Mussorie Posts

“A Crackerjack Life” by Rajiv Tyagi

Ex-fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Rajiv Tyagi has built a formidable reputation on social media for his forthright opinions on contemporary politics. Apart from his posts being very informative, his is an influential and sane voice on social media where fake news goes viral rapidly. It is no wonder then that he has accrued more than 50,000 followers on Facebook alone.

Recently he published a collection of essays/stories that recalled incidents from his experience as an Air Force Officer and more. A Crackerjack Life is a memoir with a difference as it is not a straightforward narrative but a series of short pieces strung together, more or less chronologically, to chart the fascinating life Rajiv Tyagi has led. From being a little child who was travelling alone from Indonesia to his grandparents in Meerut so that he could then be sent on to boarding school in Mussorie, his passion for high altitude trekking, to later his absolutely fascinating accounts of serving in the IAF in various border postings, witnessing some incredible encounters that if he had not seen for himself would be relegated to modern myth making such as the convoys of Red Army and Blue Army suddenly finding themselves in together rather than on opposite sides but no one dared say or do anything but quietly parted ways. There are many more incidents some very personal and heartwarming such as the one about his classmate Virender whose leg had to be amputated after being diagnosed with cancer and how he was received by his classmates at school. Having said that the stories and experiences shared do to a large extent quell the annoying presence of editing mistakes but not necessarily overcome it. Perhaps the next edition of the book will be better edited. For now the brisk sales of this book since its release a few weeks ago are a testimony to Rajiv Tyagi’s passionate storytelling with a great eye for detail.

A Crackerjack Life is a delightful collection of memorably evocative stories. The stories are significant too for highlighting the richly diverse, secular, tolerant and democratic space that was newly independent India and hopefully will forever be.

With the author’s permission the following extract from the book is being published here.

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PERSUASION

Thanks to an egalitarian, agnostic father and the Armed Forces, I did not know what a gotra was, till I reached my late twenties. Hindus assert that every single one of them, Chitra, Pappu and Manoj, are descended from an ascetic saint. My paternal line is said to descend from a Rishi Gautam. My gotra therefore is Gautam.

My father did his schooling in the Gurukul Kangri school and then college, in Hardwar in the 1940s. They wore dhotis and langot, spoke Sanskrit fluently, and wore wooden khadaaon (wooden slippers) on their feet. The day began at 4 AM, with a swim in the Ganga canal outside the college, followed with a bath, change and havan (Hindu congregational prayer), before breakfast and classes. Except for the discipline, which he maintained for himself all his life, despite failing miserably to instil any of it in his children, he found little to commend for his life in the Gurukul. For when he reached Germany to study Medicine at Munich University in 1950, he found his knowledge of Science and the world around him severely lacking in comparison to other students who had studied in Germany or in Anglo Indian schools in India. His edge over others, in conversational Sanskrit and his facility at reciting Vedic shlokas from memory, he found useful only as curiosities. He had to work extra hours to catch up on what he had missed of human knowledge, while he was learning what turned out to be mere trivia, useful only to regale the Sanskrit and Vedic illiterate.

A strapping, tall, athletic and handsome man, he exuded, on his occasional outings in churidaar-achkan and turban, the aura of an Oriental prince. He and his friends cultivated the image to the hilt, telling their German friends how shocked they were to see a poor nation like theirs, where everyone re-used crockery instead of throwing it away after use. The suggestion from a fellow Indian student, that they might be exaggerating just a wee bit, was met with the query how he would describe a ‘mitti ka shakora’! And if that would not constitute Indian crockery? And did he in his home, wash a shakora to re-use it?

He lived as a paying guest, in a room rented from a widow he called Mutter (Mother), dining with the family at their table; the family comprising his land lady and a pretty daughter, who Mutter was eager to marry off to this young man who would soon be Herr Doktor.

After graduating, on Mutter’s suggestion that he convert to Christianity, Herr Doktor escaped from pretty daughter and Germany, learned Italian while interning in a hospital in Italy, befriended some Catholic priests, who taught him enough Latin to show off to other Europeans and made his way back by ship to India, taking up his first job as a resident, at the Bhowali Sanatorium, in what is now Uttarakhand.

My Mother, Sharmaji ki chhoti beti (the younger daughter of Mr. Sharma), then an 18 year old beauty with impossibly thick tresses woven into two plaits, lived a few lanes away from my grand parents’ home in Meerut. It was a match made in heaven, said the astrologers from both families. Whereupon my father was summoned by means of telegram, to hurry home forthwith, as he was to be married to a girl they had chosen for him.

In my grand parents’ home, food was dropped from a height into the outstretched palms of the woman who came to clean the toilets and who they called the bhangan. In my parents’ home, infused with the liberal egalitarianism of a Western culture, the driver and maids used the same crockery and cutlery as we did. This dichotomy did not escape me, though I did not question it. My mother would tell us stories in Hindi, from the Ramayan and my father from the Mahabharat, interspersed now and then with long passages in Sanskrit, from some obscure version of the grand epic. But at no time do I remember being taught to pray, even though my Mother was a practising Hindu and a temple goer. She did tell us which god was which and how to recognize them.

My connect with prayer came only after I was admitted to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns in Mussoorie, in Class 2. Visits to the chapel and the whole atmosphere of religiosity were annoying to me. This improved when I moved to St. George’s College, inasmuch as there was never an air of religiosity within its environment. By Class 4, I had found a treasure trove of Greek mythology in the school library, along with some fascinating books for children, on magnetism and electricity. I consumed them voraciously, some even during Miss Dhillon’s classes! Sometime towards the end of Class 5, after a heavy diet of Greek mythology, magnetism and electricity, I experienced an epiphany – that religions are a collective and organized scam, propagated through stories that were pure fairy tales and fantasy. That was the beginning of my life as a rationalist, a humanist and an atheist.

To buy the book: Paperback and Kindle

13 July 2018

Ruskin Bond “A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches”

Ruskin Bond’s latest book — A Time For All Things is a collection of his essays and sketches or he would prefer to refer to them as “short prose pieces”.  It is the perfect bedtime reading book. Short, pleasantly written essays, in gentle English, evocative of a period gone by without being wistful. I do not know how to put it except to say that within each essay ( that I have read so far) I find in it resides a wonderful mix of happiness and pure joy. Such a peaceful, meditative quality to the essays that they are the perfect end to a hectic and busy day. I love the manner in which the essays are wonderful reminders of how we must pause and appreciate the beauty around us. Of course not all of us are as fortunate as Mr Bond is to live up in the mountains but even so we can pause and appreciate. I love the way he merges the sacred and the secular without underlining faith crudely as has become fashionable today. It is such a pleasure to experience. Many of these pieces will be familiar as having been anthologised in other collections for young and old, but it does not matter since it is a pleasure to have them gathered in one place.

Here are a few extracts to illustrate:

…the other day, taking a narrow path that left the dry Mussorie ridge to link up with Pari Tibba ( Fairy Hill), I ran across a path of lush green grass, and I knew there had to be water there.

The grass was soft and springy, spotted with the crimson of small, wild strawberries. Delicate maidenhair, my favourite fern, grew from a cluster of moist, glistening rocks. Moving the ferns a little, I discovered the spring, a freshlet of clear sparkling water.

I never cease to wonder at the tenacity of water — its ability to make its way through various strata of rock, zigzagging, back tracking, finding space, cunningly discovering faults and fissures in the mountain, and sometimes travelling underground for great distances before emerging into the open. Of course, there’s no stopping water. for no matter how tiny that little trickle, it has to go somewhere!

“A Marriage of the Waters”

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In May and June, when the hills were brown and dry, it was always cool and green near the stream, where ferns and maidenhair and long grasses continued to thrive. Downstream I found a small pool where I could bathe, and a cave with water dripping from the roof, the water spangled gold and silver in the shafts of sunlight that pushed through the slits in the cave roof. ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters.’ Perhaps David had discovered a similar paradise when he wrote those words; perhaps I too would write good words. The hill station’s summer visitors had not discovered this haven of wild and green things, I was beginning to feel that the place belonged to me, that dominion was mine.

“A Time for All Things”

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When I was a boy I would occasionally visit Hardwar, sometimes in the company of my lost friend Kishen. In my first novel, The Room on the Roof, I have described how we crossed the Ganga in a small boat accompanied by a number of pilgrims, all chanting ‘Ganga-mai ki jai!’ It was a moving experience, both in my story and in reality. And whenever I visited Hardwar, I would sing out ‘Ganga-mai ki jai’ with whoever was with me.

I am not a religious person, but I have always been moved by the devotion of others. Every evening, after Beena ( my grand-daughter) has done her pooja, she brings me prasad, and I accept it humbly and gratefully because it is the symbol of her goodness and devotion. to light a candle is better than to curse the darkness.

And so here I am, in my eighties, trying to gather my thoughts and to see if I have any great thoughts. But none come to me. You must do your own thinking, dear reader.

“Thoughts on Passing Eighty”

( These extracts have been published with permission from Speaking Tiger)

Buy the book. Treasure it. Share it. You will not regret it.

Ruskin Bond A Time for All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 400. Rs. 499

26 March 2018

Ruskin Bond “A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills”

Ruskin BondLove your art, poor as it may be, which you have learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has entrusted to the gods with his whole soul and all that he has, making yourself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man. – Marcus Aurelius

‘Love your art, poor as it may be…’ I have never regretted following this precept, despite the fact that it was sometimes difficult to make ends meet as a writer. The gift for putting together words and sentences to make stories or poems or essays has carried me through life with a certain serenity and inner harmony, which could not have come from any unloved vocation.

Within my own ‘art’ I think I have known my limitations and worked within them, thus sparing myself the bitter disappointment that comes to those whose ambitions stretch far beyond their talents. To know one’s limitations and to do good work within them: more is achieved that way than by overreaching oneself. It is no use trying to write a masterpiece every year if you are so made as to write only one in ten or twenty. In between, there are other good things that can be written — smaller things but satisfying in their own way. 

Do what you know best, and do it well. Act impeccably. Everything will then fall into place. 

Because I have loved my art, I think I have been able to pass through life without being any man’s slave or tyrant. I doubt I have ever written a story or essay or workaday article unless I have really wanted to write it. And in this way I have probably suffered materially, because I have never attempted a blockbuster of a novel, or a biography of a celebrity, or a soap opera. But in the end things have worked out well. I am a writer without regrets, and that is no small achievement! 

(p.73-75)

Ruskin Bond is well known in India for his stories and essays about childhood, the time he spent with his grandparents, schooldays, descriptions of life and nature in Mussorie and of course, his innumerable short stories such as “The Blue Umbrella”. A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills is a compilation of years of wisdom distilled and offered simply. These range from reflections upon life, to what constitutes love, learning to be at peace with yourself, observations on Nature. There is plenty to mull over in this slim book. What comes through extraordinary well in this book is how beautifully intertwined the concepts of nurturing and honing one’s art are. In life, nurturing requires immense amounts of patience, huge dollops of love, observation, reflection and judicious amounts of nourishment to ensure a healthy life. Similarly with one’s craft –slowly and steadily with time it improves. One of my favourite passages from the book is:

The wild ginger was in flower. So was agrimony, lady’s lace, wild geranium. The ferns were turning yellow. The fruit of the snake lily had turned red, signifying an end to the rains. A thrush whistled on the branch of a dead walnut tree. A tiny swarm of butterflies rose from behind a lime-green bush. ( p.28)

Evocative.

A Book of Simple Living is Speaking Tiger’s inaugural title. Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/ and on 20150303_113530Twitter @speakingtiger14 ) is a division of FEEL Books Private Limited, a book publishing and distribution company based in Delhi. It was founded in September 2014 by Manas Saikia and Ravi Singh. Publishing primarily in English, Speaking Tiger will build a diverse and inclusive list, with no fixed agenda other than to bring to readers quality fiction and non-fiction across genres.

20150303_113545Ruskin Bond’s A Book of Simple Living is a fine book. A great blessing from a well-established writer to a fledgling publishing house. Having thoroughly enjoyed this book, one to treasure too, I cannot help but feel that these are the slim pickings from a memoir.  Ruskin Bond is working upon it. It will be published by Speaking Tiger in December 2015. I look forward to it.

Ruskin Bond A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills Speaking Tiger, an imprint of FEEL Books Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 160 Rs 350 

3 March 2015

Literary festivals in India, Brunch, Hindustan Times, 12 Jan 2014

Literary festivals in India, Brunch, Hindustan Times, 12 Jan 2014

Today my article on literary festivals of India has been published in the Brunch, Hindustan TimesThe title in print is called “Booked & Hooked” and online it is ” Your guide to litfests this season”Here is the link to the online version: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/your-guide-to-litfests-this-season/article1-1171368.aspx. Meanwhile I am c&p the longer version of the article published.) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

“I attend literary festivals to meet authors, to see another dimension to their life, listen to the heated conversations, introduce my four-year-old twin sons to famous people, and inculcate a sense of reading culture in them,” says Umesh Dubey, first-generation entrepreneur who takes his family to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) for the entire week.

A literary festival can be defined as a space where writers and readers meet, usually an annual event in a city or as “literature in performance”. Must-have elements include panel discussions with a healthy mix of new and seasoned writers, Q&As with the audience, author signing sessions, workshops related to writing and publishing, book launches, bookstores, a food court, and entertainment in the evenings. And – hopefully also – intellectually stimulating conversations, a relaxed ambience, picturesque setting, good weather (no dry days!), and networking possibilities.

In India, literary festivals came into vogue with the astounding success of Jaipur Literature Festival, which began in 2006 . The timing was right, soon after the Christmas holidays/ winter break, in January, when Rajasthan is a favourite tourist destination. To organise a festival in the Diggi Palace Grounds, chatting with authors most readers have only admired from afar while sipping the hot Diggi chai in earthen cups, basking in the warm winter sun, listening to crackling good conversations and at times heated debates, and as darkness descends, preparing to hear the musicians who will perform… it made for quite a heady experience. And if at any point you get weary of the crowds and the conversations, it is easy to step out for a jaunt as a tourist and explore Jaipur. This basic template has begun to be emulated across the country.

jaiput-lit-festAccording to the Jaipur Litfest producer, Sanjoy Roy, the intention is to create “a democratic access system of first-come-first-seated where we treat everyone as our guests and do not make a fuss over VIPs. The colour and design create a sense of an Indian mela.” Of course prior to JLF, India did have a fair share of literary “festivals” like Ajeet Caur’s SAARC Literature Festivals, or those that were organised at the Sanskriti Anandgram in Delhi or even the early editions of the Katha festivals, but admittedly none were on a fabulous scale, nor were they open to the public. According to Maina Bhagat, director, Apeejay Kolkata Festival, “The city is the biggest player in the festival”.

So what explains the runaway success of today’s literature festivals? Says poet K. Satchidanadan, “There is a whole urban and semi-urban middle class youth eager to meet authors and listen to them in a festive atmosphere. The publishers are interested in releasing their books there and having their authors on the platform. The authors are interested in meeting other authors and also readers. Cities also get to be on the literary map of India with such celebrations.” Ananth Padmanabhan, senior vice-president, sales, Penguin India, says, “With social media dominating mind space, festivals are a great place to sit back and connect readers to writers; such an engagement opportunity was lacking.” In fact, festival-hopping has resulted in a modern-day phenomenon of the festival junkie: People who move from festival to festival.

Of late the Indian economy may have been in the doldrums but there is no denying that post-liberalisation, more and more people have disposable income, they do want to invest in culture and what better way than to make it a family outing? It is a democratic patronage of the arts. It is also a reflection of how much India is becoming a writing culture rather than a reading culture.

Arshia Sattar, who through Sangam House organises Lekhana Literary Weekend  (an extension of the Sangam House international writers’ residency programme that is run outside Bangalore) and is also jury member, DSC Award for Literature 2014, says, “My concern is that we are moving further away from ‘literature’ and closer to writing. I think if we had fewer ‘festivals’ and if they had  a focus rather than being all things to all people (which is probably what their sponsors want in terms of ‘footfalls’) . . .we might see people stepping out to literary events with dedication.”

Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette India, says, “There is not a single real benefit any festival brings to a publisher. And there are a number of cons – it costs a lot to get your author up there for almost no returns on investment, and zero promotional benefit. Yes, if you switch off the business aspect, for the audience it’s a great platform to see your favourite authors, and for authors a great platform to cross-commune with other writers. For editors it’s a good networking and ideas engagement opportunity. But in terms of sales or author brand building, go back to every single festival and put down the authors and their titles and see the impact of either media coverage or sales, and you’ll see not one has moved beyond their earlier levels. Some very successful (read great stage performances) sessions do result in immediate brisker sales at the venue bookshop, but even those are minimal – anything between 30 copies to 100 copies.” Adds Diya Kar Hazra, publisher, trade, Bloomsbury, “There are so many literary festivals these days – sometimes two or three in one city. The writer is expected to do more than just write these days – they blog, they tweet, they have pages on FB. They appear at festivals and events reading from their books and having conversations with fellow writers. The reader–writer relationship has changed, as a result. Authors are much more accessible than they ever were.”

Author Shovon Chowdhury who released his debut novel, The Competent Authority, earlier this year says that attending literary festivals “feels good. You feel special. I’m not jaded yet, so I enjoy it. I also love meeting lots of interesting people, including some super-intelligent ones. It gives me a dose of much needed perspective and humility. Plus there’s free meals.”

An attractive feature of a literary festival is the free entry. This requires the festival management to scour for private sponsors, funds and collaborations that will help in putting together the extravaganza and these could be either in money or in kind. In many case, corporate house are willing to assist with sponsorship for the brand visibility and media coverage. Recently tourism departments and state governments have partnered with festivals which is understandable given the positive impact festivals can have on the local economy. For instance, in a dipstick survey the JLF management did last year, it was estimated that approximately Rs 20 crores of additional spend could be attributed to JLF in Jaipur on account of accommodation, restaurant and shopping. Even this is set to change. The inaugural edition of the Pune International Literature Festival had ticketed entry. Comic Con too proposes to sell tickets in 2014.

Much of the success of the festivals depends on the programme created, parallel sessions, selection of the moderators and if necessary, themes selected. It is also heavily dependent upon the curation, storyboard to the chemistry between the panelists.  Altaf Tyrewala, Director, Chandigarh Literature Festival, says “The organizers and I were struggling to think of how CLF could be different from other literary festivals. We realized that in the circus, we often lose sight of the book, the very foundation of literature! So we decided that CLF would showcase the book, and nothing but the book. We decided to let active literary critics nominate that one book that had stayed with them over the past decade. There was a general agreement on what constituted a good book. Naturally, the discussion between the author and the nominating critic was focused entirely on the book in question. It made every session riveting, and more importantly the invitees realized that their presence was crucial to the festival’s format.” It helps to do some thinking in advance to avoid embarrassing incidents as happened at a recently concluded festival. The moderator was informed just before stepping on to the stage that the authors lined up were commercial-fiction authors. The response, the moderator shuddered and said, “I would never read such authors!”

The buzz around festivals is tremendous. But the bubble may soon burst as has happened with book launches. People will weary of them if they happen too often. They will lose their charm for various reasons. As writer Ravi Subramanian points out, “The divisions between the literary and commercial authors are becoming apparent at these festivals.” Second, most of the festivals are conducted predominantly in English, though slowly this too is changing, to reflect and represent the local languages and the international participants. There are writers who have begun to feel bored and disillusioned  with these festivals that often sustain and strengthen the hierarchies among writers, dividing them into “stars” and ordinary writers. Even the most ordinary Indian English writers acquire “stardom” while the best of language writers are often time-fillers invited most often to show that they too are represented.

Over the years the festivals have come to align themselves before and after the December/Christmas holidays, making it easier for authors to mark their presence at more than one event. The length and dates of the festivals are also determined by collaborating partners. In fact Surya Rao, director, Hyderabad Literary Festival, says, “We avoid a clash of dates with other major lit festivals because we check the dates of other fests. The Jaipur fest happens to be the closest to us.”

Maybe Indian festival organisers will collaborate with each other as happens in other countries like Australia.

A possible “classification” of literary festivals. 

There are so many literary festivals being organised in India that one has to create some sort of “classification”. For instance, festivals that have stood the test of time of a minimum period of three years, grown in popularity (as measured by the increasing audience participation), established a brand in their name and proven to be sustainable in terms of the sponsorship would probably be at the top of the list. These would be the major milestones in the festival calendar – Jaipur ( Jaipur Literature Festival), Calcutta (Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and Kolkata Literary Meet) , Chennai (Hindu Lit for Life), Mumbai (Kalaghoda, Times of India festival), Hyderabad Literary Festival and the Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters.

Then there is what could be termed as a “sub-genre” – that is, equally strong brands, dealing with genres of literature which are not necessarily given sufficient space for intense engagement, such as Bookaroo (children’s literature) organised in Delhi and in Pune (in collaboration with Sakaal Times), ComicCon (comics and graphic novels), Samanvay (Indian languages) in collaboration with the India Habitat Centre,, Cultures of Peace: Festival of the Northeast (Women and Human Rights) organised by Zubaan, Poetry with Prakriti (poems), Mussoorie Writers Festival (mountain and travel writing) organised by Stephen Alter and Lekhana (a long literary weekend).

Finally there are the relatively new festivals that are as yet to establish themselves, but people are already familiar with them – Bangalore, Kasauli, Shillong, Agra, Lucknow, Benaras, Patna, Bhubhaneshwar, Chandigarh, Pune, and Kovalam. And there are still more being organised.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose