Tuesday, 15 March 2011
Delhi - a review
Baoli - the step-well in Delhi city
Talking almost continuously out and almost continuously back makes Delhi seem a short trip and once arrived it feels mere weeks since I was there last. It is in fact two years. The first time I went to India was to the Katha Conference in 2005, at exactly the same venue, the International Centre. That was a huge international affair, with Orhan Pamuk, Roberto Calasso and Tim Parks with a cast of hundreds music and film, without let up. Dear late Jack Harte was there too. It was at the IIC I first met Sharmistha Mohanty, Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Sudeep Sen. As I remember I gave a reading outside and did an improvised talk on translation. Sharmistha and Priya began their al fresco reading in the warm sunny late afternoon but it had chilled several degrees by the time they were through. But we were friends by then and so it was Sharmistha invited me to the first Almost Island conference the following year.
The conferences are small - some eight speakers at most, including outstanding Indian poets and prose writers - and have a broad given subject around which all talk morning and afternoon, with different speakers and respondents for each session. In the evening there are readings and, sometimes, music, in the Annex garden, under the Bottlebrush Tree.
It is the quality of the conferences that is so remarkable. The conversations are passionate, learned, generous and exciting. Because there are relatively few speakers, each two or three hour session allows time for development and exploration. The form is flexible. The core idea is to explore the possibilities of poetics in verse or prose. The conferences are followed with real interest outside and there is an invited audience that is encouraged to contribute.
My presence - the third time - is my good fortune. The second time I was replacing Elliot Weinberger whose father was very ill.
A few specific memories of Almost Island 2011.
Arriving at the IIC with Vahni and Doshan to be warmly greeted by Sharmistha and Ashwini, once dancer, then translator, now ceramicist, who is an indispensible part of the organisation. Quick change and a quick introduction to Forrest. Settling into the room. Unpacking my single piece of hand-luggage. Showering in the bathroom with its three shower heads. Getting the phone charged up. Meeting Charu for the first time. Meeting Allan again. In the evening the first reading: Giriaj Kiradoo, Rahul Sony and Charu Nivedita
The first morning of the conference proper, and Forrest's presentation, short, brief, opening out, the conversation billowing nicely.
The afternoon with the Cybermohalla Collective, six of them, each talking eloquently and at length about their project. They are very young but extraordinarily mature. But I keep losing concentration. Maybe because there is so much translation, and it takes so long to improvise out of such length.
Vivek Narayanan and Vahni Capildeo's evening reading, all pulse and stretch, Vivek's on the edge of laughter, swelling to grand; Vahni, almost stern, mostly prose but with a great sense of interior spaces and driving intelligence.
Vahni's presentation the next morning, the one I take to be a dismissal of verse as a banal form, a fake of some sort, as something that never did really exist. This is the one that upsets me. Allan explodes into life with an assertion of his right to write as he has to, as he actually does.
But before that, a rest in the afternoon with a visit to Humayana's Tomb and the terrifyingly deep step-well where I gather up my courage and walk along the ledge by the side of the well. See above. I read in the evening with the Collective. That's OK. But I am awake most of the night. Just two hours sleep, if that.
My presentation next morning, some trouble at the beginning then sorting itself out but still troubling. Nothing particularly wrong with it in itself, but was it the best thing to do here? Now?
Time for a quick sleep before a dash to the Shangri-La Eros grand hotel, where the British Council conference is going on in parallel. I am down to read for half an hour but they have overrun so I will do ten minutes. Quick warm words with Miklós Haraszti mainly on the state of Hungary, on which more another time. The reading goes very well and I am asked for an encore at the end of which a middle aged woman thrusts a book into my hand. She asks if she might give it to me. Well, of course. I dash back to the evening reading on the last night, and only then do I notice that the book is by Katha Pollitt and is very nicely dedicated. The knowledge of this grows on me over the next day. Why didn't I speak to her properly? (The cab was waiting).
The last reading, already described, all strange life and depth.
At times I wondered if I hadn't outstayed my contribution. Perhaps I just don't have three years worth to give to a conference like this? That feeling hung about me the last night and through the morning, and hasn't quite gone even now. What have I learned that I can move forward? Can I learn? I have to learn. There is no other point to life, is there? Just walk that ledge by the step-well even if your knees feel a bit weak. Especially because your knees feel weak.