This is a symbol of the city of Torino. I shot the image in fading light....
My daughter had flown Air India to London just the night before the horrific crash. She had told all of us what a dreadful experience it was.... barely any food on board, no beverages, seats that didn't recline, lousy service. We had made soothing noises and declared , " But we'd told you so!" Who could have imagined something this awful would happen just a few hours later?? Our national airline used to be India's boast to the rest of the world - we were so proud of it! It was ranked in the Top Ten airlines of the world. Look at it today - a disgraced and disgraceful symbol of neglect and corruption. Some of the stories I have been hearing recently have made my blood boil. Powerful politicians have stripped the airline of all its remaining assets and stripped it of its tattered dignity. It has been run to the ground with the sort of callousness that is shocking in a democracy. The mega scale of all the financial looting that has reduced a once profitable airline to the level of a pauper has no parallel in the annals of aviation history worldwide.There is nobody to take charge of or own up to any of the misdeeds - which is why the most convenient scapegoat to blame for this terrible crash is the dead pilot - a foreigner who can't defend himself. What's the bet everything will now be piled onto him and nobody else will be held responsible. The rot is deep and dangerous. Those poor victims of the crash are gone in a fiery ball. Air India will limp along ..... before the airline itself crash lands and disappears without a trace. My heart goes out to the families of those who died.... our prayers are with you in your darkest hour.
This appeared in the Asian Age...
How does one explain the ‘shaap’ of ‘khaap’ to a predominantly Italian, very earnest audience attending an Indian author’s formal presentation at the prestigious Book Fair in Turin? Frankly, I was stumped! I mean, the implications of ‘Gotra’ with all its complex interpretations is tough enough for most Indians to comprehend, leave alone crack. Imagine then, having to respond to questions posed in an alien language about ‘honour killings’ while the frail interpreter bravely soldiers on before throwing up her hands and shrugging helplessly. This was but one stumbling block during all those interminable interviews lined up by my publishers at what is undoubtedly the biggest and most prestigious book fair in Italy. Desi writers were the flavour of this one, given that India was the focus country. From the dapper Vikas Swarup ( surely a millionaire by now, post- the stupendous success of ‘Slumdog…’?) to the formidable, lathi wielding Sampat Pal representing the Pink Saree brigade, this book fair saw them all. Unfortunately, individual author- schedules are so tightly controlled by their publishers, it is nearly impossible to meet other invitees except while rushing from one interview to the next. I did manage to snatch a brief conversation with Swarup ( we had met recently at the Dubai Lit Fest ), and even chase him out of the grand Publishers’ Gala on my last night in Torino – a gem-like city known for The Shroud. It isn’t as awful as it sounds – my intentions towards our man in Osaka , Vikas Swarup, were entirely noble. I had just come back from a whirlwind tour of the city, with a significant stopover at the modest, unassuming Cathedral which houses a world famous relic – The Shroud of Turin. I was told by Pepe ( an investment banker who used to work in Mumbai), that I was especially blessed to be in Turin during the public viewing of The Shroud ( this rare viewing was organized by the local church authorities in honour of the Pope who was visiting Turin last month ). Pepe added fervently, “ The next public viewing could be after another twenty years.” Chances are, I won’t be around then…. so, thanks to Pepe, I managed to get past the long queues of pilgrims and spend time right in front of this historic piece of cloth that believers insist was used to wrap the body of Jesus Christ , after the Crucifixion.
I rushed from the viewing to the grand Gala , and was clearly in a ‘state’ – overwhelmed by the Shroud. I met Swarup and a few other desi writers making boring, desultory conversation at a round table towards the back of the huge salon. I announced triumphantly, “ Guess what?? I just saw The Shroud!” Only Swarup looked suitably impressed as he enquired, “ Where? When? How?” Since the Cathedral was just a ten minute walk away, I urged him to abandon his glass of red wine and rush before the imposing doors shut. His local minder wasn’t convinced – perhaps she wanted to relax after a hard day’s work shepherding Swarup from interview to interview. But my obvious over- enthusiasm did the trick. Swarup firmly told her to get her butt off the gilded chair and take him to the blessed Cathedral. I gave them precise directions like I was the local Shroud expert or something. Swarup didn’t need further persuasion – he was off ! It was time for me to get myself a glass of the best. I could see some of our other erudite authors engaged in deep, meaningful conversations with agents and publishers. I half wondered whether they too were trying to deconstruct ‘Khaap’. I was about to speed dial Naveen Jindal to get the last word on the subject. But decided to spare the guy. He was in enough hot water back home in India. I looked around for Abbas Tyrewala, the talented writer I’d run into at the fair earlier in the day. We’d chatted jaldi jaldi and I had narrated my Frankfurt airport woes to him ( usual SRK type story of being searched and questioned by rude cops). Abbas laughed and said cheekily, “Well…. make sure you aren’t wearing a burqa the next time.” Clearly a guy with a great sense of humour – I would have liked to hang with him. But he wasn’t around. Neither was Kiran Desai though she had been sighted leaving the Valentino Palazzo after her presentation. The ‘other’ Kiran ( Nagarkar ) an important invitee, couldn’t be spotted either. I had stopped outside the India Pavilion to hear him speak. This is what he was saying, “ Don’t get me wrong…. I don’t mean to sound pompous or pretentious… but let me go back to Mahatma Gandhi.” Okayyyyy. Let’s! I’d noticed a couple of desi publishers hanging around the India Pavilion ogling the ‘Goris’ shamelessly. And yes, I had also noticed some rather luscious looking, alarmingly young Italian ladies accompanying Tarun Tejpal. One of them blushed when she coyly introduced herself as his ‘editor’. Wow! Lucky Tarun. His book must be beautifully edited. But the one tome I was dying to get my hands proved to be most elusive. It is titled ‘The Red Saree’, and is written by a Spanish journalist. The subject? Explosive!! I understand it is a detailed, racy and well- researched bio of….. of… hold your breath….Sonia Gandhi. I want it! I want it baaaaaad!! Quick before it’s banned, folks.
Aah…. The India Pavilion. Predictably tacky. Predictably unimaginative. Predictably shabby. Sooooo smacking of indifferent Babudom. Some lazy bugger in Delhi must have ‘designed’ this sad space, stuck a few watercolours on the shaky walls, got half a dozen photographs depicting ‘Cliché India’ , shot by an Italian photographer and prego! You had a pavilion! Even the politest Italians at the Fair pointed out how dreadful the India corner was and compared it to the efforts put in by last year’s focus country – Egypt. I cringed each time I had to pass the place and see the pathetic ‘entertainment’ organized between author interactions. Once I watched in horror as a local Indian woman was all set to educate the savvy Italians on how to wear a saree .I could have done a better job of that one, considering I was wearing a saree myself - plus, they’d have got my demo for free, in the larger interests of the endangered saree! Another time, I wanted to plug my ears when I heard the strains of a sitar being strummed like a guitar with a manic tabla player in over drive accompanying the musician.
This is how it always goes whenever officialdom gets into the picture. For some perverse reason, we refuse to acknowledge or recognize opportunity, even when it is presented on platter. As the country in focus, surely we could have represented ourselves better? It was left to individual writers to ‘do the needful’, as they say in Dilli, on behalf of poor India. True, most of us had been invited by our Italian publishers and not the Sahitya Akademi ( thank God for small mercies), but had some initiative been taken to co- ordinate efforts and present visiting authors to readers over a cuppa at the India Pavilion, it wouldn’t have hurt. If anything, it would have greatly enhanced our country’s value and drawn attention to the roster of very accomplished, hugely talented and radically different voices present. I understand there was a soiree of sorts organized by a certain Saurabh Kumar, Charge d’Affaires, Embassy of India, but my invite reached me after the event. Typical!!
Mera Bharat Mahaan, indeed!