Launch of new Himal Southasian website

Himal screenshot

Last Friday, Himal Southasian‘s new website went live, and on Monday we launched it. The slick new appearance looks professional, it’s easier to search and navigate than the old site, and contains specially-commissioned art by illustrator Paul Aitchison. And, the first article to appear on the site, Patrick McCartney’s ‘The Sanitising Power of Spoken Sanskrit‘ is a cracker.

Here are a few pictures from last night’s launch at the Himal office, Patan Dhoka, Kathmandu.

Me talking the audience through Paul Aitchison’s awesome illustrations
Hanging out on the terrace… it’s what we do.
Himal’s new mascot
Our hostess Githa didi
Nepali journalist Kunda Dixit, our new mascot, and one of the editorial team
We were still eating the leftovers for morning tea the next day
Boss man Kanak Mani Dixit himself

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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Kolor Kathmandu murals

The Non-Hiker's Guide to Nepal

The Kolor Kathmandu project can best be summed up in its own words:

“Kathmandu has been bombarded by the visual manifestations of political rivalries and the ubiquity of consumer culture. Big billboards preaching doctrines of consumerism engulf entire buildings, and loud political slogans leap out from the city’s walls espousing hollow rhetorics. The footprints of urbanization spread throughout the city, distancing Kathmandu from the realities of the rest of Nepal. We thus felt the need for an out-of-the-box intervention that opens both the eyes and minds of the public to how our streets and neighborhoods can be reclaimed.”

Kolor Kathmandu has reclaimed the aesthetic of the streetscape by commissioning Nepali and international artists to emblazon bare walls and sides of buildings with colourful murals. Even by South Asian standards Kathmandu is a shabby-looking city on the whole (the rubble generating road widening doesn’t help), but I started noticing murals growing…

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Kolkata Book Fair 2013

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On this unpleasantly overcast day I made my way out to the 33rd annual Kolkata Book Fair. And remembered why the Delhi metro has been a transformative god-send to that city. The Kolkata traffic, grid-locked at times so that I pulled out my book and read in the back seat, made the journey from Park Street to Science City much longer than it should have been. And I’ve been reading in the papers that no extra provisions have been made this year to ease the jams. Until a few years ago this event was held at the central Maidan, and I imagine that would have been great, right in the middle of the city, accessible by Kolkata’s small metro and close to other things that people might want to visit in their leisure time.

The focal country of this year’s fair is Bangladesh. So, unsurprisingly, the majority of books on display were in Bangla, from both Indian and Bangladeshi publishers, as well as a lot of English books, from academic and mainstream publishers. But, I was here in 2010 as well, when the focal country was Mexico, and I don’t recall seeing all that many Spanish books. Today, at one of the stalls, a small shelf of Hindi books were put in the “international literature” section! I think that a dominance of Bangla books is par for the course at the Kolkata Book Fair, and that’s great because that’s the main language of the region, so makes sense. I hope it means that the event is truly accessible to those who would not consider themselves the socio-economic elite, but who are interested in books. But it does make the event a bit inaccessible to non-Bangla-reading tourists. Is it ironic, then, that the only purchase I made today was a pocket English-Urdu dictionary!? Lonely Planet lists the book fair as a highlight of visiting Kolkata in January, but, unless a tourist has a strong interest in Bangla literature, I wouldn’t highly recommend going far out of one’s way to attend. There are a few talks by international and Indian authors put on in the evenings and weekends, though, which would likely have caught my attention more if I hadn’t seen most of them speak last week in Jaipur—Ahdaf Soueif, Jeet Thayil, Amit Chaudhuri, among others.

The Book Fair is on now, until 10th February.

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Day 5 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 28th January 2013

The last day today, which comes with mixed feelings. It’s tiring, doing all this listening and writing, but I feel so inspired by so much of what I’ve heard—creatively and politically—that it’s sad that it’s come to an end. And unlike academic conferences, I haven’t finished with a splitting headache.

It irritates me that the English-language newspapers here have been writing things like “JLF overshadowed by controversy” in such a sensationalist manner. Perhaps some peoples’ experiences of the event have been overshadowed by controversy—Ashis Nandy’s, probably—but mine certainly hasn’t been. I was at Nandy’s session on Saturday when he made the silly comment, but until I saw the throngs of police outside in the evening, and the headlines on Sunday morning, I wasn’t aware that there had been such an outcry. It didn’t surprise me, I was expecting it of course, but there were too many other fantastic things going on to let it overshadow the whole festival. I do think Nandy’s comments were stupid and he should’ve known better than to say them when and how he did, but I also think that he should have the right to say them and be rebutted in a reasonable manner, as he was by Ashutosh and Patrick French at the very time. I hope the JLF organisers, or the future of the festival, do not suffers out of this. And now I don’t want to discuss that any more, as it shouldn’t detract from the dozens of other speakers that continued to make the festival so lively and positive.

Started today at a session that aimed to discuss how to get from the idea of having a book to actually having a book, in the words of chair Meru Gokhale: “Maps for Lost Writers: Nurturing Creativity”, with Anish Irani, Prajwal Parajuly, Aita Ighodaro and Hindol Sengupta. Pretentious as it is, I feel like I’ve been a frustrated novelist since I was about fifteen, and what these kinds of sessions always emphasise, which is of course very sound advice, is that if you want to write, just do it. Don’t make excuses about the day job, or writer’s block, or lack of inspiration, just do it. That advice also got me through the PhD. I was especially encouraged by Sengupta’s comment that he flunked maths at school so didn’t know what else to do with himself, and Gokhale’s reply that a large number of writers did flunk maths! I didn’t quite, but I did hate it with a passion, so perhaps I am made of the right stuff.

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(Howard Jacobson and Samanth Subramanian)

Next I saw Howard Jacobson, author of the Booker prize winning The Finkler Question, among other things, in conversation with Samanth Subramanian, and it was almost like being at a comedy show. I haven’t read any of his books, but after hearing him talk I think I will, because he really is very funny, in a dead-pan, cynical British way. What he said led on well from the first session, because he spoke of how he became a writer, in his thirties. He’d ended up teaching literature at Wolverhampton Polytech (which, with Hamilton NZ, or Wagga Wagga Australia, is one of the worst places I can imagine ending up as a literature academic; I exaggerate, but only a little), and wasn’t happy. He’d written for a long time, and had cultivated a bohemian appearance of a novelist (ripped shirt, beard with holes, trousers with tippex smears), but didn’t have his first novel published until he was forty. All of these details he recounted in a much funnier way than I just have! And, unsurprisingly, he explained that he became funny after the realisation that his talents (ping pong, among other things!) weren’t those valued by most of society; that he wasn’t good-looking, and thus comedy was the solution. As he said, “if you can laugh at yourself, at your own ignominy and pain, then you’ve overcome it.” During question time it was suggested by a member of the audience that India, as a nation, seems to lack the ability to laugh at itself, and that does seem to be true. Jacobson ended: “calling in the police because someone has said something offensive is grotesque.”

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The next session was one of the best of the entire festival: “Imagine: Resistance, Protest, Assertion” with Maya Rao, Aminatta Forna, Nirupama Dutt, Ambai, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Urvashi Butalia, and a dance/performance piece by someone whose name I foolishly didn’t note down (if someone could advise me of this I would be grateful, as she was stunning). Aminatta Forma read a passage from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, perhaps my favourite book in the world, and certainly the single biggest catalyst for my interest in feminist literature, when I studied it at high school. Urvashi Butalia read an article dating from 1983 by a young woman who had been gang-raped. It argued that though some had suggested to her that perhaps death would have been preferable, life is far too precious, and that though the rape was horrific, the desire to live overwhelmed everything else. It also recounted the disgusting police response to her rape: what had she been wearing, why was she out in the evening with a boy, why hadn’t she fought harder to keep the ten men off, why had her male friend not done more to prevent them. All this was thirty years ago, and it could have been written today. Little has changed, in public or police or political responses to rape, we have seen this recently. It was the perfect piece for Butalia to choose to read today; one of the things that has been frustrating me, and probably numerous other feminists, with the increased public discussion of rape and sexual assault in India recently, is that suddenly the mainstream media has “discovered” something that feminists have been saying for years and years and years. It’s good that they have, that it’s being discussed, but why did it take another brutal gang rape in Delhi in December for these messages to be taken up? There are so many responses to this, there have been and there will continue to be, and this is good. But I imagine the Indian feminists are both laughing with relief and crying with frustration that this is happening now, in 2013. This session closed with an extraordinary performance piece by a woman whose name I don’t know. I cannot describe it, I wouldn’t be able to do justice to it. It was an agonised plea for women to be able to claim their space, their lives, their right to life. Those who were there know. It left many of us reeling, and a lot of tears were shed.

This was the highlight of the day, as well as being a punch in the stomach, and after that there seemed nothing else to do but have too many wines with lunch. I emerged late into the post-lunch session with Shobhaa De, completely by accident. I have read one De novel, just to see if I could, and it was a struggle. But I was impressed with the little I heard: “How can you make the west a scapegoat for the problems of our society?” she said in response to a question I didn’t hear. “As if women weren’t raped in India before.” Reminded me of the comments that rape doesn’t happen in the villages. No, reports of rape don’t happen in the villages.

Luckily though, Shobhaa De and her launch of Kareena Kapoor’s book didn’t get the last word. That went to Shoma Chaudhury, who led the team in favour of the moot “capitalism has lost its way” to victory in the annual debate. And a good time was had by all.

Day 4 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 27th January 2013

I must confess to having a bit of a new literary crush, on Nadeem Aslam, and from talking to others at the JLF, it seems I’m not alone. So I started off today at a session with him, Kunzang Choden, (Bhutanese author of The Circle of Karma), and Chandrahas Choudhury, on the theme of “The Buddha in Literature.” Aslam’s third novel, The Wasted Vigil, is set in Afghanistan, and Aslam himself is a British Pakistani Muslim, so it may seem strange that he was put on this panel. But he started by saying that Buddhism has a long history in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as it does across South Asia, but it was so effectively airbrushed out of the history he was taught at school in Pakistan that it wasn’t until his twenties that he started to become aware and interested in this history.

The crowd for this was rather thin, but it was 10am on a Sunday morning, so I certainly wouldn’t put that down to the quality of the speakers. William Dalrymple was up next in the same venue, though, and he spoke to a packed house about his new history of the first British invasion of Afghanistan, The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842. Dalrymple is an engaging and extremely entertaining speaker, and he spent the whole hour actually summarising the history he recounts in his book, same anecdotes and all. He emphasised the tragic, frustrating fact that the west (Britain in particular in this case) have been following, almost exactly, the path that led to their utter demolition in Afghanistan in the 1840s. He said he’d received an email from Kabul not long ago saying that Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was having trouble sleeping because he couldn’t put the book down, being haunted by the similarities between himself and Shah Shuja, the exiled Afghan king that the British tried to put back on the throne. The talk, complete with slideshow of pics from the archives, was a great advertisement for the book, but as someone who has already read it I did wonder why he didn’t provide more teasers rather than direct quotes and anecdotes, so that people could read the book fresh without picking it up and thinking “oh, this is exactly what he said at the JLF!” But of course it is a very long book, having been meticulously researched, with much more detail than he was able to condense into an hour’s speech, so for anyone who was there today who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend that you still do!

Over lunch a brilliant musical performance was held on the Front Lawns, in conjunction with the launch of classical musician Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s book My Father, Our Fraternity. Two sitarists and a tabla player performed two pieces, the first composed by Tagore. Though I know next to nothing about Indian classical music (and just as little about western classical), sometimes I think it’s important to let music, or art, wash over you without intellectualising them. I wish I could still do this with literature, but I can’t because I’m too far down the rabbit hole, so I appreciated the sheer beauty of the music.

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(Anjum Hasan and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)

Anjum Hasan and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak were paired again after lunch, with novelist and literary critic Amit Chaudhuri, in a session called “The Vanishing Present: Post Colonial Critiques”. My friends know that Spivak has been a bit of a thorn in my foot for a while; as a postcolonial feminist literary scholar, much of her writing was essential for me to engage with in my PhD thesis, yet every time I thought I’d got my head around what she was saying it transpired that I really hadn’t. Anjum Hasan, as chair, seemed to be having the same problem today (and that is not a slight on Hasan in the least, it happens to the best of us!) Spivak was an entertaining speaker, taking us on stories and digressions, but she couldn’t leave her academic mantle behind, and she rarely answered the questions posed to her. Hasan’s attempts to paraphrase or summarise what she understood to be Spivak’s points were contradicted by Spivak, and I thought I saw the hint of a smile on Hasan’s lips when this happened. I did not envy her her task today! Having read much of Spivak’s work, though not her latest book, I recognised most of what she was saying. Her emphatic suggestion that people must learn languages, that it is not enough to read in translation but that we must all endeavour to read in another, I found both inspiring and disheartening. I am learning Hindi, and I am making progress slowly, slowly. I sometimes feel that starting at the age of twenty-five, as I did, might be a bit too late to ever be proficient, but Spivak said she started learning Chinese seven years ago, in her mid sixties. I take encouragement from this, and try to remember that the militantly monolingual cultures of the Anglophone west need not be a barrier to second language learning for the really determined. But Hindi is just one other language, and even if I add Urdu to that (I’m almost reading it now), it still seems so insignificant an effort, when there are literatures from all over the place that I want to read. This is where I find Spivak’s premise disheartening, because I would need ten or more lifetimes to learn all the languages I would need to read all the books I want, in the original. Spivak is a translator, and has written some great feminist translation theory (“The Politics of Translation”), and I think she should have given a bit more attention to this today.

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(Jeet Thayil)

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(Tishani Doshi)

Poetry is not my genre of choice, usually, but I’m really glad I attended a session of readings from Tishani Doshi, Gagan Gil, Sheniz Janmohamed and Jeet Thayil. A strong feminist streak was present in the work of the female authors, and Doshi’s powerful poems on womanhood, love and death prompted a few wet eyes. Thayil was very funny, and I’m sure he read many of the same poems in 2011, when I was last here: amongst them “How to be a Crow”, “How to be a Horse”, “How to be a Bandicoot.” Bizarre and side-splittingly funny.

The final session of the day, “Reimagining the Kamasutra” with Malayalam author K. R. Indira, Pavan Varma, and Urvashi Butalia, was a surprisingly frank discussion on sexuality. Both Indira and Varma have written on the Kama Sutra, but they have very different perspectives on the position of women within it (no pun intended). Indira noted something that came as a surprise to many: that what is nowadays commonly known as the Kama Sutra, a collection of illustrations of sexual positions, is in fact only one of seven books/chapters that comprise the full Kama Sutra. She believes that the whole work is deeply patriarchal and detrimental to women, teaching men to treat women as sexual objects through instruction on the dutiful wife, how to seduce a virgin, other men’s wives, and dealings with prostitutes. Varma disagreed on the negative implications for women, saying that the book encourages men to please women, and pointing out that it was only after the introduction of Victorian sexual prudery (my word, not his) that India internalised many of the sexual mores that have become commonplace nowadays. But the best line of the day went to Butalia: after a question from a young woman on why so many middle-aged and elderly Hindu women worship the Shiva lingam, which is in fact a stylised penis, she replied: “I am a middle-aged woman and I do not worship the phallus!”

Day 3 of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 26th January 2013

Today is India Republic Day (as well as Australia Day), and politics filled the agenda at the festival. It was also the first weekend day, and the crowds were noticeably bigger. I stuck to the same seat in the front row at the Char Bagh all morning, because moving around was just too stressful!

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(Ashutosh, Tarun Tejpal and Urvashi Butalia)

The first session I attended brought together Patrick French, Ashis Nandy, Tarun Tejpal, Ashutosh and Richard Sorabji, with Urvashi Butalia (she doesn’t know it, but I’m her biggest fan) chairing. On the occasion of India’s 64th Republic Day, the conversation revolved around what India is doing right, what it is doing wrong, and what should be done to make it a more representative and just democracy in practice, not just on paper. All of the speakers were very strong, and came from different literary and scholarly perspectives: French is a British non-fiction writer on India, Nandy a scholar of philosophy and politics, Tejapl the founding editor of newsmagazine Tehelka, Ashutosh is a TV journalist, and Sorabji a historian (who has written 102 books! That got a round of applause). Discussion turned for some time to the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, so naturally to corruption. Tejpal made some of the best comments on this, I think, though much of what he said was not popular with the audience. “When was the last time any of you got up and protested against atrocities against dalits? Against Muslims?” he asked. He got a clap for this, but I think was quite misunderstood when he said that he believed corruption is a great leveller: if you’re a servant for a wealthy family, who are wealthy because of the enormous class disparities in India and the educational and other conditions that keep them firmly at the top of the pecking order, how do you even hope to raise your children up to that level without some corruption? The analogy may not have been the best, as I dare say it’s not generally the servants who are the most corrupt, but I understood his sentiment. Some in the audience seemed to think he was condoning corruption in some way by saying this, but this wasn’t his point. There was quite justified uproar, however, when Ashis Nandy claimed that most of the corruption nowadays is perpetrated by OBCs, SCs and STs. I’m looking forward to what the newspapers may say tomorrow. Ashutosh and Patrick French rebutted this convincingly, conceding that these groups may be the most ostentatious in their corruption, but that the upper castes, who have been engaging in corruption perhaps for much longer, have learned how to conceal it effectively. “Can you honestly say that no politician has made more money than Mayawati?” French asked. “Of course, I can name several, but I won’t. They are of the upper castes and they cover their tracks.”

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(Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)

The next session was rather bizarre, and didn’t really hold together all that well. I don’t know if this was the result of weak chairing, or just four extremely different authors. “Rogues, Reviewers and Critics” brought together Anjum Hasan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Christopher Ricks and Manu Joseph. Chair Chandrahas Choudhury tried to keep the discussion centred around the act of reviewing and criticism, but Spivak went off on all sorts of tangents, and Manu Joseph was being rather a spoil-sport and insisting that as a novelist he doesn’t really bother with criticism. I had heard, anecdotally, that Spivak is a more lucid speaker than she is writer, but I didn’t really see that in evidence. She was also late arriving. Anjum Hasan impressed me though (I love her writing) and she made some interesting comments about the state of book reviewing in India at present. She believes there is a lack of knowledge of what came before amongst book reviewers here, and that reviewers are quick with opinions but slow with argument. Joseph suggested three things that he thinks should be banned in reviews:
-the exclamation mark.
-Bengalis commenting on other Bengalis (!)
-the word ‘dystopian’.
I shall endeavour never to make any of those fauxs pas.

“Freedom of Speech and Expression”, with John Kampfner, Shoma Chaudhury, John Burnside, Orlando Figes and Basharat Peer, was a completely packed session, and generated much debate about censorship in India. Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka made some of the most passionate statements of the session, claiming the be a freedom absolutist when it comes to the artistic and creative realms, believing that people should simply abstain from seeing/listening to anything they don’t like. Her caveat to absolutism applies to more public discourse, where she believes restrictions should be applied only to those who incite violence, discrimination or hostility. She differentiated between incitement to violence, and hurt sentiments which can lead to the enactment of violence, and I think this is a very important distinction. The state should not pre-empt a law and order situation by stopping speech before it happens, but rather deal with any problems afterwards.

At lunchtime there was a booklaunch of a new Zubaan title. But I’m afraid I got rather distracted by probably my biggest ever dumb foreigner incident. There’s this guy that I’ve seen around the festival a lot, he is obviously very famous because he is surrounded by guards and fans the whole time. Yesterday he provoked a lot of ire (and quite a few laughts, too) by announcing that to him, “all religions are equal; I despise all of them” and that “if you’ve already decided that you want to hang yourself, what does it matter how you do it?” Well, he sat down next to me during this book launch, and immediately had to start brushing aside fans who wanting autographs and photos, while he was trying to listen to the talk. This doesn’t happen to me so much when I’m travelling alone (contrary to all the horror stories circulating at the moment about how bad travelling as a solo woman is in India), but when I’m travelling with my partner in India, we are constantly accosted by people trying to take photos of us. I think it’s because he’s tall and wears a hat and sunglasses that the Indian lads consider cool. I don’t mind much when people ask nicely, or when it’s children, but teengage boys trying to sneak photos of us when we’ve already told them no gets on my nerves. With this in mind, I turned to the famous man and said, “this happens to me all the time!” We had a brief chat, he asked me where I’m from. As the session ended, we were crowded again by young fans, and as I made my escape I turned to him and said, “I’m glad it’s not me for a change!” Well, I just googled this gentleman, Javed Akhtar, and discovered that he’s one of India’s most famous script writers, is married to acclaimed actress Shabana Azmi (whom I most definitely have heard of), and co-wrote the screenplay of Sholay. And Elen Turner commiserated with him over the perils of being too popular with the Indian youth. If I could be that un-cool with a celebrity whom I didn’t recognise, I’m glad it wasn’t Amir Khan or Ranbir Kapoor who sat down next to me.

The final two sessions of the day had a lot of parallels, and looked at two topics that are guaranteed to generate a heated question session in India: Kashmir and Pakistan. “Kashmir: Chronicles of Exile” had Kashmiri Pandit Rahul Pandita and Ladakhi Muslim Siddiq Wahid discuss the concept of exile with Asiya Zahoor. While Pandita, having left Kashmir in 1989, fits the conventionally understood definition of an exile, the panel tried to broaden the term to apply to others who had been physically or psychologically disconnected from their home. This was not popular with much of the audience, who seemed too quick to see things in black and white. The trauma of the Kashmiri Pandits was not discounted or negated by suggesting that other Kashmiris, too, experience dislocation and even exile, though there does seem to be a problem in India on a wider scale, or refusing to acknowledge the injustices that the Kashmiri Pandits faced in 1989/1990.

The next session, “Falling off the Map: The Question of Failed States,” with Mary Harper, Reza Aslan, Laleh Khadivi, Selma Dabbagh and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in conversation with Barkha Dutt, was not specifically about Pakistan, but by the end Pakistani Obaid-Chinoy seemed to be fielding the most questions. The two panels were well placed one after the other, and had many substantive commonalities. Pandita commented that many within the Indian state and among the Kashmiri separatists don’t consider it in their best interests to resolve the problem. Obaid-Chinoy argued that the world cannot afford for Pakistan to become a failed state, as it appears to be heading at the moment. “This is not Afghanistan or Somalia,” she stated; Pakistan is the world’s fifth biggest country, and it has nuclear weapons. Yet despite this, she said she chose to remain hopeful that her country is not doomed, that there are enough progressive and passionate people in Pakistan fighting to make things work. And there seemed to be an encouraging number of Indians in the audience wanting the same thing.