 
As for Alexander McCall Smith talking to William Dalrymple - two Scotsmen on stage who could not be funnier. Almost like two naughty school boys giggling away. McCall is extremely prolific writing sequels to No I ladies Detective Agency, the Sunday Philosophy Club, and Corduroy Mansion. The latest one being the story of the Italian Bulldozer, which had the whole audience crying with laughter. He explains his energy as a condition  called serial novelism which manifests as the writing of serial after serial until you die !

Friday, 22 January 2016

Back in India

We are travelling down the main road to Jaipur and I wonder if things have improved. Somehow I seem to think there is less honking and perhaps less cars travelling in the wrong direction when suddenly my eye catches a camel and a cart in the fast lane and then these massive massive loads. The middle intersections of the highway somehow get shifted and cars just cut across in front of you as if to say well have a go and test those brakes. 

We passed Amber Fort just as the light was fading and then the walls of the city came into view, the lake and the palace and the camels which I stopped to have a careful look at , following the advise of my good friend Ashok.

The city is massively disrupted by the building of the metro so if you are wondering if the honking is less and the traffic better, the answer to both is NO. But then this place would not be half as much fun as it is.