Friday, November 13, 2009

Desert draws

So there we were at 4.30am, un-slept and merry, peering cross-eyed into the Rajasthani night at the hill we’d suddenly decided to climb. Atop it is the temple dedicated to Savitri, Brahma’s first wife, who stormed off there when she discovered that comely Gayatri had turned all four of His heads and become the Creator’s second wife. (There’s now a court case in which the Brahma temple priest is demanding that offerings made to Savitri should by right come to Brahma; and the Savitri temple priest says it should be the other way around since Brahma owes Savitri alimony.) Anyway, for some reason, it seemed vital to go and climb this hill. Now.

How to get there? Four kilometres to the base of the climb; no car; very merry. We figured we’d just point our noses at it and walk, but a hotel chowkidar pointed at a patch of desert that looked just like every other patch of desert and said ‘Follow that trail.’ We leered uncertainly at it for a minute, then plunged into the underbrush, armed only with some water nicked off the reception desk, and a bar of Kit Kat. Five hours later—after a forty-minute walk and a brief ride hitched on a jeep, a beautiful lung-busting hour’s climb, a hilltop sunrise, and breakfast with a slightly snappy sadhu named Alu Baba because he eats nothing but potatoes—a camel dropped our shattered corpses back to the hotel, where we crashed out with a smile, and possibly some drool, playing faintly about our lips.

Now, this is the kind of thing I just wouldn’t have been able to do had I not decided to attend the first ever Pushkar Literature Festival, a one-day event organised by Siyahi as part of the weeklong celebrations of the Pushkar Mela, which is admittedly better known for camels than letters.

The festival had little going for it. It’s the first time anyone has attempted a literary festival here. A significant portion of the audience consisted of students who shifted a lot and shared iPod music and giggled (though one girl did tear up with emotion during the poetry session, at which point all her friends lost interest in the stage and devoted themselves to a group hug). Some of the biggest draws on the programme could not turn up—Tarun Tejpal, for instance, was felled by illness.

And let’s face it, an open-air Pushkari amphitheatre is hot, even under a shamiana whose multiple poles were lifted clear off the ground when the wind swelled under the roof, so that the whole thing occasionally began to hop around like a large, nervous, many-legged animal.

And yet, it all worked nicely, with a mix of subject and medium that kept things interesting. Aman Nath gave an illustrated talk from his travels in Pushkar and Rajasthan. Namita Gokhale read from her children’s book The Puffin Mahabharata, complemented by Gafaruddin Mewati’s troupe singing the epic, and journalist and writer Sadanand Dhume reading from his book My Friend the Fanatic a section about the Mahabharat in Indonesia. Scriptwriter Anuvab Pal provided comic relief with his entertaining book, play and movie The President is Coming.

After lunch poet Sheen Kaaf Nizam recited some Urdu poetry. Sathya Saran read, along with journalist Rahul Jayaram, from her book 10 Years With Guru Dutt. Journalist and writer Kota Neelima read an extract from her new book Death of a Moneylender and discussed the politics of reportage with firebrand Aruna Roy. It was wrapped up with Veddan Sudhir telling Rajasthani folk tales to general merriment.

It may not have had the scale or celebrity of Jaipur’s literature festival, but the Pushkar lit fest felt informal, intimate and weirdly charming. That’s the kind of thing that sends you up a hill before dawn. If they had another one, I’d go.

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