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

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I shall forever kick myself for having missed out on the chance to moderate Mark Tully's session. Such are the exigencies of schedules that it ended up clashing with my workshop.

So I just couldn't believe my luck when the man himself decided to take a stroll of the picturesque Amangalla and reached our little space just as I was desperately trying to fit the laptop back into the bag. In the ensuing excitement, I forgot to yank out the zip disk which went khatak into two. I ask him if he is he in a tearing hurry. Prompt comes the reply 'bilkul nahin'.

So can I take a picture with you?
So here is the star-struck picture of yours truly with the man himself.

Can I get my books signed?
So out came the books.

You've actually been carrying all these around?
Absolutely (in the hope of bumping into you, I tell myself).

For years, I tell the media legend, I've been waiting for this moment. Now, that it is here, it sure seems larger than life. I tell him about his book (co-authored with Satish Jacob) on Operation Blue Star - 'Amritsar, Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle' and what a deep impact it had on me. It was then and is even now widely considered an authoritative word on what happened in 1984 at The Golden Temple. The gun-fire that was exchanged changed so many lives forever. Families ran away from homes, shops were razed to the ground, thousands of innocent lives were lost. My Dad who had fought in the war endured the saga of searches from his own men. All because he was a Sikh. But that didn't stop him from making several trips from Dalhouse (where he was attending a NCC Camp) to Amritsar and back to get as many stranded people out of the hills. I told him about the Punjab I'd never seen before. Brought to a standstill all the way from Pathankot with tanks lining the roads and then coming back to Amritsar to the booming sound of guns. Try as hard as one might, these things just don't go away.

Tully knows. He has seen and lived through it all and tells me about some of those battles, about what happened at Ganganagar and what it took to get some of those stories out.

A gripping conversationalist, he has me hanging on to his every word.

From the days of Blue Star to covering every conceivable disaster on television, he goes on to delve on the current state of television reporting.
"So much has changed," he says and I know the next thing that's coming is not in a good way.

We talk of Page 3 becoming Page 1. Movie stars engagements, birthdays et al passing off as headline news when so much is happening in the world around us. Worse still is seeing pictures thrown on to scripts that don't come together.

Then we talk a little bit about how much India has changed, the economy, the booming and 'my rising rent'.

Why is he still living on rent, I wonder, only to have my question answered the next day.

At 'The Englishman Abroad' which brought together the likes of Arthur C Clarke, William Darlymple and Tully, he stands out like a true son of the soil.

He hasn't ever attempted to run away from the Indian weather like his fellow panelist. He loves the sights, sounds and smells. He speaks of the Indian text and writing in Indian languages with an unmatched fervour and passion. He truly stands up for everything Indian, even the seeming weaknesses. He is beyond the pretension of the starched kurta. For all of that and a whole lot more, I give him my humble salaam.

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The fun, they say, usually begins after the festival. In this case it was the smiles. Founder of the Galle Literary Festival, Geoffrey Dobbs (behind Kiran) had reason to be happy. Together with Libby Southwell (who even at this point in time was sorting out someone's transport!) had pulled it off in a record time of four months. The critics had finally been silenced. The writers seemed happy as did the audience. It was a festival that had taken inspiration from Ubud - the Fest Director Janet de Neefe is here and also got lots of advice from the Founder of the Hong Kong Lit Fest Nury Vittachi.

Well, inspiration is one thing, bringing it to life quite another. And the writers did a fine job of that. Collectively, Kiran Desai, Suketu Mehta and Romesh Gunesekera shone at their respective sessions. They also ended up taking the discussions at the last panel 'An Englishman Abroad' to another level. A lot of fun ensued here.

Sir Arthur C Clarke couldn't hear half the things that were said, perhaps that drove him to poetry and tales from another galaxy. Mark Tully and William Darlymple happily agreed to disagree - who doesn't love a writerly disagreement?

As part of the conversation William D also announced Suketu's book on New York and dragged both Kiran and Suketu into the 'Insider, Outsider' debate. Smart way to stretch the debate I say. Thoughts were shared on their stories, their writing, their styles, though in the end it was Romesh who stole the thunder by posing the profound question 'Is there a South Asia in London?' I hear the issue is still being debated.

Also on the sidelines, I was mistaken for Kiran Desai twice.
Once before our session, when two lovely ladies walked upto me with their pens and said "Are you signing books now?"
Since I haven't written any books, award-winning or otherwise, I replied, "You know I'd love to do just that if only Kiran would part with half of her Booker.""Oh my God! You are NOT Kiran?"
Then they flip to the last page and show me the picture I've seen so many times before and went: "Gosh, you look just like her."

I didn't have the heart to disagree, though to set the record straight, Kiran is whole lot slimmer, taller, nicer. I'm a grouch most mornings. More importantly, she has written theee book, I haven't.

Just when I thought the case of crossed identities was over, the next morning as I am rushing to set up my camera for the last session, a gentleman walks upto me and proclaims with the utmost seriousness of purpose:
"I don't mean this as a criticism of you but it's not fair that your session drew over 300 people."
A happy problem indeed!

So I tell him he'd do well to say that to that lovely lady in brown sitting quietly in one of the seats there.

"You mean...."

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Monday, January 29, 2007


Another session I greatly enjoyed was with Professor Emeritus Yasmine Gooneratne. We exchanged several emails before our session and I almost felt like I knew her before I met her. It helped that she gave me a spontaneous pat on my back by saying "I was a fine moderator" during the session itself. Usually, such words, should they be merited at all follow in subsequent emails. But Yasmine has spent a life-time grooming people - students and writers alike. And just like her writing, her real life has taken on many forms. A University Professor, literary critic, editor, bibliographer, award winning novelist, essayist and poet, she has published 20 books so far.

She has won several awards for her distinguished work. These include the Marjorie Barnard Prize for Fiction, India's Raja Rao Award for outstanding contribution to the Literature of the South Asian diaspora and the Order of Australia for her services to literature and education. Many of her books have been commended internationally and 'The Pleasures of Conquest' was shortlisted for the 1996 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Despite her busy schedule, Yasmine hasn't just stopped at writing. She runs 'Guardian Angels' (more on it in the interview) and together with her husband, Dr Brendon Gooneratne, she established 'The Pemberley House' in Haputale, on a tea plantation 4,000 feet above sea level. The House which was inspired by their stays at some writers residencies also hosts 'The Pemberley International Study Centre' which opens for Residential Scholars from June-August. Over they years, Yasmine tells me how this labour of love has played host to writers, poets, musicians and just about anyone interested in the creative arts.

Strangely or not quite, all Yasmine ever wanted to do was to be a Cordon Bleu chef. That's till she expressed her thoughts to her teachers. They ensured the knives would be laid to rest, her bags would be firmly packed and life would point in the direction of a literary career. So cooking's loss, has been writing's gain. Most of this is from an email interview and I've added what I can remember from the session. Trouble is, we got lost while getting to Lunuganga. I barely made in time to get this session started and in the flurry that was marked by pulling the tripod, fixing the camera, yanking the tapes, I forgot thee most important thing - the battery. Not all is lost though since I still have the email interview with Yasmine. Here are the excerpts:

Q : You dreamt of being a chef and ended up being drawn to the world of writing and teaching. How did the best laid plans change?
A : Due to the influence of two English teachers, and the University Arts Scholarship, awarded on my Finals at Peradeniya, which took me to Cambridge University rather than to cookery school in Paris or London.

Q : And absolutely no regrets about the shift?
A : None at all.

Q : Can you still combine dream cooking with writing?
A : Yes. A character in my new novel (Latha) does this too.

Q : How big a role did your family, your school and your teachers have in helping you discover your creative self?
A : An essential role. My husband, especially. My family are all great readers, and wide reading is, after all, the foundation of good writing.

Q : You have always been quick to express your gratitude about growing up in Sri Lanka - "the biggest influence on my writing as regards to
subject matter has inevitably been the fact that I had the good fortune to have been born in Sri Lanka, and to grow up and be educated there at a "golden" period in the island's cultural life." So much has changed in the island, how does it reflect in your writing?

A : One cannot expect life in the island - or anywhere, for that matter - to stand still. But I have discovered that I can recapture and recreate lost Edens and Arcadies through writing fiction. That was a really happy discovery, especially when I found I was able to 'recover' people I had loved as a child, and give them a permanent life in my book 'Relative Merits'.
(In 'Relative Merits' nostalgia, research, detail are matched by the charm and intimacy of personal reminiscences. Delightful anecdotes bring to life an array of eccentric uncles and the rest of her family.)

Q : Given such a rich and varied up-bringing, it is no surprise that you have a multi-faceted professional life. How do you combine all these roles?
A : Teaching, research and creative writing have all dovetailed satisfactorily in my experience. I think I've been very lucky in this.

Q : You've said and I quote: "To write poetry, you have to be pushed into it by some deep emotion - it could be love, happiness, despair or dislike, but it has to be strong enough to resonate in your poetry. " What pushed you to it?
A : A death in the family. My father died in 1969. I was his youngest child, and we were very close.
(Her father's death led her to pen a poem called 'Review' and she ended up writing poetry almost non-stop resulting in the first volume of poetry 'Word Bird Motif' in 1971.)

Q : When you wrote to me, you mentioned that you never consciously set out to be a 'writer' or even a 'teacher'. What other experiences shaped your writing?
A : Travel, expatriation, and a love of reading 18th century English authors and 20th century Indian authors are three of them.

Q : What was the point when you stopped thinking that 'fiction was for other people' to write?
A : When I wrote my first story that was entirely set in Australia.

Q : A dear friend and a writer whose work I admire a lot - Meira Chand - discovered her writing self when she moved to India and there was no stopping her after that. You moved to Australia and discovered you could barely write any poetry. What was that period like?
A : A barren desert. Fortunately, it didn't last very long. My enjoyment in teaching carried me through it.

Q : How did being in Australia impact your writing?
A : Australia provided a new perspective on life, introduced me to people from a variety of backgrounds, and removed me from what had been a somewhat confined society in Sri Lanka.

Q : In fact, it was during this period that you wrote your first short story wholly set in Australia - 'How Barry Changed his Image'. What predicament were you trying to portray through this story?
A : The predicament of immigrants who find they must change themselves in order to settle comfortably into a new and unfamiliar society and participate fully in it. It's a challenge that demands a great deal of the newcomer, and not everyone can meet such challenges, or wants to do so. Many immigrants prefer to retreat into the safety provided by numbers, live a ghetto existence, and dream of returning 'home', not realizing very often that 'home' has changed, and is no longer what they once knew.

Q : That story became Chapter 15 of your first novel 'A Change of Skies' (1992) - did it inspire work on the novel?
A : The opening sentence of the story, 'My husband was having problems with his image', spoken by my narrator, a young and pretty young woman who comes to Australia from Sri Lanka, was the starting point of the novel.
(The novel won the Marjorie Barnard Literary Award for Fiction that year. It has since been reprinted several times and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.)

Q : It is never easy to write about family. Often readers love such books, but there will be at least one person in the family who will be invariably unhappy. At the Ubud Writers Festival, Michael Ondaatje had narrated this hilarious incident from 'Running in The Family' where an aunt had to be in an 'either, or' situation due to pressure from the family. Did you experience anything like that when when you wrote 'Relative Merits' (1986)?
A : Not at all. On the other hand, editing it was not easy - there was so much marvellous material ready to hand, and I could not use all of it. So some things had to go. But I was - and still am - very happy with the result. And no one has sued me yet for libel!

Q : Your third novel - 'The Sweet and Simple Kind' has some real life parallels - what did you hope to capture through it?
A : I wanted to capture - or recapture - the 1950s, a period on which I look back as a kind of Golden Age in Sri Lanka.

Q : Through your writing you have delved into so many issues of our times. Do you think the future is still filled with possibilities?
A : I think you are referring here to political issues. If so, you have got me wrong - I don't write about political issues, I write about human issues, and human personalities. As for the future: where writing is concerned, there are always possibilities, if one keeps an open mind.

Q : Being a Professor you are constantly interacting with students, you are in a public space as it were, what happens when you have to do your serious writing. How do you isolate it from your real life role or is there no conflict of sorts?
A: I am not conscious of any conflict or difference at all.

Q : You are an author of studies on Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Leonard Woolf among others - what drew you to their work?
A : In each case, excellence and sincerity. Pretentious writing - what is sometimes called 'beautiful writing' - turns me off. But I read and re-read the writers I admire: Austen, Pope, Jhabvala, Leonard Woolf. There is always something to discover and to learn.

Q : Apart from these authors, which other author/authors work has inspired you?
A : R.K. Narayan, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Scott, Dr Samuel Johnson. Among Sri Lankan authors, I believe that by writing and publishing 'The Jam Fruit Tree' Carl Muller liberated Sri Lankan writers from convention and hypocrisy. I'm personally very grateful for that, and I think the first two books of his 'Burgher Trilogy' should be required reading for beginning authors.

Q : Criticism isn't always easy to handle - so whose advice do you take most seriously?
A : My family are my first readers and my most reliable critics. But I have two or three close friends outside the family whose advice and criticism have always proved worth taking.

Q : You are also an avid traveller and movie buff, which places have had the maximum impact on your writing?
A : India, most of all. America provided good material for satire. And Australia and Sri Lanka, of course.

Q : Have movies been part of your text?
A : Yes, indeed. I have had the pleasure of teaching Ruth Jhabvala's novels to third-year and Honours students in Australia. (In fact, I put her novel 'A Backward Place' on my text list long before she won the Booker Prize with 'Heat and Dust'.) Part of my interest in her work focuses on her ability to bring her screenplay-writing technique into her writing of fiction. Her novels 'A New Dominion' and 'Heat and Dust' are especially interesting in that regard.

Q : Ever experienced the dreaded writers block?
A : Never experienced it, I'm glad to say. But if I ever did, I'd turn to work of some kind that doesn't engage the emotions - tutoring, editing, compiling bibliographies and activities of that kind - and wait for the inspiration to start flowing again.

Q : I shouldn't even be asking this, but what's next?
A : Who knows? Maybe I'll go back to my first ambition, and write a cookery book, as one of my characters - Jean - does in my first novel, 'A Change of Skies'.

Q : And before we wrap this up, let's hear about another project that's been keeping you busy - 'Guardian Angels'.
A : Yes, I find literary editing a very satisfying activity. It's also very restful to focus on someone else's writing; and after completing 'The Sweet and Simple Kind', which went into over 600 pages, I've needed a rest. I have gained a great deal myself from the help given me by Australian literary editors when I was writing my first two novels, and I'm very much aware that writers in Sri Lanka don't have the benefit of such expert assistance. I really love making someone else's writing sparkle and shine; and if I think highly of a work, I'd be ready to spend a lot of time and effort on it. I felt like that about Nihal de Silva's book 'The Road From Elephant Pass', and also about the little sketches about a village boy and his friends that he wrote for The Sunday Times. I suggested the issuing of the Paduma stories in the form of a children's book.

See related posts on Nihal here:

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Friday, January 26, 2007


This one couldn't make it to the papers thanks to its sheer size. Here's where our blogs come in. I am going to make no bones about it. Kiran is an absolute delight to be with, a dream author to interview, this is what we chatted about after our hour and a half long session followed by a loooong book signing by Kiran. It was worth every moment of her time and I am truly appreciative of it. Yes, some day, I shall attempt to transcribe the session too, since the audio isn't fantastic. In the interim, enjoy this....

Meeting award-winning author Kiran Desai is almost like bumping into an old friend. I was to do a one-on-one with her at the inaugural Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka and apart from two brief email exchanges we hadn't found time to chat. I finally bumped into her at a book reading at the Sun House and was struck by how slim she is in person. In fact, she could easily pass off as a school girl. We speak about that before attempting to get down to what we should really have started off with - our session.

It's hard to get to that because the Man-Booker-win had transformed Kiran into the literary equivalent of a rock star at Galle. Fans wanted a quick word, some wanted to discuss the book, others wanted to get it signed. Being the wonderful person she is, she obliged everyone along the way. She isn't one of those authors, who just asks your name, scribbles it on the page and hands the book back to you. Her interest in her reader is genuine, 'after all they give us our stories' she points out matter-of-factly. Having met her mother at the Ubud Writers Festival, it's easy to draw parallels and say like mother, like daughter. Despite her splendid work and rapidly growing list of literary awards – Betty Trask, Man Booker - Kiran has inherited her mother's modesty. She considers prizes incidental. She throws me off by speaking of her struggle to write and when asked about the seven year gap between her debut 'Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard' and the award-winning 'The Inheritance of Loss', she simply points out that publishers weren't exactly rushing to her with huge advances for the next book. Instead of dwelling on the Man Booker laurel, she chooses to highlight the struggle of getting her book out. She talks with ease, delivering her thoughts in a lilting convent-school accent. Despite her informality, she has a certain presence that makes her captivating -- a quality that's translated in her writings and has won the hearts of many a fan.

Excerpts from a conversation with the youngest female recipient of the prestigious Man Booker Award:

Q : We've seen the backdrop of partition, post 1985 Punjab but the issues of North-Eastern India have remained largely unexplored. What drew you to them in your award-winning book 'The Inheritance of Loss'?
A : I was surprised I went back to the North-East and made this return journey to a part of India where I partly grew up in and I think its because I was an immigrant to America that I started thinking so much about issues of immigrants - the issues of politics, what it means to leave a poor part of the world and go to a so-called wealthier one. Beyond the monetary issues what does it mean in human terms. Also when you look at it so many generations on, what does it feeling at home in any other country mean. Of course, its a debate that exists all over the world. We tend to think of it as a Western issue but it isn't. I realised that I'd never really thought about that period of my life when I'd been growing up in India at the time of the conflict in the North-East. It was the Gurkha movement when Nepalese Indians were standing up and demanding political and economic rights. They found that several generations on they were being treated as cheap labour and that their rights were not being respected. So I wanted to explore what does it mean for a country and a nation-state. So it was a way for me to examine both these issues together. It took me back to India, it took me back to Kalimpong, which was wonderful because it took me back to a time when I was growing up. Among other things, it helped me explore what it means to grow up in such a complicated, complex environment.

Q : What was it like to capture all the nuances of a life gone by? You do it so beautifully, from the description of the setting right down to the chocolate cigars which were and hopefully still are a Kalimpong trademark.
A : You know it's such a beautiful part of the country, really wild and beautiful and also complicated in many ways. As a writer, it's such a joy to go back to a place that offers such richness and to use language in a totally different way. I was glad to return to those childhood memories, remembering and recreating some of the characters I knew from my childhood. It was a wonderful experience.

Q : Reactions to your book have been totally amazing, the Man Booker Award is a testament to that. Did you ever imagine the kind of response you've received?
A : Not at all. It's a difficult book about a difficult subject. I just didn't want to write a book that looked at immigration like a shiny way of advertising that shows that everything in the West is alright. It may be a beautiful picture for some immigrants, but it isn't for so many others and for these people there is perhaps a greater degree of loss. There is this huge imbalance between the rich and the poor, privileged and the under-privileged, the class divides are there and I was exploring these issues in India and in the west. So it was a tough book and it was hard for me to get it published. In fact, after several tries it got picked up by Hamish Hamilton in the UK. The process of writing it, finding a publisher for it was hard work and I was quite amazed to see this turn around from rejection to recognition.

Q : You've often acknowledged the debt of gratitude you owe to your mother, Anita Desai. How much of an influence has she been when it comes to writing?
A : So much. I mean not only in terms of what it means to be a writer. It's been a very deep experience to be able to write this book in her presence and she's written so many books about so many hard subjects, she has looked at so many difficult issues and dealt with them so beautifully in her writing. I really learnt so much from that.

Q : Kiran, readers waited seven long years for 'The Inheritance of Loss'. You've won the Man Booker now and I am sure the pressure of the next novel must be intense. Are you already at work on it?
A : Not yet. I'm just travelling, doing book tours, promotional events, literary festivals and it looks like that's going to be my life for several months ahead. I really long to write. I think prizes just don't go with good writing, that doesn't really help. Writing comes from a very private and often difficult place and I think it takes isolation to get there, I'm looking forward to resuming my writing, maybe this summer.

Q : So once the dust settles, you are pretty certain you want the solitary confinement of a writer?
A : It's hard to live a lonely life. It's certainly difficult, but I need it for my work. I know its difficult but I do love it in many ways and I have learnt to appreciate it.

Q : Noted travel writer Paul Theroux once said that his biggest fear is not running out of ideas but writing a dull book. What's your greatest fear as a writer?
A : Worrying about the next subject for the next book. I never know in advance what I'm going to be doing. It's a process of sitting at my desk and a book is revealed gradually, so there's always the worry that there's going to be nothing else there but I do long for the sitting at my desk.


The past one week has been a mad, mad rush. I'm still trying to sit back and put everything I heard, saw and learnt at the Galle Lit Fest on the blog - there was a lot that happened. A couple of pieces are out, but there's lots more to go. For a start here goes. This one appeared in the newspaper 'Today':

If the link doesn't work, here's the full text:
61 writers, over 50 events, 12 stunning settings.

That might not sound like anything unusual for a literary festival -- unless, of course, you're in Sri Lanka.

For far too long, 'Sri Lanka' and 'violence' have been used almost inter-changeably. That's why the prospect of an untested festival drawing famous authors has created such a buzz among the literary fraternity.

William Darlymple, Suketu Mehta, Mark Tully, as well as spice queen Madhur Jaffrey were among the slew of well-known literary names who attended. Sri Lankan authors were there in full force too. But the biggest draw, without a doubt was last year's Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai.

She was clearly the literary equivalent of a rock star, without the airs. Having exchanged two brief emails, I tried pulling her over for a quick chat before our 90 minute session, but were overtaken by a crowd of avid readers. It was quite an experience to watch her with them. If there was one word to be sum it up, it would be 'genuine'. When I point that out, she responds matter of factly "after all they give us our stories." Despite her splendid work and rapidly growing list of literary awards - Betty Trask, Man Booker - Kiran just like her mother, the celebrated Anita Desai, remains remarkably modest.

After our session, there's a bit of time left for this interview. She floors me from the outset -- the way she casually shrugs off her prizes as incidental. She dwells instead on her longing to write again, "I think prizes just don't go with good writing. Writing comes from a very private and often difficult place and I think it takes isolation to get there."

I've had always wondered about the seven year gap between her debut 'Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard' and the award-winning second book - 'The Inheritance of Loss'. And finally got my answer. Kiran says the lag was partly because publishers weren't beating down her door with huge advances for a next book.

And, it was a challenge book to write. "It's a difficult book about a difficult subject. I just didn't want to write a book that looked at immigration like a shiny way of advertising that shows that everything in the West is alright. It may be a beautiful picture for some immigrants, but it isn't for so many others and for these people there is perhaps a greater degree of loss. It was a tough book and it was hard for me to get it published and I was quite amazed to see this turn around from rejection to recognition."

The book is set in North-Eastern India's Kalimpong, taking Kiran back to some of the characters and places of her childhood. "As a writer, it's such a joy to go back to a place that offers such richness and to use language in a totally different way."

Speaking of writing, Kiran is also quick to express her debt of gratitude to her mother. "It's been a very deep experience to be able to write this book in her presence and she's written so many books about so many hard subjects."

With that we move on to, what else, but the next book. When asked about her greatest fear as a writer, she points out "it's worrying about the next subject for the next book. I never know in advance what I'm going to be doing. It's a process of sitting at my desk and a book is revealed gradually, so there's always the worry that there's going to be nothing else there but I do long for the sitting at my desk."

And she hopes to do that this summer, once the publicity over her recent win settles. That's good news for the growing legion of Kiran Desai fans anxiously waiting for the next big one.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Back after a week in Sri Lanka. What a week it was. Between the spectacular Galle Literary Festival, we squeezed in day in Colombo, a day at Captain Elmo Jayawardena's River House in Moratuwa to visit AFLAC's 'Swim for Safety' project. And soaked in all things literary at the Galle Literary Festival. Making this one of those trips where you come back longing for more.

First things first. Since this trip happened largely due to the Galle Literary Festival let me get to that. It all seemed to come together with a chance meeting with the amazing Libby Southwell at the Ubud Writers Festival (strange how so many things invariably go back to Ubud!). I was lugging my cameras and my books after a long day of sessions when I bumped into Libby. One thing led to another. We spoke about many things - her book, her life and then the festival. When she mentioned in September that she was putting together a festival that was to take off in January - four months time - I had half a mind of choking on her drink. 'No way', I thought to myself, just as did a bunch of other writers and people in attendance.

Over the next couple of days, as Libby told us more about her life and started with her checklist of - accomodation (no problem), transport (no problem), writers (hmmm!) I knew the makings of a great literary festival were there.

So the critics (who are now hopefully chewing their own words) did their damaging bits in the run up to the festival. But after addressing all the issues at the opening press conference, the festival founder Geoffrey Dobbs and Libby ensured that it took on a pace of its own.

And it sure did. It was four action packed days of all things literary. It took us to 12 stunning locations. It brought 61 writers - both Sri Lankan and international names together.

For me it was yet another occasion to catch up with old friends like Janet de Neefe and Nury Vittachi. As Nury rightly said "we almost feel like family now." Yes, we truly do. We've collectively seen the trials, tribulations and of course the critics. Then there were writers we'd all met before - Romesh Gunesekera, Suketu Mehta, Christopher Kremmer, Madhur Jaffrey and Elmo.

As always, there was the process of learning about new names. Last year's Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai was a true revelation. If only every other author could remain as modest as her despite the laurels, meeting the writers could turn out to be quite another story. A full Q & A with her will be up soon.

Speaking of revelations, meeting Sri Lankan authors turned out to be quite another. I bought Ashok Ferrey's 'The Good Little Ceylonese Girl' after listening to the fantastic reading at Sun House and it hasn't disappointed. I got my induction into Dilmah's 'Lover's Leap' tea courtesy Manuka Wijesinghe who turned out to be a laugh a minute. Had the most entertaining van ride from Geoffrey Bawa's stunning estate Lunuganga to our Galle abode 'The Lighthouse'. Our meetings may have been brief, but we knew this was a friendship meant to last. As a parting gift, I got a signed copy of Manuka's debut 'Monsoons and Potholes' - which happens to be next on my reading list.
I was also visibly impressed by Professor Emeritus Yasmine Gooneratne. She has penned 20 books, leads a busy life between Australia and Sri Lanka. Offers editorial services to budding authors and runs a residence for all creative people alike - The Pemberley House. She responded to each of my emails in great detail and I believe we had a truly fine session. I learnt so much from her, that her life and her writing merits another post.

All of this happened thanks also in part of the hospitality extended to us by 'The Lighthouse' - A special thanks is due to Gehan de Silva and Sanjiva who ensured we were truly at home.

If the setting is the story, Galle had just about everything to offer. Full marks to Geoffrey and Libby for ensuring that writers went out and explored every bit of the beauty in and around Galle. There were times when I wished I didn't have to drive out for an hour and risk getting lost. But when I take one look at the footage I've got I'm not complaining.

Putting it all together, in addition to the festival committee, were the volunteers who were their bright and cheerful selves from morning till late in the night. They ensured each festival day ended on a high note. Often it was their smiles that made my night.

In his closing speech, Geoffrey set all wagging tongues at rest by promising yet another spectacular festival next year. If you haven't already marked your calendar, you'd do well do it. The longlist is still in the works, but if the inaugural Galle Literary Festival was anything to go by, it's bound to be a week to remember.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Incase you missed this, the British weekly New Scientist says the Internet has given birth to a quirky range of modern addictions. Some of these include:

EGO-SURFING: When you frequently check your name and reputation on the Internet.
BLOG STREAKING: Revealing secrets or personal information online which for everybody's sake would be best kept private.
CYBERCHONDRIA: A headache and a particular rash at the same time? Extensive online research tells you it must be cancer.

Add to these:
BLOGASANA: The daily exercise of reading blogs. (I plead guilty to this!)
E-INSANITY: A term used when people attempt to do things in real life that are restricted to computer or technology usage, such as making a mistake and unwittingly thinking of pressing Ctrl+Z to undo it.
LINGUICIDE: The killing of a language by refusing to accept new words or meanings of existing words.

For a few more tickles, visit the Word Exchange on


It's the season of New Year messages. Thanks so much for keeping us in mind and sharing some wonderful thoughts. Some of these that came my way in various emails are worth treasuring....

Meira Chand shared Maya Angelou's gentle and humorous philosophy in her note:
"I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance."
"I've learned that making a "living" is not the same thing as "making a life."
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

M.J. Akbar's 'Yearend Jottings' was replete with gems like these:
"The Titanic and Olympic were identical sister ships, both higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. The former began life in 1911, hit an iceberg and became immortal. The Olympic went to sea a year earlier, in 1910, and sailed peacefully till 1937. No one remembers a success story."
"Human nature changes when the Sind border meets Punjab, on a line east of Kandahar."

And if you are struggling with your writing, take heart in Sir Vidia's words (this one is from Outlook):
"My talent took about five years rather than three years to develop. It did come, to my great relief, and until it came, I was very very wretched. It was the pain below everything I did."
"I have often wished that I could have three lives: one to read, one to write, and one to experience."
- Don't we all?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


The bullets fly, blood is everywhere, families are displaced, it is conflict at its worst. Bearing witness journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) comments how this would get an insignificant hit on the news somewhere between 'weather and sports'. The reality of our times. Think of the number of times you've seen the most expensive painting, the grandest party, the sleekest phone - the list goes on. Often conflicts in countries like Sierra Leone are viewed as conflicts that are simply too far away.

But as Greg Campbell, author of 'Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones' (Westview Press) noted "the story of Sierra Leone's diamond war has proved unequivocally that the world ignores Africa and its problems at its peril. Events far from home often have very tangible impact, and Sierra Leone has shown the world that there is no longer any such thing as an 'isolated, regional conflict.' Perhaps there never was."

Perhaps that's one of the reasons why 'Blood Diamond' - the compelling cinematic rendition of the ugly side of the diamond industry tugs at the heart strings. An action film with a serious social message, it is set in Sierra Leone during the bloodshed of the 1990s.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Archer, a diamond smuggler whose only ticket out of a dangerous, hellish life in Sierra Leone is Solomon, a fisherman played by Djimon Hounsou. Solomon who was picked up the rebels is forced to work in a diamond mine. Here he comes across a rare pink diamond, which could re-unite him with his family. The two have a chance encounter in prison and Archer makes sure their paths cross again.

Enter Maddy Bowen, a determined American journalist intent on exposing Archer and his ruthless employers. 'Blood Diamond' weaves the journey and unlikely alliance of these three people. All on different missions. One wants the truth and the expose, another wants escape, and still another wants his family back.

So what will be the price of riches, the ultimate scoop or peace? Together with the diamonds, the gritty depiction of child soldiers calls for soul-searching. As the actors take you on a journey you will never forget, you end up getting a new perspective on your bling.

DiCaprio who has got a Golden Globe nomination for his street-smart yet violently unpredictable character shines. But for me it's the intense Djimon Hounsou who does it together with his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers). When you see him in his child soldier avataar, its impossible to believe that this is the 14 year old's screen debut. Together the father and son, trapped in an unfortunate conflict, embody the never-say-die attitude of this immensely gripping film.

If you think what you see on the screen is exaggerated, then read more about the UN General Assembly's resolution on 'conflict diamonds' here:

More proof that blood diamonds are for real appears in this chilling report in the Amnesty Magazine:

Monday, January 01, 2007


By now you have done your reading, read the lists, made your choices. Not that you need the critics for that. Reading is after all a personal pursuit. You might like crime fiction, I might detest it. You might like fantasy, I might like the real world. You might like chick lit, I might read only literary fiction. There you are, in the long drawn cycle of critics telling you what to read. More often that, the critic hasn't even read the book in any case. Or even if they have they haven't engaged with the book. Which is why, I try to tell everyone I meet, there's tons of good stuff out there, make your choices. It isn't that difficult to get yourself to a book store or even a library to decide and pick what you really want to read, not what others say you should be reading.

It's an entire universe out there. You can get lost in it, depending on which genre you choose. Most books are defined ever so often by genre, though once in a way you come across a book that defies definition, that merges styles, themes, takes you into a parallel universe with its evocative characters. This year, after tons of brilliant reads notably Hisham Matar's 'In The Country of Men', Peter Carey's 'Theft', Claire Messud's 'The Emperor's Children', Kiran Desai's 'The Inheritance of Loss' - towards the end of the year, the seven year wait for Vikram Chandra's 'Sacred Games' did it for me.

A short review on the relative merits of the book is here:

Beyond what is mentioned here, it is passages like these, that have propelled it to my book of the year:

"War comes upon us. We are led in leaning curves towards the battlefield. You may try to avoid it, but find that last flower-lined turn you chose was really an entrance into a blood-soaked arena. So we were here. 'Good,' I said. 'Let's start.'

"And one of these sisters was Navneet, beloved and best of all, now lost for ever..... It was useless to remember. The histories had already been written, and what had happened, had happened.....There was no running away from life, and trying to wish away suffering only made it more present. She took a deep breath: bear it."

"There was a sloping river in the sky, a sinuous curve of light. There was the sky above, and us underneath..... Everything sits in pairs, in opposites, so brutal and so lovely."

And there's that bit on writers, that isn't going to win Chandra too many fawning fans. I'm not about to reveal that here, save the best for the read and take your time to fill in the dots for the text above.

Here's to another year of great reads.


I have often wondered if I would have been so wildly optimistic not to mention crazy about Indian cinema had I stayed on in India. As a typical Army brat, growing up meant taking the toss between either the Tuesday or the Thursday show - that is the English or the Hindi. The big deal, in those days wasn't quite the movie, it was the popcorn, the canteen Cola and the oil drenched hamburger.

Since our choice was narrowed to one movie a week, we always opted for the angrezi show, even if it meant sitting through the 'Guns of Navarone' for the 50th time in different stations. I can count the number of times I've either given classics like 'Sholay', 'Aandhi' even 'Don' a miss, because these Hindi movies were considered 'just so boring no.'

It was hip to maro the fake English accent, which could be easily acquired after one and a half hours of being transported through dialogue half of us didn't even comprehend. Though throwing lines like, 'how about a drink, mate' sounded way cool in those days. And whoever delivered it with the max punch had a style quotient rising faster than the fizz in the shaken and stirred cola.

So it was that I would get a major stomach ache if my parents threatened to drag me to 'Amar, Akbar, Anthony' or 'Khubsoorat' or 'Satte pe Satta'. Never mind that it was treated with an awful dose of Pudin Hara, which would make me sick anyway. I'd rather see 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.'

Even after I grew up, my only fatal obsession with Indian content - movies and on telly was with 'Shanti'. That was till a couple of movie reviews were sent my way. 'Oh if you can write about art, you can do movies too' was the Editor's logic when I was handed my first review for none other than 'Roja'. One movie followed the next and my long overdue love affair with apna cinema slowly but surely started.

Moving to Singapore, meant movies became the great connector. Over the years, as the number of visits back home dwindled, the number of movies that we ended up watching increased.

Then came the IIFA Awards ceremony. Getting ready to speak to the stars, meant not just reading all about them but re-visiting their work too. What a spectacular journey that turned out to be. There were lots more movies to be seen, lots of comparisons to be made and tons of proud moments. Like seeing the time the security barricade almost gave way when the Big B and the King Khan strolled down the red carpet. The photographer lose their footing and almost their shot when Shilpa Shetty breezed in. The look of shock around me when the stars spoke. I still remember the comment from someone beside me, "they actually make a lot of sense." I mean what else did you expect - they are our best ambassadors. In one sitting, the Big B could talk about his films, politics, the economy to his pen collection.

Their work on and off screen has been phenomenally impressive and after years of talking about it, I finally managed to put together a print and TV piece together as my year-end tribute to Bollywood. Yes, they hate the term, but it still works.

The colourful telly tribute showed how 2006 was a year that said it all for Bollywood.

With 'Don' we showed the world we know all about the twist in the tale that is rendered with all the glitzy stuff. 'Lage Raho Munnabhai' showed how to appeal to everyone from a demographic of 3 to 90. 'Omkara' how Shakespeare should be told. 'Khosla ka Ghosla' tugged at the heart strings and showed us how to win a battle. 'Dor' brought two worlds together, '15 Park Avenue' established beyond a shadow of doubt that there is nothing the enormously talented Konkana Sen Sharma can't do. 'Kabul Express' that we don't have to pass off Poland for Kashmir, we can make real films, about real places, with a real star cast.

Yes, our cinema failed us at times. 'Umrao Jaan' being the biggest dud in point. But when the bigger story of Bollywood is doing the talking, I'm not about to go into complaining mode. As I mentioned in the piece, with all the big releases slated for 2007, it looks like history could be repeating itself. My eyes, for obvious reasons, are peeled on 'Eklavya' for starters. A friend who saw my interview said "I sounded very patriotic", but the likes of Mani Ratnam, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, Nagesh Kukunoor - among a host of other talented film makers give me every reason to feel that way about our films.


Last night, a bunch of us sat and toasted a new year complete with the fireworks. I skipped my afternoon nap and took it easy in the night, knowing deep down that I only had to get back to work at 5am. Squeezing in a couple of extra hours of sleep over the years has become such luxury that I can almost break into a dance if someone tells me the shift would be two hours later than usual.

That was the way it was supposed to be, so we chatted, blew the candles, burnt the sparklers, cleaned up and hit the sack post midnight. Just when sleep was sinking in, the phone buzzed, informing me there were blasts in Bangkok (I hadn't heard of the ones earlier in the evening) so all of this was turning out to be a revelation. It was time to make a dash for the office, for who knows what was going to happen next.

Soon it was counting the blasts, the death toll, the injured. In all, eight coordinated blasts rocked Bangkok - six in the evening, two past midnight. One of the midnight blasts happened near Central World Plaza where the city's main celebrations were to have been staged. If the police hadn't called off this one, like the other countdowns in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

In fact, the attacks capped a year of political turmoil in Bangkok which saw a military-led coup topple the government of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. While no one has claimed responsibility for the multiple blasts, fingers point to the insurgents active in Thailand's south.

Like insurgencies in other parts of the world, this one too has a long list of grievances, has been taking on bloody overtones throughout the year. Like the continuing war on terror, there is no seeming end to it. Part of the reason, I feel, lies in the personality obsession of these continuing wars. After all, the recent trends show that there is a wildly misconstrued belief that if Osama were dead, the troubles in Afghanistan and beyond will end. Now that Saddam is gone, it will be interesting to see if Iraq is turned into a haven of peace overnight.

The trouble we face today, is that while we continue to look at ways of fighting Osama, we have virtually no strategy on fighting the grand evil vision of Osama. That's something that has taken root in so many parts of the world. Fighting it calls for rules of engagement, of winning hearts and minds, but are the powers to be ready? Because if they aren't, we merely have to stay prepared for more rocky Mondays - all the way from Bali to Bangkok to Baghdad.

Sad, but that is the reality as the world rings in 2007. The more I think of it, the harder I find it to wish you, my blog reader, a happy new year.