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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


I discovered Haruki Murakami a little late. Late in 2005, to be precise. That was when I read the impressive 'Kafka on the Shore' which led me on to a journey into all literature Japanese. This one clearly wasn't lost in translation. The book is a real page-turner in addition to being a metaphysical mind-bender. It's 436 pages long, not poolside reading, and evokes Kafka in more ways than one. The protagonist deliberately chooses the name Kafka before launching on an intensely personal voyage of discovery. With clear streaks of Kafka, Murakami's characters often move from the all too real world of modern Japan into a strange parallel universe, "a very Kafka world" as Murakami would put it.

So it should come as no surprise that Murakami has been honoured with the Czech Republic's foremost literary award - the Franz Kafka Prize. Receiving the award in Prague, he acknowledged that Kafka is one of his favourite authors of "all time."

Murakami himself discovered Kafka with 'The Castle' when he was 15. Speaking of reading the book, he said "that book was so real and so unreal at the same time that my heart and soul seemed torn into two pieces."

While Kafka, has helped him achieve cult status, the master of the written form isn't resting easy. He is busy at work on his next book - one that promises to be bigger and longer than anything he has penned so far. But if you are hoping to hear anything of the plot, the intensely media shy author isn't giving anything away, so all you need to do is keep watching the written spaces for more Murakami updates. Till then enjoy his 'Birthday Stories'

Friday, October 27, 2006


One of the highlights of the Ubud Writers Festival was meeting the charming Anita Desai. The sessions with her were such a revelation (more posts on that later) but I never imagined being quoted in the same article. Now, I can truly die happy.

Here's the link and the full piece:

INDONESIA: The rise of Asian Literature Cultural globalisation often seems like a one way street; American-driven Western culture dominates, while ancient arts slowly disappear. But renowned Asian authors who met in Bali this week for the Ubud Writers Festival, argue that times are 'a-changing'. Nury Vittachi, a writer based in Hong Kong who produces the Asian Literature Review, is predicting that by 2030 the diverse cultures of Asia will dominate the world. Rebecca Hencshke reports from Bali.

"Culture from basically two small areas of the world, North American and Europe, has dominated for so long International culture, books, movies and music and this is now all changing. The bulk of the population is Asian and we are seeing the rise on the global stage of Asian movies, Asian literature and Asian music. It will take some time before it becomes significant but it is happening. The world's children now know Walt Disney but they also know Pokemon. Asian culture is influencing Western culture and it's about time!" Nury says it is about re-claiming what was rightfully Asian; a highly diverse region that has a long history of cultural expression. "Cinderella is one of my pet hates. I find it so annoying that most of the world's children, including those in China , think Walt Disney invented Cinderella. When in reality Cinderella is an ancient, classic Asian story that was written in China in the 16th century. The domination of Western Culture is very annoying and I am pleased to be part of a movement to set it right!"

In the international literature world it's the writers of the Asian Diaspora who are leading the charge. By writing in English they can become players on a global stage. Here at this year's Ubud Writers Festival, held in Bali, an island that has preserved its unique culture in the face of waves of Western cultural invasions, writers of Indian heritage dominated the line up.

Kashmir-born Deepika Shetty is a journalist who is closely watching the changes taking place in her television program, 'Off the Shelf'. "I think we are at a totally fascinating time as far as Asian writing on a global stage goes. We are not just talking about Indian Writers in English but you also have Tash Aw who has got Malaysia on to a global stage. They are reclaiming the so called lost land. In addition what is happening is that readers across Asia are re-defining what they want to read. In book stores across India you find whole shelves of Indian writing not just in English, but in their own languages as well, we want to read this kind of literature."

Deepika also points to the growing number of New Writers Festivals in the region, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and more recently Sri Lanka.

Also here at the festival, Anita Desai, the grand dame of Indian English literature says it excites her to see what's taking place. "Frankly I thought that my generation would be the last one that would write in English, we were always told that English would die, that it would not survive in India, how could it. I really believed it and I did not foresee what would happen, that a whole new generation of Indians would not see it as a foreign language but would write in it with totally confidence that gives their work energy and vigor," Anita Desai believes writing in English remains a huge advantage to being a successful international writer. The quality of translations remains too poor, she laments.

However, Asian Literature Review editor Nury Vittachi predicates that English language too has competitors. "I mean there have been calculations that China will be the dominant language of the Internet by 2008. There are more than 15,000 blogs in Chinese appearing every day. Then there is also a new form of English that is incredibly popular across parts of Asia . English words but Chinese grammar, like 'Can or Not' instead of 'can you do it or not'. This is going to be the world's biggest language tomorrow!"

However while the world is witnessing the rising economic and cultural power of China and India, elsewhere cultures are dying. The only writer from the province of Papua at the Festival, poet John Waromi ,adds a solemn voice to the debate. He says what's happening in Papua is equal to a library on fire. Oral stories are being lost as each generation dies; ancient cultures becoming extinct with no one interested in saving them.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


You've heard the stories before, but chances are you haven't heard one like that of Richard Whitehead. A British marathon runner, he is planning to take on the Big Apple and the New York Marathon on November 7th this year.

So what's special you may ask, after all don't thousands of others as well?

Richard was born with no legs below his knees, though prosthetic legs helped him walk a little differently from others.

The 30-year old says he always liked running and was inspired at an early age by the late Terry Fox, who lost his leg to cancer and ran the Marathon of Hope to raise funds for cancer research.

After going through intensive training, Whitehead ran his first-ever marathon in New York in 2004, completing it in 5 hours and 18 minutes.

He hopes to knock a full hour off his timing as he is using custom-made specially-cushioned running legs this time round. Though, he admits that time and training are not his biggest challenges, it is changing people's attitudes that is tougher -"...the hardest thing to do is to change people's attitudes towards you as an athlete."

So if you happen to be in New York cheer this man on to the finish line - never mind the timing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Fact they say is often stranger than fiction. In the case of these four amazing women journalists, it is equally dangerous as well.

All of them had either been jailed, kidnapped or maimed. Yet they remained determined to continue their careers seeking truth and exposing injustice.

Hailing from China, the US, Lebanon and Mexico - the four were honoured with the 17th Annual Courage in Journalism Award given out by the International Women's Media Foundation in New York.

The recipients include 28 year Jill Carroll, 43 year May Chidiac and 62 year old Gao Yu.

74 year old Mexican journalist and author Elena Poniatowska Amor, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Caroll, the Christian Science Monitor freelancer who was kidnapped and held for 82 days, donated her award money to a foundation she set up for her former driver in Iraq. Her translator was killed when she was kidnapped. Her driver was left alive and his life remains in danger because of what he witnessed.

Gao Yu, a Chinese economic and political reporter was jailed twice in China.

May Chidiac, a Lebanese television host and journalist was nearly killed by a car bomb a year ago following her daily talk show in which she pondered the possible involvement of Syria in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Speaking after the award ceremony, Chidiac said had she not turned her body to put something in the back seat, she probably would not have lived. She lost her left leg, hand, and was badly injured on the left side of her head. She also has trouble hearing out of the left ear. Having spent 9 months in hospital, she no longer hosts a morning show, rather she has a primetime one called 'With Audacity'.

Journalist and author Poniatowska, on the other hand, started working way back in 1953, at a time when women were not to be seen in public life in Mexico. She quickly made a name for herself, especially with her book exposing the Mexican government's massacre of students in 1968.

Also a novelist and playwright, Poniatowska remains committed to the poor of Mexico and the world. She calls for "listening to the voices" of the under-privileged to become aware of different ways of living and thinking.

ERIC NEWBY (1919-2006)

British travel writer Eric Newby, who chronicled his adventures in Afghanistan, India and Italy in a series of books, has died aged 86.

Newby was known for his 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' (1958)- a light-hearted account of his journey from London to the mountains of Afghanistan.

What was interesting was the journey that made Newby a travel writer. For more than a decade following the end of World War II, he has toiled away in the British fashion industry, peddling what he called some of the ugliest clothes on the planet. He gave haute couture for travelling and writing in 1956. That's when he decided to head where few men have gone before - a mission to assail the 19,800 foot mountain Mir Samir in Afghanistan. What was interesting was the kind of training he received before heading off on this mission. In all, he did four days of mountain climbing before embarking on some the inhospitable terrain. Being ill-equipped only adds to the story of a country that turned out to be a study in contrasts even then.

Newby became Travel Editor for the Observer newspaper in 1964 and held that position till 1973. It was during this time that he published another stellar book 'Slowly down the Ganges' (1966) which is the story of the journey taken by him together with his wife down India's holy river.

He was a firm believer in the shelf life of travel books : "Another reason why the travel book may continue in popularity is that in many parts of the world travel has become too dangerous to take part in, except vicariously."
Recounting his journey through the world of travel, he talks of what drew him to it and some of the books that inspired him in this memorable piece:,,102014,00.html

Read more about his life and times here:


Still have a couple more Ubud posts to go, including one on the unforgettable panel discussion with the immensely charming Anita Desai. Just the kind of author you always want to meet.

But I'm going to take a bit of a break to find out - What makes vodka vodka?

Actually, that's the question that isn't quite plaguing me, though it sure is troubling European Union agriculture ministers. They are trying to decide what the illustrious drink must include to deserve the name.

Current holder of the EU presidency Finland, where vodka is almost as popular as in neighbouring Russia, has the support of fellow Nordic nations.

They are demanding that only spirits made from grain and potatoes be called vodka, enraging south European countries that make the drink from wine.
According to the Finnish proposition, vodkas produced with other products, including grapes, should mention the fact in large letters on the bottle.

The European Parliament is due to give its first opinion on the matter next March.

As the spirited debate to get to the truth in the bottle continues, take a look at the Russian take here:

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Blogging: An Insider's View
Ardent bloggers discuss their blog addiction and speculate whether bloggers will inherit the earth!
4-5 pm, Left Bank Lounge, (next to Indus)

This was one session that I was tremendously excited about. After all, it was here that I was to come face to face with my blog buddy - Malaysia's star - Sharon Bakar It also threw up the opportunity to meet the celebrated Dina Zaman. And then when I saw the final programme schedule, I was heart-broken to see that the bloggers had lost it to books and real authors. A couple of emails to and fro and the lovely festival Director Janet de Neefe kindly agreed to have the bloggers back on. As the days progressed, Jeremy Wagstaff, who has been writing a column for The Wall Street Journal and launched his book 'Loose Wire', got added to the list. Having read Shalini Akhil's blogs, I felt it was important to get her on board to get the bloggers of the world to unite. I mean how often, do you see a bona fide author maintain not one, but two blogs? Shalini does it all with ease. So as we moved towards D-Day, we had an immensely respectable panel of four.

Given the anticipation to get talking, I think all of us forgot to take pictures that we could have presented as proof of all our consequential chatter.

This turned out to be a session where I could do tons of number crunching after three days of spouting all things literary.

It was interesting because blogs have truly gone beyond a passing fancy morphing into a cutting edge phenomenon that is rapidly turning out to be the Internet's 'Next Wave.'

There was a time when I bookmarked pages of news organisations as the prime source of my news. Now, I go straight to the blogs. Take a look at any disaster, any bombing, chances are blogs did it better than the news groups. Part of the reason is the sheer commitment to put out the latest, without making any dubious claims of being the first. That's one thing that truly irks me about some parts of news reportage. In a disaster, please don't tell me you were the first to arrive, first to see and first to beam the pictures live. Tell me what's happening and what's being done to help the victims of the said disaster. That was partly why the blogs that were set up in response to the tragic Mumbai blasts turned out to be such a success.

That's also why one of my favourite blogs - which tracks how the life of a 24 year old Iraqi woman has changed since the American occupation has made waves around the world. If you need more proof of the fact that blogs are changing this world, then take heart in knowing that this blog has been turned into a play, which was most recently showcased at the Edinburgh Festival. 'Baghdad Burning' also won the Best Middle East and Africa blog and received a Bloggie. Then the book based on the blog made it to the short list of the prestigious, British award for non-fiction - the Samuel Johnson Prize.

Take a look at this post for instance, and tell me how it could not have made the leap to an acclaimed book, among other things:
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Three Years...
It has been three years since the beginning of the war that marked the end of Iraq's independence. Three years of occupation and bloodshed. Spring should be about renewal and rebirth. For Iraqis, spring has been about reliving painful memories and preparing for future disasters. In many ways, this year is like 2003 prior to the war when we were stocking up on fuel, water, food and first aid supplies and medications. We're doing it again this year but now we don't discuss what we're stocking up for. Bombs and B-52's are so much easier to face than other possibilities. I don't think anyone imagined three years ago that things could be quite this bad today. The last few weeks have been ridden with tension. I'm so tired of it all- we're all tired. Three years and the electricity is worse than ever. The security situation has gone from bad to worse. The country feels like it's on the brink of chaos once more- but a pre-planned, pre-fabricated chaos being led by religious militias and zealots.

Ok, so I'm digressing. When you read text this evocative, its hard to think straight.

Heading back to our panel, some of our blog stars are pretty close to their own books based on their blogs. Sharon, for one, has a standing offer for 'Blook' and when we last spoke, she was seriously toying with the idea.

Apart from 'Blooks' we spoke about several issues, starting with the technologically inclined Jeremy taking us through the nuts and bolts of blogs and blogging and how to get your blog noticed in the increasingly crowded blogosphere?

Crowded it sure is. At last count alone had more than 1 million members, including 200,000 running active blogs. Technorati, the recognized authority on what's going on in the world of weblogs was tracking over 50 million blogs. Given that there are about 1.2 million posts daily or roughly about 50,000 blog updates an hour, what does it take to get noticed?

Some of the best tips, I've come across are in celebrity blogger Robert Scoble's book 'Naked Conversations' Here are six of the very best:

1. Publishable.
2. Findable. Through search engines, people will find blogs by subject, by author, or both. The more you post, the more findable you become.
3. Social. The blogosphere is one big conversation. Through blogs, people with shared interests build relationships unrestricted by geographic borders.
4. Viral. Information often spreads faster through blogs than via a newsservice. No form of viral marketing matches the speed and efficiency of a blog.
5. Syndicatable. By clicking on an icon, you can get free "home delivery" of RSS- enabled blogs into your e-mail software. RSS lets you know when a blog you subscribe to is updated, saving you search time. This process is considerably more efficient than the last- generation method of visiting one page of one web site at a time looking for changes.
6. Linkable. Because each blog can link to all others, every blogger has access to the tens of millions of people who visit the blogosphere every day.

While you do all of that, there are also the recurrent fears of loss of privacy. Dina, who has lived through some pretty scary online moments translating into real like, ran us through some of the pitfalls.

Shalini, who has been sharing her experiences for making it as a writer, told budding authors where and what to look out for among several other things.

It was a whole lot of blogspeak and so much fun - which can be the only probable reason how we collectively missed out on shots of this panel.

Though as a parting shot, I'll leave you with Newsweek's fact-filled piece 'Who's Reading Your Blog?' based on some cool findings from the Pew Internet Project. Here's what they found:

* WHO READS IT: Most of the 12 million American bloggers write for themselves, and their avid readers happen to be their Moms and Dads.
* ALMOST PRO: 84% say blogging is a hobby. And the top 100 bloggers - are almost all journalists or professional writers.
* NOT SO JOURNALISTIC: Nearly 40% of bloggers describe their journals as personal diaries; 65% don't consider their musings journalism at all; 78% are mostly inspired by personal experience.

So, on the bright side, if this survey is to believed, scribes like me will still have their jobs.... a couple of years on... at the very least.

Monday, October 23, 2006


When a session with Madhur Jaffrey was first suggested to me, I quickly called Bala, whose instant reaction was "This is so darn unfair, I do all the cooking and you get to interview Madhur Jaffrey."

Stopping short of getting into the unfairness of it all, I have to admit that I am a walking disaster in the kitchen. The only time I get it right is when I am sitcking stuff into the oven and letting the oven do the rest for me. Though there have been brief moments of survival, like making the prawn curry with lots of help from the multi-faceted Madhur Jaffrey.

As a family, we have been hooked on her cookery shows, on her screen avataar in several films, including the notable Merchant Ivory ones and now with her earnest and easy to read memoir, 'Climbing The Mango Trees':

She has been credited with several things. Key among which has been making Indian curry and spices hot long before India and its booming economy became hot. Watching cookery shows today you might not even know, but Madhur was one of the pioneers in taking such shows out of the restictive studio settings. This, at a time, when shoot on site and telling the story of food through its cultural connections was almost unheard of.

What makes her story even more interesting is the fact the she learnt cooking 'through correspondence.' Growing up in a large well-off Indian family at the time of Independence, there never was any necessity to spend time in the kitchen.

Her initiation into food began while she was a drama student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Hungering for the heady spices of home, she wrote to her mother in India begging her to send simple recipes. Her mother obliged, and thus Jaffrey learnt to cook via mail, although this was never intended as a career move. She was drawn into cooking as a business, after friends implored her to write a cook book. With that began her foray into food, which went from books to television.

As a show host, her immense success and appeal was attributed to her sensitive style of presentation and the way she revolutionized and demystified Indian cooking. In fact, many say that the ready availability of oriental spices and other Indian ingredients in British supermarkets is a direct result of Madhur Jaffrey's television programmes.

Many of her cookbooks have won several reputed international awards just as they have won legions of fans.

Given her rich and varied life, a memoir simply couldn't have been far behind. She has seen India at a time of great change while growing up in a large family where her grandfather often presided over dinners at which 40 or more members of the extended family savored together the wonderfully flavorful dishes that were forever imprinted on Madhur's palate. A lot happens between Number 5 and Number 7 in Madhur's Delhi.

Many of the events captured in this memoir are breathtaking in their simplicity. Others that centre around food re-live some of the great times that the author has lived through. Simple and evocative, it is a recollection of a life and time long gone by. A time when her mother forced her and her sisters to wash their faces with milk, leading to some stunning recollections of India - the highly lactose tolerant nation:
"We had milk in paneer, milk in sweets, dumplings and rice, cheese sweets, without milk, India this highly lactose country would just wither away."

Having met Madhur in person and havign to failed to recognise her the first time I saw her - for one she is so small that if she is living on the food she talks about then a Madhur Jaffrey diet is strongly recommended in place of the Atkins and all that milk on her cheeks has given her this perfect complexion that belies her 73 years. Energetic at her age, she immediately agrees to an interview after our hour-long conversation, taking a break only to go yet another spice trail in Ubud.

Part of her charm is quite simply being agreeable to just about everything you ask her for. When I asked her if she'd oblige with a reading, prompt came the answer "if you have the pages marked, I'll be happy to do it." What a memorable reading that turned out to be for me and me legions of Madhur fans.

A picture of poise, with a complexion that has been honed by years of real milky washes, Madhur is quite simply the charming persona you see on television, film and on stage. Years of being in the spotlight have only made her stunningly grounded. That's part of the reason why her cookbooks thrive on our bookshelves and why this award-winning actress continues to remain a bestselling author as well.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


It always helps to be in the company of friends. And this session was one of those. It was the last of the literary events in the packed calendar of the Ubud Writers Festival. One that promised to let you unwind with a glass of Hutton wine. Unwind is just what we did.

When Janet asked me in the morning of the session whether I was upto moderating this one, I had more than a donkey grin (had to learn more on the art of grinning a little later in this session) on my face and an ecstatic 'YES'. After all, I've seen the kind of work that Janet de Neefe (Festival Director, Ubud Writers Festival), Jill Eddington (till recently the Festival Director of the Byron Bay Writers Festival) and Nury Vittachi (founder of the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival) put in to get their respective festivals off the ground.

It may only seem like a week of action, but work in true earnest starts over a year prior to any festival. Since I communicate with Janet on an almost daily basis, I know that she is often sourcing for authors for the next fest even while working round the clock on the present one. Apart from sourcing for authors, there is the crying need to look for potential sponsors. Some sign up, some say yes, some painfully back out. Then there is the theme, matching authors to the panels, finding the right moderators, selling the tickets, working with the right bunch of people - each madly passionate about all things literary.

Having watched, the three Fest Directors in action, I can tell you none of the above is a walk in the park. I, for one, couldn't wait to exhale if given a job so huge. But each of them has pulled it off with apparent ease over the years. Not just that, they have taken their festival from strength to strength, roping in more sponsors, getting the top authors and getting the reading audience hooked.

Given that they deal with so many people at so many levels, we tried in a light hearted manner to cover some of the unheard bits about what goes on behind the scenes. While I was at Byron Bay, Jill had mentioned how some authors never want to leave the picturesque town, there are still others who simply find love on a plane and decide not to show up at a festival at all. While most authors are the stuff of dreams, some can typically drive festival directors and audiences up the well. We heard of authors who had stepped on the audience's toes with the most irreverent tales resulting in mass cancellations, some who let love take precedence over literary sessions, others whose mere obsession happened to be breakfast.

Often Festival Directors ended up sounding like the harried Ahn-Drea from 'The Devil Wears Prada', having to rustle up all Starbucks has to offer at their Festival venue. That's partly why their gear says a lot about their job. For those of you who have watched Jill in action at the Byron Festival grounds, she is the epitome of the general in action. Flitting in and out of sessions, she has a bag that is packed with all she needs to get through the day. More than the physical abilities of each of the Festival Directors to push themselves to their limits, it is their ability to make mental notes and deliver on them that never ceases to amaze me.

They have to remember who asked for what, when and ensure its gets to them. They have to be masters of the craft of managing expectations (trust me, there is a motherload of them), all of which calls for the finest PR skills. That's partly why all festival directors ask for by the end of each action packed week annually is quite simply a decent meal. A glass of wine helps invariably (unless you are Nury of course, then aqua pura would suffice).

Each has their own tales of survival, on what it takes to be omnipotent and omnipresent through the testing week. Some take it all upon themselves, right from answering their calls to meeting all the folks, others like the affable Nury simply:
"forward their calls to the Manager - Su."

The persistent grinning takes a toll within the week. Nury told us all about the intelligent grin versus the jackass one. So the next time you see the harried Festival Directors smile to themselves, they just might be perfecting that Nury grin.

In the interim, don't stop to say hello and nice things about their Festival. Trust me, its tons of hard work and if I were put up to the challenge, I, for one, simply wouldn't be able to grin and bear it.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Ever since my TV spiel on the spectacular Ubud Writers Festival, I've been asked several questions, though the best one has been - What challenged you the most? That's an easy one. Listening to Ziauddin Sardar did it for me.

A broadcaster, critic and prolific writer - he has over 40 books to his credit, has sold over a million books and knows how to play impossibly hard to get. He only agreed to share the workings of his mind on the last day of the festival, though what an thought-provoking journey that turned out to be. Provoking is what Zia does best. I only managed to attend his session impressively moderated by Eric Campbell and enjoyed the journey that took us through real life stories of 'Why People Hate America' and 'Desperately Seeking Paradise.'

He generated the laughs while taking us on a journey through Islam. He spoke of engagement, though how it would all start was something he didn't quite address. I didn't quite get my answer on General Musharraf, but then that is what the world has become. No blacks or whites - only shades of grey.

As Zia pointed out light heartedly when asked how much his world had changed post 9/11. He replied "I made xx dollars, now its xxxx."

In another session that Bala attended he was asked about women in Islam. He began by pointing that the only one oppressed at his home was the head of the family himself. He was one of those authors you could laugh along with, he could stir a debate and still be game enough to end the debate over a steaming cup of coffee.

In a world desperately seeking answers, Zia might not have them all, but he sets you on a path towards paradise. Read more about his work here

Zia's thoughts on engagement will be on air soon, so keep watching Off The Shelf.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


(30 August 1958-7 October 2006)

This is a story that generated reams of footage in some parts of the world and none in others. Sad because the person in question was the brave heart some of us can only dream of being.

Looking back at her life, you know she could have been anything, but she chose to be a journalist and with that she strove to find and tell the truth.

Her Soviet Ukranian parents were UN diplomats based in New York when Anna Politkovskaya was born in 1958.

She was sent back home to be educated and after school entered one of the most prestigious university departments in the then USSR, the journalism faculty of Moscow State University. Among its other advantages, her parents' diplomatic status enabled them to smuggle banned books into the country for her, and she was able to write her dissertation about a normally forbidden poet, the emigre Marina Tsvetayeva.

After graduation, Politkovskaya worked for the daily Izvestiya, then moved to the in-house paper of the state airline monopoly Aeroflot. As she said in an interview "Every journalist got a free ticket all year round; you could go on any plane and fly wherever you wanted. Thanks to this I saw the whole of our huge country. I was a girl from a diplomatic family, a reader, a bit of a swot; I didn't know life at all."

She learnt all about life the hard way. And all because of the choices she made for the greater good. She went to the killing fields of Chechnya to report on the human cost of war. With that she made several enemies and remained a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and of Kremlin policies in Chechnya, while reporting for Russia's liberal newspaper 'Novaya Gazeta'. On October 7th, chilling images of her body beamed across the world. She had been shot in her apartment building in Moscow.

International condemnation followed, but nothing moved me as much as this tribute from my favourite literary agent Toby Eady that came in my mailbox on Friday:

Dear friends,

I will read this tribute to Anna today at the House of Lords.


Anna Politkovskaya would have been alive today had she chosen to join the claque of journalists within the confines of the plutocracy that our world leaders live behind. But she travelled without protection, and she wrote of how ordinary people live and the price they pay for the wars they are encouraged to fight in. Anna wrote "I live in the present, noting what I see and hear". She spoke to and touched those who were wounded, hostages, and the bereaved. She spoke for the dead, not just in Chechnya but in all of our wars. She hoped for human justice.

In the last conversation that we had, when we discussed the book she intended to write, I suggested that she might leave Russia. She replied "I would only leave after Putin is gone" and then asked if she was killed, would her children have to pay back her publishing advance. It's fitting that many of the publishers in Europe who brought Pasternak and Solzhenitzyn to western reader were her publishers, and will be. So we can read what Anna was murdered for: telling the truth.

She was one of Time Magazine's heroes in 2003:

Read more about her inspiring life here:,,1327791,00.html
And pause for a moment in remembrance.


I have spent the weekend and the better part of this week cradling my abdominal cramps. It all started on Friday evening. I put it down to the lack of sleep - make that immense lack of sleep and stress. In addition to dealing with work, I was going through resolving the mess my contractor was putting my apartment in. All of which had compunded to result in almost a week of toss and turn nights.

On Saturday, my eldest had her school concert and my stomach had by then decided to have a mind of its own. It almost felt like another vestige of my body as it churned, rumbled and roared. Though I rubbed my trusted Yu Yee oil and got to Aneesha's concert on time. She won my heart with her splendid performance (though I couldn't see much of it thanks to the seating arrangement).

Then when the show was over, she pulled up one of her Catch 22 questions. On a regular day, I would have seen it coming. Saturday, was simply different:
A : Mamma, did you like my show?
ME : Yes, poppet, it was fantastic, you surprised me

(The minute I'd said it, I knew I shouldn't have used the word surprise. Voila, it sprang back.)
A : You know, we practiced for so many days to surprise our parents. So how are you going to surprise me?

There it was. Loud, clear, staring me in the face. The surprise wouldn't take much. The stomach though was quite another story!

I decided to bear my pain (after all parents do that for their children all the time anyway) and headed on to Ikea - not so much for the furniture but for the ballroom.

By the time, the twosome were fed, it was past 10pm. As I stepped into the cab, I felt I would die any moment. Somehow we got home, I popped a painkiller, despite which the pain showed no signs of going away. So it was that I spent several hours tossing, turning and knowing no sleep.

By Sunday, I knew I had to get to the doctor on time, at least before my stomach and everything else with it ruptured.

One loud groan of the stomach and my patient doc was scribbling 'Viral gastroenteritis' aka the 'gastric flu'. Yes, the very same virus that has got so many children down of late. Mine wasn't too much of a mystery, I'd simply picked it up from my son, who had barely recovered from the crippling attack before passing it on to me.

To get an idea of what one can go through, while living through it, just visit this link. You might find relief in the line that "medicines can't fight the virus" i.e. they might give you some solace, but you simply have to live through what lies ahead. The symptoms of course could range from mild cramps to rather severe ones.

I had it all, including the days of hell. Though I've gone from lying to the sitting position today, the pain still lingers, making its subtle comeback with gentle stabs.

That's the reason why I remained clueless about the messages flooding my phone over the weekend. Had no clue that the Ubud Writers Festival story was making online waves thanks to our website by Sharon's wonderful plugs

What would we all do without such support? I know responding to SMS-es and emails personally is simply rude. I wouldn't view it any other way. Though after reading this post, I hope you'll understand and will continue lending 'Off The Shelf' your listening ear. Till next Friday - Thanks All.

Friday, October 13, 2006


This is turning out to be some week! I am bone tired, my chest feels like its going to thump out of motion, there have been more than the usual sleepless nights, but then it is news like this that just keeps me going.

I was initiated into Orhan Pamuk's world with 'Snow'. Last year, during Diwali, I spent countless hours nestled in the jhoola in my grandma's garden in Chandigarh, reading, re-reading and visiting Pamuk's amazing world. It all happened much to the consternation of my aunt, who has given up on me and my reading habit.

This piece tracks my journey into Ka's life -

Pamuk's lyrical voice and uncompromising politics speak for itself. Last year he was charged for telling a Swiss newspaper in February 2005 that Turkey was unwilling to deal with two of the most painful episodes in recent Turkish history. That of the massacre of Armenians during World War I, which Turkey insists was not a planned genocide, and recent guerrilla fighting in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast.

The charges were eventually dropped in January, ending the high-profile trial that had outraged many observers. Many allege that it is the political undertones that helped Pamuk get the prize this year. Last year, the prestigious Literature Nobel went to British playwright Harold Pinter, who remains a strong opponent of the Iraq war.

Whatever the arguments, in my book Pamuk deserves the laureate.

Each one of his books resonates long after it is read and over. In fact, his latest work, 'Istanbul: Memories of a City',has reminiscences of childhood and youth together with reflections on the city's past.

In handing out the award, the Swedish Academy said that the 54-year-old Istanbul-born Pamuk "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

Though when the grand announcement was made, this was the author's reaction:
"Who is calling at the middle of the night?' And when I heard that I have received the news, I didn't have anytime to think about it because immediately the secretary of the Swedish Academy called me. So it was a sort of joy and 'Oh my God what am I going to do now? How am I going to address all these demands now?'

Pamuk has recovered from that moment now and fans like me can rest assured in his vow that "this prize will not change my writing habits."

That's enough to keep me waiting for his next book, this time by Orhan Pamuk - the Nobel Laureate.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Call it premonition or whatever you will, but while browsing for images of Kiran, I came across these pictures that clearly show that our Booker winner was right on top all the way from Malaysia to Mexico.


I haven't met Kiran, but having spent some memorable and precious moments that will last a lifetime with her mother, I can say if there is one thing that both of them share it has to be modesty. Apart from their fine writing abilities, of course.

Accepting the Man Booker Prize, Kiran spoke about her mother, to whom she said she owes "a debt so profound and so great that this book feels as much hers as it does mine....It was written in her company and in her witness and in her kindness. I really owe her this book so enormously, there isn't enough to convey it."

Interestingly, mother and daughter share the same house. Kiran works upstairs, Anita downstairs. Its something we talked about in our panel discussion in Ubud. The grand dame of literature told us how they both cross paths but never step into each others writing domains. As Anita pointed out "it's a very good arrangement."

And one that is definitely bearing fruits. Kiran's first novel, 'Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard', won a Betty Trask award in 1999. Now, she will be toast of the literary bunch. After all she has beaten five other authors including favourite Sarah Waters and her book 'The Night Watch', for the 50,000-pound award. In doing so, she has become the youngest ever female winner of the award and has bettered the record of her mother, who was nominated thrice for the award, most recently in 1999, but failed to win.

'The Inheritance of Loss' tells parallel stories based in post-colonial India and the United States. A Cambridge-educated Indian judge is living out a reclusive retirement in the foothills of the Himalayas, until his orphaned teenage grand-daughter comes to stay with him. His existence eventually comes under threat from Nepalese insurgents. At the same time, his cook's son, who has moved to the US to seek his fortune and ends up an illegal immigrant in the restaurant kitchens of New York.

Kiran herself has lived through several experiences. She grew up in India and moved to Britain when she was 15. Her prize-winning book took almost eight years to complete. She wrote "half stories, quarter stories" and picked the novel out of it.

Of the whole process of writing the book, Kiran says "it was quite a difficult, emotional experience for me." Though it these emotions that did it for the Booker judges who hailed it as "a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness". As the chair of the panel of judges, Hermoine Lee put it more simply "the book is movingly strong in its humanity and I think that in the end is why it won."

Sarah Waters - 'The Night Watch'
Edward St Aubyn's - 'Mother's Milk'
MJ Hyland's - 'Carry Me Down'
Kate Grenville's - 'The Secret River'
Hisham Matar's - 'In The Country of Men'


It's the moment we've all been waiting for. After the initial disappointment of seeing Claire Messud and David Mitchell being dumped, I was busy rooting for Hisham Matar and Kiran Desai.

It had to be down to the wire, both awesome books in their own right, tugging at your heartstrings with the multitude of issues they address.

I met Kiran's mother, the celebrated novelist Anita Desai and was fortunate to moderate a panel on 'Writing Across Time, Place and Identity' that featured her together with Meira Chand and Shalini Akhil at the Ubud Readers' and Writers' Festival. In fact, before the discussion, we talked about Kiran and how Anita has inspired a whole generation of writers and the fact that the teaching started right at home. Anita gave her usual kind smile and told me in her gentle whisper "I can't take credit for that." We talked about novel making and what a moment it would be if Kiran won the prestigious Booker.

The moment is here and even as I write this I can visualise Anita Desai's warm smile lighting up my space. It keeps Indian writing firmly in the spotlight and calls for more than just another celebration.

So if you haven't already read the book, there will never be a better moment to find out all about 'The Inheritance of Loss'.

If you are still thinking about it, read Sharon's brilliant prose on the book here:

Sunday, October 08, 2006


People like Libby Southwell happen once in a lifetime! I bumped into her as I was lugging my weary bones, along with my camera, tripod, notes and books after Day One of the Ubud Writers Festival. I bumped into the fresh as a peach Libby at the cosy little cafe at the entrance of the Honeymoon Guesthouse. She mentioned the Literary Festival she is putting together - the first of its kind in Sri Lanka, then the book she has just published, then the story of her life unravelled. Five minutes into the conversation, I knew I had to interview her. So we headed off for the best carved window at Honeymoon to get the interview rolling. Libby was fantastic talking to my camera, her book ('Monsoon Rains & Icicle Drops') that I am now reading is moving. I've been shedding tears for Libby and Justin and still wondering how Libby stays so upbeat. That's in addition to wondering how she ended up with three of my name cards....

Dear Deepika,
How lovely it was to meet you, Bala and Anisha and Druv - the naked one – (since half of Ubud already knows this tale, I'll do a separate post on it) Just Wonderful!

Now back in Lanka and very happy to be home after a month on the road I am clearing the desk of a back log of work.

I just wanted to send you a release on our festival so that you had a little bit more information. Also so that you can put the dates in your diary as it would be great to have you hear as a moderator. The next few weeks will be key for us finding funding…so fingers and toes crossed our lankan friends are keen.

Enjoy your Sunday and again wonderful to meet you.
I look forward to many great times together both on a work and social level.

PS. I seem to have misplaced Bala’s card.....yet have 3 of yours. So could you pass me his email address. Thanks.


Now, this one is entirely charming. For those of us in the business of news, handing out name cards is like first nature. This meeting took place at a pal's birthday bash. After mixing my wine and vodka, I had lost my voice and had retreated to a corner, hoping no one would speak to me. Along came Jo, who possibly took pity on me for sitting alone. She started her story, it's an amazing one. Like most back packers she's been to all the absurd places, she had me laughing with my dry as sandpaper throat. She found her calling in Banda Aceh, that impressed me even more. I don't think I mentioned going to Banda Aceh, though I perhaps would have mentioned it would be great to stay in touch as there were so many story possibilities. Reckon, Jo's state of alertness was as good as mine in that twilight hour, coz this is what I received..... a lesson indeed to hang on tight to my name card when meeting someone in a bar....though I am sorely tempted to try out that Indian restaurant Jo mentions...

Hi there!

How are you? I just found your business card in my wallet the other day. My name is Jo. I met you at a bar in Singapore a couple of Saturday nights ago. Im Blair's friend from Australia and am currently working in Banda Aceh.

To be honest, I cant really remember why you gave me your business card. Im not sure if you were thinking of coming to Banda Aceh and doing a story about community development post tsunami. I just wanted to let you know that you are more than welcome to come anytime, and Im sure AUSTCARE would be happy to show you their projects. Plus a new Indian restaurant just went up in town. I think its really tasty, but it could be cause Ive been deprived from any food that isnt Indonesian!! I would be interested to know your expert opinion.

Anyway, let me know if ever you head this way. Was really nice to meet you.

Jo Hobbs


As is always the case, after a week long break, its the inbox that splits @ its seams. I have just discovered that I am no longer receiving any emails as "YOUR MAILBOX IS OVER ITS SIZE LIMIT". There are many emails, I don't even want to set my sight on. Some are telling me how to get rich with other people's money - the great big African spam if you recall, some are inviting me for the grand Diwali sales, imagining I have already won the riches. As you can guess, the delete button is not in moments of pause, though when I come across mails like these, I smile and head to the blog.... Yes, yes, yes, thanks all for asking the Ubud posts are in progress. I have tons of footage, over 100 writers, exciting panels and a whole lot more to tell you about, in the interim I think Fredric Fanthome has the makings of a writer. I say this, not coz he has nice stuff to say about my blog. You read, you decide.....
Comments in bold italics are mine....

Hi Deepika,

Before I get on to 'business', just wanted to let you know I was reading your blog the other day, and it sure grabs one by the eyeballs...(Pity I only have 2000 hits since the blog counter started) Quite educational too - I never knew Groucho Marx was one of the literati..... (we live, we learn)

Your interview of Shashi Tharoor was quite a coup, wasn't it? You really must have charmed his socks off! (Not entirely sure about that, though I must have got full marks for being persistent!) Enjoyed reading it (I did too!)- and the pieces on the other publishers.... Not sure I'm the one to pen a love story set in Malaysia, but I'm beginning to realise where I should come for publishing directions when I am finally able to put pen to paper.

Yup, Fredric, Toby Eady is a phone call away!