Getting to the Victoria Memorial from the northern suburb of Sodepur wasn’t really a daunting task as my relatives made it look like. Taking a bus upto Shyambazar during the ‘office time rush’ & then the Metro to Maidan station, walk up to the real world & just ask someone for directions to what happened to be the area’s most recognisable landmark, if not the city’s in that regard. I suffered a bit of trepidation when I was unable to get hold of a day pass (which I had applied for in advance via email) & with time running out, I caught a cab to the Calcutta Club, where the first event of the day was scheduled to take place. Imagine the tumult of emotions I underwent inside a minute – relief at being told the system of daily passes had been scrapped for the remainder of the fest, utter dismay when the guy at the reception stopped me from entering because my Tshirt didn’t have a collar (these socialites, I tell you) & eventually gratitude towards the security guard outside, who suggested I wear my jacket zipped up to the neck, giving me the licence to roam freely inside the club. And then I walked in & secured a seat, all set with my notepad & digital camera.
Enough talking about me. The first session of the day was titled “Dateline Disaster“, which had luminaries such as veteran British journalists Sir Mark Tully (formerly of the BBC) & Sir Ian Jack (the Guardian) and American documentary filmmaker & writer Adrian Levy, acclaimed author of investigative reportage such as the recent book on the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks “The Siege“. Moderator Pritha Kejriwal talked to them about their experiences of working in India for a long time & how the country has left its imprint upon them. Tully & Jack kept the audience engaged with funny anecdotes from their own encounters as well as gossip about former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, also pointing out how those instances even landed them in trouble with the government, especially during the Emergency. Levy focused more on his approach to writing about the country, stressing how India affords him so many chances to tell a good story, something both Tully & Jack were in agreement with. The conversation then moved on to the main subject on hand as Tully recounted his experiences of reporting on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy as well as Operation Blue Star & how he altered his approach when it came to disaster reporting. The discussion ended with a final flourish on the digital media revolution & the current standard of reporting in Indian newspapers, before a brief Q&A session which allowed the audience to interact with the panellists. Adrian Levy was kind enough to entertain my views about “The Siege” post-session & happily agreed to let me have a picture with him as well –
While the members of the Calcutta Club gorged on a Google-sponsored midday meal, I walked back to the Victoria Memorial with an egg roll (oh, how I miss these delights in Mumbai) from a stall in front of the Birla Planetarium with an hour to go for the second event. It afforded me the chance to walk around the beautiful green lawns surrounding the pristine white edifice, capturing it on camera.
Brave New Asian
The day’s events resumed with Sujoy Bhattacharya engaging in conversation with journalist Anita Raghavan & writers Tash Aw and Shyam Selvadurai on the aspirations of a new ambitious breed of Asians in the West as well as the world. The panellists mostly talked about the characters from their books & how Asian characters have different facets to themselves unlike those from other parts of the world. Raghavan illustrated her point through the prominent examples of Rajat Gupta & Rajarathnam, the two bigwigs of Wall Street who were recently charged & prosecuted for insider trading – also the subject of her recent book “The Billionaire’s Apprentice“. Themes of inherent shame & self-esteem in the Asian mindset were also discussed in the session.
Not being interested in the next session on cultural ties between India & Indonesia, I decided to explore the insides of the Victorial Memorial, which is actually a museum that is resonant of the British Raj as well as the history of pre-independence Bengal. I really had to hurry through all of it (something I absolutely hate doing in a museum) so that I didn’t miss out on the next event – the biggest crowd-puller of the day.
Go East Young Reader
And still there was Vikram Seth already seated on his chair, holding the rapt attention of his audience when I walked in some 5 minutes late. But being single has its advantages (in numerical terms strictly) & I managed to find a good seat, unlike some others who were even bigger criminals than I was on the count of punctuality. Seth begun by recounting his introduction to Chinese literature as a student through English translations of poetry & how it inspired him to eventually learn the language as well as calligraphy, which he likened to “literature, art and music“. There were also observations about Communist China from his travels in the country & the reasons why he never returned after his only visit, while shedding some light on the horrors of the Cultural Revolution & the Tiananmen Square massacre. When moderator Samantak Das praised his devotion to form, Seth could only reply, “Form without content or feeling is pointless” as the audience expressed its approval with the ensuing loud applause.
The Q&A was no less interesting, as Seth answered questions on what inspires his poetry (“Love, lust and life“), whether the translated works out there ought to be taken in good faith & mocked how many writers try to make them appear more enigmatic by “cloaking them in mist and mystery“. And then there was the girl who talked about the connect she felt with Lata (the female protagonist of Seth’s magnum opus “A Suitable Boy“) & how she happened to face a similar dilemma to that of Lata, on which Seth promised to write something for her. (And he did just that post-session – by scribbling a personal note addressed to her father. Lucky girl.)
But there was always that final magic spell that was waiting to be cast & Seth captivated us all with a beautiful (and if I may add, generous) reading from “Beastly Tales” – one about the Chinese Zodiac Year. One could only walk away absolutely mesmerised even as nearly everyone from the audience lined up to get their copies of his works inscripted by the man himself.
I was hoping against hope that I would get to attend the evening session, which had legendary actors Sharmila Tagore & Soumitra Chatterjee reminiscing their experiences of working with & being mentored by Satyajit Ray, the finest director Indian cinema has ever produced. But it was not to be, as a wedding reception beckoned from another part of the city & as I walked off into the sunset taking the road around the Maidan I cast one final glance towards the Victoria, which had provided me with some of my most cherished memories in the City of Joy.
Aasha thaaklo mone, aabar dekha habe…