|Drums for the opening of the festival|
Home again after a very long and mostly sleepless journey with tight train connections at the England end, so no time to eat or drink at any point before arriving home at c 10:30 UK time, 4 am India time.
The nature of the festival
All literature festivals are intensely concentrated affairs for both the organisers and the participants.
For the organiser the festival is the cumulation of months of work in terms of fund-raising, programming, venue selection and preparation, accommodation, travel, PR and exhibition mounting, hospitality events, and time-keeping as well the diplomacy of dealing with participants who may not be particularly mindful of all the work involved in the preparation. Consisdering the short time in which this particular festival had to be organised it was miraculously seamless and grand. The committee must have worked themselves to a standstill. They deserve the highest praise. I have already thanked the organisers but want to thank them here too.
For the participants it means playing an appropriate part in the machinery of the festival as a whole, which entails travel, new surroundings, adapting to whatever slot the programme has prepared for them, getting keyed-up to perform or to take part in panels, being amenable at all times and constantly being with new people for several days, people who are just as much the centre of their own fine universes as they are, maybe more so, maybe with more powerful centres, finer universes.
There are some festivals and some participants who do not stay for the entire duration but travel in and travel out. Sabad, the World Poetry Festival, was not like that. We were all there for the duration, 21-24 March, that is to say more then forty poets from various parts of the world, twenty or so from outside India and twenty or so from various parts of India, representing its various languaages. India is, in effect, a world in itself, with twenty-three larger groups and several hundred others.
Over the four days we had nine sessions of poetry and two of discussion, each (nominally) an hour and a half, two of the days with four sessions, as well as the inaugural session at which I spoke. The days ended at four, to be followed at six by entertainment on two of the days, the first of dancing, the second of singing. The evenings after that were mostly back at the hotel.
It is all a little breathless, not so much a machine as a constantly bubbling soup in which you sink or swim.
This being or not being India...
India is a world in itself, in fact several worlds. Delhi is not India, nor is New Delhi, Delhi. The world of New Delhi - hotels, institutions, grand houses, dual-carriage highways lined with peepal, cassia, jasmine, borage, kadam, medlar and much else, boulevards where the houses are hidden behind the trees - is far from typical.
New Delhi is a colonial administrative area. Old Delhi is narrow streets, throngs, buildings that seem on the point of collapse, only held together by an invisible mesh of string and wire. Life is packed, jangling, familal and harsh. It has smells and textures and contrasts. Personal space is reduced to an inch or less. Most people are on foot.
As you move out of Delhi and find yourself on the road or on a train, the vastness of the country, its wealth and intolerable poverty, its lushness and barrenness open up. Modernity is succeeded by pre-modernity.
This was my fifth visit and still I haven't really seen anything. I register a mixture of intimacy and officiousness, of courtesy and direct speech, of compliments mixed with opportunism. I got over the cultural shock the first time I went but am always back on the edge of it when I return. I see the people in the crowds and think: how strange they seem, and how complex must be the life of each individual figure, while realising how strange I must seem to them. We both have conceptions of the other but no depth of understanding. We don't really understand what each other's lives consist of, what are our morning, noon and night thoughts, our expectations, our conscious and unconscious passions. We fly past each other like meteors in a universe that occasionally brings us to within sight of each other, then we've gone.
This was an Indian festival to bring together worlds outside India and worlds inside it. It operated on both an international and its own complex Indian level. Like any major event it is not only cultural entertainment, not only a form of mutual education, but a political act, a kind of united nations declaration of both similarity and difference.
More on that in the next blog.