Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A day in my life

My post for the incredible 3six5 project is up! It was worth the couple of hours I spent sweating it out in front of the laptop on my birthday. 

Great effort, Daniel & Len!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Things I have wondered about lately…

… how do Arab men ensure their dishdashas are so spotlessly white?

… how do cafes get away with charging 18 dirhams for a cappuccino which is half filled with foam anyway?

… why do cupboards creak ominously at night?

… why don’t they have restaurants and cafes on Jumeirah beach?

… where are the really interesting people in Dubai?

… when will Etisalat lower their rates?

… what do I want my obituary to say about me?

… what do I really want to write about?

... when will Al Barsha get a decent coffee shop which is NOT part of a gas station?

… what’s the big deal about Kentucky Fried Chicken?

... why do weekends take their time coming and end so swiftly

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Absolute Lee on TV

The interview I had done earlier this month for the show 'Twenty Something' on Dubai One was on air two nights ago. Here's a link to the same:

Dubai One TV 'Twenty Something': The Digital Age

The faux pas doesn't feature. Praise be to God. I have to admit it feels odd looking at yourself on the screen.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Middle Path in Macleodganj


This heart belongs to:
1. Girls
2. Momos
3. Money

I found this curiously brazen list of priorities scribbled on a napkin and tucked under a glass table top at Momo Cafe. I was in Macleodganj, a small town nestled amid the hills in north India, which had been home to the exiled Dalai Lama, for the last fifty years. I had come expecting to find a solemn, spiritual kind of place, exuding an old world, simple charm.

I wasn’t prepared for the rampant, colourful, commercial tourist town that it turned out to be. The narrow roads leading out from the tiny town square were filled with souvenir stores hawking everything from singing bowls to ‘100% Tibetan silver jewellery’. Outside the temple, near the town square, the fragrance of incense mingled with the aroma of steamed momos, or dumplings, coming from the tiny stalls which ringed the temple. On every available wall space, there were posters promoting courses in Buddhism, massage techniques, Reiki, vegetarian cooking or even on ‘how to find yourself’. You could sample authentic cuisine from Italian cafes and German bakeries. Or even try some fusion fare such as Chocolate Momos or Momo Pizza.

But Macleodganj had its austere side too. Away from the clamorous town centre and higher up in the hills, was Dhamma Sikhara, a Vipassana meditation centre. Vipassana is one of the oldest meditation techniques, used by the Buddha himself, a process of self transformation through self-observation. It’s not for the faint of heart. A Vipassana course consists of 10 days of meditation in absolute silence, avoiding even eye contact with others. The abject stillness at Dhamma Sikhara provided a stunning contrast to the raucous materialism of the town just a kilometre away. Each felt extreme and uneasy.

And then I met Norphal, whose name means ‘jewels’. He had a small trinket store on Bazaar Road and sold Tibetan silver jewellery which he admitted was ‘bought from Bangkok’. Norphal had been born in Macleodganj, and had only seen Tibet in pictures. His grandmother and father had fled from Tibet and walked for 29 days in order to reach India. His grandfather had stayed behind, and they never heard from him again. Norphal was a practising Buddhist, but he said he sometimes closed his shop early and went to St. John’s Church, a 19th century looming Gothic structure, just to experience ‘peace of mind’.

Norphal invited me to his home one morning to meet his grandmother. I had been asking him questions about Tibet and what it meant to be a refugee, when he invited me over. We walked on Tipa Road, past Thangka artists and internet cafes, Kashmiri shawl sellers and women with momo carts. Climbing a small dirt road, we reached a cluster of tiny dilapidated houses. The soulful chant ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ was playing on a tinny music system in one of the houses. A few hens pecked at the dirt in the garbage-strewn yard.

Norphal’s grandmother was sitting in one corner of an almost bare room, and rocking herself. Her eyes were buried deep in the generous creases on her face, and she stared at me in an unabashed, frank manner. When she stood up to go to the kitchen, she was almost bent double. She came back with a bowl of tsampha or porridge, and salty butter tea. Until then, the only Tibetan fare I’d only sampled were momos and a vegetable broth called thukpa, and they were easy on the palate. The salty tea took a bit of getting used to.

Norphal’s grandmother sat close and watched as I ate. Sometimes she spoke in Tibetan and Norphal translated. He told me of her arduous trek to India, escaping Chinese soldiers and losing family members to exhaustion and starvation. She spoke about meeting the Dalai Lama, and her belief that he would lead them all back to their homeland. If not in her lifetime, then at least in Norphal’s. They had a rapid exchange in Tibetan after she said this. Perhaps, Norphal didn’t approve of her pessimism.

Norphal told me he loved India, and felt Indian most of the times, except when he had to renew his Registration Certificate every year. That’s when he felt like a homeless refugee. “I always ask my grandmother to talk about our home in Tibet, the people the land. And then I feel less... less lost.”

I asked him what his grandmother missed most about the home they’d left behind. She said something and pointed to my face. Norphal turned to look at me, and then both burst out laughing. I asked what they found so funny, and both laughed harder. His grandmother fell on the floor, cackling. The somber mood in the room as we talked about a lost land had vanished. And I couldn’t wait to find out how I had contributed to the merriment.

“She says she misses her cows the most,” said Norphal. “She says, they used to have a ring in their nose, just like you.”

I looked at her as she continued heaving with laughter. Her eyes had slid into one of the crevices on her face, and her near toothless gums quivered with delight. I touched the thin silver hoop on my nose which had caused so much nostalgic merriment. And I began to feel that between there was more to Macleodganj than the tourists and the Dalai Lama.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Art Dubai 2010: A sneak peak

Fresh from the tidal wave that was the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature, I’ve been swept away by another surge, this time to a world not as familiar as books and writing. But it’s a world that has held a steady fascination for me, and more so in the last two months, when I was writing a commissioned article for a leading publication in India.

I’ve met the most knowledgeable, passionate and visionary artists, curators, gallery owners and art lovers, who’ve not only added to my understanding but have also kindled a passion to further explore the fascinating world of art.

At the Art Dubai press preview today, there were over two hundred members of the Press from over the world, and after the usual round of introductions by John Martin and Savita Apte, directors of the art fair, we were led into the area where the three winners of the prestigious (not to mention, lucrative) Abraaj Capital Prize had displayed their work. Each of them had a distinctive medium of expression.

(Apologies in advance for the less-than-brilliant photography. They don’t do enough justice to the art. Moreover it is a bit challenging to balance a camera and an armful of magazines, programmes and other literature.)

Hala Elkoussy’s was a mural titled, ‘Myths and Legends’ a collage of contemporary myths and legends in modern-day Cairo.

Marwan Sahramani's Feast of the Damned covered every wall of the room, including the ceiling. It was, as one visitor described it, ‘a darker rendition of the Sistine Chapel’. The artist explained that it was his dialogue with painters that he admired like Rubens and Michaelangelo.

Kadir Attia, had a fashioned a rough replica of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem using an ordinary bolt, and projected it on a wide screen so that it was magnified to almost a thousand times its size. He said it was a commentary on several levels - social, religious, metaphysical and so on. He had a few profound comments to make like, "The smaller you are, the bigger you are." And "It's not what you see, but what happens in between." The installation was accompanied by eerie sound of wind that he'd recorded in a ravine. (p.s to get an idea of scale, the light on the right is the bolt/dome which was being projected.)

Post-lunch, the doors to the galleries were opened, and I have to say, it was nothing short of a visual feast. There are 72 galleries, and it didn't make sense to take it all in at one go. I definitely plan to go again with more time on hand, and with more sensible shoes.

A quick round up of some of the work that caught my eye:

 I loved the title of this installation - Not Everything Is Made In China.

Mirrorwork which read Resist Resisting God

I found a little bit of myself in this piece ;)

The Athr Gallery from Saudi Arabia had some striking work. The Metamorphosis of a Chair series by Saddek Wasil was particularly evocative.

My favourite in the series. Of all the chairs, it seemed the least 'angsty' until the curator shared that it connoted escapism. Oh well.

Pious women by Noha Al-Sharif. Also from the Athr Gallery.

The entrance to a cemetary, perhaps?

Cherry blossoms from afar, buttons up close.

MF Hussein's Women in Yemen

Stunning work by Jorge Mayet, a Cuban artist based in Spain. A very visual sense of being uprooted. 

And another by the same artist

 You can't escape the bling in Dubai

If there was one artist's work that stood out in my frenzied dash, it would have to be James Clar, a Dubai-based American artist over at the Traffic Gallery. Wild, imaginative and a touch of dark humour

Titled Pop Culture, it's a gun that's been fired once and then cast in candy! A commentary on how violence is glorified in the media.

You know if you're a true 'acid house junkie' if you can see the yellow smiley face amid these switches and dials. I couldn't. It's only jazz and blues for me :-/

From a series called Moment Defined by a Point and Line, it's a trace of the bullets that killed  
Amadou Diallo, a commentary on murder and media portrayal of it. 

You cannot be living in Dubai for 5 years and not instantly notice that it represents a 'building under construction'. The second of a 3-series installation, it's supposedly a stalled project because of funding issues. Hah.

I'd just finished the tour and was thinking longingly of a hot water bath for my feet, when I almost got trampled on by a horde of photographers. "Looks like a dignitary has arrived," my German friend remarked. And then His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, came around the corner. Not a bad ending to the afternoon, I say.

Art Dubai is on from 17 - 20 March. For the timetable and venues, pls. refer here

Sunday, March 14, 2010

EAIFL Day 4 : Food, Travel, Music, Palestine, India!

At every session I’ve attended the authors are inevitably asked why they write. But if someone were to ask me why I’ve been writing page after page in my notebook at each session I’ve attended, I’d say, ‘to hang on to every word’. They’ve been that interesting, entertaining and informative. The sessions I attended today were wonderfully diverse, from food writing to music, and travel adventures to India lauding/bashing. A snapshot of them:

* The food writers’ panel was a kedgeree of sorts with a Palestinian-Canadian (Suzanne Husseini), an Indian-Brit (Anjum Anand) and a British-Arab (Mike Harrison). While Suzanne and Anjum had written books about their native cuisines, Mike had written a Yemeni cookbook and another which spanned the Maghreb countries. One interesting point made – culture is handed down and preserved through food. Hmm, never thought I was going against my Mangalorean seafood-loving culture by turning my nose up at fish curry!

* Travel writing might seem like a dream profession for most wannabe writers and travellers (including yours truly). But a session with Tim Butcher can disabuse you of any romantic notions about the same. To be fair, his trips have been fairly gruelling - a journey across Congo, tracing the route taken by the famous Henry Morton Stanley over 100 years ago. And a 400 km trek on foot through Sierra Leone, a journey done by Graham Greene in 1935.

It was an enlightening talk not just about the hardships he underwent to write his book Blood River, but also about the Congo itself. “1500 people die every single day in the Congo. And yet it doesn’t make world news,” he said. There were other more gruesome facts accompanied by pictures. Like unburied bodies from conflicts where no one could recollect the aggressors since there were so many groups of them. Or the bizarre choice that people taken by the rebels in Sierra Leone were offered – half sleeve or full sleeve – meaning the extent to which their arm would be chopped off.
“Congo is a country that’s undeveloping,” shared Butcher, “Like most of Africa there is a will to survive, but not thrive.”

For him, travel writing wasn’t just about the place, but about the journey of the place. So when asked about his next adventure, he shared - a camel ride from Jerusalem to Baghdad! And his advice to adventurous travel writers – travel light, take local advice, have a satellite phone and keep getting lucky.

* You can usually tell how well respected a writer is when other literary heavyweights attend his or her session. Raja Shehadeh’s talk was graced by most of the well known Arabic writers. A much respected writer and human rights activist, Raja seems like a benign sort, until he warms up to his favourite subject – Palestine. He displays a fiery activism which is tempered by a pragmatic understanding of the situation. His love and yearning for the land of his ancestors shone through the excerpt he read from his book Palestinian Walks.

* Alexander McCall Smith admitted that he had another spectacular talent – he played the bassoon badly. And not just that, he got together with other execrable performers and formed The Really Terrible Orchestra. They even had the effrontery to go on tour to London and New York and had house full audiences. “They weren’t all related to the people in the orchestra,” he clarified.

It was a session titled ‘Words and Music’, and McCall Smith was joined by Amit Chaudhri, a bestselling, award-winning novelist and also a classical musician. (Unfair how some have it all.)

The session started out with promise, but seemed to get too dense and technical with commentaries on the ‘narrative quality of Western classical music’ and ‘music being rooted in humanism.’ It meandered into an academic discourse, and I couldn’t help wishing for McCall Smith to break into an aria.

* At the session on India featuring five luminaries –Shobha De, Vikas Swarup, William Dalrymple, Amit Chaudhri and Venu Rajamoney (Indian Consul General) – I saw the highest number of Indian/Subcontinent attendees than I’d seen in the last four days. It was an interesting choice of panellists. Two bureaucrats, one honorary Indian, one armchair critic and one bumbling poet. (I leave you to guess who’s who!)

There was the usual range of issues – India shining vs fading, China, Pakistan, poverty, neglect of women, Maoist uprising and so on. Standard daily news stuff. But the debate somehow seemed out of place at a literary festival,despite the fact that they all wrote about India. Shobha De of course lapped the limelight with her strident populist views. But the best retort of the session I thought came from the mild-seeming Vikas Swarup who when buttonholed by Ms De about the lack of government progress in most crucial areas, said, “Perhaps, but then you wouldn’t be having a debate of this sort in China.”

EAIFL - Day 1 - Why we write: Yann Martel, Imtiaz Dharker & Bahaa Taher
EAIFL - Day 2: In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith 
EAIFL - Day 3: William Dalrymple, Marjane Satrapi, PEN writers, Social Media

Saturday, March 13, 2010

EAIFL Day 3: William Dalrymple, Marjane Satrapi, PEN writers, Social Media

My head’s buzzing from the literary overload. And there’s still another day to go. But I’m hardly complaining. The four sessions I attended on Day 3 were brilliant and supremely entertaining . My perception of authors as taciturn, unsocial sorts has changed quite considerably. They’re full of anecdotes and sizzling one liners, and the hour long session passes by way too quickly for everyone’s liking.

William Dalrymple

* The session was about him as a travel writer. He shared about his ‘unusually cloistered’ and stable childhood in Edinburgh, and the subsequent explosive effect that India had on him when he visited the country at age 18. “My life can be neatly divided into 2, before India and after,” he said.

* Speaking of his latest book, Nine Lives, he said, “Indians feel that Western authors only want to write about 3 things – poverty, maharajas and sadhus. Considering Nine Lives is about the latter, I was afraid it wouldn’t do too well.” But it’s turned out to be the highest selling non-fiction book of all time, selling 50,000 copies in India alone. (I had to buy my copy after I heard the excerpts that he read out.)

* About travel writing: “I make the effort not to write about the same book twice. I thought I’d covered all grounds with my previous travel books. And I wasn’t sure I was going to write another travel book. But when I found a new form for Nine Lives, I decided to write it. It’s a book on modern India and about how traditional sacred practises find no place in this modern milieu.”

* When asked about the changes he saw in India today as compared to when he first arrived almost 20 years ago, he said, “India today is unrecognisable from my early days here. There are parts which have remained unchanged. For instance, you’ll still find old army generals walking around Lodhi Gardens in tweed coats. But the country has moved on.”

* Crossing borders – Leila Aboulela, Ahda Soueif & Raja Shehadeh

I wasn’t quite sure what the session was going to be about, but I was keen to listen to the thoughts and opinions of writers from the Arab world. All three were best selling writers – from Sudan, Egypt and Palestine respectively - and interestingly they didn’t write solely in Arabic. Ahda’s novel Map of Love had in fact been shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999,  It was an intriguing glimpse into words like identity and conflict and what it meant to be Muslim in today’s world.

* When asked by Kate Mosse, the moderator, if they saw their role as being storytellers or representatives of their country, who had to set the record straight, they had interesting responses:
Leila: “My novels are my truth. But having said that, I found that I didn’t recognise the Islam that was being portrayed in the media. I wanted to write back but couldn’t. I was a trained statistician. I started writing fiction as a way of finding release for my feelings. And that’s how I found my voice.”
Ahdaf: “I started out with innocence. I just wanted to be a story teller. I didn’t think of the politics of reception or duties of representation. Fiction shouldn’t have to bear this burden. So for a while, I stopped writing fiction and concentrated on political commentary.”
Raja: “My experience in the West Bank was not as extreme as some of the others who lived there. So I would question myself, ‘Am I distorting reality by writing about my experience that’s not so extreme?’”

* About whether their audience is the West or people from the Arab world, Leila shared, “Since I get published in the West, my readers are Western people. But I find the type of reader of my book has changed since I’ve begun writing. So many of my readers are from Nigeria or Pakistan or other parts of Africa, so I don’t feel the need to explain everything in my books.

* Raja distinguished between getting printed and published. “While a lot of books by Palestinian authors were getting printed, it’s not the same as getting published. The book isn’t well designed or well translated. And so it suffers.”

* Ahda said that translation was an art which few could master. “Just knowing English and Arabic
doesn’t mean you can become a translator. You have to understand the background, the rhythm of speech. Otherwise the translation is a travesty.

* Leila mentioned that she couldn’t have been a writer if she was in Sudan. “My family and friends don’t yet understand what I do. They keep asking me to get a real job.” But she said that even though she only wrote in English, it was like she wasn’t just translating her native language, but also the culture. “There are words in Arabic that just don’t work in English, like pious, for which the thesaurus throws up ‘bigot’. I’ve to find a language in English to express my Arabic self.”

* All three agreed that there was an extraordinary sense of physical place in their writing whether it was historical in the case of Ahda, or a fragmented land in the case of Raja. “I cannot start without rooting people in a place,” shared Ahda, “I’m attached to places. When I’m unhappy or dislocated, I start imagining a place where I was happy.”

* Marjane Satrapi

Marjane in person is just like the Marjane in her best-selling book, Persepolis – feisty, outspoken and funny. Even though her life is well drawn out throughout the book, and by the end of it, one feels that one knows her intimately, it’s still a wonderful experience seeing and hearing her on the stage.

* She wrote Persepolis six years after she left Iran for the second and final time. “It was good that I wrote it after an interval because by then my anger against the regime had cooled down a bit, and I could write more objectively. Otherwise I would have used the same logic as the people I was angry with.”

* About the use of humour in her books, she felt that it was the highest form of entertainment. She once had a woman come up to her in America and say to her, “I read your book and now, I’m not afraid of the Axis of Evil, because I know you'll do laugh.”

* Marjane shared that she found it odd that she often had to justify why she drew her first book. “No one asks a filmmaker why they make a film instead of singing a song, but I always have to say why I draw. Drawing is the most universal language. I like to draw and I like to write. Why do I have to choose between the two and not do both instead?”

* About her book being called a ‘graphic novel’, she said, “I prefer it being called a comic book in fact. It’s just a medium, not a genre.”

* She shared her experience of doing the film which she loathed for the most part because it involved working with so many people. “I’m used to working in solitude, and suddenly I now have 100 people waiting on my every move. I hated it.” But she mentioned enjoying the last few months. And of course, winning the Cannes Jury Prize for it.
* About her experience of writing children’s books, she lamented that publishers viewed children as pure, innocent sorts and wanted stories that portrayed happy rabbits. “Children are mean and horrible human beings,” she said quite unabashedly.

* The highlight of the session was at the end when she shared her experience of giving a talk at West Point Academy, which she described as a place where poor American families sent their children so that they could get a free education. “The American soldier is just a boy with no money,” she said.

A voice from the crowd yelled, “How would you know? I went to West Point. The senators' sons study there. Joe Biden’s son is there.” It seemed that Marjane lost her verve for a fraction, but she recovered enough to retort that the American policies were nothing to be proud of. “If you want our oil, our wealth, come and take it. But you cannot say you are making a war to fight terrorism. That’s like putting a person with fever in alcohol. The fever goes down, but the infection remains.” The crowd cheered her but the air hung thick in the room.

EAIFL - Day 1 - Why we write: Yann Martel, Imtiaz Dharker & Bahaa Taher

EAIFL - Day 2: In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith

EAIFL - Day 4: Food, Travel, Music, Palestine, India!

Friday, March 12, 2010

EAIFL Day 2: In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith

Despatches from the second day of the Emirates International Festival of Literature

There was not a single empty chair in the room for the session with Alexander McCall Smith. And as he was being introduced, I could see why. The moderator had to only announce the name of one of his (60 and counting!) books, and there would be a nodding of heads and enthusiastic applause. When Blezzard asked if there was anyone who hadn’t read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, a lone hand went up. McCall Smith was among the most ardent of fans indeed.

Highlights of the entertaining session:

* McCall Smith shared that this was his second visit to Dubai. He’d first come here 10 years ago on the invitation of two of his students who happened to be in the police force. “I was touched by their hospitality,” he said, “They not only came right onto the plane to get me, but also had police cars with sirens accompanying our limousine. I thought it was a nice way to visit a place.”

* He started his writing career with the memorably titled No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, set in Botswana. When asked how he came up with the idea, he shared that he’d visited a friend in Botswana one weekend, when he lived in Swaziland, and saw this ‘traditionally built woman chasing a chicken around the yard’. He thought it would be interesting to write about such a woman.

* The detective agency was also a serendipitous choice. “I could have written about her starting a dry-cleaning agency, I guess, since there aren’t too many novels based around dry-cleaning. But there just seemed to be a lot more takers for the ‘detective agency’.”

* Despite the ‘detective’ in the title, nothing untoward happens in his books. (Incidentally, the preceding session happened to be one on crime fiction!) “I write about the positive and make no attempts to hide it. You won't find a single post mortem in my books,” he said

* He wrote the subsequent books in the series because his publisher told him that he couldn’t end the first book with the lead characters only engaged. You have to get them married, he was told. He took his time though, and with much prodding from the publisher, got them to tie the knot in the 4th book. He’s currently writing the 12th book in the series.

* Speaking of his readers’ involvement with his characters, he shared several funny anecdotes. One of the popular characters in the detective series, Ms. Makutsi, never fails to mention that she’s graduated from the Botswana Secretarial College with 97%. He once toyed with the idea of introducing a character who’d secured 98%. “I was steered away from that attempt by my readers,” he shared, even as the lady seated next to me, presumably an avid fan, nodded vigorously.

Another time, when he spoke to an audience of formidable Texan women, and said that he considered bringing back the character of Mma Ramotswe’s abusive husband, they rose in uproar. “You can bring him back,” one of them said, “but only to punish him.”

 “I give all my readers' suggestions serious consideration, before rejecting them completely,” he said, laughing.

* More fascinating instances of his readers identifying with characters – two elderly women in Santa Barbara bought a white van, changed the number plates and drove around pretending they were Mma Ramotswe and Ms Makutsi. Another couple in New Zealand pretended they were Mma Ramotswe and her husband, JB Matekoni, drank red bush tea and called each other Mma and Rra.

* McCall Smith is much loved in Botswana and regarded as their favourite son. The moderator shared that he’d recently been invited to inaugurate their opera house. “That’s a rather grand name for what’s essentially a converted garage that can seat 60 people,” Smith pointed out.  However, it was at that ‘opera house’ that the people of Botswana performed an opera titled, Okavengo Delta, written by none other than McCall Smith. He describes it as a story of a female baboon having ‘Lady Macbeth issues’.

* Unsurprisingly, the film industry didn’t waste time in bringing Mma Ramotswe to life on celluloid. He describes being ‘absolutely happy’ with the way it was produced by Anthony Minghella. And that he even had the privilege of calling out ‘Action’ on the sets one day. Except that the ‘actor’ happened to be a donkey. “I still hoped that on seeing the film, the critics would say, ‘that donkey scene was brilliant, just the right length’, except that it wasn’t even included in the final cut”.

* The search for the ‘traditionally built’ woman to play Mma Ramotswe on film, spanned several continents, but the production team just couldn’t seem to find the right character. Finally the part went to a woman from Philadelphia who had never even been to Africa. She had to learn the body language and the accent, and from all accounts did a great job.

* The talk veered towards the other book series he’d written – Sunday Philosopher’s Club and 44 Scotland St. He stood up to read an excerpt from the latest book in the Scotland St. series, which involved a character called Bertie, ‘who’s remained 6 years old for the last 5 years’. He has an excessively pushy mother who makes him learn Italian, go for yoga classes, and also, go for psychotherapy. As an aside he mentioned, “97% of mother's in Edinburgh are excessively pushy." 

* He’s cast well known authors JK Rowling and Ian Rankin in his novels. In one of his books, he has Ian Rankin shot with an arrow and passing by a bookshop where a kid points to a book and says, ‘Hey Ian, there’s one of your books and it’s only 50 pence’.  

“Ian’s promised to have his revenge. I might turn up as a body in one of Ian books,” says McCall Smith, relishing the prospect.

* Finally about writing, he said that it wasn't a conscious process. "I don’t think about what I’m writing. I go to the place in my subconscious where fiction is created. I don’t deliberately make it up. I just write it as it comes up."

The endless queue for McCall Smith's autograph

EAIFL - Day 1 - Why we write: Yann Martel, Imtiaz Dharker & Bahaa Taher

EAIFL - Day 3: William Dalrymple, Marjane Satrapi, PEN writers, Social Media

EAIFL - Day 4: Food, Travel, Music, Palestine, India!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

EAIFL Day 1 - Why we write: Yann Martel, Imtiaz Dharker & Bahaa Taher

The first session I attended at the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature was quite engaging and, for me, set the tone for the festival. It featured Yann Martel, the 2002 Booker Prize winning author who wrote Life of Pi, Bahaa Taher who won the first 'Arabic Booker' in 2008 for Sunset Oasis, as well as poet, Imtiaz Dharker, who shared their ideas on inspiration and what motivated them to write.

Taher started off by affirming that the source of ideas was ambiguous, and that no one could really say where ideas came from. He quoted Socrates as saying that the poet was sometimes the last to understand what he’d written.

Dharker read out an evocative poem which sounded like inspiration was something you had to pursue relentlessly.

Start with mud. Move it,
Excavate with any tools you have,
Trowel, spade, hands, fingernails...

...This is how you draw your human breath
In one pure line across the empty page.

While insisting that inspiration was sometimes highly romanticized, and only a tiny part of the creative process, Martel spoke of it as being a moment of beauty. To illustrate this, he shared his experience of being bought up in a secular household with no interest or inclination towards any sort of religion. But when he travelled to India and found religion so predominant in everyday life, he unexpectedly asked himself, ‘What would it be like to have faith?” That was his moment of beauty, moment of inspiration which produced the highest selling Booker Prize winning novel of all time.

What of the mythical muse then, the moderator Paul Blezzard asked. Martel dismissed it as being an airy fairy concept. “My muse is words, the cadence, the rhythm... There is a reality out there, and we create these representations of it, through words.”

Blezzard then quoted Margaret Atwood as saying, “Writing a novel is the triumph of optimism that you’re going to finish it and that it’s going to get published, that it's going to get read....”

Dharker disagreed. “You don’t write because someone’s going to publish it," she said. "In fact, you write knowing it’s going to be a lost cause. You write because you just just have to.” She shared about the time she wrote her first poem when she was pining for an older man. “He was 12 years old,” she said, causing much merriment, “and had no idea that I even existed. But I just had to write the poem that was in me.”

Taher was quite dismissive about the optimism that sustains some not so worthy endeavours. “I find it strange that some people continue to write even when its futile, producing work that lacks inspiration and beauty. When a writer gets stuck, he or she should stop instantly.”

And then added, to the delight of the audience, “However God is merciful, and takes care of his writers!”

Blezzard then asked, “Martel, you once said that writing a novel is like feeding a tiger. What sustains you?”

The story, replied Martel.

And then came the ominous statistics – 97.3 of published writers in the UK have another job that ensures their livelihood.

That’s all right, no one writes for money, said Martel, with the confidence that only someone who fell in the other 3.7% could muster!

He went to share about how an early experience of writing plays (even though they were really bad; ‘a pastiche of dreadfulness’, he called them) instilled in him the sense of being God, of being able to control things. You can be young and poor, he said, and not mind it, because you have the pure joy of being creative. When you’re a writer, your entire world is you and your creation.

Taher, on the other hand, was clear that creativity without inspiration wasn’t worth pursuing. Blezzard pointed out that he spent a lot of time encouraging young people to write even if it was bad writing. I suggest you don’t, said Taher crustily, as the audience applauded his no-nonsense approach.

Martel was asked if his work was semi-autobiographical. He replied that it was only in an intellectual way, and shared that to him art was a product of anxiety, curiosity and joy, going so far as to say that someone who’s always happy is unlikely to be a good artist. Art is created out of a sense of discomfort.

The final word came from Taher who, when asked if writers had to compromise in order to get published, replied that he resisted when editors asked for changes saying, “Sometimes it’s good if a book isn’t perfect.”

The session however was a perfect start to the festival, and even the next session that followed on the ‘Book Club phenomenon’ was quite involving. The debate was lively and there wasn’t a dull moment, which meant I had to focus on the discussion, and not so much on tweeting updates.

Let’s hope the next 3 days are as good, if not better!

Also see:  

EAIFL - Day 2: In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith

EAIFL - Day 3: William Dalrymple, Marjane Satrapi, PEN writers, Social Media
EAIFL - Day 4: Food, Travel, Music, Palestine, India!

Internet gaga

I was invited yesterday to be on a TV show called ‘Twenty Something’ on Dubai One. There were three of us on a panel to discuss the topic, ‘Is the internet affecting interpersonal relationships?’ The two other panellists were Husni Khufash, Country Manager – Google, and Dr. Saliha Afridi, a psychologist. I was the humble blogger and twitterer (twit?), the one with the alleged ‘affected’ offline life.

When the producer first called me for the show, I had to point out that I wasn’t a 20-something, for starters. And then, I wasn’t quite the avid blogger I once used to be. She reassured me that the name of the programme was more indicative of their target audience, and not necessarily the panellists. “And considering you’ve been writing a blog for 6 ½ years, you must have a lot to share,” she assured me.

Things didn’t start off too well in the morning, when I found that I had sprouted a great big zit on my chin. Of all the days, I thought. But the studio make up lady, did an expert camouflage job and I felt more confident about getting before the cameras.

We had a mini rehearsal on the sets with the two presenters – Anna and Marwan. Husni was asked about internet consumption statistics, which he expertly rattled off. I was asked to share about how I got into blogging, and the good and not-so-good repercussions on my life. Dr. Saliha spoke of how teens and young adults struggled to make the distinction between ‘connectedness’ and ‘relatedness’.

It was a lively chat, and all went pretty smoothly, until I made a ‘cultural faux pas’. I spoke of the negative feedback I got on one of my posts, with an anon commenter labelling me ‘a racist pig’. Both presenters leaped from their seats almost. “We can’t say the word ‘pig’ on air,” I was told.

The porcine ban notwithstanding, the segment got recorded pretty quickly. The length of the segment – 4 ½ minutes – didn’t really allow for too much of an in-depth discussion or debate. It was too broad a topic anyway, and there’s much to be said both for and against the Internet.

For those in Dubai and the Middle East who’d like to watch the show, it airs on Monday 29th March at 8 pm. Do tune in, and oh, please refrain from commenting on the zit.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Desert dessert!

I wasn't sure what to expect when I first tried it. Camel milk is ostensibly a bit salty. But the Al Nassma brand camel milk chocolate tastes just like the regular milk chocolate. It's available in 5 flavours, but I haven't seen it in the supermarkets yet. 

Next on the culinary list: (when I dare to attempt it) Camel Burger, and Camel Curry...

Friday, March 05, 2010

Pain in the Posterior

The world is made up of two kinds of people: those who have a back problem, and those who know someone who has a back problem.

I came to this conclusion recently, when I fell into the former category. It started out as stiffness in my lower back, which I assumed was on account of sleeping in an awkward position. But when after a few days, it felt like someone had tied a knot in my tailbone, I surmised it was more than just the product of a bad dream. There was no pain or soreness, just a niggling discomfort when I sat or stood or walked or lay down.

Two of my dear friends dropped in for a visit, and on seeing me propped up with cushions and clutching hot water bags, did what caring, over-zealous friends do. They rushed me to the emergency ward of the Neuro Spinal Hospital for an MRI. I protested with vehemence that my back issue wasn’t serious enough to merit this extreme step. But my friends wouldn’t hear of it. “Never ever take back problems lightly. There’s someone I know who ignored a lower back pain, and is today in a wheelchair.”

Hearing that, I meekly allowed myself to be led to the hospital, and even wore the padded Velcro back brace that my friends insisted I wear.

The doctor at the hospital glanced at the MRI report and said, “Well, there seems to be a mild herniation of the disc, but otherwise it seems OK.”

Was that good news or bad news, I couldn’t tell. But apparently an orthopedic surgeon could. And I was sent off to consult one.

The first orthopedist I saw took one look at the MRI, and without so much as a cursory physical examination, signed me up for 10 expensive sessions of physiotherapy at a clinic, which as it conveniently happened, was run by him.

Something didn’t feel right, and I mentioned this to another friend.

“Why don’t you try the orthopedic doctor in Prime Medical,” he suggested. “My roommate had a severe back pain, couldn’t even move from the bed, and this doctor treated him, and he’s much better now.”

Another friend who was listening in on the conversation butted in, “You know, my colleague absolutely swears by this chiropractor. You’ve got to try him out.”

An old college friend called to invite me to a party, and when I told her why I had to decline, she immediately said, “I’m going to give you the number of my husband’s chiropractor. He also treats the members of the royal family, and is very, very good!”

I had, by now, a small directory of back pain related practitioners in the UAE. In fact, I only had to say the magic words – back problem – and I would immediately have a list of therapies and therapists. Back problems, it seemed, were as commonplace as the common cold.

The alternative therapists weren’t far behind. A friend’s mother, on hearing of my, by now, well-publicized back issue, offered to perform acupressure. She began to apply pressure on certain points on the back of my hand with such enthusiasm, that tears poured out of my eyes.

Is it better, beta, she asked? Compared to the agony in my hand, the back seemed very well indeed.

I also had a masseuse who offered to do a 7-day ayurvedic hot oil treatment, and friends who could did Reiki sessions. Yet, the stubborn stiffness persisted.

One night I woke up with a start to find my bed was wet. Urinary incontinence, I had read, was one of the symptoms of nerve damage in the lower spine. But just before I could panic, I discovered that it was nothing more than a leaky hot water bottle.

With all the stress wrought by the back problem and the multiple remedies, I feared I would need psychotherapy alongside the physiotherapy.

One afternoon, when I was heading to the chiropractor, I instructed to taxi driver to slow down and avoid swerving, since I had a back problem.

It only took a moment before he turned around and said, “Back problem? I had a friend who used to go to this place in Karama…”

Like, I said, there are only two kinds of people in this world.

P.S. The back problem is no more. But I still do have the directory of Back Pain specialists, in case any one out there needs it...

P.P.S I am enormously grateful to all the friends who took care of me and suggested all the many therapies. I am glad they knew someone who had a back problem... :-)

Monday, February 08, 2010

What I mull about when I mull about running

(with a wink and a nod to Haruki Murakami)

Runners of every shape, size and age run at Safa Park. Each with a distinctive gait, unique motive.  I ignore the brisk walkers and the lazy strollers and concentrate on the runners.

There are those who run to lose weight, and they’re best ignored too. The heavy tread, slack jaw and amoeba-like sweat patches all allude to effort and exercise. Running is more than that.

Then there are the competitive runners, who run with one eye affixed to the digital timer on their wrist. It tells them about how fast their heart is pumping, how well their feet are moving and perhaps even whether the pre-run protein shake has gotten digested. It’s all about results and statistics. Running by numbers.

There are also the sprinters, who run for the adrenaline rush. And the showboats – the ones with the svelte bods, who run like they don’t really need to be running, but need a motive to display their muscle tone.

A few run for no reason at all. Unless you count - for the love of running - as a reason. It looks like they’re running, but it doesn’t feel like they are. There’s exertion, but no struggle. There’s a target, but it’s not entirely numeric. You can tell the difference by observing the rhythm. It’s steady and even, and most importantly, graceful. Like ballet. The eyes are focussed on a zone not in the physical realm. The arms move in unison. The feet strike the earth with nimble, considered moves. Slicing the air, the way a swimmer breaks the water.  
You don’t try to race such a runner. Or do something as inelegant as keep pace. You gaze at them until they turn a corner or become a speck on the horizon. And then get back to thumping the earth with the grace of a rhino.