(Published in Sify.com, on 29 January 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/delhi-diary-of-rushdie-republic-day-and-cycle-rides-news-cities-mb3mnkajbae.html)
“It touched 15 degrees in Madras!” I had told my Naarthie friends excitedly, “I think I can handle a Delhi winter again!” And so it is that on a misty morning in late January, I find myself stepping out of the luxurious Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport into the choked lanes of the city I once called home, where lemon-yellow-hooded autos fight for space with black-hooded Lamborghinis.
My taxi driver wants to know whether I’m going to Jaipur, and that’s when I realise just what a carnival that particular literature festival has turned into. The newspapers are a reminder. For the first time in my memory, three articles on the front page are attributed to a civilian other than Anna Hazare – Salman Rushdie.
Will he or won’t he? everyone wants to know. Well, what did we expect, really? Rushdie would not make even a virtual presence at the festival, but he hits the headlines pretty regularly through the week.
Is this really Delhi? I wonder, in some dismay. I’ve got used to seeing literary events confined to the middle sections of newspapers, and it’s never occurred to me that one day, four national dailies will carry editorials on Rushdie in their Delhi editions. So, I’m rather relieved when I read an equally long article, also on the front page, about a couple that waited thirty years to get divorced, after the bride ran away on her wedding day.
Since the Gucci-, Fendi-, Prada-, and Christian Louboutin-sporting divas and dandies have reportedly driven khadi kurtas, faded jeans, jhola bags and oversized silver jewellery out of Jaipur, I make my way to Mandi House, with a two-hundred rupee bag that regularly gets mistaken for Fendi.
I meet some of those disillusioned discards in the theatres lining that stretch. Some tell me from the lawns, concrete steps, tree branches and gates they’re flopped against that the Jaipur Literature Festival was once a quaint little event.
“It’s two bloody tents and a hall, yaar,” one mumbles, as the smoke from his cigarette cuts through the thick winter air, “Where is the space for all these people?”
“But why would anyone want to go someplace where Oprah’s behind is scheduled to be pressed up against Scoop Lady’s lips?” another says.
I don’t know. I’ve never been to the Jaipur Literature Festival, and don’t plan to go.
“So we’ll just brave the cold and linguistic barriers and stay here. Haha...owwwww!” my chattering teeth have just made a fresh puncture in my cracked lips.
A silent, mournful alumnus of the National School of Drama offers me his lip balm.
The Smoker says, “There are subtitles in all the audis this time, though.”
“They’re subtitling the plays?!” I gasp.
“Yeah. It’s going to kill the drama,” The Smoker sighs, “Everyone’s selling out.”
Everyone looks so gloomy that I decide to disguise my delight and contort my face into a grimace. I also wonder whether The Smoker meant the plays were literally sold out, or whether intellectuals were selling out to the mass. I am not destined to find out, but I do understand the regional play I watch at the NSD festival.
“Bhaiyya, Select Citywalk,” I say, and am about to bargain, when the auto driver nods and turns on the meter.
Whaa...? That was a rare treat in the Delhi I lived in, though unheard of in most other metros. But the Metro’s apparently made auto drivers more accommodating. The meter is actually used most of the time.
On the way to Select Citywalk, the auto takes several diversions. I’m beginning to think the meter was not a particularly good idea, when the driver grumbles about the “January 26” arrangements.
There’s security everywhere. Twenty-minute drives take two hours, and traffic jams clog the wide roads. That gives everyone plenty of time to glare at the empty BRT corridors, segregated from the other lanes when the Bus Rapid Transit System was brought in before the Commonwealth Games 2010.
Having been deprived of watchable cinema as mediocre Pongal releases swarmed the movie halls back in Chennai, my heart sings as I head off to watch Coriolanus, which I still cannot believe released in India.
The distributors may not make that mistake again. I am the only one in the cinema at 11:10 am, ten minutes after the film is scheduled to begin.
An apologetic manager tells me they may have to cancel the show, and will either refund my tickets or give me tickets to another film. I refuse to let that happen to Shakespeare or Ralph Fiennes, or myself, and throw a tantrum.
“I’m reviewing this film!” I say, shaking my head vigorously, “I have a deadline, and I trusted your cinemas to show it. Now, I’ll have to write that the show was cancelled.”
The manager consults with his underlings, and then offers me coffee. I tell him I’m going to miss my deadline if they delay the screening by another five minutes, and they assure me they will play the film.
So begins my first movie experience sans crying babies, singing mobile phones, screeching women, shouting men, and giggly teenagers.
Sometime after the interval, a middle-aged couple stroll in, and look at me in some bewilderment. They hurry out, and I wonder what they were planning to do in the privacy of a cold, dark, cavernous room beaming giant images of Gerard Butler and Ralph Fiennes.
I pray that my midlife crisis, when it does arrive, should not bring fantasies as kinky – and if it does, I add a clause, please let no columnist witness it.
I’m nearly done with my trip to Delhi. And one of the high points of that visit is an interview with Mark Tully at his West Delhi residence.
Sitting in his study, where a library of books towers over the table, I speak to the cheerful, energetic, much-adored veteran journalist who began his adult life in India as a BBC foreign correspondent, and went on to write several books that brought the real India home to Indians.
I bid goodbye at last to Mr Tully, his colleague and partner Gillian Wright, and their two large dogs, and think the day can’t get much better.
It does. I rush through the closing doors of a Metro, into the general compartment. The ladies’ compartment is too far off for me to reach and hunt for a seat. Luckily, a college student picks himself off a seat, near me, and I beat another man to it.
Four stops later, I see the college student standing near a door, still waiting for his station to arrive, and realise with astonishment that chivalry exists.
The chivalry of the previous day is to take a rather bizarre, borderline unsavoury turn today.
I find myself in one of those gol chakkars with signboards that seem to be designed to confuse everyone, and I decide to ask for directions.
That’s tricky in Delhi. Most people will ask you to walk straight ahead, while pointing to the left, and ask you to take a left while pointing to the right. On the rare occasion you’re given the correct directions, an eavesdropper will approach you and misguide you.
But a septuagenarian on a cycle, who looks like a retired watchman, seems a safe enough bet. I ask him where Rajesh Pilot Marg is.
“Oh, that’s near Khan Market,” he says, “There’s a bus from...”
“No, I was told it’s near The Claridges,” I protest.
“Oh, okay,” he says, and thinks, “why don’t you get on my cycle, I’ll drop you.”
Warning bells go off in my head, and a Rajnikanth song seems to be playing in his. He flashes a nearly-toothless grin at me, and I stammer that my car is parked at The Claridges, and head off quickly to the hotel.
As I arrive at Terminal 1D for my return flight, I pick up a newspaper and find Salman Rushdie hasn’t left the front page yet. This time, his video conference at the Jaipur Literature Festival has been cancelled; and an entire paragraph has been devoted to what its writer clearly believes to be an evocative description of the ashen appearance of William Dalrymple when the news was announced.
I drag myself, my suitcase and a bag full of books to the bottom of the stairs, and nearly trip up someone.
“After you,” he says, and I mumble, “No, go ahead.”
“No, no, please,” he insists, and to my embarrassment, I can’t push the extendable handle back into my suitcase.
The next thing I know, the person-I-nearly-bumped-into is grabbing it from my hands, and carrying it up the stairs, promising he won’t run away with it.
The second display of gallantry in a world where feminists consider the concept outdated. I’m about to fall in love, and then wonder whether I’ve been pushed into an alternate reality. It doesn’t help that I’m reading Murakami’s 1Q84.
Deposited upstairs, I wait in line for coffee, still considering the likelihood of my being in a Murakami novel.
Then, I hear a woman ask a man, “Excuse me, were you before me in the line?” The man pretends not to hear her, and she says, “I was here before, I think.” He places his order, and she shakes her head vigorously, rolls her eyes at me and mutters, “Indian men!”
I laugh, and she asks, “Are you from here?”
She replies, “I wonder how the population expands if this is all you women have to choose from!”
And I know I’m in the real world. Now, where’s that person-I-nearly-bumped-into?