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Bookworms In Jaipur

A book fest these days could feel like the Last Supper for the printed tome, but not so in India where people love to read the old-fashioned way with book, not electronic gadget, in hand.  The Jaipur Literature Festival in Rajasthan teemed with book lovers over the weekend.  It’s Asia’s largest (I think?) and fastest growing literary event.

Ok, it’s a bit of a party too – but that’s what happens when you throw together journalists, publishers, authors and their respective groupies into an old palace in romantic Rajasthan.

For the rest of us, there were four days of panels to hear international authors talk about literature, writing, and the convergence of books with contemporary life.  (Do we have time to read in healthy chunks anymore?  Of course!  argued Junot Diaz – when you fall in love with a book and it loves you back, time avails itself. )

The authors were many, including the hottest writers out of Pakistan, Kashmir and India – as well as a good line-up of  other international authors:  Richard Ford, Jay McInerney, JM Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Marina Lewycka.  Even Candace Bushnell of Sex and the City fame enjoyed a free trip to India.

Books are big business here and the festival is a phenomenon that has outgrown the dream of its organizers.  This year, 30-thousand people attended, which meant a fight for food, seats and leg room.  But it’s all good news when that many people gather to celebrate the printed word.

Take a Peak:

From the left:  Kamila Shamsie, Junot Diaz, Chandrahas Choudhury, Ian Jack, Manjushree Thapa and Marina Lewycka:

There were a few reminders that yes, we were in India… such as this classic at the coffee shop.  How many men does it take to do the job of one woman?  (That would be the customer with her back to the camera):

My hotel.  Don’t stay here – the towels were stained, the pillows smelled like dirty hair, there wasn’t hot water, and at night trains rolled through my room. It was like a bad date – handsome on the outside with not much going on inside:

And back home last night with Barbara on my left and Lola on my right.  What you don’t see is Eddie and George wrestling nearby, Lala yelling at everyone to be quiet so she can hear something on the computer, and Jim juggling a phone interview and guests.  It’s always chaos at the Yardley’s… that’s what happens when you keep your door open.  (We love it that way!)

And finally:  Bad cement.  We ran into this lamp-post in the middle of a pedestrian walkway.  There were no cars anywhere near to have knocked it over:

Have a good week!

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Running and Slumming

Mumbai begins the day in the blues and grays of first light, a crisp backdrop to the city on its east side – or for those of you who live here, its “backside”. When the sun finally slips onto the horizon the skyline, a stretch of high rises to rival any city, glows in the pink hues of sunrise.  It’s an awesome sight.

It’s not my habit to see sunrises but Sunday I ran the Mumbai half marathon and it started particularly early at 6:15 – or before dawn.  It was difficult to see in the dark and for the first three kilometers I worried that I would trip or slip or miss a curb.  It felt like diving into the dark, without the free fall.

But it was soon light and I had a beautiful run along the Bandra-Worli extension bridge, a foray into the city, a stretch along Marine Drive and the Arabian sea.  I fell in step with a young man who refused to let me pass him.  I tried and he sped up so I followed him or ran next to him for most of the race.  We shared water and energy drinks and pushed each other up one side of a long hill and raced down the other side.  We even crossed the finish line together.   The end of a race gets chaotic and we slipped into our own pockets of friends or family.  Here we are on the final stretch:

I flew to Mumbai with little notice when someone dropped out of the race.  It was a bit freeing to run  anonymously in the open category – with no pressure to place well among old ladies.  My goal was to run strong (I did) and to pick-off every woman ahead of me. (I didn’t)

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My step-mother is visiting for a month, volunteering in the Yardley house and getting out of it when she can.  Here we are after the race, showered and fed and on our way to tour the Dharavi slum:

I wanted to see the slum because I think it’s a good thing to remind myself that the world is more than a string of luxury hotels.  It’s the guilt of the privileged but also a genuine curiosity to understand the complexities of a place.

The Dharavi slum is just over one-square mile (1.75K) and houses one million people.  It’s one of the most densely populated places in the world.  You will recognize it for being the backdrop to the Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire.

But Dharavi’s story is not necessarily a sad one.  It hums with worker bees, migrant workers tanning leather, dying fabric, recycling plastic, making pots, rolling poppadom.  In fact, it claims an annual GDP of 600-million USD.   There are several incredible facts about the place:

It is home to nearly an equal percentage of Muslims and Hindus. India has a poor history of Hindu-Muslim violence and to see both groups living  together in such challenging conditions is extraordinary.  There’s even a Hindu-Muslim-Christian temple with symbols honoring each religion.

The crime rate is very low. Most of the residents of Dharavi have jobs which afford them privilege among migrant classes.  The slum is organized by skill and production and workers from the same village tend to dominate one job.  There is a shared ethic to work hard and make money.  Crime gets in the way of this ethic and threatens the finely tuned balance of business and the nature of the slum.  The government recognizes that while Dharavi is a visual mar to the landscape of Mumbai, its existence provides a place for migrant workers to support themselves and to stay out of trouble.

According to the NGO that provided our tour, Dharavi has a 72-percent literacy rate, higher than the national average of 60-percent (ish).  Most of the children in Dharavi attend school and there are many organizations working to educate and empower the residents.

Dharavi looks Dickensian but the spirit of the place doesn’t seem as dark.  Shared productivity dominates the mood of the slum.  The simple factories and small businesses were busy, even on a Sunday afternoon.

The buildings are a  mix of ram-shackle and permanent all strung together with recycled material and corrugated tin.  Some of the alleyways are two-feet wide and you can’t stand straight because of pipes and wires and bits of building material.  Typical homes are six-feet by six-feet. Entire families or several renters live in one room.

The government owns the land in Dharavi but people own the buildings and the businesses.  It is a legal entity with postal codes, electricity, and 3-hours of running water a day.

Our tour guide asked us not to take photos to respect the residents.  It was difficult to follow this rule because I knew that my words alone wouldn’t be enough to describe the place. Here are three photos that I secretly snapped:

I would have preferred to take photos of the many beautiful faces that I saw working or playing or cooking or scrubbing.  The tour company said that it would email me photos.  If they arrive, I will share.

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Photos of the week…  starting with the end of the race:

Spectators:

Barbara and I went on a stroll in Nehru Park and we found these ladies sitting in the noon sun:

We also found this guy.  He’s praying… naked.

And my core crew here in Delhi – Karen and Mark, the couple on the left made me a tasty, tasty Japanese birthday dinner:

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Happiness

I am not a Buddhist but one doesn’t have to be to appreciate the nature of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Buddhism’s highest living priest and a peaceful symbol to the raging debate of Tibet.

I received an email from a friend and quiet Buddhist just before Christmas inviting me to see the Dalai Lama speak today in Delhi.  Having never seen him before, I didn’t know whether this would be a small or big event.  The scale of a crowd in India can be exponentially larger than in other countries.

I estimate that 5000 people attended the lecture, held in the auditorium of Delhi’s most prestigious high school.  This number was far less than I had imagined.  The audience was quiet and reverent as it waited to see HHDL, as he is referred to in printed material.  I wonder whether this is an official short-cut or if the acronym is peculiar to acronym-loving India.  (I dare you to decipher the headlines in the newspapers here.   It takes committed reading to recognize the often used, un-defined acronyms… but that’s fodder for another post.)

When His Holiness entered the stage, everyone stood, bowed their heads. When he sat, much of the audience went prostrate several times.   No one spoke and the awe or respect or faith or reverence shared by everyone in that room was palpable.  Something hung in the air  – a spiritual aura for believers perhaps, but at the very least the sort of energy that arises from 5000 people directing extraordinary attention to one man.

What did he say?  For those of us who are mildly informed about what it means to be Buddhist, the message was compelling and complicated.  He spoke about the different levels of happiness, physical pleasure versus mental fortitude, and the joy of freeing ourselves from worry and stress;  how positive action or virtuous living gives birth to positive karma.  When we act virtuously we live in the positive outcome of our behavior – it’s like sewing seeds on the field of our mind.  Good seeds grow into good plants, bad seeds are weeds…. and ultimately, we don’t want weeds on our mind when we die because the mind is not substance, it is the intangible, subtle entity that survives our body and determines the quality of our rebirth.  (Did I get that right?)  It all gets really complicated, like any religion.

I left His Holiness feeling contemplative, wondering this:  How does one simply let go and not worry?  I know that meditation is an important vehicle to achieving mental strength, but how do you meditate, how do you truly ease your brain from thought?  This is the challenge…

So what did I do when I got home after the lecture?  I promptly yelled at the kids, drowning in anger any virtuous seeds that I had planted today.

There was george, naked, as usual, stretched on the sofa like the subject of a Raphael or Rembrandt, eating fairy bread and spilling the colorful, sugary bits all over my favorite pillows;  and Eddie, sitting on the coffee table, looking like an urchin in his daddy’s t-shirt.  Hundreds of toothpicks lay spilled on the floor.  Lala was where she’s been all weekend:  cocooned in her bed reading Harry Potter.  She’s obsessed.

The problem is this:  If I let go, George will take over…

I told Jim that we needed a surrogate parent to raise the boys for a few years. He suggested Angelina Jolie.

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Earlier this week I went to see Anish Kapoor’s first-ever exhibition in India. That’s him, above – I shot this photo from a movie.   Kapoor is an Indian sculptor and installation artist who moved to England as a young man.  His work is über contemporary – but interesting.  There’s color and form and fluidity and function in what you see, but not necessarily a message, he argues.  Sometimes a thing is simply a thing, and nothing more.  He works on grand scale and creates fantastical stuff, like cannons shooting balls of wax through door frames.  It sounds bizarre but somehow it works.  For my American readers, you may recognize a piece of his in Chicago, locally called “the bean”.  It’s a large reflective sculpture, rounded and curved and shaped much like a coffee bean.  “Cloud Gate” sits in Millennium Park and is Kapoor’s first outdoor work in the U.S.

Some of his early work and the stuff that got him noticed looks like this:

These are solid structures covered in a chalk-like powder.  I tried to name some of the symbols here:  the lotus, the Islamic sun and moon, the minaret and the tall piece in the back looks like a celestial instrument built by the Mughals.  I think the knobby thing in the front is a pomegranate.

Kapoor represented the UK at the Venice Biennale in 1990.  He won the prestigious Turner Prize a year later.  ( The Tate Gallery sponsors the award which recognizes the work of young British visual artists.)

One of his famous pieces, Sky Mirror, sat in Rockefeller Center for a few years. Here’s a version, but the museum here in Delhi got it all wrong and put the mirror on a pedestal.  It should sit on the ground so that you can see the reflection of the sky, watch the clouds move across the screen, and enter the “space” of the mirror:

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Sorry, no photos of the Dalai Lama – security was tight:  no bags, no phones and no cameras were allowed.  But here’s a few shots of life this week.  Saturday, I went to see Ritika sing at a school performance.  These guys opened the show:

It was very cold in the auditorium:

Here’s Lala in the back and Ritika, far left:

Eddie in action.  I have to brag because all the soccer-dads sidled-up to me this week complementing Ed’s soccer skills.  I told them that he’s athletic… just like his mommy!  (If you want to change the story, Hubba, you’ll have to write your own blog,..)

Staying warm:

After my post-Dalai-Lama-yell at the boys, I felt guilty of course.  I took a walk around the block to breathe fresh air and to collect myself… and  I found these angels.  The little guy in the middle, in yellow, made me laugh and filled my heart with his own gorgeous smile.  I went home happy and far more tolerant.

And you thought I exaggerate when I talk about George and his nakedness. Here he is building a train-set:

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Yada Yada

When I begin a post and stare at the screen and fail to think of anything to write about – I know that I’m in a blogging black hole;   I don’t see any unique bits of Indian space and time since my last post.   The gravitational pull of “been there, written about that” is greater than my imagination…

So, for this post, we revisit a few of the reliable planets in the little galaxy that is my life.  (I promise new and exciting news on India next week – I have several interesting events planned this week.)

Ritika: Ah – I cried when she and her classmates sang me carols on Christmas Eve.  I took Lala and Eddie with me to her school and we shared homemade cookies.  When we arrived, the students were making holiday decorations and Christmas cards.  They were eager to share with us board games and electrical circuits and maps that they had made.  The boys enjoyed quizzing me on geography.  I learned that there are 31 (?) states in India?  (I might be wrong – there are also Union territories,  a designation where the Fed runs a locality.)

It’s easy for me to pay for Ritika’s schooling but my desire to keep her learning may not be enough to keep her in school.  Next year she will be 13 and her value to her family may be defined by how much money she can make doing domestic work.   This is a sad reality for many families and young girls in India.

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Christmas week, in the middle of cooking madness in my kitchen, I noticed that we didn’t have onions.  My housekeeper, who usually keeps the staples well supplied decided not to buy them.  She said that they were outrageously, insultingly expensive.  And to her, at a buck a pound, they were. In fact, lots of Indians were crying over the cost of onions last week.     The onion is a staple in Indian cuisine, vegge or non-vegge and the injustice of having to pay an exorbitant price for the condiment bannered the papers and led TV news for days.  People and pundits blamed poor supply, hording and mistrust in the layers of middlemen who move the onion from farm to market. I didn’t want my beautiful helper-fairy to feel that I was  nonplussed by the price hike, but I had just paid 200-bucks for twelve kilos of turkey, so  two bucks on onions didn’t rock my boat much.

But a tsunami slammed into it when I put that bird on the balcony to defrost. Critters helped themselves to my Christmas day meal and gnawed a beautiful hole right through both breasts.   I learned that in moments like this you have to LET GO…  breathe… and thank God that you have a ham in the freezer.

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Reliable Filth:  Not much changes in a year in India.  We returned to the same stretch of the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu this new year holiday.  You may remember that last year I ran through the poo-ing fields of beach-front fishing villages.  The fields are still there but my tolerance has faded this year for the fetid mess.  And, as if to rub my nose in this second dance with doo-doo, several fishermen defecated in real-time along my running path.  Many south Indian men wear bits of cloth wrapped around them like skirts so it’s easy to squat and do your business – and with the sea for a bidet and the horizon, a view – it’s a constitutional made in heaven for the poo-er and a dirty game of hopscotch for anyone crazy enough to run along the coast.

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Overheard in my car:

Eddie:  Where do babies come from?

George:  The bagina.

Eddie:  What’s a bagina?

George:  A different kind of weenis.

(Clearly, we need a vocabulary tutorial in my house… or speech therapy!)

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After all of my bitching about the heat this year, here I am whining about the cold.  It’s damp and foggy in Delhi in January and the night-time temps are frigid.  The days warm a bit into the 50’s beneath the sun.   In the house,  I walk around wrapped in layers and topped with a final swath of warm scarf.  Sometimes I sleep in a hat.  The marble floors are like blocks of ice beneath my feet – they’re blissfully cool in the warm months but frigid torture in the winter.  We don’t have heat, except for a few space heaters that, like everything in India, don’t work very well.   And it is here that I leave you with “the sigh”…  it’s a well-known gesture in the female line of my family.

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Happy, Awesome Outrageous Incredible 2011…  May this year be a good friend to all of you!

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One day, not long from now, George will actually turn his head when this wave of femininity crosses his path:

What happened to the sweet days of Star Wars?

Do you remember the Rajasthan door frame from last year?  This year Jim got a Raj grain mini-silo:

Some days you just gotta go upside down to see the world straight:

Jai ho…!

This ear didn’t fall off from that third-world-like piercing, but the other one is still infected…  I’m now too far into the suffering to let it close.  (And Dr. Van, can you help my chin?  These are the scars from three enormous pimples, nicknamed by my girlfriend:   William, Robert and Richard at their height, now Bill, Bob and Dick.  The joking goes way down hill from here… )

Fishing Boats:

The dog should be India’s mascot.  This guy is one of four who live on this stretch of beach:

Pure sweetness:

Belly-up to the pharmacy.  You can get many many drugs this way without a prescription.  Retin A anyone?  Ambien?  Antibiotics?  Painkillers?  Here you can see the local skirts the guys wear:

Just before returning to Delhi after a week of living in a “nature-cooled” grass hut: