Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tales of Red Lights in Delhi

No, not that kind of red light…

Delhi, much to my delight, has a lot of traffic signals that have a clock that tells you how long you will have to wait. In the otherwise heart-and-mind-rending exercise of driving in Delhi, this gives you a lovely chance to ungrind the teeth, take a deep breath and switch off your car. It also gives numerous entrepreneurs the opportunity to clean your window, sell you tennis rackets that magically kill mosquitoes, and generally solicit money. Its fun to sometimes engage the little kids in discussion – “Now, wouldn’t it be better to stop wasting your time on me when I’m clearly not going to give you money, and move on to other cars during this all-too-short signal” – and sometimes, of course, just heartbreaking to see the display of diseased limbs, the desperate mothers clutching their children, the dead look in the eyes of children who have seen too much.

There is a family that lives at an intersection near my office. It’s a long light, and I have had plenty of time to observe them on my way to work in the morning. There is a mother that sits at the actual crossing suckling a newborn child, several young children that perform acrobatics in between the waiting cars, and one young man – in his twenties – that seems to collect all the earnings of these children, including, as I found out later, the fruit that I usually give to one particularly cute little girl. The mother looks like she hasn’t eaten for days, and I shudder to think of the quality and quantity of breast milk available to the infant. This last week, I haven’t seen them and hope they have moved on to better things. Not likely, but still.

And then there are the fellow car drivers. We look around, appraise each other. I get a lot of stares – maybe it’s the crazy hair, maybe it’s the fact that I’m dancing in my seat and singing along loudly to some old Hindi song – who knows? Once, the owner of a Hyundai Accent next to me rolled down his window and released an empty Bisleri bottle. Having the luxury of a long wait before the light changed, I got out of my car, picked up the bottle and tapped on his window – “Excuse me sir, this seems to have fallen out of your window…” He muttered as he took the bottle – “Yes it was an accident, I was just about to pick it up”. At another light, on another day, a car full of plump happy businessmen rolled down a window to release a wrapper of Kurkure wafers. “Excuse me bhaisaab, but you dropped something” I called out to them. “No no madam, we threw it out!” came the reply. I rolled my eyes – “Please pick it up bhaisaab”. And they quickly did! I was very impressed. No aggressiveness – it’s like they know what they’re doing is wrong but also take pride in their ability to do it. No, that doesn’t make sense. Huh.

Anyhow, if anyone has ideas on what to do at these intersections – How do we know when the money/food we give actually goes to the person, or are they part of an oppressive brothel-like arrangement as in some of the horror stories you hear? If someone has a dreadful untreated wound, should you offer to take them to a hospital, or are they (too awful to think about) needing to display it to maximize begging income? When a distraught mother knocked on my window to show me a prescription of medicines that she needed to buy for her dying child, how do I know that isn’t the latest fraud? Or in that scenario, should that matter? For God’s sake, can we have shelters that take these women, children and diseased/crippled people in to show them some real charity?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jaipur Literature Festival 2009

In a word, uplifting. In a few more words, (and to quote one of the panelists on the subject of art), “…A release from the trivialities of quotidian life…”

Where else would a middle class engineer living in Delhi get to rub shoulders with her heroes - the likes of Shoma Chaudhury and Tarun Tejpal? Listen with enraptured attention to a panel consisting of Dalrymple, Thubron, Pico Iyer – each of whom individually fills a shelf in my library. Discover brilliant authors and books – Michael Wood, Simon Schama, Sheldon Pollock. The event was aesthetically, intellectually, and humanitarially (is there such a word?) – illuminating.

Aesthetically – the setting was spectacular. Diggi Palace is a beautiful hotel set in the heart of Jaipur with wide lawns replete with the necessary peacocks, an adorable poolside restaurant and a huge hall that could only be described as endearingly tacky. The decorations were such as to leave in my memory a pleasurable rush of colors – the place had been curtained and streamered (and the people had been dressed) in tasteful excess. Intellectually, the appeal is somewhat obvious – it is a literary festival after all. But most unusually, I loved the hyper-humanitarianism of it all. The stalls for NGOs, the nod to rural art forms and languages, the abundant jhollas… Oh and the fact that all of this was free and open to the public. Unbelievable, is not it? Just a year or so ago, I paid a couple hundred dollars to see a similar festival in Ubud.

No more gushing! Alright, just a little bit more! I sat next to Nandita Das! She is so completely free of ego - she was at one point shooed from her seat by an usher, and she quickly and gigglingly moved to the floor. In an hour or so, she would sit on the large stage in the front lawns in front of hundreds of fawning souls and discuss her upcoming movie. Shoma Chaudhary napped through a session next to me! And embarrassedly mumbled something about being tired when I afterward congratulated her on a couple of brilliant interviews that she had done. (1 & 2)

I am completely starstruck. Perhaps I will write about the sessions in greater detail some other time – right now I will just wallow in lovely memories.