Thursday, October 11, 2007

Looking for a Cause

Leaving a cushy job at the worlds largest hydrocarbon producer (and most profitable corporation), I like to boast that I want to spend the rest of my life fixing my broken karma. Huh? Yes, I know, I don’t quite know what that means either. Is it doing good? Is it helping the helpless? Is it hataofying (try looking that up in a dictionary – I think I just invented a word!) poverty in India? In the world? Or are racism, casteism, misogyny, greed more pressing evils to address? (Well not greed, the non-poor half of the world swears by it nowadays as the source of their non-poverty, but that’s an unnecessary aside.)

Alright, so what is a wannabe do-gooder to do? I could dedicate my life to teaching kids in a neighboring slum in Delhi how to read. But is that an easy way out? After all, with all my literacy and bossy can-do-ness I could accomplish a lot more. What if Gandhiji had decided that converting people to the moral and healthful wonders of vegetarianism would be his sole goal in life? But then, I’m not Gandhiji. And better to definitively accomplish a concrete good thing (you never know, one of the kids I mentor may actually become the next Gandhiji), than to have pipe dreams, however all-encompassingly highminded they may be. Or is it?

There is the other small problem of a confused, deeply ambivalent mind. Getting a masters degree in Economics in the United States has left a nagging suspicion in my mind that economic growth may be the only solution to poverty. But that of course, is quickly drowned out by all the certainties of the evils of inequality and crass consumerism that necessarily come with growth (inclusive growth is a lovely phrase, it makes speeches of politicians sound much nicer than they would otherwise). I look hungrily at the brilliant example of Kerala with its vibrant equalness and much-admired literacy. And Chavez using the west’s own precious democracy to dislodge the putrid oligarchy that existed in Caracas. But then the damned critics’ cynical questions poke me: would there be a Kerala if there wasn’t a Gulf? If the oil price fell to $1 a barrel, would the poor in Venezuela continue to lavish their praises on their savior Chavez?

A lot of questions – perhaps I’m doomed to spend my life formulating questions. Wish I could adopt an omniscient political belief – an opium for the massive ambivalence – life would be much easier. Really.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Ubud Literary Festival

I have a better idea now how it might feel to be illiterate. Spent the last four days surrounded by people who had read approximately a book a day for the greater part of their adult lives. A lot of these people were significantly older than me so that’s a lot more books than the 28 books that I have read (am not counting the innumerable Enid Blytons and Mills and Boons of my teenage years, and yes, I did recently count the books I remember reading). They must have felt approximately what I would feel towards someone who has only learned half the alphabet of a language – not contempt, because of course it isn’t their fault, it’s the vicious cycle’s fault – but perhaps pity… yes pity is the word I am looking for.

So I was pitied for my utter ignorance of the illuminated world of Orhan Pamuk and Pico Iyer and so many many others. Alright, I probably wasn’t even noticed. But I should have been. Pitied and noticed, that is.

I actually really did enjoy the festival (like a mouse enjoys hiding beneath a banquet table waiting for crumbs to fall its way? Stop it!). The random sparks of insight, the disillusionment of watching yet another hero crumble (they were right! he is just human after all!), the titillation of watching another, better, hero rise like an inflatable statue on the recently vacated literary pedestal.

The festival. Set in ubud, beautiful happy ubud. How do you manufacture a society that is aesthetically glorious, simple, kind and serenely blissful at the same time? Learn from the ubudians (or is it ubudites?). The main room for the talks was the top of the Indus restaurant, looking over two parallel river valleys. River valleys in Ubud are deeply incised, with fantasy-in-the-tropics-evoking crazy plants fighting each other for space along the steep banks, like no other river valleys I have seen in the world. But then, I have only seen a tiny fraction of the world, which may be why they seem extraordinary. I found myself sitting apart from the crowd during these talks, on the patio, leaning on the balustrade, so that when I didn’t need to be watching the panelists enunciate the words, I could instead look out onto that obnoxious wealth of greenery, and listen to those words, those gloriously large words, and feel for a moment that just the act of taking in the natural and literary beauty at the same time somehow made me a better person. Bizarre. Also, sitting apart on that patio, I allowed myself to think that I gave myself an intriguing aura – the lonely woman framed by the open skies on bali – I really should be famous, I am sufficiently self-obsessed.

The authors. I had only read one and a half books penned by authors attending the festival. The half book was Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. So formidably oppressively depressing, I would read a chapter or so at bedtime and then put it down each night with this stale and awful feeling, like the organs in my torso had just given up fighting gravity and settled down around my hips leaving a scary lonely empty space inside. I gave up halfway because I couldn’t subject myself to this abuse anymore. The book gathered all my mediocrities, hypocrisies and smallmindednesses into its characters and with an evil grin, presented them to me. The girls in New York who haven’t actually accomplished anything but are treated as though they have, and who love to lecture americans about america, americans about india, indians about america and indians about india?… yup they’re me. How could the writer of this book that I could not even finish be this frail girl with the sweet voice and the unprepossessing, likeable answers to all questions? She is impossible to dislike, which of course means that the nasty pettiness of her characters could only be manufactured in my own head because its mine. Thankfully almost everyone I know feels that way about her book - my mother gave up reading it after two pages, the wise woman – so these characters have really been born in the mind of Kiran Desai. Hearing her speak, enchanting the audience whose universal verdict, later, was that she was Such a lovely person, I half expected her, in a moment when no one was looking, to wink at me knowingly, with eyes filled with the venom of her condescension, but of course, that didn’t happen – mostly, I think because there never was a moment when all eyes were not riveted on her adoringly.

The other book that I had read was India by Shashi Tharoor. Another person who is painfully likeable, but for a very different reason. He writes only what people like him (or people who want to be like him, which is a lot of people) want to read. Which is fine, I suppose, but also enormously irritating. He was on a panel with Rana Dasgupta (the newly inflating hero, by the way) and on that panel and others he made far too many witty comments (two of which he shamelessly repeated on two different occasions, though the audience, who was pretty much the same on both occasions, roared approvingly each time). It was all feeling rehearsed, and as Rana pointed out on the forum in response to one of his comments, entirely shallow. This specific instance was when the debate had narrowed to whether new york city or delhi was a better representation of a modern city. Shashi said, with all the flourishes of an orator who is pompously confident of his audience’s rapt attention, something to the effect that a person coming to new york from any country in the world will find a restaurant in that city that serves exclusively his native cuisine, and additionally will find a newspaper in his language. Rana, with his brief and quiet disdain, pointed out that the presence of newspapers and restaurants does not a city modern make, it is genuine coexistence of heterogeneity of opinions and lifestyles, a platform on which delhi most definitely wins with its multilingual mixture of slums and gated complexes, of populations of eunuchs and enclaves of various religions. I thought he won that argument, but talking to the rest of the audience later, turns out nobody else thought so. But I may be biased, delhi is my soon-to-be home. Or maybe people are really swayed by the bombastic eloquence of Shashi. Another instance, someone asked Shashi about issues of identity and racism, specifically for his opinion on Sarkozy forming a repugnantly right-wing department in his government to establish French identity. Shashi said, yes, he’s doing that but look, he’s made a French Algerian woman the minister of justice. I really hope he was being ironic.

What else happened at the festival? Well, there was the drinking of course, the poetry readings (and the combination of the two, which always makes me cry), the discovery of new authors that I can’t wait to read (specifically Nury Vittachi and Rana Dasgupta and Richard Flanagan and John Zubrzycki), the subsequent emptying of my pockets at the bookstalls. And the new friends. Lovely new friends. I will probably never meet them again, but we were best friends for a moment. At one point, I was giving advice to a young American girl with boyfriend problems, assuring a young environmental scientist that his employer, World Bank, was, really, just as evil as the IMF, dancing salsa with a French guy who had come in with a larger than life Australian married to a diminutive, but not-to-be dismissed Indonesian, all within the same hour. Then I started crying (as inevitably happens following a night of too much wine) on the shoulders of a couple that I don’t remember, and wouldn’t have recognized the following day at the festival (who are all these people smiling knowingly at me?). Don’t remember why I was crying, but I think it was because someone the previous night had sternly informed me that India must do something about the plight of monks in Burma. Huh.

So anyhow, what am I reading now? The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor. Brilliant so far.