I wish I’d written this when my fingers were warm and functioning in a warm, balmy Chennai. In the very temperate air, linen-suited writers, wearing expressions of great gravitas ambled past the cordoned zone of the Lady Andal school auditorium during the Pongal weekend of 15-17th January. That was Alexander McCall Smith chatting to an adoring fan in a sari with her curly tresses a dark waterfall down her back. Lionel Shriver looked as if she’d just locked her bike and dropped by for a panel discussion in a white t-shirt, natty black jeans and matching ankle boots.
Colm Toibin, Ferdinand Mount and Rudrangshu Mukherjee were on stage in the pavilion talking about writing biographies of famous people. Ferdinand Mount is the great grandson of Lord Dalhousie (Governor General of India and author of the notorious Doctrine of Lapse), which essentially annexed princely territories if a Maharaja died without a male heir. The uprising of the Sepoys of 1857 was a direct result of this. His book Tears of the Rajah is his family’s history of a very turbulent time in India. Colm Toibin spoke about writing The Master, a biography of Henry James and Rudrangshu Mukherjee spoke about exploring the surprisingly close relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Subash Chandra Bose in Nehru and Bose – one an enlightened world leader and the other a radical revolutionary with fascist leanings.
Many gears slipped into place in my head as I willingly immersed myself in the world of writing, writers and books. Unlike literary festivals in the UK where every minor session is charged at £8 and above depending on the cachet of the writer, this festival was entirely free and like the overflowing goodness of the Pongal pot, quite bountiful in its offerings.
The session about writing erotica felt bold and radical except that the quality tended to fluctuate from the oblique and profound to the downright profane. And it couldn’t have been more of a shock to find that the author of one such embarrassingly explicit prose was the head of a reputed publishing house in India.
So much so that Amitava Kumar said he wished for a post-coital cigarette to recover before talking about far more grisly topics – A Matter of Rats, a collection of essays on Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar. The rat-catchers/Musahars of Bihar are the bottom most caste and are employed to hunt these proliferating rodents and are also known to also eat them for their sustenance. An official in the Municipal Authority proposed that rats be introduced into the food-chain for the nutrition of the general population. It can be safely said that it was not just the animals that scuttled away at this plan.
The highlight of the session for me was Colm Toibin describing his writing process – of listening to the silence, paying attention to that feeling of boredom, to create an atmosphere of vivid description and then to slow the pace right down to go deep into the character’s thoughts. His generous words of advice felt like a real gift.
And to top all this, I received news of my short story achieving publication. Toasted Cheese is the rather delicious name for a literary journal and it’s selection of fiction, poetry and essays are most thought-provoking. Have a look at this recent edition and scroll down to Rogue Mint by Maithreyi Nandakumar .
I was also invited to speak to the MA students of English literature at IIT Madras who are doing a course on Indian Writing. The Indian Institute of Technology campus is within the city but set inside the most beautiful natural surroundings – banyan trees, wandering deer and monkeys sunning themselves. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet aspiring young boys and girls and share my writing. It was fascinating to hear their reaction to descriptions of the city they live in – some thought I was indulging in nostalgia. Hmm, perhaps my worries about offending the sensibilities of my former hometown are unfounded after all…