Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 4

Day 4 of the JLF 2014 brought sunnier skies, meaning that sitting around outside became much more pleasant. It was also a Monday, so much of the throng had returned to Delhi (or wherever else from whence they came), making movement between venues at Diggi Palace less of a scrummage.

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(Vikram Chandra and Adrian Levy)

At every festival there are people who you’ve penciled in to see, and those who you end up listening to because you have a free hour and have managed to secure a seat. Sometimes these latter prove to be revelations, introducing you to writers not otherwise on the radar. Adrian Levy (in conversation with Vikram Chandra, whose epic Bombay gangster novel Sacred Games I am a big fan of) was one of these finds for me, not least because I had a long chat with him over dinner this same night and he proved to be a thoroughly nice man. Levy, with his partner Cathy Scott-Clark, has most recently written The Siege, a non-fiction work on the 26th November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Most of the session was spent discussing his main ‘protagonist/antagonist’ (my term, not his) David Hedley, a fascinating and complex creature. As Vikram Chandra described him, “If I had made him up and put him in one of my novels, nobody would have believed him.”

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(Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours)

My Himal Southasian colleage, Aunohita Mojumdar, appeared in the next session, ‘Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours’, along with representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The chair, a former Indian diplomat, opened by saying that while India might be an elephant, elephants are widely loved, gentle creatures. Aunohita rightly pointed out that they also have a tendency to crush things in their path, indiscriminately.

This afternoon was also spent at the Bookmark event for publishing professionals. As I wrote yesterday, this was industry-related, so while it was interesting and important for those in the industry, I don’t think it needs South Asia Book Blog’s special attention. Being our last evening in Jaipur, we stayed for the entertainment at Clarks Amer hotel, and I’m glad we did: the fabulous Tuarag band from Mali, Tinariwen, played for about an hour. After some lovely conversations with writers over dinner in the delegate lounge, I was sorry to be leaving the festival a day early, having to travel back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu the next day. Despite the excellent networking opportunities for work, there were so many interesting people I didn’t get to see. Gloria Steinem! Nadeem Aslam! Robyn Davidson! But, we woke up the next day to torrential rain and thunder storms, which lasted all the way through Rajasthan and into Delhi, so in the end praised our own good foresight at calling it quits when we did.

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New issue of Himal Southasian out now

Himal Q4 cover
The fourth quarterly issue was launched last week at the Bangalore literature festival by none other than Hindi film lyricist Gulzar, appropriate as the topic of the issue is Southasian film: “Under the Shadow of the Bollywood Tree”. The Nepal release was at the Film Southasia festival, a documentary film biennale held in Kathmandu.

If you live in Kathmandu or major Indian metros, you can find Himal in good bookshops. If you live elsewhere in the world, you can subscribe via the website.

Film Southasia festival 2013

The Non-Hiker's Guide to Nepal

Today was day one of the four day long Film Southasia festival of documentary films. It is being held at the QFX Kumari cinema in Kathmandu, and runs until Sunday 6th October. I was blogging on it today for the FSA website (rather challenging as the wifi was out for much of the day). For news info on the films, check out the blog and the FSA website: http://www.filmsouthasia.org/blog/ / http://www.filmsouthasia.org/

The major news of today was that the Sri Lankan government has pressured the Nepali government into banning the screening of the three Sri Lankan films that were part of the festival. This goes against the entire ethos of the festival, and the organisers of FSA refuse to be silenced by the governments of Sri Lanka and Nepal. As Kanak Mani Dixit, Chair of FSA and Editor of Himal Southasian, stated, the spaces for open dialogue are being steadily constricted in this country (Nepal), and this…

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Himal Southasian now available to purchase online

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Shameless spruiking, but what’s the point of having a personal blog if you can’t do some self-promoting at times?!
My employer, Himal Southasian magazine, has just set up an online payment portal so that international readers can buy copies of the magazine and subscribe. Readers in Southasian countries may be able to find the magazine in bookshops, depending on where you are located, but the distribution doesn’t reach everywhere. I encourage anyone who has any interest in Southasian culture, society, politics, literature, history, to consider a subscription or purchase of single issues. I used to read and enjoy the magazine long before I started work here, so I can vouch for its quality from a reader’s perspective, and not just an employee’s!

Furthermore, my reviews of William Dalrymple’s Return of a King and Hanifa Deen’s On the Trail of Taslima appear in the April and July 2013 issues, respectively.

As always, Himal has a great online magazine, too, with different content from the print issue.

Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, Martin Uitz, 2008. Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride

Hidden Bhutan

Bhutan is a country unknown to most of the world, but if there is one thing most people do know about the small Himalayan mountain kingdom, it’s their concept of “Gross National Happiness”, as opposed to Gross National Profit, as a goal for development. Sounds lovely, I know, but I’ve always been skeptical of it. It’s all very well for leaders to say that their people are more concerned about happiness than about material wealth, but what do the citizens themselves think about this? I don’t know the answers, and as far as I can gather, too little outside research on Bhutan as a twenty-first century nation (rather than as some timeless Buddhist shangri-la) has been done. An interesting, recent opinion-piece by Chettria Patrakar on Himal Southasian‘s blog (http://himalmag.com/blogs/) also questions these common assumptions and calls for better language and scholarship from non-Bhutanese reporters and writers.

Martin Uitz’s Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon doesn’t pay a lot of attention to this common trope (somewhat mercifully) but he does question it subtley. This simple, charming travel account of contemporary Bhutan is most valuable in its descriptions of Bhutanese traditions and contemporary as well as traditional ways of life. It does read as rather anthropological at times, and hence makes for a rather old-fashioned style of travel writing, but for a reader who has very little prior knowledge of Bhutan, I found this mostly interesting. Uitz’s attention to detail in his descriptions made some of the language quite beautiful, particularly in his almost erotic description of a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath, where one sits in a bath and one by one hot stones are placed in the water, heating it up to steaming temperatures.

Despite all my research on South Asia, there are clearly major gaps in my geo-political historical knowledge, and Hidden Bhutan filled in some of these gaps. I didn’t know, for instance, that in 1975 Sikkim (now a state of India) became the last Himalayan country to lose its independence when it was annexed by India. Nepal and Bhutan are the only two kingdoms (or, in the case of Nepal, recent ex-kingdom) not to have been absorbed by their more powerful neighbours, with Kashmir being fought over by India and Pakistan and currently being ruled by both; the formerly independent Ladakh and Spiti now belong to India, and Swat, Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral to Pakistan.

There were other new discoveries to be found here, too. It’s funny how you can go your whole life not knowing something, and then just when you learn about it, that same thing seems to pop up everywhere for a little while, prompting you to ask how you had not known about it earlier! I was watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth on TV in Australia a few weeks ago, and was horrified by a segment on these fungi that inhabit the bodies of other creatures, such as ants, drive them bad, kill them, and then grow out of the carcass. It really looked like something from a horror movie. Well, this demonic fungus featured in Hidden Bhutan, too, and if I hadn’t seen it animated in Attenborough’s film I don’t think I would have had the imagination to picture it. Uitz describes how the fungus, Cordyceps Sinensis, is used in traditional Chinese, Tibetan and Bhutanese medicine, as it has curative properties which can also improve strength and athleticism. As such, it was associated with some Chinese doping scandals in the 1990s. With the memory of Attenborough’s film in my mind, I shudder at the thought of drinking such a potion.

Amongst all of the fascinating details, I would have liked a bit more information on the author. In my last post on Patrick Marnham’s Road to Katmandu I did criticise his over-emphasis on the characters and not the places being traveled through, but here there was perhaps the opposite problem. I would’ve liked to know more about what Uitz was doing in Bhutan, his everyday life as a foreigner there, and the major challenges he faced. But, overall, this was an informative and enjoyable short book on a little-known country.

London: The Armchair Traveller at the BookHaus, 2008. Originally published in German as Einlass ins Reich des Donnerdrachens. Verborgenes Bhutan, 2006.