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Jaipur Revisited

The Jaipur Literature Festival suffered bipolar disorder this year.  It celebrated soaring highs, when Oprah rocked into Rajasthan with her über personality and  weathered embarrassing lows when Salman Rushdie backed-out of attending.

I wonder whether the festival has become too much of a good thing – a worthy event that is now so popular that its suffering from its own success.

It’s grown from a sleepy celebration of South Asian writers to a literary extravaganza spanning five days and hosting more than 60-thousand visitors and almost 300 hundred speakers.

After days of a public argument between festival organizers, government officials and threatening imams over whether Salman Rushdie should or should not attend the festival, Rushdie announced that he would stay away after security officials told him that hit-men from Mumbai were planning to “eliminate” him if he came to India.  He released a statement saying that he could not risk harm to himself, his family or the festival.

It turns out that the assassins were bogus and that officials lied to Rushdie to keep him away and to placate the muslim community.  There are elections in  several states in India and the ruling Congress party is pandering to the muslim vote – which is why, some argue, the government fought hard and dirty to keep Rushdie away from the festival.

Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, was banned in India in 1988 because muslims believe that the book is blasphemous to Islam.  A fatwa was issued calling for his death.

Four authors at the festival read passages from the book to protest Rushdie’s absence.  Apparently it’s illegal to read aloud excerpts of a banned book and festival organizers asked the writers to sign a disclaimer saying that they acted on their own and not on behalf of the festival.

On Monday,  evolutionary biologist and renowned atheist Richard Dawkins interrupted his session  to read a statement supporting Rushdie and freedom of  speech.  He shared a story from the reign of Elizabeth I:    Catholic officials wrote to the Pope to ask if it would be a sin to kill the queen since she was dismantling the church in England.  The Pope gave his blessing for her death.

Little has changed in 500 years.

It was refreshing to have Dawkins on stage, defending his staunch atheism and hammering religion for turning faith into a weapon.  One member of the audience asked whether it was not strange that Dawkins, who has attacked all the world’s major religions, was not an objectionable guest in Jaipur, while Rushdie was.

On the last day of the festival, organizers tried to uplink a video talk with Rushdie from his home in England, but that, too, was nixed by officials in Rajasthan who wanted to censor what he said.

All of this comes at a time in India when the central government is asking Facebook and Google to censor objectionable content.  And just today, Indian officials in Washington  filed a complaint with the US for something Jay Leno said on The Tonight Show.  He showed a clip of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and called it Romney’s summer home.  This pissed off the Sikh community here and they want the US to take legal action against NBC and Leno.

US officials noted that this was satire… funny, a witty take on current events.

Oprah stayed out of the fray and lightened the mood at the festival with her                   we-are-family flirtations with the crowd.  She’s everyone’s best friend, whether in Chicago, Johannesburg or Jaipur.

Take away Oprah and the publicity surrounding Rushdie, and the festival was still much of what it was intended to be:  a celebration of writing, books, film and ideas.

Sadly, this year drama over-shadowed the discourse.

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Here’s a view of the crowd at the Dawkins event:
A discussion about adapting literature to film.  That’s Tom Stoppard with the mic, along with Lionel Shriver (loved her…), Richard Flanagan and film director, Vishal Bardhwaj:
At the main entrance with my student from LA, Heidi Demarco.
Cottage Cheese Giro, anyone?
And there’s always a worthy photo or two from the road:
(Only a few rocks and string between ten tons and disaster….)
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Mumbai Revisited


Over 39-thousand runners hit the streets in the Mumbai last weekend, clocking kilometers in a series of races affiliated with the Standard Charter Marathon.

I was one of 11-thousand people running the half marathon – 21 kilometers from Bandra on the city’s north shore to Victoria Station in the south.

This is my second Mumbai half marathon.  You may recall that last year I ran it on my 45th birthday.  This year I returned to run it on the last day of the same year.

There’s lots to celebrate about this race:  It offers a scenic route through the city at sunrise, with views of the Arabian sea and Mumbai’s maximum skyline.   Thousands of Mumbaikars line the streets, handing out cookies and bananas – and my favorite, shots of muscle spray to the knees.

And a few surprises along the way:   I nearly ran over three people sleeping on the course.  They were wrapped in blankets, head to toe, not an inch of flesh exposed – like human sausage rolls.  And by the grace of God and a quick side-step I avoided pummeling a stray toddler along Marine Drive.

Also, the not-so-surprising:   These days it’s cliche to mention the lack of bathrooms in the same sentence with India, but I must admonish the organizers for having only FOUR port-o-potties for 11-thousand runners near the holding gate at the start of the race.

And delightfully, the serendipitous encounter:  Do you remember that last year while running, I tried to pass a young man and he wouldn’t let me?  We settled on running side-by-side,  pacing each other up a very long hill, sharing water, crossing the finish line together.

This year we bumped into each other near the 16th kilometer – first recognition, then smiles – and once again, a shared pace.  We crossed the finish together a second year in a row.

Jim shot this photo of us at the 19th kilometer:

I was working hard here.  My times have improved in both in Delhi and Mumbai this year, but it doesn’t feel as easy as it did when I started running three years ago.  My left knee is arthritic – full of junk, a cyst, worn cartilage.  I will have a small procedure to lube the area, a bit of physio, and a good rest from running hard.

Next race:  San Francisco, July 29th.

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Some of you already know that Jim and I will be in the States mid February to promote his book.  He will travel for readings and press events in New York, Seattle, SF, LA, Houston, DC and a few other, yet-unconfirmed cities.  I will join part of the tour.  The release is February 14th.  Here’s a peak at the cover:  (by the way, you can pre-order on Amazon…)  

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Jim in Mumbai:

Me, after gorging on a Pomfret and Prawn and Squid and Crab – at my fave seafood restaurant in Mumbai:

Sunday afternoon kite-flying on Mumbai’s Chowpatty Beach:

A neighborhood synagogue that dates back to 1861:

Eddie and his friend, Kiran at a soccer game – India vs. FC Bayern Munich:

Finally, a photo of my Georgie smiling:

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Happy New Year!

When I was young, going to the beach meant suffering the crowded shores of Ocean City, Maryland or the frigid waters on the other side of the pond in Cornwall, England.  Ask my children about the beach and you’re likely to hear them compare the crystalline seas of Thailand to the dunes of Vietnam and the islands of Malaysia.  Indian beaches offer less stunning beauty, but that doesn’t matter to Lala, Georgie or Eddie  – they love the sea and the sand and the endless days all the same – whether in a tropical paradise, on the Jersey Shore (and its beloved board walks) or on the rocky coast of Northern California where, I might add, IT’S FREEZING.  (That’s for you, Patti.)

We have just returned from Goa, a place I wrote about last year, so I will try not to repeat myself.  The Arabian Sea in south Goa is a bit murky, but the beaches are wide and shallow and undeveloped.  And tropical.  Exceptional in many     ways – though not better than the Grayton Beach, Florida… My Number One.  (That’s for you, Hubba.)

Goa was a Portuguese colony until 1961 when Indian troops invaded and forced the Portuguese to leave, ending more than 400 years of occupation.  Goa still looks very colonial. Old Portuguese plantation-style houses, painted in bright purples and limes and oranges abound.  Every town seems to have a church.  Nearly a third of Goans are Catholic.

There’s lots of debate about India’s north versus its south, with some reports showing that infrastructure, education, social welfare and civic services are better in the south.

Goa isn’t officially considered a southern state, though if you look at a map of India, it’s nestled well south on the western coast, just above the southern state of Karnataka and below Maharashtra. Goa is rich in minerals – iron ore, manganese and bauxite – and flush with tourist money.  I don’t know if this translates into anything better for its citizens, but I hope so.

I can note that Goa is a far more relaxed and pleasant place to visit than destinations in north India. The roads are better and it’s cleaner and more organized.  I was most surprised by the well-staffed and efficiently run lifeguard system along the public beaches.  The guards were active and alert, and seemingly capable of handling a crisis.    It was comforting knowing that they were on duty. Rarely do I feel that way about say, the police, in Delhi.  Or the paramilitary patrols at the gates of the American Embassy School.  Or the puppy-faced security boys guarding my friends’ homes.

Worth mentioning is the number of Russians in Goa.  We were among the minority at our hotel, along with our fellow Indian guests.  Restaurants offer Russian food; signs are bilingual in Russian/English, and some of the Indian staff at the hotel speak Russian.  There is also a Russian receptionist working at the hotel who handles the Russian guests.  A lifeguard spoke to me in Russian to warn me about rough currents.  It took a moment for my brain to register that this wasn’t Mandarin or Hindi or anything else I might recognize.

Tourists aren’t the only ones feeding the economy in Goa.  I’ve read that the Russian mafia is thriving – pushing drugs, trafficking sex workers and snatching real estate – to the ire of local dons and corrupt officials, no doubt.

I have known Russians to have a great sense of humor and keen wit (that’s for you Vlad) but we didn’t experience this warmth or fun on our trip, sadly.   We even made it a game to get a Russian to smile.  I think I won when I sneezed a loud sneeze and startled my fellow bikini-clad sunbathers.  It was worth a good giggle, and I enjoyed laughing at myself as much as I enjoyed the sneeze and the disruption.   A Russian neighbor, who obviously appreciates the relief of a good sneeze too, giggled back.

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Goa:

Every night after sunset we played family poker until 7:15.  Lala then took the boys to the room for showers while daddy and I enjoyed a few quiet minutes together:

We had a near-full moon as well as gorgeous sunsets:

Before we went to Goa, Lala and Eddie went to riding camp:

One of the activities included grooming – after the horses relished in a sand bath:

I sat ring-side, knitting while the kids had lessons:

A peak at Christmas Day: