Monday, February 20, 2017

Portogruaro: The Medieval River Port

Portogruaro is a quaint little town in the north-east of Italy. It is a popular holiday destination in the summer. However it is not just a holiday town, it has its own history and culture. It is worth a visit if you are holidaying in this part of the Adriatic coast of Italy. (Image: The leaning bell-tower and the First World War monument in Portogruaro)

The northern part of the Adriatic Coast of Italy is famous for its summer-holidays towns like Jesolo, Caorle, Bibione and Lignano Sabbia d'Oro. While enjoying the beautiful blue sea and its related charms, holidays in this area can be an opportunity to discover the history, art and culture of some of the smaller towns like Portogruaro.


Portogruaro started as the river port for an ancient Roman town called Concordia, located 6 km away. However, with time it became bigger and more important than its parent town. One legend says that the town was built with the stones of the ruins of Concordia-Sagittaria after the parent town was destroyed by Attila the Hun in the 5th century.

The first historical document mentioning Portogruaro is from 1140 CE in which the Bishop of Concordia gave permission to some merchants to build a port on the Lemene river. Another document from Pope Urban from 1186 CE also talked about the prosperous Port of Gruaro and its mills, thus by that time the city had already started to grow.

In 1420 Portogruaro came under the protection of Republic of Venice. In 1797 it became part of the French dominion of Napoleon who gave it away to the Austrians. It remained under the Austrian rule till 1866. Some statues of the Venetian lion in Portogruaro were destroyed by the French while during the first World War, some of its buildings and bridges were damaged by the Austrians.


The city stands on the banks of the Lemene river and is also called the Lemene Queen. The Lemene river merges with Livenza river before ending in Adriatic sea. It has different buildings from the medieval and renaissance periods. Its main roads show various buildings in the late Gothic and Venetian styles, marking it clearly as a medieval town. (Image: Lemene river in the city centre)

Republic square with the municipal building of Portogruaro, is the core of city and is visually very striking. The municipal building was originally built in 1265, however the present building is from the fifteenth century and is very beautiful. The square includes the white coloured monument to soldiers who had died in the first world war, known locally as "The Horse". (Image: The 15th century Municipal building & the First World War monument)

The square has an old well like fountain called Pozzetto del Pilacorte - it has two herons that are a part of the city's official symbol (in the image below).

Just behind this square is the Cathedral of Portogruaro with its leaning bell tower. The cathedral is dedicated to St Andreas (in the first image on the top).

The Municipal building, the leaning bell tower peeping from behind the old houses surrounding the square, with their "bifora" and "trifora" windows in Venetian styles, and the white coloured soldiers' monument, all combine to give this square a very distinctive look.

The city has two main roads on the two sides of the river with small streets going out like the teeth of a comb. This means that walking around the city you can frequently meet the river and its canals and see some of the old medieval bridges, that give this town a very distinctive ambiance.

From the bridge on the river Lemene in the city centre, you can still see the water-wheels used for the mills that lined its banks in the medieval past (in the image below).

Portogruaro, has many other buildings of historical interest including the medieval towers guarding the entry to the city. It also has some museums including the City Museum and the Archaeological Museum.

During our short visit, we visited only the municipal square, some bridges and the shopping areas. However, as this brief introduction shows, we need to go back to discover more of this city. (Image: Old houses in the city centre)


Portogruaro is a tiny river town with medieval houses, a lovely square with interesting architecture and a leaning bell tower. If you are on holidays in this north-eastern part of Italy, Portogruaro is worth a visit.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Assam Tea, Bruce Brothers & Maniram Dewan

A Scotsman, Robert Bruce is credited with the “discovery” of tea in Assam in India. I think that it is anachronistic that 70 years after the end of colonial rule in India, we still continue to use the colonists’ ideas about discovering the world, so that if something was not “discovered” by the west, it did not exist.

And if we want to credit Robert Bruce for having “discovered” the tea in Assam, why do we forget the name of the person, Maniram Dewan, who had made it possible for him to make the discovery? (Image below: Statue of Maniram Dewan at the Freedom Fighters Memorial, Guwahati, Assam)

This is the story of two brothers from Scotland and an Indian. The names of the Scottish brothers are known for the discovery of tea while the Indian is known as a freedom fighter. I think that there were more links between them than is commonly believed. This post explores these ideas.

Discovery of the tea in Assam

It is said that in 1823, a 17 years old boy Maniram Dutta Baruah helped Robert Bruce to find the tea bushes in Assam. He took Robert to meet the chief of Singpo tribal village, who collected wild tea in upper Assam. Unfortunately, Robert died in 1824. The further “discovery” and development of Assamese tea is credited to his younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce.

History books do not tell, how and where did Robert Bruce come in contact with Maniram and what was the relationship between them. However, later the same Maniram became an important figure in the freedom struggle of India in Assam.

Historical Background

In late 1500, Venetian merchants introduced tea from China to Europe. By 1610, Portuguese and Dutch traders were bringing Chinese tea to Europe. Tea drinking became popular in Britain in 17th century, especially after King Charles II married Catherine of Breganza from Portugal, who liked to drink tea. Import of tea from China increased and became costly.

In the 18th century, East India Company (EIC) started selling opium to China and by 1773, it was their leading supplier. By starting Opium cultivation in India and using this opium to pay for the Chinese tea, the profits of EIC increased.

In the 18th century, the British had started looking for alternate places for growing tea in their colonies. For example, Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society in London, in a letter dated 27 December 1788 to the deputy chairman of East India Company explained that Bihar, Rangpur (in Assam) and Cooch Bihar (in W. Bengal) could be suitable for tea growing in India. He suggested to EIC to “convince” the Chinese tea growers to bring tea plants and start tea plantations in India.

In 1833, the Chinese agreement with EIC about the supply of tea in exchange of opium ended. China informed EIC that they did not want to import opium as it was hurting the health of their population. The British troops with Indian soldiers attacked China, forcing them to continue to accept opium. Well known author Amitav Ghosh in his wonderful trilogy of books starting with the “Sea of Poppies” has explored this issue in some detail.

In the same year, 1833, Lord Bentick of EIC constituted the Tea Committee in Calcutta and charged it with the task of growing of tea in India.

Tea traditions in Asia and Pre-British India

Tea drinking has a long tradition in China. From China it spread to neighbouring countries. Ancient records show tea drinking in Korea in the 6th century and in Japan in the 9th century CE.

Tribal communities in contiguous geographical areas of India, China and Myanmar had known tea shrubs for hundreds of years.

The Singpo tribe which had helped Robert Bruce to find tea shrubs in Assam, is spread over neighbouring areas of Myanmar and China. They are called Jingpo in Myanmar and Xunchu in south-west China (especially Yunnan). They call themselves Jinghpaw Wunpawung. They are most numerous in Myanmar in the geographical area of Kachin (and are also known as Kachin), with significant groups in south-west China and some groups in north-east of India (in Arunachal Pradesh and Upper Assam).

The main species of the tea shrub in China is Camellia sinensis while the tea shrubs found in Assam were of its sub-species, Camellia assamica.

The Bruce Brothers and the Discovery of Tea in Assam

Robert and Charles Alexander Bruce were born in Edinburgh, Robert in 1789 and Charles, 4 years later in 1793.

Life of Robert Bruce: In 1807, 18 years old Robert graduated as an army cadet. Soon, he was part of the EIC army. It is not very clear when exactly did he reach India. For a few years, he was in the Maratha regiment and later in Bengal Artillery, for which he received a pension from EIC.

In 1814, the 25 years old Robert was living in Bengal, where he supported one Mr Brajnath’s claim to be the king of Cooch Bihar. Both Brajnath and Robert were arrested by David Scott, agent of EIC Governor General in Assam, but Robert was given a bail.

In 1817, Burmese forces occupied Upper Assam, however this did not stop the fights between different Assamese kings. In 1820 Robert had joined the army of Purandar Singha, in Rangpur (part of present day Sibsagar in Assam), in his fight with Chandrakant Singha for the Ahom throne of Upper Assam. In 1821, Robert was captured by Chandrakant, who asked him to become part of his army. Thus Robert changed sides and became a fighter for Chandrakant Singha.

By this time, he was also the owner of a factory (probably, an opium factory) at Jogigopho near Goalpara (Assam) and he had maintained contacts with EIC.

In 1823, 17 years old Maniram took Robert to meet the chief of Singpo clan village called Bessa Gaum and showed him the local tea shrubs. Robert knew that the British were looking for indigenous tea plants for growing tea in Assam. However, before he could do anything with his new found knowledge, he died in early 1824 at the age of 35 years.

Life of Charles Bruce: Robert’s younger brother, 16 years old Charles Alexander Bruce, had left Britain in 1809 on a ship as a midshipman. In the following years, he was involved in the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France in the Mediterranean Sea. He was captured by the French navy and kept as a prisoner in Mauritius. He was freed when the British took over Mauritius. He also took part in the EIC war in Java (Indonesia).

We don’t know when exactly did Charles arrive in India but in 1824, when his brother Robert died, he was living in Assam. After his brother’s death, he sent the Singpo tea shrubs to the Botanical Garden in Calcutta.

In 1824, EIC decided to launch a war against the Burmese in Upper Assam (first Anglo-Burmese war). Charles was part of this war, responsible for a gun boat. In 1825, British were able to defeat and send back the Burmese. After the war, Charles became the Gun Boat commander at the British outpost in Sadiya to the north of Dibrugarh.

The role of Nathaniel Wallich: Meanwhile there was no news from Calcutta about the tea shrubs Charles had sent there. Nathaniel Wallich, the director of Royal Botanical Gardens in Calcutta travelled to western parts of India in 1825 and to Assam and Burma in 1826-27, coming back with thousands of specimens of plants. In 1828, he went to London with 8,000 samples of plants. Four years later, in 1832, he came back from London and informed Charles that the tea shrubs samples from Assam sent in 1824 were not the real tea plants.

In 1833, when the tea treaty with China expired, a Tea Committee was formed in Calcutta, with G. J. Gordon as its secretary. Nathaniel Wallich was also a member of the committee. Gordon was sent to China to procure the tea plants and expertise for growing tea in India. In the meantime, Gordon’s assistant, Mr Charleston sent more samples of Assamese tea shrubs to the Horticultural society, which confirmed that these were real tea plants. Gordan was called back from China while Charleston was given a gold medal for the discovery of the Assamese tea plants.

Charles' efforts to show his tea-growing expertise: Charles Bruce was based in Sadiya, and he had continued to study the tea plants of the Singpo. His expertise was recognised by the EIC Tea Committee and in 1835, he was given the tea seeds brought from China and asked to grow them. However, the results of growing Chinese tea seeds were disappointing. In 1836 Charles took the Singpo tea plants and started a cultivation in Sadiya, samples of which were liked by the tea committee in Calcutta. In 1837, Charles sent his tea to London where they reached in 1838 and were auctioned with great success in 1839. Finally Charles and his Assam tea became famous.

In 1839, Wallich and Charleston had to agree that the original plants collected by Robert and sent by Charles were the real tea plants and thus finally Bruce brothers’ contribution to “discovery” of tea was recognised by EIC.

In 1839, Wallich accompanied by other botanists visited Upper Assam including Sadiya. Following this visit, Charles was appointed as the Superintendent of Tea Culture in Assam. In 1840, he became the superintendent of northern region of the newly created Assam Tea Company.

In his new role as the tea expert, Charles made different suggestions to the EIC. For example, in his report to the Tea Committee dated 10 June 1839, he suggested to them to involve Indians in running the tea plantations and to bring labour for the tea plantations from other parts of India. He was against the production of opium in Assam and recommended to levy taxes on opium import because opium caused misery and opium addicts were not fit to work in the plantations.

His suggestions were not accepted by EIC. In 1845, Charles Bruce was discharged from Assam Tea Company and he retired to Tezpur where he died in 1871. His wife Elisabeth, continued to live in Tezpur and died in 1885. Both Charles and Elisabeth were buried in the old cemetery of Tezpur.

Dewan Maniram Dutta Baruah

Maniram was born in 1806, his family was employed by Ahom kings in Rangpur. In 1817 when the Burmese occupied Rangpur, Maniram was 11 years old. His family left Rangpur and took refuge in Bengal.

In 1823, 17 year old Maniram accompanied Robert Bruce to Bassa Gaum village of Singpo tribe along the Burhi Dehina river (today it is called Dihing river and is north of Sivasagar town). At that time, Bruce was part of the Chandrakant Singha army.

Initially, in 1825 the British were reluctant to administer the vacuum left behind by the departing Burmese in Rangpur. Wars between the rival factions of Purandar Singha and Chandrakant Singha continued for some years. However, Assam was divided by EIC into two Zilla (districts) – Senior and Junior Khunds. In 1828, Maniram was appointed by David Scott of EIC as the Tehsildar and Shrishtidar of Junior Khund (Upper Assam). He was based in Rangpur, the site of Ahom kingdom.

Due to the wars Maniram was not able to exercise his role of Tehsildar properly and revenue collection for the EIC was not satisfactory. Therefore, at the beginning of 1832, finally Purandar Singha was nominated to be the ruler of Upper Assam and was asked to pay an annual tribute of one hundred thousand rupees to EIC. Maniram became his Borbhandar (Prime Minister).

However, Puruandar Singha did not pay the annual tribute to EIC. In 1838, EIC decided that they needed to control Assam if it was going to produce tea for Britain. Thus they instituted an enquiry. The British claimed that “tribute was not paid because of general system of corruption encouraged by Purudar Singha”. They also claimed that his subjects were oppressed and misgoverned. Thus in 1838, the British deposed Purunder Singha and exiled him out of Assam on a small pension. Upper Assam was then annexed by proclamation. Thus the entire Brahamaputra valley from Cachar in the south Assam to Sadiya in the North came under British control.

In 1839, Maniram was nominated the Dewan of Assam Tea Company (ATC) under Charles Bruce and placed at a tea plantation in Nazira, to the east and south of Rangpur. It is said that he was not fluent in English. However he wrote in Assamese - he had written about history of Assam (Buranji Viveka Ratna). English translations of his writings on the art of gold-washing in the rivers of Assam and on the cultivation of Assam silk were also published.

In 1839 a group of Indian entrepreneurs including Radhakanta Deb, Dwarkanath Tagore and Prasanna Kumar Tagore created the Bengal Tea Association and proposed to take over the Government tea plantations. Later this was merged in the British dominated Assam Tea Company.

In 1841, a letter by an ATC official William Princep praised the work of Maniram. In 1842, the chairman of ATC praised Maniram for having opened new tea gardens and for having increased the income of the company.

In 1845, when Charles was removed from ATC, Maniram also resigned and started his own tea plantations, first at Cinnamara near Jorhat (on the road from Jorhat to Mariani) and then in Singlo near Rangpur. While British plantation owners received concessions from EIC for receiving land, Maniram started his plantations without any EIC support. However, the British planters did not like it and in 1851 his plantations were taken over by the East India Company. (Image below: An abandoned hospital at a tea garden in Cinnamara near Jorhat)

In 1852, Maniram presented a petition to the Sadar Court in Calcutta, where he argued for bringing back the Ahom kingdom by giving back Upper Assam to the descendants of Purundar Singha. He also asked the British to reduce the taxation and to stop the opium cultivation. His petition was rejected by the court.

He joined the son and grandson of Purundar Singha in a bid to install them at the Rangpur throne. On 6th May 1857 he presented another petition asking for reinstatement of the descendants of Purundar Singha as the legitimate heirs of the Ahom kingdom. Four days later, on 10 May 1857, the revolt against the British rule broke out in different parts of India. Maniram made contacts with other Indians fighting against the British and participated in making plans for an attack against the British in upper Assam. However, these plans were not successful.

Maniram was caught by the British at the end of August 1857 and hanged in Jorhat on 26 February 1858. (Image below: Freedom memorial in Jorhat depicting tea planters and the freedom struggle)

Relationship between the Bruce Brothers and Maniram Dewan

Robert Bruce was a mercenary fighting for Ahom kings while Maniram’s family worked for the same kings. Probably that was where they had met and that is why in 1823, Maniram had accompanied Robert to the Bessa Gaum to meet the Singpo chief.

After Robert’s death, while Charles went to Sadiya, he had continued to visit the tea shrub areas. In 1828, the 22 year old Maniram was made the Tehsildar of Rangpur. This must have provided them opportunities for meeting regularly. In 1839, both Charles and Maniram held important roles in ATC and worked closely. In 1845, Charles was removed from his post, soon after Maniram resigned.

The recommendations of Charles Bruce to the EIC in 1839 and the petition presented by Maniram to the Sadar Court in Calcutta in 1852, were very similar. Both touched on similar issues and used similar language.

Even though there are no documents about any links between Charles and Maniram, I think that there was a close relationship between the two. Perhaps, Charles had advised or inspired Maniram to start his own tea plantations. Descendants of Dewan Maniram Dutta Baruah, who have access to his papers and family stories can confirm if they have more information on this issue.


It sounds a bit funny to me to read that tea was discovered by Robert Bruce. I think that the term “discovery” should relate to new knowledge. In this case, the knowledge about tea plants was known to persons like Maniram who had taken Robert to the Singpo village. The Singpo tribals had known the tea plants for many centuries.

Instead of saying that the Bruce brothers discovered tea in India, it would be more appropriate to say that Bruce brothers and East India company played a key role in setting up of tea plantations in Assam and in the commercialization of tea.

History books mention only the name of the Bruce brothers while the role of Maniram is limited only to as someone who had accompanied Robert Bruce for his first meeting. In reality, the role played by Maniram was much bigger.

The spread of tea plantations in Assam and West Bengal also had a negative aspect, about which so little is known - millions of indentured labourers, who were told lies and brought to work in dismal conditions in the tea gardens from other parts of India. This exploitation lasted almost a century.

Unfortunately, even Independent India did not stop this exploitation of tea garden workers and even today, the conditions of many of the them continue to be very dismal. But then, that is a completely different story. (Image below: Tea garden workers doing maintenance work in a tea garden near Tezpur)

Note: Though I consulted a large number of documents to piece together the different parts of this story, I would specifically like to acknowledge the following: An account of the manufacture of the black tea as now practiced in Suddeya in Upper Assam, by C. A. Bruce, Calcutta, 1838; Tea in Assam and the Bruce brothers, by Derek Perry; Impact of Bengal Renaissance on Assam 1825-1875, by Amalendu Guha.


Monday, February 13, 2017

A Zen Walk in the Golden Mountain

It was supposed to be a nostalgia trip but it ended in a wonderful zen walk. It was completely unexpected, so that made it even more enjoyable.

This post is about a walk in a forest and my understanding of a "Zen Walk".

If you are visiting the tiny but charming city of Schio, about 30 kms from the better known Vicenza in the north-east of Italy, you might want to visit this wonderful forest around the hills known as "Monti D'Oro" or the Golden Mountains!

Zen Walks

For me, a "Zen Walk" means a walk where I am focusing on where I am going and what surrounds me. From personal experience, I can say that a good zen walk can take you to a state of meditative bliss, it decreases your stress and makes you feel refreshed.

Normally when we walk, we are often lost in our thoughts, thinking or talking about other things and not really looking around us. On the other hand, the zen walks are characterized by mindfulness. However, it is difficult to ensure intense focus on something for a long period. Thus, it is important after some time, to change the objects of your attention.

Personally I find photography with a zoom lens, as a useful tool to help me focus on specific things in the surroundings. However, just clicking random pictures left and right, without stopping to focus on and think about, can become a distraction.

I hope that by looking at some of the images from this walk shown below, you can get a sense of what I mean by "mindfulness".

Discovering the forest of Golden Mountain

In Italy our home is in the tiny Alpine town of Schio, under the shadow of the imposing Pasubio mountain. A few km from our house is the tiny suburb of Torre Bel Vicino, where my wife used to go as a child to her maternal grandparents' home.

On one summer day we went to visit Torre Bel Vicino. After visiting that old town and listening to her childhood stories, I suggested that we should look for some place for lunch.

"Let's go to Trotta. As a child, I used to go there for eating out with my father", my wife suggested. That restaurant was famous for their "trotta" (trout) fish.

So we crossed the bridge over Leogra river and then took the Rillaro road. From here a narrow road goes up in the mountain-valley. We went up this road, with a mountain stream on our left side and an occasional mountain house. We reached the end of this road but didn't find the "Trotta" restaurant.

The road ended at a small group of houses called Carolla. Beyond, we could see a path going along the hill. A tiny board informed that this was a bio-geological reserve area. Even though we were hungry, we decided to take a short walk along that path.

It was really quiet in the forest and we did not see any other person. With a tiny mountain stream running along the path, creating small waterfalls at every 5-10 meters, the only sound we could hear was of the running water.

As we ventured inside the forest, I was struck by the quantity of bright green moss, almost phosphorescent, on the rocks all around. This meant that there was a lot of humidity in the area, almost like in a tropical forest though we were in a temperate mountain zone. According to my wife, every time it rains upstream in the mountains, the tiny mountain stream running through the forest becomes a thundering torrent and thus the rocks get wet.

I felt as if we were in some magical place, the only human beings alive in an abandoned world.

The Zen Meditations

I want to share with you four images that represent the "Zen-ness" of this walk. Even now, many months after that walk, observing the details of these pictures brings back the feeling of joy and calmness, I had experienced during this walk.

(1) The sight of dead and decaying leaves floating on the still water: it made me think of the circle of life that goes on, passing through the trinity of creation, growth and destruction symbolized by the figures of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in the Indian mythology. At a more ecological level, it must have had a distinct bio-sphere with hundreds of life-forms that grew and lived in this place.

(2) The play of light and shadows, accompanied by the gentle sounds of the leaves moving in the breeze, insects buzzing around and the rich smells of the humid earth, flowers and leaves: It was like an intoxicating poem written by the wind and sun on the trees. It was as if the whole forest was alive, whispering to me.

(3) The gentle sound of water as it flowed around and carved the stones into round smooth pebbles: It was mesmerizing. It made me think about the briefness of life - nothing was static, everything moved and changed with the flow of the water, creases opening and closing on its silky surface. It also made me think about the continuity of life with those rocks that were gently caressed and shaped, their jagged edges smoothed over periods of years if not centuries or millenniums.

(4) Everything seemed so rich in colours and details: The different hues of the flowers, the blood red berries shining like red beacons, different shades of the moss, the diverse textures and colours of rocks telling stories about rivers and torrents that could arise suddenly - there was so much to look at.

For example, just look at the leaf fallen down over the rocks and observe the shapes and colours it carries. I can see pigs, flying eagles, standing bears and so much more in those shapes.


It was a short walk in the forest, but I loved it. I am curious about going back to explore "our moss forest", as I have started calling it. It is a protected nature-park and does not have many visitors, so it is particularly suitable for zen walks.

And I also want to explore the mountain stream better. Perhaps in the next spring, the forest will be different. I can't wait to find out!


Friday, February 10, 2017

Discovering Redipuglia & Palmanova

This post is about exploring two little-known small towns, full of history and culture, located in the north-east of Italy - Palmanova and Redipuglia (pronounced Redipulia).

Adriatic coast of Italy, is a well-known summer-holiday destination. Every year, between June to August, towns like Caorle, Jesolo, Portogruaro, Bibione or Lignano, get full of tourists from different parts of Europe.

If you are holidaying in any of these places, you can also explore some of these neighbouring towns that are so rich in history, to add a touch of culture to your seaside holidays. During our holidays the Adriatic coast, one day we went to visit Palmanova and Redipuglia.

We started this trip in Bibione where we were staying for holidays and our first stop was Villa Manin, a fifteenth century villa near Codroipo. The journey through beautiful countryside and gentle hills took about an hour.

Stop at Villa Manin

The tiny town of Codroipo was first built in the Roman times. Villa Manin is in Passariano, a suburb of Codroipo. Though parts of this building are a thousand years old, it was mostly built in 17th and 18th centuries. It was the residence of the last Doge (head of state) of Republic of Venice, Ludovico Manin.

The king of France, Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine, had stayed in this house for about 2 months in 1797 when Napoleon's troops had come to "liberate" this part of Italy from the Austrians and the Papal rule.

The day we visited it, it was getting ready for a music concert by the famous American music group called "Kiss". Crowds of young persons were sitting outside its gate blocking the whole area. Thus it was not possible for us to visit it. So we continued our journey to Palmanova.

The Octagonal Square of Palmanova

Palmanova, a tiny town in the north-east of Italy was a part of the Republic of Venice. In 16th century it was the site of war between the Venetians and the kingdom of Haspburgs from Austria. Thus big fortification walls were built around the city.

The most important place to see in the city is its huge octagonal (eight-sided) city-square, adorned with the statues of its valorous generals and other authorities. Near some statues there is a small description about the person. A walk around this square will introduce you to the history of this town. As Palmanova had lost the war to the Austrians, the Austrian army had cancelled most of the names from these statues, so you can not identify all of them. Still I think that the Austrians were very civilised, because they left the statues intact and only removed the names!

On one side of the square is the cathedral of Palmanova built with white stone, that is worth a visit. The street surrounding the octagonal central square has many bars and coffee shops.

It was good to sit there, drink something (we had a lovely mojito with fresh mint) and watch the slow easy life of a small town pass you by.

Military monument at Redipuglia

Our last stop for the day was at the monument for the Italian soldiers who had died here during the first world war.

The hills near Redipuglia had been the theatre of a bloody battle that had taken the lives of thousands of soldiers. This monument was built during the years of Fascism in 1938 and was inaugurated by the fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

The imposing monument has one hundred thousand (one lakh) graves and is built in the fascist style, as a pyramid with rectangles, squares and clean lines. About 40,000 graves carry the names of the persons buried there, the remaining 60,000 bodies were not identified.

The geometric shapes and the symmetry of this monument attract photographers in search of new angles to click its images.

Across the road, there is a military museum. On the side of the museum, on a small hill there are other memorabilia from the first world war, including the statue of an eagle that usually represented the fatherland in fascist mythology and canons used during the war.


Both the places visited during this trip, Palmanova and Redipuglia, were linked to wars. Palmanova was the site where it had all started with the expansion of Haspburg Austrian empire, and Redipuglia, where the Austrian empire came to an end in the First World war.

 I hope that my brief descriptions will help you to decide if these trips are worth your while! If you decide to go there, do tell me about it.


Monday, February 6, 2017

Blurring the gender boundaries

Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar’s film “The skin I live in” (2011) is inspired from the 1984 French novel "Tarantula" by Thierry Jonquet.

Almodovar is known for his complex themed films that remind me of complicated jigsaw puzzles where the things are never what they seem and a new surprise is just waiting for you at the next turn. His films also are about sexualities, especially alternate sexualities, and usually have a generous dose of shocking sex scenes. This film also follows these rules.

I have to confess that often Almodovar’s films make me squirm and feel embarrassed. There are times when I wish I could fast forward them.

Recently I watched “The skin I live in”. I found it deeply disturbing and provocative, forcing me to rethink on many issues.

Just a warning for those of you who have read so far – Almodovar specialises in being politically incorrect. Thus if you get easily excited or upset, you might not like to continue reading this. If long and crude sex scenes embarrass you, avoid this film. And finally, if you intend to watch this film, then be warned that this article contains a lot of spoilers.


Robert (Antonio Banderas) is a plastic surgeon. His wife was having an extra-marital affair with a man called Zeca. In a car accident, his wife had severe burns while Zeca manages to escape. Robert manages to save his wife but her face and body are severely disfigured. One day she sees herself in a mirror and disgusted, commits suicide.

Robert’s daughter Norma sees the suicide of her mother and becomes emotionally disturbed. She is admitted in a psychiatric hospital. One day when she is slightly better, Robert takes her to a party, where she meets a good looking young man called Vicente (Jan Cornet) and they go out in the park. Few minutes later, Robert worried about his daughter goes out to look for her and finds her unconscious. His daughter is in shock, is afraid of men and thinks that her father had raped her. Soon after, she commits suicide.

Robert kidnaps Vicente, keeps him as a prisoner, does surgery on him to remove his genitals, gives him female hormones to make him grow his breasts, gives him facial remodelling surgery to make him look like his dead wife and tortures him psychologically till Vicente agrees that he is now a woman called Vera (played by Elena Anaya).

Robert’s old time governess Marilia (Marisa Paredes) is the only one who knows about the existence of Vera and has some contact with her, though even she does not know that Vera was actually Vicente and was kidnapped. Vera is deeply unhappy and tries to commit suicide many times.

One day Marilia’s criminal son Zeca, who had had an affair with Robert’s wife, comes to meet his mother. When he sees Vera looking exactly like the woman who had died in the car fire, he ties his mother and enters Vera’s room and forces her into sex.

Robert comes home, sees Zeca in Vera’s room. He kills Zeca and throws his body in a swamp. However, seeing Zeca with his wife’s look alike Vera, reminds him of the past and he also seeks sex with Vera. (Image below: Zeca is surprised to see Vera's face)

Vera now starts acting like a woman, wins Robert’s confidence and then when he starts believing in her and is disarmed, kills him and Marilia.

Finally Vera can leave the prison created by Robert and go back to her family.


I don’t think that it is useful to look for realism or believability in the plot, because that is not the point of the film. However, while you watch the film, it does manage to make it seem believable.

The film does not unfold in the way I have shared its story. It starts with Vera, a prisoner in Robert’s house, on whom he is experimenting a new kind of skin made from pig cells that is resistant to burns. The understanding that Vera is Vicente, comes after about 2/3rd of the film.

However, the film is very provocative and I would like to share some of the things it made me think about.

The punishment for rapists: I am against death penalty, because I don’t think that a state has to kill people like criminals and murderers do. However, for serial rapists and paedophiles targeting young children, I confess that I am in favour of surgical/chemical/hormonal castration.

The film shows a castration punishment given by a father to vindicate his daughter and I have to say it made me very uncomfortable. The film muddies the things about good and bad in different ways – first Vincent is shown as a good looking guy; secondly, he does not rape Robert’s daughter but their sexual encounter is only a misunderstanding because initially she is shown willing for sexual adventure and when she says that she does not want sex, Vicente leaves her. However, since the girl is mentally unstable and emotionally fragile, the whole episode has a big negative impact on her.

Thus, while I watched the film, I felt that castration was a disproportionate punishment for this guy. Perhaps, if the guy was shown as someone older and uglier and had actually raped the girl, perhaps I would have felt differently?

So the film did made me aware about our biases, in the sense that good looking young people are seen differently from older, uglier looking people. Norma's mental illness was another area of bias, it made me look differently at what happens to her in the film.

Identity and gender: The film is about cancellation of the gender identity of a person.

I have read a lot about transgender issues and I have met a few transgender persons. Often, their life stories are about their feelings from a very young age that they do not belong to the gender given to them at birth. They also talk of how this dissonance gives rise to suffering and they strive to look physically and become the gender they feel inside themselves. For this transformation they face society and family’s ire, undergo hormone therapy and surgery. Not everyone understands their desires and needs.

The film touches on these themes from another angle. A guy born in guy’s body and happy being a guy, is kidnapped and forced to undergo hormone therapy, surgery and psychological torture till he breaks down and accepts that he is a woman and is willing to accept sex as a woman. I think that it is much easier for people to understand his suffering. (Vicente in the image on the left)

So does the film help us to understand the sufferings felt by transgender persons by forcing us to look at it from another angle? I am not sure.

Sexuality as a learned behaviour: All the debates about gay and lesbian rights are based on the premise that it is natural to be heterosexual or homosexual, that we are born with our sexual orientation and it cannot be changed.

However the film touches on this issue in an ambiguous way. Vicente, the guy who is forced to change his body, face and voice to become a woman called Vera, does not like to be a woman sexually till Zeca forces him. After this episode, the depiction of Vicente changes in the film – he decides to use his female body to break away from the prison.

But is his sexual use of his female body just a ploy or is it because his gender lines are blurred and he starts feeling like a woman and likes the woman’s sexual role? The psychological change in Vera is shown by her immersion in yoga, both as an exercise for body postures as well as meditation to deal with her trauma - thus yoga is part of his femminisation exercise.

When the film ended, I was not sure if Vicente/Vera would continue to live like Vera or would like to go back to being Vicente (at least in clothes and behaviour, if not genitally) or may be both - be sometimes Vera and sometimes Vicente?

This confusion is reflected in deciding the pronoun to be used while talking about Vicente/Vera – are we talking of a He or a She and if there is blurred boundary between these two as well.


As I have written above, the film is very disturbing because it touches on taboo issues in an unconventional and politically incorrect way. Even after a few days of watching the film, I continue to think about certain aspects of this film.

If I watch it again, probably I would understand it better because knowing the backstory about Vicente’s kidnapping and forced surgery would give a different meaning to the whole first half of the film.

However, I don’t think that I am going to watch it again, though the film was premiered at Cannes festival in 2011 and it won different awards. Probably they did not find it as disturbing, as I did. Perhaps one can just watch it in a superficial way, as a horror film with surprises and twists in the plots without posing any of the questions I have posed above.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Delhi Metro Walks - Rajiv Chowk and Connaught Place

Delhi is a huge and sprawling city of almost 19 million people, more than the population of many small countries. However, today it is easy to explore Delhi through its wonderful metro network.

This post is about an exploration of Connaught Place area of central Delhi around the Rajiv Chowk metro station. Rajiv Chowk station has two entrances, one near Pallika Bazar and the other in front of B block.

There are two more metro stations in this area - Janpath and Barakhamba Road stations. This walking tour can also be carried out from these other stations.

The image above is of a Buddha statue at the Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath. CP was built as a commercial and business centre in early twentieth century under the British rule. Apart from some old and famous shopping areas and restaurants, a walking tour of CP also provides some cultural opportunities.


In 1911, the capital of India was shifted from Kolkata to Delhi. At that time, the city of Delhi was mainly limited to Shahjahanabad (area around Chandni Chowk).

Rest of the area which today comprises Delhi was composed mainly of Aravali hills with its forest. Towards its south, there were certain isolated inhabited areas - around the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia, around the water tank of Hauz Khas, around the ruins of Tughlakabad and in Mehrauli near Qutab Minar.

Different areas of New Delhi were built by clearing the Aravali hills right upto Reading Road (now known as Mandir Marg). Today, a small strip of that ancient forest land of Aravali hills still remains between Reading Road, Dhola Kuan, Panchkuiyan road and Rajendra Nagar.

The new areas built in 1920s included Connaught Place, Gol Market, Gol Dak khana, Viceroy house (now known as Rashtrapati Bhawan), India Gate and surrounding areas. On Reading road, the British had built the Harcourt Butler school (located next to Birla temple) for the children of the British officials, which used to shift to Shimla during the summer months.

The Aravali hills, in the area where Connaught Place was built, included different villages and two famous temples - a Hanuman temple and a Jain temple. Both these temples are still present, close to Baba Kharag Singh road.

Connaught Place was built in 1929-1933 as a series of buildings laid out in a circle around a central park with roads leading out like the spooks of a wheel. Names of many old roads of CP were changed after independence - for example, Kingsway became Janpath, Queensway became Parliament street, Curzon road became Kasturba Gandhi road while Irwin road became Baba Kharag Singh road.

The civil contractor who had built Connaught Place was Shobha Singh, the father of well known Indian writer Khushwant Singh.

The old shops in CP included Keventers and Wengers in A block. Wengers run by a Swiss couple, was famous for its chocolate cakes. In B block, Galgotias had a famous book shop. Mahatta, the celebrity photographer during 1940s to 1970s, had a shop in M block. The image below shows some of the celebrities photographed by Mahatta.

After independence till the early 1960s, the area now known as Pallika Bazar, had a circular row of wooden shacks hosting the emporiums of different Indian states, while in its centre was the famous United Coffee House of Delhi where writers and artists of Delhi got together in the evening. As a child, I still remember an evening there with the well known artist Maqbool Fida Hussein.

Later, the shops, emporiums and the United coffee house were shifted to new buildings on Janpath and Baba Kharag Singh road, while an underground parking and Pallika Bazar had taken their place. Across the road from Pallika Bazar, the iconic Jeevan Bharati building had come up in that area in 1980s.

In the same period, a big fountain was built in the centre of the circular park in CP, with lights of different colours, and bathrooms underneath. During the summer months, this was a popular place for people to sit around and eat ice creams. Later this fountain was removed when the construction of the Rajiv Chowk metro station was started.


The central park continues to be an important part of CP for the cultural performances. Because of the bomb threats, today the entry to the park is regulated through two entry gates and thus crossing the park as a shortcut to reach different parts of CP is no longer possible.

Since 2014, the central park is also known for the giant Indian national flag put up across the entrance to Pallika Bazar. More than 60 metres high, the flag can be seen from far away and serves as a beacon for people in this area.


Coming from the central park towards Baba Kharag Singh Road (BKSR), you can see two iconic buildings of this area - Regal cinema and Khadi Gramoudyog Bhawan. Standard restaurant at the first floor above Regal had opened in 1957, and for a long time, was known among the old-timers for its cuisine.

On BKSR, on the right side of the road, you can visit the United Coffee House and the emporiums of different states of India full of handicrafts, clothes and other things. Each emporium is like a museum.

On the left side, you can see Rivoli, another old cinema of this area and visit the old Hanuman temple which predates the construction of CP.

The building between Rivoli cinema and Hanuman temple is Mohan Singh Palace market, famous for its tailors specialised in stitching of jeans. If you are looking for jeans made specially for you, this is the place to visit.

The open area around Hanuman Mandir is a popular place for persons looking for a place to rest. Astrologers and those who predict your future by looking at your hands, sit here waiting for the clients. In front of Hanuman temple is an underground passage. Decorated with art, the passage hosts different handicrafts shops and an occasional exhibition. In the evening, I have seen parts of this passage used by young volunteers to teach the street children.


The most famous group of constructions on Parliament Street (Sansad Marg) is Jantar Mantar, built in 1724 by Jaisingh Sawai II, the king of Amber in Rajasthan, who is also credited with the building of Jaipur. He had great interest in astronomy and astrology. Different constructions of the Jantar Mantar were built to study the movements of stars and planets. Similar complexes were also built in four other towns - Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi. It has six constructions in brick and mortar, of which the biggest is known as Samrat Yantra.

Across the road from Jantar Mantar is the new building of Pallika Kendra of New Delhi Municiple Council. It is an imposing building but is grey and anonymous looking. I think that it is a missed opportunity for making a building that could have been an icon for Delhi as well as a tourist attraction.

The stretch of Parliament street after the crossing is used for staging marches and rallies. Free church at the corner is the meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous. Being in the city centre, rallies here usually bring photographers and videographers from the newspapers and TV channels. The image below shows farmers at a rally in Parliament street.

If you are interested in checking who all are doing sit-ins, protests and asking for their rights, turn left after Jantar Mantar on the Tolstoy Marg and take the Jantar Mantar lane on the right side. This whole stretch of road is reserved for people protesting against/for something. There was a time when Irom Sharmila was here. At another time, it was the site of anti-corruption protests out of which Arvind Kejriwal appeared as a political leader. Here are a couple of images about the protesters on Jantar Mantar road.


Janpath is the road for shopping, from clothes to handicrafts. It has the Janpath metro station at the Tolstoy road crossing. Across the street from the Janpath metro station is Sarvanna Bhavan, the best place for south Indian food in CP.

An important building in the same area is the Cottage Industries emporium (CIE) that is a treasure house of exquisite handicrafts, jewellery and clothes from different parts of India. It also hosts specific exhibitions regularly.

Outside CIE, its lawns also host some statues linked with the exhibitions, like the sculptures in the image below.


This old market is opposite E block in the outer circle of Connaught Place, on the left side after the crossing with Barakhamba Road. Once upon a time, this area had the first supermarket of Delhi called Super Bazar.

Shanker market has literally changed colours over the past couple of years by asking local artists to colour its walls with beautiful designs.


Legends say that this step-well was first built in the Mahabharat times. The present step-well was rebuilt by some Jain traders in the 14th century. In style it looks similar to the 13th century Rajon ki Baoli stepwell in the Mehrauli archaeological area. Later a small mosque was added to the area. It is a beautiful, even if a little neglected building. Many films have been shot here including Rang de Basanti.

During the times when the whole CP area was a rocky forest of the Aravali hills, this stepwell must have been a well known resting place for persons walking along the hilly trails.

The ancient stepwell is hidden in a jungle of modern highrise buildings. To reach it, take Barakhamba road and then turn right on Hailey road, and again turn right inside Hailey lane.


As a child, I had loved eating Dosas at Madras Hotel on Panchkuiyan road. Literally Panchkuiyan means "five wells". That name also refers to older times when this area was Aravali hills. Further down this road, closer to Karol Bagh, there are some old medieval ruins in the forest.

Till 1970s and 1980s, Connaught Place was the real centre of Delhi. It was at Nirulas restaurant in L block where I had first tasted Triple Sundays, Pizzas, Hamburghers and Uttapams. I am sure that all the persons of my generation who had lived in Delhi, will have their own memories of CP.

Today, Delhi extends to Noida and Gurgaon, on a grid that is more than 60 km long. Each area of the city has its own shopping centres, malls and multiplexes, while CP is known more for Rajiv Chowk, the metro station where you can change the metro lines.

I am happy to take this trip down the memory lane to show some significant places of Connaught Place.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Queer Theatre & Short Films - DIQTFF

Theatre and films are wonderful ways to create awareness and understanding about GLBT issues. At the same time, cultural events are opportunities for persons to come out, to have fun and to be with persons who understand their issues and dilemmas. Recently I had the opportunity to witness some of the short films and theatre events organised during the Delhi International Queer Theatre and Film Festival (DIQTFF).

This post is about my experiences on the first day of DIQTFF. Let me start with some of the theatre performances of this festival before talking about the short films. The image above is from a performance by the Sangwari theatre group.


I had already heard about the Asmita Theatre Group of Delhi, which was founded  in 1993 by the well known theatre personality Arvind Gaur. During DIQTFF, Asmita presented different performances. I saw only one of these - Pehchan (Identity). It was led by Shilpi Marwaha.

Using a street-theatre approach, actors wearing dark blue kurtas appeared on the stage accompanied by a few drums. Short interactions between the actors followed one another in quick succession, weaving a tapestry of dialogues from daily lives around the GLBT issues. Parents talking about an effeminate child, young men talking about a gay classmate, a young woman wondering about her attraction to another woman, fears of the parents of a gay son, people commenting about transgender persons on the street, and so on. Usual casual prejudices and discriminations.

There was little time to think about the things said on the stage, as one verbal exchange led to another, signaled by a brief beat of drums. The culmination of the performance was in two moments of violence. In the first episode, a young girl had been sent to her married sister's house where her brother-in-law raped her to "cure" her attraction for another girl. In the second episode, a young man was sexually abused by his friends because he was gay and needed to be taught a lesson, while one "friend" recorded the violence on his mobile phone.

Most of the exchanges and episodes of the performance were allowed to sink in without any explanations while a few times, one of the actors provided the context and a brief explanation. For example, as the young girl was raped, another actor informed that a large number of lesbian girls face sexual violence to "cure" them of their attraction for their own sex.

It was a very effective performance, leaving me stunned and shocked. It deserved the huge appreciation and standing ovation given to it by the audience. The direct language used in the performance was very effective. I wish it can be seen by the students of all high schools and colleges.


Oxana and Layla are two artists from Berlin, Germany who are a couple in real life and complement each other in a wonderful dance and music performance. Both of them are German but have immigrants among their ancestors (One of Oxana's great grandfathers was from India).

The performance has Oxana's contemporary dance and Layla's music. Apart from a saxophone and some strange looking string instruments, Layla also uses some objects from daily life to create her music including some old newspapers and a cup of rice grains.

The performance was like a dream in slow motion expressing different emotions through sounds and body movements. A few years ago, during the world dance festival in Bologna (Italy) I had seen a group of Italian dancers express mental illness through their dance. Oxana and Layla's performance reminded me of that experience. Usually dance and music are seen as motion, dynamism and rhythm. However, appreciating their performance required a slowing down and focusing of attention, almost like being in meditation.


Sangwari theatre group from Delhi was started in 1994. Their performance at DIQTFF focused on spaces given to transgender persons in India. Through dances, questions and role plays it looked at the kind of visibility and space given to lives of transgender persons in the Hindu scared books, in the school books and in the classrooms, in science and in livelihood opportunities. It concluded that the spaces given to transgender persons are almost non-existent and when they are given, they are demeaning to the dignity of persons.

Through the loud claps and brazen gestures commonly adopted by traditional transgender persons (hijra and kinnars) in the streets in India, the performance touched on different issues by laughing at them and making the audience laugh with them, even when it talked about brutality and violence. This made the performance more poignant and effective.

Like the performance by Asmita group, their performance was very powerful, leaving questions in my mind about human insensitivity that allows such brutal exploitation of other human beings without questioning the social norms.


Compared to the theatre performances, the short films presented on the first day of DIQTFF were less powerful and effective. Most of the short films were not made by professionals. Some of them had very poor sound quality. A few were not very exciting visually, limiting themselves to a fixed shots. Here is a brief introduction to the films shown in the festival:

Darwaze (Doors) by Aditya Joshi is about two young guys, Shashank and Komal, who come to live in a flat. Their landlord's brother Mr Kale and his wife, Mrs Sujata Kale (Sanyogita Bhave), live next door. Sujata becomes friends with the boys. One day Mr Kale discovers that the two guys are gay and live as a couple. Angry, he asks them to vacate the flat. Sujata tries to reason with her husband saying that the boys are nice guys, but Kale does not relent. "In our family we don't have such perversions," he says. (Below, a still from the film with the actors playing Sujata and Shashank).

Few months later, Kale's son comes back from the hostel and has a secret to share with his parents. Kale is shocked and unable to say a word. Sujata laughs. It is a short and sweet film. The image above shows Sujata and Shashank from the film.

Khunnas (Estrangement) by Nasir Ahmed is a short film in Bengali. It is about the relationship between a man and his young son, who likes to dress up as a girl. The man does not like it when his son wants to put on make-up and dress like girls but he is also loving to the child. His girlfriend does not like the young boy and says that such boys are not accepted in the society. She tells the man that as long as he has the boy, she will not marry him. One day the man takes his son to a far away place and abandons him in a market. An eunuch takes away the crying boy. Later the man repents and goes to look for his child but can not find him.

The film is a little melodramatic, looking at the child's abandonment from father's point of view, but still makes an impact.

Satrangi by Ankit Tiwari is about homosexuality and GLBT rights as seen by different religions. Made by a group of students, it asks Hindu and Christian priests their views about GLBT issues and uses a Newslaundry video about an Islamic leader about these issues.

"In the Mood for Love" by ?? - I didn't see the tile of this film when it was shown. I am not even sure about its title, which could have been "Love My Way". I searched but could not find more information about this film. However it was one of the better films of the festival.

This film explored the personal meanings given to love in the lives of different GLBT couples. For example, one story was about a gay couple, Rishi and Bijoy. Another story was about a trans-woman Pradipta Ray who wants to be a film maker.

Tanishq by Naveen Tokas is an autobiographical film. Naveen talks about his feminine side, his desires, the difficulties with his classmates in school and college and his challenges with relationships, leading to a gradual self-acceptance and self-confidence. It is an honest film with a moving testimony.

Five Questions by Mohit Arora is about the TV interview of a gay celebrity and the questions asked to him to explain his life choices and the secret of the mask covering his face. The image below has Mohit Arora and some other members of his team.

I have an advice for the young film-makers - when you are sending a film to a festival, make a Facebook page about your film, provide information about your crew and post a few images from your film. None of the films presented in DIQTFF had any Facebook page and I could not find any online information about the works of their film-makers. The only person for whom some online information was present was Aditya Joshi, the director of Darwaze.


Though the quality of short films shown at DIQTFF was uneven, it was compensated by the high level of the three theatre performances. Among the performances, my vote for the most impressive performance goes to Asmita Theatre Group.

So many beautiful films on Queer themes are available on Youtube. I think that curators of DIQTFF should select and show a couple of those films in their festival. This will inspire persons in the audience as well as the young film makers to improve their work.

During DIQTFF, Sahil Verma also presented the Harmless Hugs anthology of short stories. The festival was also an occasion to present a photo-exhibition of Alok Johri, "No Conditions Apply".

Later in the evening, well known Bollywood writer, singer and actor Piyush Mishra presented some of his poems and songs, including my personal favourite from Gangs of Wasseypur, "Ik bagal mein chand hoga".

The festival organised by Harmless Hugs was supported by Love Matters India, Impulse AIDS Health Care Foundation and many other organisations.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Writers and Celebrities: Times Lit Fest

I was back in Mehboob studios in Mumbai after forty years. This time it was for the Times Literary Festival. It was a day of listening to writers and journalists as well as to two Bollywood celebrities - Kangana Ranaut and Karan Johar.

Nothing looked the same at the Mehboob Studios, starting from the entrance gate. Forty years ago, we had been stopped at the gate by the guard wanting to know who were we meeting. Inside we had been wide-eyed with wonder as we had seen the Bollywood stars of that era - Ashok Kumar, Jitendra, Navin Nischol and Prema Narayan. Except for Jitendra, who is known as father of Ekta Kapoor, probably people today won't even know the names of those other persons. For the Lit Fest, the studio halls were converted into discussion rooms and though there were a film actor and a film director, there were no film sets or shootings going on.

I had come to Mumbai for the launch of the new film of Sujoy Ghosh - Kahaani 2. Along with the well known Vidya Balan and Arjun Rampal, the film also has the film debut of my niece Manini Chadha, who plays the wife of Arjun Rampal in the film. If you have seen the film, do tell me if you remember Manini and how did you like her!

My Mumbai days were hectic - apart from the literary festival and the launch of Kahaani 2, it was a time for family reunions, as well as, some work meetings related to a research project. However, this post is only about my impressions from the Times Lit Fest.

Arguing About Politics - State of Democracy in India

My morning started with the two well known journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai and Tavleen Singh. It was good to see both of them in person but in terms of what they were saying, both seemed to reiterate what they write every day in their columns. Which means that Sardesai was more critical of Modi while Singh was more critical of the liberal-left.

Talking about the state of democracy in India, Singh said that it was a democracy without justice as even serious criminal cases of murder and rape dragged for twenty years. She also felt that the inability to ensure decent education for the children and minimal health services for the citizens were failures of the Indian democracy.

Sardesai said that there were limited choices for the democracy in India as we are only asked to choose between Congress, a family-owned private limited party, or a street populist like Kejriwal or a demagogue like Modi. He also felt that over the past few years, media has also failed to stand up to the Government.

Singh felt that media had been co-opted by the Government immediately after independence of India when Nehru had offered government houses and other perks to big journalists who had accepted those perks. When you are taking benefits from the government, how can you criticise anything, she asked.

In another session in the afternoon, I listened once again to Sardesai and Singh. This time they were accompanied by two more journalists - Jyoti Malhotra and Kumar Kekar. In this session, Sardesai became more emotional, complaining about the pressure of the Modi government on the media houses and how this is affecting journalism.

Kekar also joined in the criticism of Modi by raising the issue of 2002 Gujarat riots and claiming that Modi Government has suppressed the new book "Gujarat files" of Rana Ayyub. (I am not sure about the suppression of Ayyub's book as I saw it displayed in a book shop at the Mumbai airport. It seems to be a best seller.)

Singh asked why media continues to focus only on Modi, forgetting the other riots in India such as the riots against Sikhs in 1984 and the infamous Maliana killing of 42 youth.

Overall, this session was like listening to one of the debates that they have on the Indian TV channels on most evenings, without anything new in it.

Equality, Liberty and Sexuality

I was looking forward to this session on alternate sexualities and it did not disappoint. The session had three well known persons - French author Charles Dantzig, Isreali author Gil Hovav and Indo-German artist Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar. It was moderated by Vikram Doctor.

Vikram Doctor started the session by talking about the rise of nationalism and the power gained by conservative right wing persons/parties in different parts of the world, asking if this is going to create new challenges for persons of alternate sexualities.

Charles Dantzig explained that it is not correct to equate political right wing persons with sexual conservatives. For example, Marine Le Pen has many gay friends and many French gays support right wing parties in France because they are afraid of Arab immigrants. Even the other rising figure of French right, Francois Fillon had started his career with support from an important gay parliamentarian.

He felt that perhaps more public hypocrisy and restraint was needed and that he had been shocked by the kind of backward things said by people against same-sex marriage law in France.

Gil Hovav supported Dantzig's position by explaining that in Israel, in spite of the right conservative parties which are in power and gay marriages are not legal, the government and society are very accepting towards alternate sexualities. He lives with his companion, his former commander in the department of Israeli intelligence, with their daughter, who is biological daughter of his companion with a Lesbian friend. The Israeli society is very accepting and they have not faced any kind of prejudices.

Being a gay or a lesbian is also not a issue in the Israeli armed forces where all are expected to do service, while in France, the army is more anti-gay.

Gil also spoke about the Palestinian issue by saying that he completely supports the right to freedom of the Palestinians. He agreed that the persons with alternate sexualities face a lot of difficulties in the Palestinian society and many of them prefer to live in Israel, but he feels that right to sexual freedom is less important than the right to freedom of the Palestinian people.

Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar said that like gays and lesbians, even for the women, it is difficult to say if they are margainlised by conservative regimes since many women play an active role in these right wing parties. It is the same in India, where women play an active role in the oppression of other women, for example, mothers-in-law in the families. It is more about patriarchal mindsets then about the parties and more dialogues are needed on these issues starting from the schools.

Katharina also said that expressing love in public by persons of same sex is threatening to public because it forces them to confront their own sexuality. The changing society threatens notions of masculinity and patriarchy and thus there is rage among young men. While she feels that the percentage of rapes is higher in Europe than it is in India, here the rapes are more vicious and violent because there is much more rage among young men in India than there is in Europe.

I enjoyed this session very much, it was very thought-provoking. My only complaint was that for the one hour or shorter sessions, they should not have more than 2 speakers since it is difficult to give sufficient time to more persons.

Jonathan Clements, Pallavi Aiyar and Kangana Ranaut

Both Clements and Aiyar are travel writers, writing about Asia. Clements has written exclusively about China and he feels that knowing the local language and a deep knowledge of local culture is necessary to write about a country. His interest in China came at an early age since his father was part of a band, which played in a Chinese restaurant. "Whichever place in the world I visit, I always stay in the Chinatowns", he explained.

Aiyar, on the other hand, writes from a more external point of view without getting too much mixed up with local cultures. She was in the US when she first went to visit her Spanish husband in China and it hooked her, resulting in her first book. Since then she has written about other Asian countries.

Aiyar raised up the issue of the country stereotypes that dominate media. For example, in 2008 during the Olympics in Beijing, the foreign media wrote extensively about the pollution in the city. Two years later, in 2010 when the commonwealth games were held in Delhi, though the city's pollution was as bad as in Beijing, no one ever wrote about it, focusing instead on women oppression and rapes.

I found this session a little boring. My disinterest was probably also because I have not read either of them. So I left their session half-way to go and listen to the bollywood star Kangana Ranaut.

Kangana, being a Bollywood celebrity, had her own session in a big hall, full of people. She was being interviewed by journalist Manu Joseph. She is very articulate. However, the hall was too crowded and I thought that I had already read so much about her views in the newspaper and magazine interviews, so after five minutes, I decided to give it a miss.

The Ethical Slut

This was another session related to sexuality, asking if polyamory is the answer to our promiscuous instinct. The short answer to this question was "No", though the different persons present in this session came to that conclusion very differently.

There were 3 persons in this session – Dossie Easton, Barbara Ascher and Hoshang Merchant. It was moderated by Pragya Tiwari. Both Dossie and Barbara were a kind of therapist-counsellor-spiritual writers kind of persons while Hoshang, is a more rebel poet, looking from his role as a gay activist.

It was not a good combination of persons, because Hoshang clearly did not agree with many of things the other two were saying and came out a bit too strongly. The other two seemed a bit unsure of how to deal with him. Each of them had a lot of interesting things to share and merited their own separate sessions, grouping them together like that did not allow enough space for any of them. It was not a dialogue between them but rather a conflict, till Hoshang decided to leave the stage.

The discussions touched on ideas of romantic love and how these initiated in Europe in medieval period and later came to be seen as universal. Hoshang felt that the ideas of romantic love originated among gay poets and was later taken over by heterosexuals, who began to question if gays can experience romantic love or if they are just sexually promiscuous.

Another area of discussion was instinct versus culture and the possibilities of learning new ways of thinking and controlling the instincts. Regarding polyamory and the ideas of having multiple romantic/sexual partners, the discussions also touched on the role played by jealousy.

I was not satisfied with this session because it did not give me enough time to listen to the views of the three speakers. However, after the Lit Fest, I looked for and bought Dossie Easton’s book “The ethical slut”, because I want to read more about her ideas. I have already read some of the works of Hoshang.

Devi and Demon

I was really looking forward to this session, hoping to hear some stimulating discussion. Arshia Sattar has translated Ramayan while Amruta Patil had done a graphic novel on Mahabharat. Thus the session was organised to focus on the figures of goddesses and demons in these two books and was coordinated by Devdutt Pattanaik.

Pattanaik started the session by talking about the contraposition between the ideas of hermit versus householder in the Indian philosophy and how these two books look at these two ideas.

The session was a little disappointing since both Arshia and Amruta were unable to point towards any new facets of the Devi/Demon characters from the two books. Amruta did talk about a relatively unknown character of Mahabharat, Satyawati, but she was not able to express it in an interesting way. Similarly, Arshia talked about the Shakuntala story but it lacked the spark. The most interesting part of their discussion was about the figures of Mriga (deer) hunting in the two epics.

Both Arshia and Amruta emphasised the need to look at the context of the two epics rather than jumping to conclusions about the motivations and actions of specific characters. For example, Arshia talked about Ram and the difficult choices he makes throughout his life, while grappling with the responsibilities of his public role leading to the negation of his personal desires.

Compared to Arshia and Amruta, Pattanaik was a much more interesting and articulate speaker, but his role in the session was limited.

Loneliness of Men and Women

Before leaving the Lit Fest, I also went to the session of Karan Johar who was interviewed by Jitesh Pillai. Like the Kangana Ranaut session, this was also in the big hall and was full of people. As usual, Johar was very articulate and also seemed sincere in sharing his thoughts and angst. However, most of it was not new since he had already spoken about these things in his numerous interviews in magazines and newspapers.


Among others, I also saw William Dalrymple, Ramchandra Guha and Sudhir Kakkar.

I briefly listened to an Australian Aboriginal poet, Lionel Fogarty, in a session moderated by Ranjit Hoskote.


Overall the festival was a good occasion to see many persons whose works I have read and admired. In terms of new ideas and discussions, there was not so much and the quality was uneven, however that is inevitable in the events of this kind.

It was a bit sad to think that the literature festival organised by one of the most important publication groups of India had not even one big Indian literature figure and no one from the world of Indian languages. Probably after Mahashweta Devi, we do not have any towering literary figures in India any more. Is it because our society today is all about superficial fun-and-having-a-good-time, and there is no time to stop and worry about literature which does not bring any money or power?

It was not possible to participate in all the sessions. For example, I would have loved to attend Devdutt Pattanaik’s session “Is God a boy or a girl? And what about Devil?” I would have also loved to listen to Ram Chandra Guha on history as it happens and history in hindsight. But these sessions were planned too late in the afternoon for me, as I had some other engagements.

However, as a result of the festival, I am planning to read the works of two authors that I have not read before, Gil Hovav and Dossie Easton. So I can say that it was a worthwhile experience.

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