Dalrymple is no stranger to India and India is no stranger to Dalrymple. Many Indians have enjoyed the historian and travel writer’s books and television documentaries. Others may have read the Indophile’s articles in New Statesman or The Guardian. He had made a very familiar trek: from Ampleforth to Trinity College (Cantab.) where he read History.
Dalrymple’s talk was held in the Palace Hall at 1430, immediately after lunch, and thus conducive for naps (something which he was sympathetic about). The main gist were his works so far, the extracts of which he read, including the latest non-fiction Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India which revolves around the varied spiritual lives of nine individuals.
Dalrymple has the knack of captivating his readers (and listeners) and enabling them to vividly envisage the entire scenarios. Even though my own interest in history focuses on the Tudor and Stuart reigns, I’ve enjoyed Dalrymple’s books on the subcontinent and religion. In Xanadu was an exciting read which traced the path taken by Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (which I visited last month) to Xanadu in China. Other notable works are The City of Djinns (on Delhi’s history), The Age of Kali (a collection of illuminating essays), From the Holy Mountain: A journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (tracing the origins of Eastern Orthodox congregations), and White Mughals (which came highly recommended by a publisher in Cambridge).
He conveyed many anecdotes: about the Keralite art of ‘Theyyam’, the rivalry between local parties in Kerala, a Jain nun who ended her life by fasting, and the wistfulness of a writer. He next plans on writing a book on the life of St Thomas, Jesus’ disciple who reached Kerala in 52 AD.
Many consider Dalrymple to be an Indian (not exactly surprising considering how he totally blended into the environment with ease), but he himself finds this tag to be erroneous. A more appropriate tag would be a Scottish Delhiite, for he has been spending the past 25 years living in Delhi, London, and Edinburgh.
In the Reading Room: Anita Sethi chaired a poetry reading by Welsh poets Menna Elfyn and Paul Henry and the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan.
In the Bandstand: Manu Joseph discussed his sardonic novel Serious Men which had won The Hindu’s Best Fiction award.
1545 in the Palace Hall featured a tête-à-tête between singer Bob Geldof and author-politician Shashi Tharoor (which I shall elaborate more in a dedicated post).
In the Reading Room: Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, explored the process of creating poetry and the influence of bilingualism (Welsh/English).
After the Geldof talk, we remained in the Palace Hall for the poetry reading. In fact, we migrated to the front rows which gave us an excellent vantage of the dais. There was some amount of delay and I took the opportunity to walk around the Palace and to the Nishagandhi auditorium which reverberated with the sound of music. It was becoming overcast and the smell in the air promised imminent rain. Since I was familiar with the site, I could easily prance back via a short-cut to the Palace Hall where Ruth was anxiously waiting and where the poets had congregated by a bay window waiting for the programme to commence.
Detour: The poetry reading session turned out to be an eye-opener. During school and college, I always sat on the last row of the classroom/lecture hall- not to do anything covert, but just to remain detached whilst everyone else bombarded the teacher with questions. The same pattern was repeated at the captivating lectures at SoGE Oxford where the last row (except in some rooms) was next to the exits- from here, I observed the American contingent (including the rowers) avidly participating in the lecture from their seats in the front row. With the lapse of few years, I have realised the benefits of sitting in the first row: one can invest their 100% attention on the lecture- the chances are that there wouldn’t be the opportunity to observe the wildlife (or urbanlife, as the case may be) outside the windows or one’s own classmates; fellow last-rowers tend to be a rather distracted bunch (usually jolly ruggers)- there are high probabilities of discussions and jokes while the lecture is in progress; one would remain attentive for the lecturer would pose questions and it wouldn’t be appealing to look like a dunce.
Back to the poetry reading. Whilst modern poetry is not my cup of tea (give me a Chaucer or Shelley any time!), I did avidly listen to the six-minute poetry reading by each poet introduced by actress Lisa Dwan (some did surpass the time limit): Tishani Doshi (a poem displaying a very strong spirit of independence, which I could easily empathise with), K Satchidanandan (a poem composed for a friend’s young son which I found severely lacking), Menna Elfyn (on a handkerchief kiss referring to the translation of poems- admittedly, I was reminded of the dilemma faced by the X-Men character Rogue), Vivek Narayanan, CP Surendran, Gillian Clarke (on a marathon run by her dear daughter and the poignant Six Bells on a mining disaster in 1960), and Paul Henry (an excellent poem Between Two Bridges).
We didn’t expect Vikram Seth to turn up, but he did turn up quite late and provided his apologies: he had traveled to Kanyakumari and visited the Vivekananda Rock – and had miscalculated the time taken for the entire trip. Furthermore, the humidity compelled him to have a quick shower upon returning to Trivandrum- all of which contributed to the delay. However, Seth’s poems were as delightful as ever and it was a pleasure to hear these once again.
In the meantime, Lisa Dwan announced that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released- news which was greeted with a round of applause. I wasn’t that enthusiastic given I had already celebrated the impending release that morning.
The poetry reading was followed by a book signing at the nearby book tent, which was bursting at its seams. By now, it was steadily raining, accompanied by claps of thunders. Ruth was hoping to get Seth’s A Suitable Boy signed for David, her Church of Scotland minister in Dundee who had been debating over reading the epic. But after buying the book, we guessed that he mayn’t turn up and thus emerged out into the rain, only to follow Seth back into the tent! Seth was very gracious to the readers, taking time to converse with them. And we were rather touched when he recognised us from yesterday.
We couldn’t attend the remaining events in the evening since it was raining heavily and had already been precipitately dark. Also, walking back home via the ill-lit footpath-less roads required some amount of energy!
Nonetheless, Rosie Boycott was slated to explore the global food crises, famines, climate change, and GM crops. In the Bandstand, Pavan Varma was to discuss about post-colonial India’s crises of identity.
In the Reading Room, Bama Faustina and Sister Jesme (Autobiography of a Nun) discussed their personal conflicts with the church, including the various issues they encountered at convents and missionary schools. Poetess and novelist Tishani Doshi discussed her debut novel, The Pleasure Seekers, on the life and love of Gujarati Babo Patel (from Madras) and Welsh Sian Jones- based on the love letters/communication between her own parents in the late 1960s.