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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Vol. 5 No. 2

LOUNGE THE WEEKEND MAGAZINE

Doel Doel Sengupta Sengupta (centre, (centre, standing) standing) with with her her CouchSurfer CouchSurfer friends friends in in Bangalore. Bangalore.

BUSINESS LOUNGE WITH MAKEMYTRIP’S DEEP KALRA >Page 6

SKIN­DEEP IN TROUBLE One of the world’s most loved bulbs is in the midst of a cost crisis. It’s time to peel through the layers of history >Page 7

HOW TO COUCHSURF THE WORLD

PLAYER IN A STRANGE LAND

A video game with no video, a surreal tale about bringing houses to life, cats in Iran—a new ‘weird’ movement is upon us >Page 8

INDIA’S LITERARY WOODSTOCK

At least 10,000 Indians joined this growing tribe in 2010. We surfed their world to find out how networking, generosity and a leap of faith can take you far >Page 10 THE GOOD LIFE

OUR DAILY BREAD

SHOBA NARAYAN

PARKER IS PASSÉ, WINE IS IN VOGUE

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harti Desai is not going to like this, but Robin Goldstein has it in for people like her. Desai, the founder of FineWinesnMore, has been called India’s First Lady of Imported Wines. Her company imports over 7,500 cases of both New and Old World wine. Most are expensive, thanks to India’s import duties, and also because they were pricey to begin with. Customers get cases by joining a club or through retail channels. I like some of Desai’s... >Page 4

MUSIC MATTERS

SAMAR HALARNKAR

KNOWING THE KITCHEN KING

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efore email, before blogs, before cooking shows, before reality cooking shows, before columns like this one there was, in every family, the great kitchen king. This was the person to whom we all deferred in culinary matters. This was the person who made it all seem so easy. This was the person we called whenever we were stuck. In my family, the burden of being the great kitchen king (queen somehow doesn’t fit the bill) fell on my eldest sister, Sangeeta. This was not... >Page 5

How Jaipur, once a backpackers’ haunt, became one of the world’s hottest destinations for book lovers with its literature festival >Page 14

SHUBHA MUDGAL

DON’T MISS

in today’s edition of

SOMETHING TO CROON ABOUT

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idding farewell to 2010 and heralding in 2011 was fairly predictable. The usual barrage of the Best and Worst of 2010, the same set of what-do-you-expect-from-the-New-Year questions in most publications, and the even more predictable New Year messages beamed out by celebrities wishing television viewers a “rocking/lovely/ happening/happy/wonderful” 2011. It is a little difficult to be optimistic at a time when breaking news almost always announces more scams, corruption, criminal negligence... >Page 17

FILM REVIEW

NO ONE KILLED JESSICA


First published in February 2007 to serve as an unbiased and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian Dream. LOUNGE EDITOR

PRIYA RAMANI DEPUTY EDITORS

SEEMA CHOWDHRY SANJUKTA SHARMA

HOME PAGE L3

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM

LOUNGE LOVES | ‘127 HOURS’ SOUNDTRACK

LOUNGE REVIEW | MICROMAX A60

A score for the peaks

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MINT EDITORIAL LEADERSHIP TEAM

The best proof yet that AR Rahman can push the envelope for Holly­ wood as much as he does for Indian cinema

R. SUKUMAR (EDITOR)

NIRANJAN RAJADHYAKSHA (MANAGING EDITOR)

ANIL PADMANABHAN TAMAL BANDYOPADHYAY NABEEL MOHIDEEN MANAS CHAKRAVARTY MONIKA HALAN VENKATESHA BABU SHUCHI BANSAL SIDIN VADUKUT (MANAGING EDITOR, LIVEMINT)

FOUNDING EDITOR RAJU NARISETTI ©2011 HT Media Ltd All Rights Reserved

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ritish director Danny Boyle’s last film, Slumdog Millionaire, had an A.R. Rahman score that sounded like Hollywood’s idea of Bollywood, but their latest tie-up for 127 Hours eliminates that awkward sense of cultural crossover. 127 Hours is an unconventional Hollywood action picture about a man trapped alone in a canyon trying to free himself, and its music is unconventional action movie music too. Listen, for example, to the overarching theme on the soundtrack’s Liberation triad of songs: quick-burning pieces for guitar, building up to the regimented violence of a stringsand-electronica crescendo. These are typical ingredients for blockbuster music, but in Rahman’s hands the refrain becomes flexible, bouncing from frantic to contemplative to an uneasy euphoria. Each of the three tracks feed back to each other in earthy loops that suggest the heat and dust of the film’s landscape, a distorted mirror of the Wild West. Interspersed with these and other Rahman compositions are selections that span an audacious range of genres, from Bill Withers’ classic Lovely Day and a Chopin nocturne to some stunning synthpop (Free Blood’s Never Hear Surf Music Again, Plastic Bertrand’s Ca Plane Pour Moi) and Sigur Rós’ epic Festival. They may be distinct from each other, but together with Rahman’s original score, they form an intriguing ensemble. Rahman’s Indian film music integrates complex, sometimes unlikely elements into his infectious brand of cinema pop; for years now, his music has been about getting listeners to re-evaluate the unfamiliar or the ignored: unusual playback voices, once-moribund genres of film music such as the bhajan and qawwali, multilingual hip hop, Chithra’s voice on a bhangra song. Here, as with some of his Bollywood work, he produces a score bursting with international influ-

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Write to us at lounge@livemint.com DIGITAL REVOLUTION Mukul Kesavan’s “The sting of digital insurgency”, 1 January, was an excellent article and helped my understanding of the digital revolution, particularly Facebook and WikiLeaks’ current and potential impact. I am a Facebook user and part of the worldwide support for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. ANONYMOUS

ENGLISH IS GOOD? I refer to Aakar Patel’s “English education: a way out of slums”, 1 January. Is it English education or quality education that we should be focusing on? There are many “English” schools providing very poor education. I don’t see these schools as the way out of slums. I think Patel is making a huge presumption here. BINDU

DREAMING BIG Aakar Patel’s “English education: a way out of slums”, 1 January, was a good article—thought­provoking and insightful. “They know their children will get there, and while we may wonder, they have already set off”—these words sum up the gravity of their hope and dreams perfectly. ROOPA BANERJEE

WELCOME BACK It’s good to see Aakar Patel’s column (“English education: a way out of slums”, 1 January) after a long time. Patel’s articles are always elaborate, thoroughly researched with facts and figures. But this article disappointed me slightly. I want to read his analysis on the Radia tapes. SURYA ON THE COVER: PHOTOGRAPHER: ANIRUDDHA CHOWDHURY/MINT

Plug in: The album is free of Bollywood exotica; and (top) a still from the film. ences. The results are perhaps at their most artless on tracks such as the instrumental R.I.P, and his ethereal, much discussed duet with Dido, If I Rise, which also uses the voices of Mumbai’s Gleehive Children’s Choir. But artless is not Rahman’s best mode, and on others, the effect is more layered. The sombre orchestral The Canyon would fit right in on any Steven Spielberg-John Williams soundtrack, but the solo guitar in

Touch of the Sun is a minimalist miracle. And who other than Rahman would create something called Acid Darbari, in ambient flute-and-chime tones that recall his gorgeous Rehna Tu (Delhi-6, 2009), to play in the background of a story about a hiker trapped in a Utah canyon? None of this may strike the hammer blow of Trent Reznor’s thunderous rearrangement of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King for The Social Network, which has probably already power-chorded itself into an Oscar nomination, but 127 Hours holds its own. Its lack of Bollywood exotica may not earn it as much worldwide attention as Slumdog Millionaire, but it is a much better expression of Rahman’s range than the other soundtrack. It may not be a big surprise for those who already know and love him as a global composer. But for any music lover, the effects are heady. 127 Hours: Music from the Motion Picture, Universal Music, `295. Supriya Nair

here’s something disappointingly normal about the Micromax A60—even the advertising campaign for the phone is devoid of the firm’s usual over-thetop histrionics. In the TV commercial, a beatifically Afro-haired young man trades his baggies for a crisp suit to win his dad’s approval and, therefore, his “first Android phone” (this is our interpretation, at least). For most other companies, this would be quirky and offbeat but it’s almost sombrely serious when compared with this firm’s earlier efforts (cue, sound of Akshay Kumar’s dry laugh). In many ways, though, the A60 is Micromax’s most serious phone. For one, it’s missing the usual bombastic hook the com pa ny loves so m u ch— “lightest touch-screen phone in the world!” or “Gravity sensor!”. Instead, it has a more compelling statement of purpose: It is, simply, the cheapest Android-powered smartphone you can buy in the country. This puts Google’s mobile operating system in a whole new category, one currently dominated by LG’s Cookie, Samsung’s Corby and Nokia’s Symbian-powered touch-screen feature phones.

The good For its price, Android is an easy choice. The breadth of apps available, the modular functionality you tack on to it, the seamless integration with Google services, all make it easy to recommend. Internet browsing is a breeze and the A60 is able to handle most apps thrown at it with comfort. The A60 bundles the usual impressive Android feature set—Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth and a normal headphone slot. It has access to the Android Market, which has more than 100,000 applications for download. It has better battery than its high-end robot siblings and the speakers at the back are pleasingly loud.

The not­so­good The A60 has a resistive and lowresolution touch screen. Which means that elegant swipes won’t do it if you want work done. Jabs and hard pokes are required to coax a response from this device and typing on the on-screen keyboard is nigh impossible with your index finger. Use a stylus, though, and the experience improves dramatically—but one is not provided with the phone. The camera at the back is advertised as 3.2 megapixels, but performs poorly. It seems to have a fascination for Andy Warhol-esque pop art, and meticulously captures just darkness if you’re unfortunate enough to have to use it in low light. One of the defining advantages of Android is how fast the software iterates, but the A60 seems content with settling for version 2.1, which is already two versions behind. There’s no update software provided, and no place online to check for them.

Talk plastic The A60 is priced at `6,990. Despite its foibles, Android’s strengths are enough to put it above anything else available at that price. Krish Raghav


L4 COLUMNS SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM

SHOBA NARAYAN THE GOOD LIFE

Robert Parker is obsolete, wine is in vogue

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harti Desai is not going to like this, but Robin Goldstein has it in for people like her. Desai, the founder of FineWinesn-

THINKSTOCK

Noted: In blind tastings, most can’t tell an expensive and inexpensive wine apart.

More, has been called India’s First Lady of Imported Wines. Her company

imports over 7,500 cases of both New and Old World wine. Most are expensive, thanks to India’s import duties, and also because they were pricey to begin with. Customers get cases by joining a club or through retail channels. I like some of Desai’s wines—from the Bava winery in Piedmont and her Riojas. I wish she had more Sancerres, but that is not really the point of this article. The point of this article is a prediction: that the notion of “fine wines” might become obsolete in the future, at least for the broader wine-drinking public. Unlike dark chocolate, which grew from its niche obscurity to its current global popularity, wine is taking the opposite route. Fine wine—the term is used so often and in so many situations that it has almost become meaningless—has now reached the tipping point in terms of affordability, access and most importantly, status. More people are buying cases of “fine wines”, all fuelled by wine clubs, books and wine education classes. We are, in other words, at the peak of the market. A small but growing cult of people are attempting to shake things up. Goldstein is one of them. Goldstein is a Harvard-trained food and wine critic. He is interested in the sociology of taste, particularly as it applies to pricing. In a working paper that he submitted to the Journal of Wine Economics in 2008, Goldstein did a blind tasting with 6,000 people who sampled wines ranging in price from $1.65 (around `75) to $150 (around `6,500). They did statistical samplings and ran the

data through a series of models; all the usual stuff that academics do. Here is the key finding in simple terms: People enjoyed cheaper wines more than the expensive ones. As the paper says: “Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.” The report adds that there was a positive correlation between those with wine training and more expensive wines. But in general, wine-drinking Americans preferred cheaper wines. What does this mean? If you are not a wine expert and rely on the price of a bottle or the recommendation from an expert in order to choose your bottle, then don’t. Stop reading Wine Spectator; stop joining wine clubs in the hope that the wines their experts pick will be the ones you like. And above all, don’t assume that the market is right—that the more expensive the wine is, the better it will taste. Goldstein’s blind tasting was conducted on Americans who regularly drank wine. They were not novices; they had robust wine preferences. And still, they picked the cheaper bottles over the more expensive ones. As the report said, “Our results are robust to the inclusion of individual fixed effects, and are not driven by outliers: when omitting the top and bottom deciles of the price distribution, our qualitative results

are strengthened, and the statistical significance is improved further. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.” I have heard of other such studies that work to overthrow the cult of Robert Parker, arguably the most famous wine critic in the world. When Parker gives a wine over 90 points (out of 100), his

rating will increase sales. A new documentary, Escaping Robert Parker, seeks to mitigate the influence of such wine critics. The message is the same: Don’t rely on price or critics to choose your wine. Make up your own mind. And don’t be shy about buying cheap wine. Who knows? You might like it. The average wine customer buys based on price point and certain

broad parameters: fruity or dry; oaky or not; young New World wines or Old World ones; full-bodied or not; red or white. Then there are wines that don’t conform to these parameters. I don’t generally like Merlots, but I’ve enjoyed a good Frontera Merlot at my friend JJ’s house. I bought a Cape Mentelle from my local Metro store and liked it but when I bought two more bottles of the same wine from the same place later, they turned out to be duds. When stocking our home cellar, we go by expert recommendations from Jancis Robinson, Parker, Wine Spectator, or the local sommelier. Access is always an issue, particularly if you live in India where wide selections are not available. So a lot of what we own depends on where we travel. If you visit Europe often, you pick up French wines. If you visit Singapore often, you tend to buy wines from Australia and New Zealand, which are stocked abundantly there. For the longest time, I’ve used three price points to determine what wine I buy: $12 bottles for home use; $30 for parties; and $200 for special occasions such as anniversaries. That’s what I can afford and it has turned out to be a good system in the three countries I’ve lived in: the US, Singapore and India. Grover’s La Reserve costs about $12 and it is the wine I choose for home drinking. Imported wines start at $30, or `1,500 for a decent bottle. As for the $200 wines, I bring them out only when I want to impress. Turns out I don’t really need to bother. Shoba Narayan’s favourite combination for the summer is a crisp Sancerre with a nice walnutty salad and some warm bread. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com www.livemint.com Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns at www.livemint.com/shoba­narayan

THINKSTOCK

LEARNING CURVE

GOURI DANGE

ALLOW YOUR CHILD FREEDOM BUT WITH A SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY My 15-year-old daughter and I share a good rapport. Recently, however, she has been recently asking me half-jokingly if I, like other parents, am going to “grill” her when she gets to go out on her own with friends next year in junior college. I’ve told her there will, of course, be some negotiation on her freedom and privacy. Could you help me with what I should and shouldn’t insist on knowing when she goes out? Parents ask questions that may appear nosy to young teens, but since you have a good rapport with your child, perhaps you could come up with areas that are “legit”—where you can legitimately ask for information, and which areas you need not know about. First, make it clear that what appears nosy is really questions whose answers will define whether your child is going to be safe or not when she goes out on her own. Safety— physical and emotional—is an issue and can’t be dismissed as your “needless worrying” or “interference”. These are legitimate questions

to which you can reasonably expect clear replies: • Where are you going? From this, the parent knows how far from home the destination is, and the route. You could suggest better ways of getting there if there are any potentially dodgy areas they have to negotiate. • What will you be doing? Here, you can figure out if they’re doing healthy, “normal” things and if someone in the group has some other ideas that are potentially dangerous/ illegal/unsavoury in any way. • When will you come back? Rather than a question, this should be a time you set that is realistic as well as safe. This should not be negotiable; stick with what you think is the right time to get back home. • Who is with you? You definitely need to know how many people are going to be there and who. Reserve your comments on whether you like all these people or not if they are not troublemakers. Be prepared to not like all her friends. If there’s anyone in the group who is known to be

reckless or a bit on the wild side, you can indicate that your daughter need not follow any sudden changes of programme that this person may suggest. • How are you going and getting back? A fair enough question, it will help your daughter pre-plan safe and sensible ways of getting back in time, without any odd encounters. You could impress upon your child the fact that lying about any of these questions could put her and her friends in serious trouble they may not have anticipated. Moreover, once they lie, it is difficult for them to quickly seek help if anything goes wrong because they then worry about their lie getting exposed. “It’s just not worth lying about these things”, is what your child needs to learn. My twins, 16, are about to get Scootys. And their father has promised them the use of our second car on their 18th birthday once they take lessons and get a licence. I think that though access to vehicles will come at the legally appropriate

Life lessons: Let your child spread her wings, but set the rules. ages, we need to put down some ground rules and advise them on many things not learnt in driving schools. Is there any point in doing this? Specifically, what should we tell them? Yes, there is a point in having that conversation and having it on an ongoing basis, without nagging or harping. Legal age and licences is one thing, but the emotional stability and civic sense needed to be a responsible driver must be inculcated in youngsters by parents. The first thing to underscore is that they are responsible for themselves and for just about everyone on the road at any given time when they are driving. Becoming aware of this will keep your children

from doing a lot of the reckless and endangering things young people indulge in with a motorized vehicle at their disposal. Some basics about maintenance, as well as good handling of their vehicles, would be a good idea. Make your children responsible for the scheduled servicing of their vehicles. You would also need to explain how insurance works—if they’re old enough to drive, they are old enough to know the implication of insurance and the rights and responsibilities that come with it. You would also need to lay down the law on speeding, drinking and driving. While the law is getting stricter over this, your own home rules should

involve zero tolerance. Make it clear that you will not hesitate to withdraw the use of the vehicles if they ignore this cardinal rule. Where and at what time they go with their vehicles is something you would need to know, especially in the early months of their driving independently. Driving other people’s vehicles and lending their own to friends is something that you could discourage. A word of caution about whom they give lifts to would be important too. Make it clear to your children that you would not hesitate to let them face the consequences of dangerous driving, traffic violations, wrong parking and other such issues, and will not bail them out if they are in the wrong. Driving while using the cellphone—talking or texting—is something you have to ban. You can make it clear that you may take the car’s/Scooty’s keys if something like this happens. While all this sounds like much grim advice, it is important to also understand and relate to your children’s excitement and pleasure of driving their own vehicles. Do make an effort to be focused on this too, if possible! Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting. Write to her at learningcurve@livemint.com


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SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

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Eat/Drink AMIT KINARIWALA

OUR DAILY BREAD

SAMAR HALARNKAR

The kitchen king Every family has that one person you call for all matters related to the kitchen

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efore email, before blogs, before cooking shows, before reality cooking shows, before columns like this one there was, in every family, the great kitchen king. This was the person to whom we all deferred in culinary matters. This was the person who made it all seem so easy. This was the person we called whenever we were stuck. In my family, the burden of being the great kitchen king (queen somehow doesn’t fit the bill) fell on my eldest sister, Sangeeta. This was not an easy burden. It meant she had to cook when everyone else was lounging around on a holiday morning, all because someone suggested she “make that roast mutton when daddy got tight” or “the baked fish when the napkin caught fire”. I have to say that Sangeeta never really minded being in the kitchen; well, at least that’s what we like to believe (I’m not asking her). She never said no to any request and cheerily turned out

grand meal after grand meal, whether it was just family or friends added on. Her mother was a fine cook herself but under-appreciated because she handled the daily meals. Sangeeta was the holiday star. What has always stood out is her ability to cobble together a fine meal with whatever’s at hand. This is something I’ve learnt from her and is possibly why I am never fazed by last-minute lunches or dinners that quickly swell in numbers. Let me hasten to say this does not mean you can or should dispense with planning ahead. It’s very important, really, in the busy lives we lead in 24x7 India. But you can combine planning with being impromptu. Stock your refrigerator well and cook when you find the time or feel like it. A well-stocked refrigerator runs in the family. The wife, who comes from a buy-consume-and-eat-today family, sighs every time she sees me buying enough produce and

meats to last at least a week. She sighs louder when she realizes our two-door 400-litre fridge is probably the smallest in the family. But it’s this well-stocked fridge that lets me do what this column promises; creative cooking (well, at least she thinks so, though I frequently have doubts over my slap-it-together methods). You cannot be creative if you have nothing to be creative with. And so as I stumble along every week, I remember the great family cook who inspired me deeply. In time, as Sangeeta got married and became a working mother (running the computer reservation systems of a major airline), I lost touch with her fine touch. I do get to sample her wares whenever I visit Bangalore, which is where she lives with her husband (who does not cook) and her preteen son (who, I am happy to note, is trying to emulate his mother). On New Year’s Eve, I called and found that Sangeeta was doing what she does so well. Since I wasn’t there, I asked her to send the recipe of whatever she was cooking. As always, it is her creation. As you can see, there was a substantial amount

Perfect match: The stuffed chicken rests best on a bed of crisp veggies. of creativity involved. Personally, I would lose the 4 tablespoons of cheese; healthy cooking was never her thing. If you try it, tell me what you think, and I’ll tell her if the greatness is intact.

Stuffed Chicken Breasts, a la Sangeeta

rectangles 1 tbsp orange marmalade 1 green pepper, cut into squares 10 mushrooms, each chopped into 4 pieces Salt to taste Chilli flakes and Italian seasoning (the kind you get with pizzas) for seasoning

Serves 4 Ingredients 1kg boneless chicken breast 2 tbsp garlic, grated or chopped finely 2 red onions, chopped finely 4 tbsp leeks, chopped finely (optional) 4 tbsp mushrooms, chopped finely 2 tbsp parsley leaves, chopped finely 4 tbsp breadcrumbs 4 tbsp grated pizza cheese 3 tbsp olive oil Butter, cut into long, thin

Method Place each chicken breast piece in between wax paper and beat with a mallet to flatten the piece. Place the chicken in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Heat a non-stick pan. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, the garlic, onion and leeks and fry till onions are translucent. Add the mushrooms, parsley, breadcrumbs and cheese and mix well. Cook for 5 minutes and keep aside to cool. Take a piece of the chicken. Add a bit of the stuffing and

flatten it on top of the chicken piece. Place a piece of frozen butter on top and roll up the chicken. Ensure that the ends of the roll are enclosed using the chicken. Use toothpicks to hold the roll in position. Take a baking dish and spread a little olive oil to coat the surface. Place the rolled chicken breasts in the dish. Drizzle a little olive oil. Sprinkle chilli flakes and Italian seasoning on top. Cover with silver foil and refrigerate for an hour. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Bake the chicken for 40 minutes. Sauté mushrooms and capsicum for 2 minutes and arrange on a serving plate. Once the chicken is cooked, drain the excess gravy into a pan and reduce. Add orange marmalade. Leave the chicken in the oven to keep warm. Place the chicken on the sautéed capsicum and mushrooms, pour the reduced gravy on top and serve hot. You can also serve a tomato salsa with this. This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times. Write to Samar at ourdailybread@livemint.com www.livemint.com Read Samar’s previous columns at www.livemint.com/ourdailybread


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SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

Business Lounge DEEP KALRA

A trip down the virtual world The pioneer of online travel in India, whose favourite holiday destination remains Goa, trusts data and stays resilient

B Y P .R . S ANJAI pr.sanjai@livemint.com

···························· nside Mumbai’s Sahara Star, a hotel constantly in the making, I wait for the man who has actually made it in life. It’s the end of my roughly threemonth chase for Deep Kalra, who has promised to make my trip to near the domestic airport worth it. Kalra, the poster boy of India’s online travel industry, chief executive and founder of online travel firm MakeMyTrip.com, is late. We were to meet at 8pm and it’s now 8.20. In July, the parent firm of MakeMyTrip (India) Pvt. Ltd and MakeMyTrip.com Inc. filed a registration statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offer. Kalra successfully listed his firm on Nasdaq in August, and its stock soared to two times its initial public offering (IPO) price of $14 (around `630) each—it stood at $30.76 as of 5 January. Two text messages later, at 8.35pm, Kalra sweeps through the door in a formal grey jacket; tall and, at 41, strikingly elegant. We head to the restaurant and the man who says he “loves south Indian food, idli, sambhar and chutney” orders a diet coke and chicken tikka. Even as the odd light-and-fire show begins at the hotel, Kalra starts with a personal holiday story; after all, he has facilitated holidays for millions through his website (the company clocked sales of `2,200 crore in the last financial year). “We always travel together,” he says of wife Amrita, who was a travel show anchor for a private TV channel. “We take our children if our holidays include the beach, nature or wildlife. They get bored otherwise. For instance, we had an awesome trip to Istanbul, just the two of us. But we invariably end up missing our children. It is cheaper to take them along, considering the heavy telephone bills we have to pay once we return,” he says, smiling, adding that his favourite holiday destination “shamelessly” remains Goa. He urges me to have the chicken tikka before it gets cold

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and pushes the plate and a napkin towards me. I ask about the popular myth that Kalra jotted down his business plan for www.makemytrip.com on a paper napkin with his venture capitalist friend. “It’s not true,” he insists. “In fact, my business plan for MakeMyTrip was wellwritten and in Excel and Word file, spreading into several pages, which was proofread by my wife. What my friend Neeraj Bhargava of eVentures and I agreed (to) on a napkin was financial terms of investments. This was at the Crossroads Mall in Mumbai. That was a gentleman’s promise,” he reminisces. “At 30-31, you take risks. At 40, it changes. I will not take such risks now. Children start growing up and you have to keep certain standards in life. My formula is to take the risk early. Everything works if the idea stays with you,” he says. He has the demeanour of a sincere academic though he is a thorough professional with a string of successful stints at ABN Amro Bank and GE Money from 1991 to 1999 at the senior levels, including as vice-president. He says it is difficult to escape the golden handcuffs that jobs in ABN Amro and GE offer though he learnt a lot from good bosses who had contrasting styles. He gave it all up to become an entrepreneur because “if you are sure about your idea, then take the leap of faith. But passion cannot be borrowed.” He believes India’s healthy 8% growth makes risk-taking easier. “If you have a degree, it’s an insurance. You can always come back if you fail. Don’t live with a regret that you did not try,” says the economics graduate from St Stephen’s College in Delhi. Online travel was not Kalra’s only business plan—he had ideas for online stockbroking and online second-hand car sales. Online trading came naturally to the banker but travelling was closer to his heart. His conviction grew stronger when Amrita made an online hotel booking in Phuket, Thailand, that saved him $30 a day. He also made `15,000

by selling his old car online. The stage was set to eliminate the middleman. As the chicken tikka gets cold, Kalra warms up. “I always wanted to do something on my own. I wasn’t productive enough in my role as an investment banker. Meetings for the sake of meetings…” he trails. The real trigger came when he

was put in charge of new avenues for distribution of GE Money products in 1999—not surprisingly, the Internet. “I found myself thrown into the wide Web. I started thinking clinically about retail as nobody has the time to meet travel agents personally. The online travel model was working in the US. I could see no reason why it

IN PARENTHESIS Deep Kalra started quizzing at St Columba’s school, New Delhi, with the Bournvita Quiz Contest being the high point. “Although I only got to be the reserve on the team (there were always three guys better than me), we crammed every bit of information like mad.” His school headmaster, E.S. D’Souza, got Kalra interested in quizzing. D’Souza continues to be a friend. “As a company, the best we did was reach the finals of the Brand Equity Quiz in 2000. I can’t forget the quizmaster taking potshots at us, asking if a dot­com could afford to pay the entry fee (it was during the dot­com bust). We had to reach the final to silence him,” he recalls. “We also quiz regularly at office but I seldom win.” Now, his main opponent in quizzing is daughter Manya.

JAYACHANDRAN/MINT

Waiting to fly: Kalra says the ‘video­game instrument’ is an ‘electric pacifier’ during flight delays when the children are with him on holidays.

would not work in India.” Kalra did not wait long. He took the leap of faith in 2000, leaving GE Money and launching MakeMyTrip.com for nonresident Indians (NRIs) with a $2 million budget. He says he had started a site for India too at the same time but Indians were still not buying online. Kalra had to shelve his India project. “I always trust data. I found that the number of non-resident Indians browsing the Internet was increasing, but in India, they were browsing but not buying. So I made targeted advertisements for NRIs. It paid off. We broke even in 2003 after three years.” At this point, we decide to abandon the chicken tikka for the story of new India. He says the country started changing soon after 2003. “When Indian Railways’ IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation) started online booking in 2002, they also instilled faith among Indians. Then in 2004, lowfare carriers such as Air Deccan came in. Low-fare carriers were skipping the traditional booking system to save the cost of commission. We seized the opportunity.” “People took a leap of faith and used their credit cards,” he smiles, and sits back with a look of contentment before recollecting the dreadful obstacles over the years—when India faced a financial slowdown, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak practically killed travel and dot-coms went bust. “Venture capital firms pulled out. For 18 months, we couldn’t pay our employees. Forty per cent of our team left us. I guess we were resilient. There is a fine line between stubbornness and resilience. The team stood by us. If we had been alone, it would have been hard.” He talks about the changing times: “In the past, holidays would mean visiting relatives’ places. Indian travellers are changing and are now open to multiple, albeit short, breaks. The latest trend is that they are opting for adventurous holidays. Indians have started thinking what they will do rather than where they will go.” While we settle the bill, I think about the tikka and ask, “Any regrets?” He mulls for a bit and says: “The biggest mistake, not once but twice, was to outsource the technology of MakeMyTrip. If only I had studied computer science, instead of an MBA (from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad)...” The only person disappointed with the Nasdaq listing was his nine-year-old son Armaan (Kalra also has an 11-year-old daughter Manya). “He complained that even though he supported me throughout my life, I did not mention his name during interviews to foreign TV channels,” Kalra says, laughing. He gets into his car, heading to Powai to collect an award. The National Institute of Industrial Engineering may have made no mistake in selecting Kalra for Best Start-up Entrepreneur in 2010.


www.livemint.com

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

L7

Spotlight AJAY VERMA/REUTERS

ONIONOMICS

Skin­deep in trouble KEVIN PHAM,

One of the world’s most loved bulbs is in the midst of a cost crisis. It’s time to peel through the layers of history

B Y S IDIN V ADUKUT ···························· orruption, incompetence, nepotism and institutional incompetence are some of the things that may or may not determine the future of a government in India. Unlike the onion. With onions, there is no such uncertainty. Shake the nation’s faith in its ability to provide affordable onions copiously, and a government is as good as gone. When we went to press, a kilogram of onions in Mumbai cost anywhere between `65 and `80. On 6 January, Pakistani authorities stopped 300 India-bound trucks of onions at the Wagah border to control rising prices in their own country. India is a sovereign, socialist, secular, onion-obsessed nation. Don’t mess with our bulbs. But, in fact, this is not a purely Indian phenomenon. The onion might not have the starchy heft of potatoes, the flavoursome gravy-ty of tomato or the satisfying, eyesight-redeeming crunch of carrot. But it is among the most popular vegetables in the world. Depending on whom you ask, the onion is somewhere in the top five of all vegetables when it comes to share of households who consume it and the quantity consumed. Not only does everyone buy it, they also eat lots of it. Therefore, the obsession with onions is not just an Indian thing like, say, the tendency to wrap remote controls in plastic sheets for permanent preservation, but it is a global phenomenon with a history as old as humanity itself. If you are the religious type,

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THE NO­ONION TWIST If the bulbs are making you cry, Bengali grannies can offer solace ‘Niramish maangsho’, or vegetarian mutton, is an oxymoron if there ever was one. But the traditional Bengali curry, usually offered as ‘prasad’ to goddess Kali or Durga, is a staple of every housewife’s repertoire. The ‘niramish’ or vegetarian part of the dish’s name derives from the fact that it doesn’t use onion or garlic, both considered non­vegetarian in a Bengali kitchen. In fact, even Kashmiri Pandit cuisine lists several ways to cook mutton without onion or garlic. So despair not. Rajyasree Sen, chef­restaurateur, Brown Sahib, New Delhi, shares her grandmother’s recipe of ‘niramish maangsho’:

WWW.FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/PHAMUK

Stinking: (clockwise from left) A worker packs onions at a wholesale market in Chandigarh; French post­Impressionist art­ ist Cézanne’s Still Life with Onions; and the blooming onion.

THAMMA’S PIYAJ­CHHARA MAANGSHO (GRANDMA’S MUTTON SANS ONION AND GARLIC) Serves 3

you might be pleased to know that the onion finds a mention in the Old Testament, in the Vedas, the Puranas and several other ancient Hindu texts. But one of the most popular historical references to the onion is also now widely believed to be a false one. Greek historian Herodotus lived five centuries before Christ and is often called the father of history for his pioneering work in writing down the things people did. Herodotus, however, had a certain carefree approach to his work. He had no qualms whatsoever in writing down things that he had not seen, but what other people described to him. Thus becoming the first person in recorded history to share a “this happened to a friend of my friend” type anecdote. Among his more popular anecdotes is that Egyptian pharaohs spent 9 tonnes worth of gold buying onions to feed labourers who 4 tsp ginger, ground 4 tsp mustard, ground 2 tsp red chillies, ground ‘Garam masala’ powder made with 2 cardamoms, 4 cloves and a 3­inch piece of cinnamon Method Marinate the mutton in yogurt, turmeric, a teaspoon of salt and

Ingredients 500g mutton, cubed 60g yogurt 500ml hot water 3 tsp turmeric 1 tsp salt 1 tbsp mustard oil 2 tbsp ‘ghee’, or refined oil 3­4 bay leaves 4 tsp cumin, freshly ground 4 tsp coriander, freshly ground

built the famous pyramids (onions have never been cheap.) But later, historians have said that in his enthusiasm to retell stories, Herodotus may have repeated apocryphal stories told to him by dodgy tourist guides. In this case, the onion fact, it is suspected, may have been made up by a guide who was interpreting hieroglyphics on pyramid walls. Given its rich history and widespread popularity, you’d think that mankind, by now, would have developed a consensus on the onion’s impact on the consumer. Anything but. While some people believed, and still do, that onions have a cooling, antiseptic, even medicinal effect on the body, others believe they are nothing but little spheres of pure evil. The latter include Jains, some Vaishnavites and other sects and denominations. Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, was also a supporter of bizarre medicinal “ideas”, mustard oil. Refrigerate for an hour. Heat 1 tablespoon ‘ghee’ or oil in a thick­bottomed pan and throw in the bay leaves. Add the meat with the marinade. Cook on high flame for 3­4 minutes. Reduce the flame to medium, cover and leave for 5­6 minutes. Once the meat lets out a little moisture, add all the spices other than ‘garam masala’. Keep stirring till the moisture evaporates. Add the hot water, cover and simmer till the meat is tender. In another pan, heat a teaspoon of ‘ghee’ and stir in the ‘garam masala’ powder. Pour it over the meat and cover immediately to trap the fragrance. Serve it with ‘luchis’ (‘puris’), ‘parathas’ or steamed rice. Amrita Roy

PRIYANKA PARASHAR/MINT

some of which involved the onion. For instance, to help mothers who’ve just given birth, Aristotle recommends applying, to the womb region, onions powdered with oil, and cinnamon. And if that doesn’t drive you to a proper doctor, this will: For patients suffering from piles, Aristotle recommends taking an onion, boring a hole through it, filling it with oil, roasting it, then crushing the onion and applying it to the area in question. Detractors believe onion is a tamasik food that creates heat, aggression and passions in the body. Thereby leading to lusty behaviour. Indeed in The Perfumed Garden, a 15th century Arabic erotic manual, author Muhammad ibn Muhammad alNafzawi refers to a certain Abou el Heiloukh whose “member remained erect for thirty days because he did eat onions”. This might explain that gentle glow of satisfaction that follows a hearty lunch of Onion Uthapam at Café Mysore in Mumbai’s Matunga area. Last we checked, the Mysore Rava Dosa there had no onions, given the scarcity. It was being compensated for by a generous quantity of cashew. Gentlemen may be advised to be cautious while ordering an “onion bloom” in certain American and Australian restaurants. The “bloom” is an entire onion, cut carefully and dipped in a rich eggy batter and then deep-fried whole. During the frying process, the onion’s layers open up into a glorious golden flower-like shape. The bloom is then served hot with a dipping sauce. Not convinced? In 2008, Men’s Health magazine called the onion bloom the second worst food, and absolutely worst starter, in the US. The average bloom weighed in at 2,500 calories and more than 200g of fat.

Perfect before a night of passionate lovemaking, pillow talk followed by relaxing piles-free cardiac arrest in your sleep. Closer to home, onions are consumed in a variety of forms. Most noticeably in do piaza dishes that use double the usual quantity of onion, usually in both fried and boiled form. Do piazas, like baltis and tikka masalas, are among the most popular South Asian dishes eaten in the UK and other countries. A popular legend is that the dish was created or discovered by Abul Hasan, one of the nine navaratnas of Mughal emperor Akbar’s court. So obsessed did Abul Hasan get with the dish that he was popularly known as Mullah Do Piaza. The Telecom Raja of the Mughal age. These days, onions have pretty much become a part of our daily diet. From onions in your omelettes for breakfast, to onions in your raita for dinner, the vegetable is impossible to avoid. But you are not without alternatives. Other vegetables from the same species as onion— Allium—include leeks, shallots and garlic. You could try using any of them. Alternatively, you could try using asafoetida. One popular Vaishnavite cooking website recommends lightly cooking cabbage with asafoetida to get something that tastes exactly like onion. For true onion connoisseurs, however, there is no substitute for the real thing. In which case, we must patiently wait for prices to drop before once again tucking into this most unique, historic and versatile vegetable. No wonder they say that the onion is among the most complicated vegetables—it has many, many layers to it. Write to lounge@livemint.com


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SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

Play GAMES

Player in a strange land A video game with no video, a surreal tale about bringing houses to life, cats in Iran—a new ‘weird’ movement is upon us

B Y K RISH R AGHAV krish.r@livemint.com

···························· n the mid-1980s, a small French game publisher called Froggy Software, founded with the promise of “aventure, humour, décalage et déconnade” (adventure, humour and tongue firmly in cheek), created some of the strangest video games in the medium’s history. So much so that founder Jean-Louis Le Breton was once called the “Alfred Hitchcock” of gaming. They intentionally moved away from the dominant power fantasies and science fiction games coming from the US at the time, and focused on titles with surreal humour and political overtones. Their work included adventures such as Même les Pommes de Terre ont des Yeux (Even Potatoes Have Eyes) which, according to game historian Tristan Donovan, offered “a comic take on South American revolutionary politics”. Gaming’s weird movement

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has remained largely underground, swept aside by big studios making big-budget games. But the success of left field indie titles such as 2008’s World of Goo or 2010’s Recettear and the rise of app stores has made strange, small-scale development more viable than it’s ever been. We look at five new games that are keeping weird alive:

The Cat and the Coup In The Cat and the Coup, a “documentary” game being developed at the University of Southern California, you play the cat of Mohammad Mossadegh, the first prime minister of Iran. You can “coax” Mossadegh to revisit significant events in his

Left field: (clockwise from left) The Cat and the Coup; Dinner Date; SpyParty; A House in California; and the instructions screen in Papa Sangre.

house to life. The game’s script is evocative and tightly crafted, and it makes many clever, subversive inversions of the usual characteristics of the adventure genre. http://cardboardcomputer.com/ games/a-house-in-california/

SpyParty

life, such as the coup that engineered his downfall from power, by interacting with objects in his presence. The game has fantastic art inspired by Persian miniatures and offers a compellingly fresh way of experiencing recent world history. http://coup.peterbrinson.com

Luxemburg’s inner thoughts as the situation becomes clear to him. Dinner Date is like a slice-of-life short film—a whimsical, cynical look at the moments of frailty that consume us in real life. http://thestoutgames.com/: DinnerDate

distance? Should I head towards what sounds like a carnival or is it a trap? Are those...knives being sharpened? It’s a challenging way of experiencing a virtual world, with downright fantastic audio effects and quality—just don’t play it at night. www.papasangre.com

Dinner Date

Papa Sangre

A House in California

Papa Sangre is a video game without video. The game relies on a three-dimensional audio engine that envelops the player in a landscape of sound (you’ll need good headphones, of course). You navigate the game world (the monster-ridden palace of Papa Sangre) by listening to audio cues—what’s that scratching sound in the

A House in California is a short, minimalist adventure game inspired by Imagist poetry. Imagism was a movement in 20th century American poetry that favoured direct, precise prose and off-kilter structures over the verbose, flowery language typical of the romantic poetry of the time. In it, the game’s four main characters attempt to bring a

This is a multiplayer game with a devastatingly simple premise. One player is a spy at a party, hiding among partygoers and trying to avoid suspicion. The other player is a sniper hidden at a convenient vantage point, tasked with finding the spy. To avoid detection, the spy must try and imitate the behaviour of the other partygoers, who are computer controlled. In other words, he must trick the other player into thinking he is merely one of the computer-controlled characters. It’s a clever, tense little game of pattern recognition and deception, one that relies on perceiving subtle behaviour patterns. www.spyparty.com

accessible memory bank. 2010’s been a good year for Evernote. You’ve just hit more than five million users. What’s the plan for the immediate future? The scene for 2011 is ubiquity. We think of Evernote as an extension of your brain, and that works only if you try to be everywhere, in every language and on every device. Any specific plans for India? India is our next big, interesting market. We’re hoping to come down there sometime early this year to figure out what we can do. The raw size of it, even in terms of (the) minority of Internet users, is larger than most developed countries. The thing I’m hoping will happen with India is what’s happening to us with Japan—lots of innovation comes out of Japan for Evernote. Half of our developers are based there, creating awesome functionality. I hope India becomes a similar hub for us. What features does Evernote hope to add? The possibilities are limitless— whatever you keep in your

brain, we want you to be able to keep in Evernote as well. Where we draw the line is “social”. Evernote is meant to be primarily private. We think the social part is already well represented by great companies online. We’d like to be the signature company for private data—what our users don’t share. How have paid and premium accounts worked for you? What we’ve seen is that the longer you use Evernote, the more valuable it becomes to you. Here are the stats: One half of 1% (0.5%) of users pay for a premium account within the first month. Evernote has been around for about two and a half years—so among the longest users, more than 20% are paid customers. So the conversion rate increases from less than 1% to 6% after one year to 20% over two years. Because of that, we work to maximize revenue in the long term. It’s in our interest to want people to stay with Evernote and continue using it. Our strategy, essentially, is to get people to fall in love with the product.

This game offers an interactive unpleasant experience—that of being stood up on a date. In the game-maker’s words, you play as the “subconsciousness of Julian Luxemburg, waiting for his date to arrive”. You can look expectantly at the clock, stir the food that’s been prepared and laid out, and eavesdrop on

Q&A | PHIL LIBIN

The brain box Web start­up Evernote’s CEO on the price of memories, staying antisocial, and India plans B Y K RISH R AGHAV krish.r@livemint.com

···························· ike all the best Web 2.0 start-ups, Evernote has a simple modus operandi—it wants to be an extension of your brain. It’s a Web application that you file notes into—ideas, pictures, documents, Web pages, videos—and access whenever (and wherever) you need them, be it for creative projects or routine chores. Beneath that simple process, however, is an elegantly complex mechanism. Notes can be neatly categorized and searched, the program can recognize words within pictures (from a business card or restaurant menu, for instance) and Evernote is present on every device that connects to

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the Web—from mobile phones, laptops and tablets today to TV sets and game consoles in the near future. The app is free, with a monthly usage limit, and offers paid accounts that extend available usage. Evernote has around five million users worldwide, and in October it received $20 million (around `90.4 crore) in Series C funding (the third stage of funding) from venture capitalist firm Sequoia Capital. In a phone interview, Evernote CEO Phil Libin spoke on the price of memories, the company’s strange origins and India being the firm’s “next big, interesting market”. Edited excerpts: Tell us a little bit about Evernote’s origins. It has a

Note­worthy: Libin believes 2011 will be the year of ‘ubiquity’. connection to Apple’s aborted personal digital assistant (PDA) project, Newton, correct? That’s right. The core Evernote research and development team was started by Stepan Pachikov, this brilliant Russian-American scientist. He was part of the team that worked on the handwriting

recognition technology in the Apple Newton. In a way, Evernote is conceptually similar to the work he did for Newton. The idea of an infinite memory that helps you store everything connected to your life started with Newton, as did the idea of a universally


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SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

L9

Style RED CARPET

Take a bow Cummerbund or waistcoat, bow tie or slim tie—we show you how to wear the tuxedo like a movie star

B Y R ACHANA N AKRA rachana.n@livemint.com

···························· t a recent awards night, looking glamorous in a flowing green gown with diamonds glistening from her earlobes, actor Kareena Kapoor looked ready to set the red carpet on fire. On her arm was actor Saif Ali Khan, looking equally

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dapper and stylish in a tuxedo—the more traditional and ceremonial version of a business suit. While the awards season is a time for actresses to shine and sparkle in designer gowns and embellished saris, their male counterparts don’t really take full advantage when the invite says black tie. Yet the recently held GQ Awards night in Mum-

bai saw the men of Bollywood at their stylish best in tuxedos, something Indian men are rarely spotted in. “There aren’t enough occasions that require that kind of a formal dress code,” says designer Ashish Soni. A tuxedo can be worn for any kind of award function, formal fine-dining events or a wedding reception. “For weddings, you can do away with the bow tie, leave the top button open and just wear a pocket square,” says Samrat Som, creative director, Louis Philippe. We asked our menswear experts to decode the look for us so that the next time an invi-

tation says black tie, you’ll know what to do:

Jacket According to Som, the notch lapel or the peak lapel are safe, but if you find classical boring then go for a slim lapel. This season, Soni has been getting orders for the shawl collar. A tuxedo jacket has a slight hint of contrast with the lapel in taffeta, silk or satin, which differentiates it from a business suit. “You cannot wear a business suit with a bow tie and pass it off as a tuxedo. I often get this query from men. You have to invest in a tuxedo. If you don’t want to do that then just wear a suit with a tie,” he says. Black­tie boys: (from far left) Saif Ali Khan prefers his tuxedo with a waistcoat; Ranbir Kapoor has a mod­ ern take on his tux; Rahul Khanna goes for a short lapel style; and Aamir Khan keeps it basic.

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY GQ MEN OF THE YEAR AWARDS

Waistcoat and cummerbund A tuxedo jacket is enough to take you through the evening, but you can make the look more formal. Soni designed Khan’s tuxedo for the recent Hello! magazine awards—he wore it with a deep-cut waistcoat. Wear a cummerbund in cream, black or maroon. But stay away from it unless you have a welltoned abdomen. “That rules out about 90% of Indian men. A waistcoat is better because it will help hide the slight paunch,” he says. Som says you should wear a cummerbund only if you can carry it off or you might end up looking dressed for a costume party. Instead wear a waistcoat in the same colour as the jacket or in jacquard.

Bow tie and pocket square For the sake of tradition, Soni suggests wearing a bow tie. Most Indians avoid them because they associate them with waiters. But “Saif has grown up wearing tuxedos while studying in England. He likes to keep it very traditional,” says Soni. You can, however, change it a bit. “I recently wore a chocolate brown bow tie with a black tuxedo,” Soni adds. You can add colour, texture or prints such as dots, checks or stripes. “It depends on the event you are attending. I would avoid bow ties for Indian weddings,” adds Som. If you are slim like Ranbir Kapoor, you can modernize your look with a skinny bow tie. But avoid the stubble and the messy hair. “A tuxedo calls for a perfectly groomed look. Get a manicure and pedicure,” says Soni. Those not comfortable with a bow tie can opt for a slim black tie. Khan added some colour with a contrast red printed pocket square and you can do the same with coloured cufflinks and socks.

Shirt and trouser A white dress shirt, which traditionally comes with contrast black buttons, is the norm. Shirts can come with pleats or pintucks. The trouser has to be black, with a contrast satin stripe going down the sides. Traditionally, the jacket is the same black colour as the trousers, but Soni has seen the sales of “James Bond-style tuxedos”, with white jackets and black trousers, go up recently.

YOGEN SHAH

The colour of time Pink gold should be on your wrist this season. We pick six watches in this hue

q Pierre Cardin: Pierre Cardin Antoinette in rose gold and crystals on the bezel, at all Watches and More stores, `7,995.

B Y R ACHANA N AKRA rachana.n@livemint.com

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u DKNY: Chronograph with rose gold bezel studded with crystals and black ceramic strap, at all Life­ style and Shop­ pers Stop stores and other leading watch retailers, `6,995 onwards.

q Vacheron Constantin: 18­carat pink gold chronograph, at Dia, The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Mumbai; and Vacheron Constantin boutique, DLF Emporio mall, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, `27.6 lakh.

p ToyWatch: Pink gold watch from the Heavy Metal collec­ tion, at The Collective, Lower Parel, and Ensemble, Lions Gate, Mumbai, `15,500.

p Chopard: Rose gold chronograph with mother­of­pearl dial, on request at Chopard Boutique, The Oberoi, Nariman Point, Mumbai; and DLF Emporio mall, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, approx. `17 lakh.

t Jaeger­LeCoultre: Reverso Duetto Duo, at The Rose Salon, Kemps Corner, and Ethos Summit, Nariman Point, Mumbai, `28 lakh.


L10 COVER

LOUNGE

COVER L11

LOUNGE

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM COURTESY SACHIN KHOTRE

Easy rider: Sachin Khotre spent six months couchsurfing through the US.

COUCHSURFING

HOME AWAY FROM HOME At least 10,000 Indians joined this growing tribe of travellers in 2010. We surfed their world to find out how networking, some generosity and a leap of faith can take you anywhere in the world 10

B Y R UDRANEIL S ENGUPTA rudraneil.s@livemint.com

·································· he dusty town of Kekri, 80km from Ajmer, with its kuccha roads, farmlands and oil mills, isn’t exactly the kind of place you would expect to find a single woman traveller from Canada. But at 10 on an October night, having taken a bus from Udaipur to Ajmer, and then to Kekri, 24-year-old Anna Cote arrived at Ram Niwas Khati’s house to hot pakoras and cups of sugary chai (tea). In the bus, curious passengers were shocked at her choice of destination. Upon arrival, Cote gave Khati, a 48-year-old public health engineer working for the Rajasthan government, a small bottle of maple syrup and settled down to staying in his house for the next two days. Khati, a father of two teenage boys, is one of the 34,287 (and growing) couchsurfers in India (numbers from www.couchsurfing.org). So strangers from around the world come to his house to stay for a few days as non-paying guests. They socialize in the town and get a slice of rural life experience in India before heading out. Khati has never been out of the country, but has had international penfriends for almost 25 years. In 2005, a penfriend from Norway met him in Mumbai and introduced him to CouchSurfing—an Internet-based community whose members offer each other their houses for free stay. “I have always been interested in other cultures and I love making friends with people from all over the world,” Khati says. “So CouchSurfing is an amazing chance to do that.” In 2005, when Khati joined the CouchSurfing bandwagon, there were 296 couchsurfers in India, a number that has increased by more than 100 times since then, with more than 10,000 Indians joining the community in 2010 alone. It has spread from the big cities

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and major tourist destinations to 1,054 cities and towns—from Siliguri to Ludhiana, Thane to Madurai. “It all comes down to access,” says P.R. Srinivas, industry lead of tourism, hospitality and leisure at Deloitte Haskins and Sells, an international business management, auditing and research company. “A decade ago, we did not have this kind of access. With access comes aspirations—you are exposed to other cultures so much more, so you want to try out new things. The kind of people who use the Internet in India are usually more worldly-wise as well, and with social networking growing, CouchSurfing can be seen as an extension of that.” Khati tries to host people from as many different countries as he can, and he has had couchsurfers from across Europe. “Most people come here to see something of India outside the big cities and tourist destinations,” Khati says. “Otherwise, there is no reason to come to Kekri.” Cote, his most recent guest, stayed for Diwali. And yes, her room had a couch. “Ram told me a funny story about that couch,” Cote says. “When he joined CouchSurfing, he didn’t even know what a couch was, until one day, when he was at a store, he heard someone else point it out. He thought as a member of CouchSurfing, he should have one, and so he bought it!” Cote spent her time eating more sweets and chai than her system could handle, hobnobbing with Khati’s wife and her extended circle of friends, watching the household gear up for Diwali and jumping out of her skin with every loud firecracker. On the eve of Diwali, she joined the family in preparing the altar, poured ghee and sugar over hot coal, and participated in the puja. “It was incredible,” she says, “especially as fireworks are restricted in Canada. With help from Ram’s sons, I lit several firecrackers and learnt to run away quickly and duck.”

Next day, she witnessed a traditional buffalo race on the streets of Kekri, the animals covered in colourful tassels and bells, their horns painted. “Accompanying them were modern tractors decked out in just as many decorations and blaring upbeat music,” she says. “Ram explained that as buffaloes were being replaced by tractors to till the land, people honoured the tractors instead. A neat way to keep tradition alive, though to a somewhat comical effect.” In the best tradition of couchsurfing, Khati follows no formalities with his guests, who are treated like household members. “We eat on the floor, I might even take them to the market when I’m buying vegetables,” he says. Next year, Khati plans to make his first foreign trip, travelling through Scandinavia. “It’s not just because couchsurfing makes it affordable, but also because I want to experience the joy of being hosted,” he says.

COURTESY ANNA COTE

plans over coffee or drinks—the kind of invaluable “insider” help while travelling in a foreign city or country that most people would love to have. Sachin Khotre, who runs his own production house in Mumbai and directs television commercials, was banking on this when he planned an ambitious and freewheeling trip through the US in 2008. “When I first heard of CouchSurfing in 2006, I thought it was lunacy,” Khotre says. “But I kept meeting more and more people who were part of the group, and it started seeming like a cool idea.” In 2007, after finishing a project in Paris, 27-year-old Khotre was desperate to stay on with his own money, but could not afford a hotel. He made an appeal on the CouchSurfing site and was immediately rewarded with three or four replies. The woman who finally hosted Khotre also gave him her extra train pass, Paris maps, fruits and water to carry while travelling. In return, Khotre cooked her an Indian prawn curry. “So, then I was sold,” he says, “and I really started loving the idea.” The plan for the six-month sojourn through the US was born out of this. Khotre and his friend Sagar Rao went from the east to the west coast, from Mississippi to Washington, danced at a trance party in the middle of the Mojave Desert outside Los Angeles, camped at Big Sur and made a road trip to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. They couchsurfed everywhere, exploring little-known local hot spots and attending parties and concerts with their hosts. “I just love this spontaneous, one-on-one and once-in-a-lifetime experience that this kind of travelling gives you,” Khotre says. “You get a bit of a butterfly effect before you meet a new host—people can turn out to be very boring or very interesting!” Mostly, they were exciting. In New York, their host took them “dumpster diving”. “In a lot of rich neighbourhoods, people just leave the stuff they don’t want on the sidewalk because they don’t have the time to sell it or dispose it properly,” he says. “So this girl I was staying with would scour the streets with a pick-up truck at night. That night, we picked up a bicycle, a dressing cabinet, a printer and a gas stove.” In Los Angeles, a 65-year-old midwife, a first-generation immigrant from Iran and a couchsurfer, cooked them a large dish of lamb curry. A 19-year-old host in Washington took them through snow to an allnight music fest. The one thing Khotre and Rao chickened out of was an invitation to a nude wine and cheese party. “The kind of cultural insights and local flavour you can get by travelling like this, you just can’t get anywhere else,” Khotre says. “For that mad sixmonth trip, I spent just `2 lakh, including airfare.”

How to use the couch

Small world: Anna Cote with her host Ram Khati’s mother in Kekri, Rajasthan. as 1949, when American civil rights and anti-war activist Bob Luitweiler founded Servas, an international peace movement based on Gandhian principles, that promoted cultural exchange by encouraging members to stay with each other while travelling. The Servas website (www.servas.org) operates along similar lines as CouchSurfing, except that it also stresses on cultural exchange and the ideals of peace, requires a lengthy and complicated registration process that includes a personal interview and a minimum four-week notice period for the intended host. Servas members also need to renew their membership every year. “All these little caveats and hurdles are intended to keep something like Servas a little exclusive,” says Srinivas. “The whole exercise is not just about travelling and staying, so you need to be seriously interested in social work and peace work to join Servas.” Other websites, such as www. globalfreeloaders.com, insist that members must host other members. “That clause prevented me from joining GlobalFreeloaders even though I heard of them before I found CouchSurfing,” says Khotre. “You need a bit of time to get comfortable with the idea of hosting, and CouchSurfing gives you that space

Jump into the unknown Social networks designed around hospitality and travel go as far back

Surfing the US CouchSurfing allows members to do more than just host or be hosted. Though the host is required to provide only accommodation, most surfers do a bit more—taking their guest out to favourite eating places, events, inviting them to parties or treating them to homecooked meals. Couchsurfers across the world come together in local groups, hold regular meetings and events, and plan trips together. A member can also choose to be a “day host”, where he/she meets travellers to the city to show them around, or just helps them make travel

ANKIT AGRAWAL/MINT

Footloose: Varun Solanki and Maria Di Fiore, who met through CouchSurfing, are planning to get married.

and freedom. Also, I live with my mother in a small flat in Mumbai, so often it is actually impractical for me to host anyone.” Relying on the kindness of strangers to host you while travelling takes a bit of a leap of faith. It may sound exciting but can be dangerous, putting either party in uncomfortable situations in the best of scenarios, and in the face of serious crime at worst. Yet, despite the approximately 2.4 million people who use the site around the world, from places as far flung as Alaska and Kiribati, the number of negative reports is negligible. A large part of this success comes from the way the site is designed—each member puts up a profile where they share information about themselves, their address is verified through a small online payment facility, other members of the community can vouch for them, and people they have hosted or who have hosted them leave their feedback on the site. “The website is a closed space where people can rat on you,” says Khotre, “so you would have to be well-behaved if you want to continue using the privileges of the community.” Srinivas adds: “The in-built safety standards are good because there is a certain amount of self-control built in. ” But as the movement matures in India, safety will become a bigger concern, says Srinivas. “It’s still quite a new phenomenon. Though on the basis of social networking, you expect a certain guarantee, it’s really a question of how you can make it

• It’s easy to become a member. Just log on to www.couchsurfing.org and set up an account. A one­time online payment (`400 for Indians) is necessary to get your address verified. It works like any other social networking site where you make friends and join groups. • There is no compulsion to host if you join the site. You can just be a member of a group, attend events in your own city, or meet surfers for coffee or a meal, or take them out for a tour of the city if you want to be a “day host”. • When surfing or hosting, choose the host/guest carefully. Read their profile thoroughly, see who their friends are, what kind of experiences other surfers have had with them and also build a rapport over email before hosting. Again, there is no compulsion to host every­ body who requests a “couch”, so use your discretion. • Most couchsurfers try to work with back­up plans during trips, because a host may have to back out at the last minute for any number of reasons. On long holi­ days, it’s also a good idea to mix couch­ surfing with hotel stays. • If you have a specific interest—you know the best street food joints in your city, or you are well informed about lesser­known historic sites, or where to find the best clothes, etc.—CouchSurfing is the perfect place to share that knowledge. Surfers in various cities come together to make spe­ cial­interest communities that offer their experience to other interested surfers. more secure as the phenomenon grows.”

The personal touch Doel Sengupta, a single 30-year-old Bangalore-based tourism industry professional, joined CouchSurfing in 2008, and had her first surfing experience with an unknown host in Colombo in 2009. “At the end of the trip, I was trying to stay for two more days and was trying to postpone my ticket,” Sengupta says. “I called my host for help and he actually booked my ticket with his card. I was also invited to his family get-together.” Sengupta hosted her first surfer this year, a woman traveller from Canada—“a sensible and responsible surfer, she didn’t expect more than what I could have provided, not even time,” Sengupta says. So was it a difficult decision to be a single woman couchsurfer? “Nope,” Sengupta says. “Before hosting or surfing, I feel one should read the references of the guest or host, but there have been many instances where my Bangalore couchsurfer friends have hosted totally new people after some email conversations.” Vijay and Nonita (they did not wish to give their last names), a Delhi-based couple in their mid-30s who became active members of CouchSurfing in 2008, have hosted more than 130 people without any serious problems. “We are careful about the people we host,” Vijay says. “We exchange enough emails with the person who requests a couch before deciding. We usually allow only single women or families or people with whom we share strong interests, and try and make sure that the people who live with us are over 25.” This checklist, they believe, ensures the experience does not turn sour. “We’ve had politicians, construction workers, CEOs, artists and photographers from various parts of the world,” Vijay says. “With some people, we were so comfortable that we gave them our house keys.” Sometimes the leap of faith comes with even richer rewards. Maria Di Fiore, a 26-year-old English teacher from the US, posted a request on the CouchSurfing website saying she was visiting India and wanted to see an Indian wedding. Varun Solanki, a 28-year-old Delhi-based businessman and couchsurfer who owns a banquet hall, responded. In January 2010, on her first day in India, Di Fiore met Solanki and attended a wedding at his banquet hall. A day later, they were driving down to Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. From there it was Jaipur, Agra and finally, Goa. “It was stupid, stupid, stupid,” Di Fiore says. “And I hope I don’t have a daughter like me, but then I started really liking him.” Now, they are planning their own wedding. “They are strict about the fact that CouchSurfing is not a dating site,” Solanki says. “But then, they can’t say we are dating any more.”


L10 COVER

LOUNGE

COVER L11

LOUNGE

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM COURTESY SACHIN KHOTRE

Easy rider: Sachin Khotre spent six months couchsurfing through the US.

COUCHSURFING

HOME AWAY FROM HOME At least 10,000 Indians joined this growing tribe of travellers in 2010. We surfed their world to find out how networking, some generosity and a leap of faith can take you anywhere in the world 10

B Y R UDRANEIL S ENGUPTA rudraneil.s@livemint.com

·································· he dusty town of Kekri, 80km from Ajmer, with its kuccha roads, farmlands and oil mills, isn’t exactly the kind of place you would expect to find a single woman traveller from Canada. But at 10 on an October night, having taken a bus from Udaipur to Ajmer, and then to Kekri, 24-year-old Anna Cote arrived at Ram Niwas Khati’s house to hot pakoras and cups of sugary chai (tea). In the bus, curious passengers were shocked at her choice of destination. Upon arrival, Cote gave Khati, a 48-year-old public health engineer working for the Rajasthan government, a small bottle of maple syrup and settled down to staying in his house for the next two days. Khati, a father of two teenage boys, is one of the 34,287 (and growing) couchsurfers in India (numbers from www.couchsurfing.org). So strangers from around the world come to his house to stay for a few days as non-paying guests. They socialize in the town and get a slice of rural life experience in India before heading out. Khati has never been out of the country, but has had international penfriends for almost 25 years. In 2005, a penfriend from Norway met him in Mumbai and introduced him to CouchSurfing—an Internet-based community whose members offer each other their houses for free stay. “I have always been interested in other cultures and I love making friends with people from all over the world,” Khati says. “So CouchSurfing is an amazing chance to do that.” In 2005, when Khati joined the CouchSurfing bandwagon, there were 296 couchsurfers in India, a number that has increased by more than 100 times since then, with more than 10,000 Indians joining the community in 2010 alone. It has spread from the big cities

T

and major tourist destinations to 1,054 cities and towns—from Siliguri to Ludhiana, Thane to Madurai. “It all comes down to access,” says P.R. Srinivas, industry lead of tourism, hospitality and leisure at Deloitte Haskins and Sells, an international business management, auditing and research company. “A decade ago, we did not have this kind of access. With access comes aspirations—you are exposed to other cultures so much more, so you want to try out new things. The kind of people who use the Internet in India are usually more worldly-wise as well, and with social networking growing, CouchSurfing can be seen as an extension of that.” Khati tries to host people from as many different countries as he can, and he has had couchsurfers from across Europe. “Most people come here to see something of India outside the big cities and tourist destinations,” Khati says. “Otherwise, there is no reason to come to Kekri.” Cote, his most recent guest, stayed for Diwali. And yes, her room had a couch. “Ram told me a funny story about that couch,” Cote says. “When he joined CouchSurfing, he didn’t even know what a couch was, until one day, when he was at a store, he heard someone else point it out. He thought as a member of CouchSurfing, he should have one, and so he bought it!” Cote spent her time eating more sweets and chai than her system could handle, hobnobbing with Khati’s wife and her extended circle of friends, watching the household gear up for Diwali and jumping out of her skin with every loud firecracker. On the eve of Diwali, she joined the family in preparing the altar, poured ghee and sugar over hot coal, and participated in the puja. “It was incredible,” she says, “especially as fireworks are restricted in Canada. With help from Ram’s sons, I lit several firecrackers and learnt to run away quickly and duck.”

Next day, she witnessed a traditional buffalo race on the streets of Kekri, the animals covered in colourful tassels and bells, their horns painted. “Accompanying them were modern tractors decked out in just as many decorations and blaring upbeat music,” she says. “Ram explained that as buffaloes were being replaced by tractors to till the land, people honoured the tractors instead. A neat way to keep tradition alive, though to a somewhat comical effect.” In the best tradition of couchsurfing, Khati follows no formalities with his guests, who are treated like household members. “We eat on the floor, I might even take them to the market when I’m buying vegetables,” he says. Next year, Khati plans to make his first foreign trip, travelling through Scandinavia. “It’s not just because couchsurfing makes it affordable, but also because I want to experience the joy of being hosted,” he says.

COURTESY ANNA COTE

plans over coffee or drinks—the kind of invaluable “insider” help while travelling in a foreign city or country that most people would love to have. Sachin Khotre, who runs his own production house in Mumbai and directs television commercials, was banking on this when he planned an ambitious and freewheeling trip through the US in 2008. “When I first heard of CouchSurfing in 2006, I thought it was lunacy,” Khotre says. “But I kept meeting more and more people who were part of the group, and it started seeming like a cool idea.” In 2007, after finishing a project in Paris, 27-year-old Khotre was desperate to stay on with his own money, but could not afford a hotel. He made an appeal on the CouchSurfing site and was immediately rewarded with three or four replies. The woman who finally hosted Khotre also gave him her extra train pass, Paris maps, fruits and water to carry while travelling. In return, Khotre cooked her an Indian prawn curry. “So, then I was sold,” he says, “and I really started loving the idea.” The plan for the six-month sojourn through the US was born out of this. Khotre and his friend Sagar Rao went from the east to the west coast, from Mississippi to Washington, danced at a trance party in the middle of the Mojave Desert outside Los Angeles, camped at Big Sur and made a road trip to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. They couchsurfed everywhere, exploring little-known local hot spots and attending parties and concerts with their hosts. “I just love this spontaneous, one-on-one and once-in-a-lifetime experience that this kind of travelling gives you,” Khotre says. “You get a bit of a butterfly effect before you meet a new host—people can turn out to be very boring or very interesting!” Mostly, they were exciting. In New York, their host took them “dumpster diving”. “In a lot of rich neighbourhoods, people just leave the stuff they don’t want on the sidewalk because they don’t have the time to sell it or dispose it properly,” he says. “So this girl I was staying with would scour the streets with a pick-up truck at night. That night, we picked up a bicycle, a dressing cabinet, a printer and a gas stove.” In Los Angeles, a 65-year-old midwife, a first-generation immigrant from Iran and a couchsurfer, cooked them a large dish of lamb curry. A 19-year-old host in Washington took them through snow to an allnight music fest. The one thing Khotre and Rao chickened out of was an invitation to a nude wine and cheese party. “The kind of cultural insights and local flavour you can get by travelling like this, you just can’t get anywhere else,” Khotre says. “For that mad sixmonth trip, I spent just `2 lakh, including airfare.”

How to use the couch

Small world: Anna Cote with her host Ram Khati’s mother in Kekri, Rajasthan. as 1949, when American civil rights and anti-war activist Bob Luitweiler founded Servas, an international peace movement based on Gandhian principles, that promoted cultural exchange by encouraging members to stay with each other while travelling. The Servas website (www.servas.org) operates along similar lines as CouchSurfing, except that it also stresses on cultural exchange and the ideals of peace, requires a lengthy and complicated registration process that includes a personal interview and a minimum four-week notice period for the intended host. Servas members also need to renew their membership every year. “All these little caveats and hurdles are intended to keep something like Servas a little exclusive,” says Srinivas. “The whole exercise is not just about travelling and staying, so you need to be seriously interested in social work and peace work to join Servas.” Other websites, such as www. globalfreeloaders.com, insist that members must host other members. “That clause prevented me from joining GlobalFreeloaders even though I heard of them before I found CouchSurfing,” says Khotre. “You need a bit of time to get comfortable with the idea of hosting, and CouchSurfing gives you that space

Jump into the unknown Social networks designed around hospitality and travel go as far back

Surfing the US CouchSurfing allows members to do more than just host or be hosted. Though the host is required to provide only accommodation, most surfers do a bit more—taking their guest out to favourite eating places, events, inviting them to parties or treating them to homecooked meals. Couchsurfers across the world come together in local groups, hold regular meetings and events, and plan trips together. A member can also choose to be a “day host”, where he/she meets travellers to the city to show them around, or just helps them make travel

ANKIT AGRAWAL/MINT

Footloose: Varun Solanki and Maria Di Fiore, who met through CouchSurfing, are planning to get married.

and freedom. Also, I live with my mother in a small flat in Mumbai, so often it is actually impractical for me to host anyone.” Relying on the kindness of strangers to host you while travelling takes a bit of a leap of faith. It may sound exciting but can be dangerous, putting either party in uncomfortable situations in the best of scenarios, and in the face of serious crime at worst. Yet, despite the approximately 2.4 million people who use the site around the world, from places as far flung as Alaska and Kiribati, the number of negative reports is negligible. A large part of this success comes from the way the site is designed—each member puts up a profile where they share information about themselves, their address is verified through a small online payment facility, other members of the community can vouch for them, and people they have hosted or who have hosted them leave their feedback on the site. “The website is a closed space where people can rat on you,” says Khotre, “so you would have to be well-behaved if you want to continue using the privileges of the community.” Srinivas adds: “The in-built safety standards are good because there is a certain amount of self-control built in. ” But as the movement matures in India, safety will become a bigger concern, says Srinivas. “It’s still quite a new phenomenon. Though on the basis of social networking, you expect a certain guarantee, it’s really a question of how you can make it

• It’s easy to become a member. Just log on to www.couchsurfing.org and set up an account. A one­time online payment (`400 for Indians) is necessary to get your address verified. It works like any other social networking site where you make friends and join groups. • There is no compulsion to host if you join the site. You can just be a member of a group, attend events in your own city, or meet surfers for coffee or a meal, or take them out for a tour of the city if you want to be a “day host”. • When surfing or hosting, choose the host/guest carefully. Read their profile thoroughly, see who their friends are, what kind of experiences other surfers have had with them and also build a rapport over email before hosting. Again, there is no compulsion to host every­ body who requests a “couch”, so use your discretion. • Most couchsurfers try to work with back­up plans during trips, because a host may have to back out at the last minute for any number of reasons. On long holi­ days, it’s also a good idea to mix couch­ surfing with hotel stays. • If you have a specific interest—you know the best street food joints in your city, or you are well informed about lesser­known historic sites, or where to find the best clothes, etc.—CouchSurfing is the perfect place to share that knowledge. Surfers in various cities come together to make spe­ cial­interest communities that offer their experience to other interested surfers. more secure as the phenomenon grows.”

The personal touch Doel Sengupta, a single 30-year-old Bangalore-based tourism industry professional, joined CouchSurfing in 2008, and had her first surfing experience with an unknown host in Colombo in 2009. “At the end of the trip, I was trying to stay for two more days and was trying to postpone my ticket,” Sengupta says. “I called my host for help and he actually booked my ticket with his card. I was also invited to his family get-together.” Sengupta hosted her first surfer this year, a woman traveller from Canada—“a sensible and responsible surfer, she didn’t expect more than what I could have provided, not even time,” Sengupta says. So was it a difficult decision to be a single woman couchsurfer? “Nope,” Sengupta says. “Before hosting or surfing, I feel one should read the references of the guest or host, but there have been many instances where my Bangalore couchsurfer friends have hosted totally new people after some email conversations.” Vijay and Nonita (they did not wish to give their last names), a Delhi-based couple in their mid-30s who became active members of CouchSurfing in 2008, have hosted more than 130 people without any serious problems. “We are careful about the people we host,” Vijay says. “We exchange enough emails with the person who requests a couch before deciding. We usually allow only single women or families or people with whom we share strong interests, and try and make sure that the people who live with us are over 25.” This checklist, they believe, ensures the experience does not turn sour. “We’ve had politicians, construction workers, CEOs, artists and photographers from various parts of the world,” Vijay says. “With some people, we were so comfortable that we gave them our house keys.” Sometimes the leap of faith comes with even richer rewards. Maria Di Fiore, a 26-year-old English teacher from the US, posted a request on the CouchSurfing website saying she was visiting India and wanted to see an Indian wedding. Varun Solanki, a 28-year-old Delhi-based businessman and couchsurfer who owns a banquet hall, responded. In January 2010, on her first day in India, Di Fiore met Solanki and attended a wedding at his banquet hall. A day later, they were driving down to Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. From there it was Jaipur, Agra and finally, Goa. “It was stupid, stupid, stupid,” Di Fiore says. “And I hope I don’t have a daughter like me, but then I started really liking him.” Now, they are planning their own wedding. “They are strict about the fact that CouchSurfing is not a dating site,” Solanki says. “But then, they can’t say we are dating any more.”


L12

www.livemint.com

SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

Travel EMILIANO HOMRICH

DETOURS

SALIL TRIPATHI

The prisoner’s dilemma In Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, the prison walls hold the remnants of an inhuman past

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n empty jail cell cannot convey the sense of isolation, nor can it make you feel the claustrophobia. However small the cell is, when it is without people, it gives a false sense of openness. And when it is filled with people, as the photographs on the walls of this jail indicate, it is overcrowded. I have entered this jail knowing that I will get out when I want to. Others have not been so lucky. The wall honours some of the individuals who were held here against their wishes, often for crimes they hadn’t committed, or for acts which weren’t crimes. I am at the old jail in Johannesburg. It is set on a hill, and it shows South Africa’s inspired attempt to reconcile the story of its inhuman past with its optimistic present. The place is called Constitution Hill, and part of the property has made way for the country’s constitutional court. It is a deliberate choice. Symbolically, the walkway between the jail and the court is made of bricks taken from the

building, which was part of the holding area for prisoners before they were processed and dumped into those cells: from the past to the future. The court exudes openness with its tall glass windows and cheerful art; the cells are constricting and narrow. The dim interior and the grey mattresses are designed to emphasize bleakness. When you enter the No. 4 prison, the wall carries a statement of Nelson Mandela’s: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” And the picture of this apartheid-era jail isn’t pretty. Think of the food the prisoners got: There are signs showing their rations, and the prisoners were divided into categories, created the only way the government knew how to separate people—race. The first drum had beef or pork, to which only the whites were entitled. The second drum was for Indian and coloured prisoners. It had porridge or boiled vegetables over which the cooks tossed some fatty meat from the discarded bits for the white prisoners. The third drum was for black prisoners—it was without meat, and it had porridge, boiled mealies (corn) and beans. The prisoners were humiliated often. Upon arrival, they went without shower for months; weekly showers were contingent upon good behaviour. The recalcitrant ones were sent to Emakhulukhuthu (the deep dark hole), as the isolation cells were called. There, their staple

diet was rice water. The only black prisoner separated from other black prisoners, and kept in the white prisoners’ jail, was Mandela—not out of respect for him, but to keep him from influencing or inspiring—or inciting, as the authorities saw it—fellow blacks. I was interested in another cell—the one in which Mohandas Gandhi was kept. When Gandhi challenged the rulers to live up to the ideals the British claimed to live by, the police used force—and Gandhi willingly took the blows. By not retaliating, he confused the government. By insisting upon truth, he unleashed a new weapon—satyagraha—which shamed his adversaries. There is a permanent Gandhi exhibition inside the jail. Gandhi was born in India, but South Africa made him: To counter the injustice he faced, he opted for the morally superior alternative to violence, of civil disobedience, which he would deploy so skilfully against the British, after he returned to India in 1915. Explaining what South Africa did for him, Gandhi was to say: “It was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now. My love for South Africa and my concern for her problems are no less than for India.” You find those words inscribed in this exhibition. The walls tell Gandhi’s South African story without any adornment. You see the simple cap he stitched. You see the life-size image of Gandhi on

FOOT NOTES | AADISHT KHANNA

Ice, salt and sand The winter offers a chance to explore three kinds of deserts—from the cold magnificence of Leh to the stark, arid Kutch landscape

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uring winter, the Zanskar river in Ladakh is called the Chadar as it turns into a sheet of frozen ice. The river turns into a highway that Ladakhis have used as a trade route for centuries. This month, Ladakh Eco Trips is organizing a 20-day trek along the Chadar. It will be a hard, high-endurance trek, say trek organizers Tashi and Gaurav, that will aim to recapture the spirit of the Zanskari traders who used to

Frozen over: A trekker walks past a wall of ice along the Chadar.

travel down the valley to trade metalwork and furs. They’ll also give trekkers an insight into the culture of the Zanskar valley, and make the trek more than just high-adrenalin adventure sports. Trek highlights include opportunities to see the untouched Zanskar valley before all-weather roads are built through the region, as well as home stays in the valley, giving trekkers the opportunity to see the Ladakhi way of life up close, and the chance to see Himalayan wildlife as red foxes and ibexes migrate to lower altitudes for the winter. The trek will also include visits to medieval monasteries. The trek, priced at `59,000, starts at Leh on 22 January, and ends on 5 February in Leh. Trekkers will have to arrange their own transportation to Leh. Ten per cent of the proceeds will be donated for the rehabilitation of victims of the Leh cloudburst in August. For a detailed itinerary, as well as advice on how experienced you need to be and the gear you need to carry, email ladakhecotours@ gmail.com or call Tashi (9419815906) or Gaurav (9871511133).

Symbolic: The constitutional court in Johannesburg adjoins the jail where Mandela and Gandhi were held. translucent fabric, as if he is standing in front of you. There is the prisoners’ uniform of the kind he wore. And on the side there is a table, upon which sits the typewriter that he used when he edited the newspaper The Indian Opinion. The typewriter is accessible—I felt the tactile urge, to feel the keys, to press them, but thought the better of it. I felt unworthy. I wanted to see the sandals he had made for Gen. Jan Smuts, whose job it was to confront Gandhi. In many ways, Smuts was a reluctant adversary. Gandhi could separate his opponent from his actions, the individual from his

power. Smuts understood that, and it left him powerless. When Gandhi left for India, he presented Smuts with a pair of sandals he had made for him. Smuts accepted the gift. Many years later, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, he returned the sandals to Gandhi with a note saying: “I have worn these sandals for many a summer since then, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.” The sandals were at the end of the room. They are kept in a glass case, and they have the look and feel of simplicity and comfort.

The heels of the sandals are flat. But you know that whoever wore them would get a lift that can’t be explained or understood easily. And that elevation had nothing to do with the wearer, but with the maker. Their scale was human, and sliding one’s feet in those sandals would seem so simple. Walking like Gandhi, however, is a different matter. Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com www.livemint.com Read Salil’s previous Lounge columns at www.livemint.com/detours

Kutch calls C

ultural historian Navina Jafa will be leading a cultural tour to Kutch from 11-14 February. It will include visits to an Ajrakh block printing workshop, Bhuj’s “silver bazaar” and textile museum, participation in pottery, embroidery and leather workshops in the Banni salt desert and a walk through a boatbuilding village, where participants will get to see the entire boatbuilding process. Jafa is a specialist in heritage activity, and participants will gain a

Maritime life: The Kutch salt marshes have a unique regional culture. deeper understanding of the handicrafts, religious practices, and maritime lifestyle of the Kutch region and peoples.

The tour rate is `23,542 per person, exclusive of airfare. For details, contact Navina Jafa at njafa@airtelmail.in or 011-46564873.

Luxe oasis S

uryagarh, Jaisalmer, has announced special room rates until 31 March. A two-night/ three-day package is available for `24,700 for a double occupancy room, with complimentary breakfast and a choice of complimentary lunch or dinner. Guided trips to the Kuldhara ruins, the Desert National Park and the Sam dunes are available on request. For reservations, log on to www.suryagarh.com or call 0141-2389077. Write to lounge@livemint.com

Old­worldly: Suryagarh is a luxury hotel near Jaisalmer.


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SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

L13

Books ESSAY

The road into the open ARTHUR GIRON/WSJ

In this year of the hare, a best­selling Finnish novel offers an alternative loafer’s vision to life. Can it change yours?

B Y P ICO I YER ···························· hich of us has not entertained that deliciously seditious notion: to do a Gauguin? To slip away for a while from everything that sounds so important—a steady job, a settled home, a regular salary—and go off in search of adventure, restoration, fun? There is, after all, more and more to escape these days: The average American spends 8 hours a day in front of a screen; the average American teenager, according to a Nielsen survey, sends 2,272 text messages a month (or 70 every day). At the end of the last century, the average Westerner was already taking in as many images in 24 hours as a Victorian saw in a lifetime. So why not drop everything and go walkabout, all the way to the Arctic Circle? Or such, at least, is the implication of a classic Finnish novel in which the wake-up call to a truer life comes in the unlikely form of a runaway hare. I had never heard, I confess, of Arto Paasilinna until a year ago. Born in Lapland in 1942, he is celebrated across the world, having sold more than seven million books in 27 languages. His most famous novel, The Year of the Hare (1975), has won three major international awards and inspired two major motion pictures. To me, however, he simply looked like a name with too many vowels. Yet when I started to dash through his shrugging, topsyturvy slapstick, I quickly realized that Finland was home to something even more antic than its annual Mobile Phone Throwing competition (it is the land of Nokia, after all), the zany movies of Aki Kaurismäki and the other sauna-fied pleasures (187,188 lakes and 179,584 islands) that moved Newsweek last summer to name Finland the No. 1 nation in the world. In this book at least, the country offers a kind of alternative loafer’s vision that Thoreau and Whitman would have taken as scripture. When Paasilinna’s novel appears in the US for the first time this month, it might just prove the perfect way into the actual year of the hare, which begins, according to many

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an Eastern calendar, in January. The plot of The Year of the Hare could not be simpler. A journalist, Vatanen, is sleepwalking through his everyday life, blind to the beauties of the wild, when a hare, “tipsy with summer”, runs across the road in front of the car he is travelling in. In the wake of the resulting collision, Vatanen wanders off into the forest to care for the wounded creature. Soon he is drifting farther and farther away from what is commonly known as civilization, till finally he is living in a nature reserve in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle. Free of

BOOKS TO SET YOU FREE ‘The Year of the Hare’ is perhaps most antically Zen­ish of a shelf­load of books that tell us to live by our own ideas of contentment. Here are a few other memorable summonses to a new life:

The Moon and Sixpence By Somerset Maugham (1919) Maugham may have looked and sounded like an upstanding member of the British ruling classes, but all his books are about a longing to escape—through romance or mysticism, if not downright flight. In this, one of the greatest of his novels, he tweaks the story of Gauguin’s journey to send a British stockbroker to a richer life in Tahiti. Maugham was the rare soul who knew both cosmopolitan society and the runaway’s life—and how the latter could somehow complete the trajectory of the former.

Walden By Henry David Thoreau (1854) He travelled only a mile and a quarter from Concord’s railroad station; he stayed in his

cabin only two years, two months and two days; and he held mass anti­slavery meetings there, while also taking off for excursions to Maine (and jail). But the details don’t matter. What Thoreau shows us is how easy it is to step off the grid, think more carefully about our choices, and live a little closer to our senses and truest needs. A man is rich, he knew, “in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to leave alone”.

Eat Pray Love By Elizabeth Gilbert (2006) This book has become so popular and so widely envied that it’s hard to see it clearly. But Gilbert won seven million readers mostly by exploring, with unusual intelligence and wit, something many of us feel: Why stick around in New York, writing

the daily grind, he finds that his senses are newly sharp, his food has a taste it never had before and he is alive as he has never been in his regular life (besides which, his wife seems hardly to miss him). Almost as soon as he falls through the ice of regular life, moreover, he finds himself in what proves to be a whole floating community of idlers and eccentrics. The police superintendent who ought to be locking him up for delinquency turns out to be a vagrant too, off on a fishing expedition with a retired col-

articles and drifting between partners who don’t entirely fulfil you, when there’s a whole wide world to explore? The beauty of this memoir is that she is honest enough to know her story sounds like cliché, even as she is open, warm and wise enough to find a new life, a clearer sense of herself and, yes, a new husband.

league, and invites him to come along. A group of gypsies offers to buy the hare—and one of them, looking at Vatanen’s hand, predicts a “fabulous future ahead: many journeys in view, no need for anxiety”. As events start to escalate, in a blur of zaniness, Vatanen calmly treats each new development as a lark. It’s easy to see the zig-zagging tale that develops as a kind of Saturnalia that turns every kind of order on its head. But when I started to think more about Paasilinna’s shaggy-hare subversion, I couldn’t write it off as just fur-

As You Like It

last plays, culminating in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘The Tempest’, find that, once exiled (however reluctantly) from their homes, everything feels like a holiday. But even in this much earlier comedy, the exiled protagonists lose their fixed identities in wandering—and promptly find themselves in the company of clowns and zanies who might have stolen right out of ‘The Year of the Hare.’ “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything,” says the Duke, sounding startlingly similar to Vatanen. (To lovers of ‘A Burnt­Out Case’ by Graham Greene, of ‘Steppenwolf’ by Hermann Hesse, of ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton, and of all the many other books—‘Playing With Water’ by James Hamilton­Paterson!—that could be here, I apologize. They all could change your life).

By William Shakespeare (1599) The characters in many of Shakespeare’s

Pico Iyer

A Journey in Ladakh By Andrew Harvey (1983) Harvey held a sinecure fellowship at Oxford—the youngest to win one in the university’s 800­year history—when he took off for an almost unvisited corner of the Himalayas in northern India. The people and places he met in Ladakh proved so eye­opening that he left Oxford, became a full­time mystic and, in the 30 years since, has published dozens of books on Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism and much else.

ther proof that Finland is the spiritual home of in-your-face whimsy. Paasilinna started out, after all, as a journalist. He decided to sell his boat (just as Vatanen does) to finance the writing of The Year of the Hare. And the book proved such a success that he more or less became his wandering hero and has written 35 novels in almost as many years. I, too, was working for a weekly magazine, once upon a time, sequestered in a small office in midtown Manhattan, and it was just a single autumn morning, on a layover in Tokyo that acted on me like a fast-running hare: I was killing the hours before my flight back to New York by wandering through the little town of Narita, and something in the quiet stillness of the streets, the mildness of the late October light, told me of everything I was missing in my daily life at home. Why was I living according to someone else’s idea of happiness, I thought, and not according to my own? I decided to move to Japan. A little later in The Year of the Hare, I came upon an even stranger correspondence. As the plot unfolds, the “biggest fire in Finnish history” roars through the treetops, and the newly emancipated Vatanen helps to fight it. But when he sees that he can do no more, he stops and sits around drinking with a fellow layabout. This sounds shocking in the telling, but it reminded me of when what was then the worst fire in California history wiped out my family home. All I could do, as I watched the flames pick apart my life, was listen to opera on the radio. The only peace of mind I could find came from realizing how little I could bend circumstances to my will. In Paasilinna’s anarchic world, life itself is a burning house, and the very moment you think you are safe is the most dangerous time of all. A job, a home, a life can be gone in a second and, seen in that light, you have to take some things less seriously than you did, even as you take other things—kindness, possibility, free time—a lot more seriously. All you can do is fix what you can—many of Vatanen’s odd jobs after his flight involve tending to the wounded—and accept what you can’t. As my neighbours in suburban Japan, like people all over East Asia, start to buy hare-brained cards and wooden blocks with a rabbit on them to usher in the year, I find myself wondering if Paasilinna’s story wouldn’t make perfect sense to them. In Zen practice, after all, students are taught that anything can wake you up if only you have the eyes to see it. Even a fugitive hare. Toss out the ideas you’ve received and you notice that you’re seeing things with a new immediacy, have no need for the public self that is like an overcoat six sizes too big and can find what you need in every moment. The Year of the Hare reminds us that what seems so important in our daily lives may not be all that permanent or sustaining. The best resolution to make this new year might be to open your eyes to everything around you— while also recalling that most of our lofty resolutions will ultimately come to nought. Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Write to wsj@livemint.com


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PREVIEW

India’s literary Woodstock MAYANK AUSTEN SOOFI/HINDUSTAN TIMES

SOUTH ASIA’S PULITZER The DSC Prize will be one of subcontinental publishing’s high points this year The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which will be given for the first time at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, anticipates a watershed in South Asian publishing. The prize will award $50,000 (around `22 lakh) to one winning work of fiction about South Asia and its diasporas. Intriguingly, eligibility rules have no requirement for nationality. Jury member Nilanjana Roy says, “It’s difficult and challenging to define the South Asian novel, but it’s more fun than having to go through authors’ passports to see if they qualify.” The DSC prize, which is open also to translations, instantly broadens the range of subcontinental writing that can achieve international attention. Its administrators may well see the DSC Prize as the subcontinent’s equivalent of the American Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award for fiction.

RANDOM HOUSE/BLOOMBERG

SHAUN CURRY/AFP

Lit glit: (clockwise from above) The front lawns of the Diggi Palace hotel; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Martin Amis will make their first appearances at the festival this year.

How the Jaipur Literature Festival, once a backpackers’ haunt, became one of the world’s hottest destinations for book lovers

B Y S UPRIYA N AIR supriya.n@livemint.com

···························· bout 14,” is William Dalrymple’s amused census of attendance at the first Jaipur Literature Festival in 2006. Then a small part of the Jaipur Virasat Foundation’s larger cultural programme called the Jaipur Festival, it ran on volunteer enthusiasm. “Our first international guest was Hari Kunzru,” Dalrymple, the festival’s co-director, remembered in his opening remarks last year. “We caught hold of him because he was en route to New Zealand to meet his girlfriend at the time.” The number of people who heard Dalrymple’s address last year was nowhere close to 14. Over five days of the Jaipur “litfest”, as it is abbreviated by fans, around 35,000 people flocked to the small, exquisite environs of the Hotel Diggi Palace. This year, Dalrymple says, attendance seems set to rise further at the festival starting 21 January. “The weather forecast predicts it’ll be colder than usual,” he offers. “So it probably won’t be a completely unmanageable number. Maybe about 50,000.” How did a boutique literary conference, barely five years old, become what is now acknowledged to be the biggest festival of its kind in the Asia-Pacific? And how did it happen in Jaipur, a city whose tourist attractions are thought to rank more in the order of forts and elephants than intellectual ferment? A look at the names the festival has drawn in the last five years may provide a clue. From

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Wole Soyinka to Orhan Pamuk, Steve Coll to Tina Brown, and Vikram Seth to Vikram Chandra, the collective roll-call is practically a who’s who of literary celebrities. This year, Seth and Pamuk will return, along with some notable first-timers: J.M. Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh. To call them headliners in a festival noted for egalitarianism—they will have to wait in the same lunch queues as their audience—may be inaccurate. Other writers making their Jaipur debut include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Leila Aboulela, Ahdaf Soueif and Etgar Keret. The festival’s offer of equal face-time for Indian regional language (or bhasha) writers results in some of its most popular events. They may not be the primary reason for attend-

ees from New York or Mumbai to fly in, but they are a reason to stay: Where else would you see Malayalam novelist K. Satchidanandan shoot the breeze with Gulzar? “Jaipur is a cosmopolitan city, so there’s a great local response to other Indian languages too,” says Namita Gokhale, the festival’s co-director. “Its large Bangla population turned up in full force for the Bengali readings we did two years ago. It was the same with last year’s Sindhi readings.” For Ram Pratap Singh, scion of the royal inhabitants of Diggi and the current owner of the estate that includes the Diggi Palace hotel, it has much to do with public spiritedness. “Our work started years ago, with Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and

FOUND IN TRANSLATION Namita Gokhale, co­director of the festival, on its Indian aspect

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amita Gokhale has been co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival over the last five years, and organizes its “Indian parts”. This is not confined to her selection of bhasha writers and panels: The Jaipur festival is global in its themes, concerns and audience, but its approach is Indian. Edited excerpts from an interview: How do you balance the festival’s Indian aspects with

its international profile? International response has been gratifying, but it’s a primarily Indian fest for us. Writers appreciate the chance to be a part of a diverse programme, to interact with people from all over the world. One of the things we do is create a dialogue between Indian English and Indian bhasha languages, where often there’s been a degree of resentment at not being treated the same way. The earlier tendency was to look

Rajiv Gandhi, and we have a long association with John and Faith Singh (of the Virasat Foundation). As one of Jaipur’s oldest families, we take an interest in our city.” “It’s lots of thinking, reading people—everyone who comes here is on common ground,” explains Ritu Singh, who owns the popular Flow café on the palace grounds. “Flow’s a bit slow for the rest of the year, in comparison.” For those five days in January, however, her martini for acknowledgment from the UK or US—now here are equal stages on which new voices can find a public as well as presence. You can see, for example, writing about Dalit literature, which didn’t get a lot of attention before. How does the festival construct a dialogue between Indian writers across languages? Indians are a bilingual people: Speaking in multiple languages is not a problem for us. At the festival too, you can see we’re still working out our own bilingual challenges. We recognize that translation is not just a

shakers start at 9 in the morning and stay until 4am. Singh says friends bus themselves in to help, waiting tables, mixing drinks and mingling with guests. That informal camaraderie still forms the bulwark of the Jaipur experience. While over 200 people have been working for the last four months to prepare Diggi Palace for the festival, Ram Pratap Singh says the key to the experience is still its laidback and unobtrusive infrastructure. “We’ve had Salman Rushdie here, and managed to allay the government’s fears about security.” Gun-toting guards are not their style. “There’s nothing sarkari about it,” Dalrymple agrees. “It’s a product of the best sort of amateur love and enthusiasm, rather than greed, or a governmental sense of duty. We’re fortunate that Namita’s enthusiasm and mine complement each other, and cover a wide range.” And so does the festival. Space constraints, which caused event venues to overflow regularly, were a concern last year. This year, the programme expands to cover other parts of the Diggi estate, including the royal stables physical act but also subtext; there has to be humility on both sides, there can’t be a dominant bias. Do international publishers respond to writing in regional languages? French, Spanish and Italian publishers look for a completely different register from what English-language publishers do. At Jaipur, we form a literary community which manages to make space for all these people, some of whom come every year. You have book lovers, academics and students for whom to encounter these writers is a big deal.

This year’s DSC Prize shortlist: u Amit Chaudhuri’s ‘The Immortals’ u Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s ‘The Story of a Widow’ u Tania James’ ‘The Atlas of Unknowns’ u Manju Kapur’s ‘The Immigrant’ u Neel Mukherjee’s ‘A Life Apart’ u H.M. Naqvi’s ‘Home Boy’ (another change: Unlike past years, these will not be occupied by their equine tenants. Past attendees will remember the distinct fragrance of horse wafting through the fest’s baithak area, while panellists talked about Soviet history and the art of criticism). On the festival’s various stages, just under 200 writers will discuss their preoccupations, themselves and each other in front of rapt audiences. Why do they come here? Former US president Bill Cinton famously called the pre-eminent Hay-on-Wye festival “a Woodstock of the mind”. By contrast, says Dalrymple, Jaipur has more of the sense of a gigantic Indian wedding. “The music and dance performances in the evenings just add to the feeling. Look, it’s late January. In the rest of the world, that’s miserable,” he laughs. “Jaipur is not a hard sell.” Critic and writer Nilanjana Roy says, “Jaipur has been a great way for new, unpublished writers to get a sense of what the public part of the job—speaking, engaging in debates—might entail, as well as for new writers to get a sense of the publishing scene in general.” Yet, she believes, the best experiences at literary festivals happen to readers or writers who like engaging with their vast public. What about publishers who, as Roy says, go to Jaipur with full schedules chalked out? “It’s a good platform for the writers they already have on their list, and it offers a chance to listen to, read and assess writers, especially those from outside Delhi,” she explains. “But unlike Frankfurt, this is not a trade fair, where the focus is on signing contracts and making rights deals. It’s probably the wrong time and place to try and get them to read your unpublished manuscript.” The Jaipur Literature Festival is on from 21-25 January.


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SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM

CRIMINAL MIND

ZAC O’YEAH

The world of counterfactual fiction SCOTT LAMONT

Political reversal stories, be they about victo­ rious Nazis or unending British colonialism, can be healthy for readers and writers AFP

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he counterfactual genre (or alternative history as it is sometimes called) is rich in possibilities. Most commonly, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is used as the setting for science fiction: an interesting example being The Difference Engine (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which shows what the world might have been like had it entered the computer age a hundred years earlier than it did—a steam-powered version of the IT boom. Political reversal stories—in which the Nazis won World War II or where the American Civil War was won by the southern states—lend themselves to intense narratives. One of the best is Len Deighton’s 1970s novel SS-GB, in which the Scotland Yard has become a department of the German SS. In Hans Alfredsson’s Attentatet i Pålsjö skog (1996; so far not translated, the title means The Terrorist Attack in Pålsjö Forest), Eva Braun is assassinated by Swedes, which provokes Hitler to invade. The story highlights the various pro-Nazi sentiments that existed in Sweden although the country was officially neutral during World War II. I recently heard about a richly imagined 1953 political thriller that seems to combine both themes—Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, in which the two rival superpowers are The Confederacy of America and The Third Reich (or a version thereof), that ultimately are bound to clash over world supremacy. The dizzying concept explores the possibility of travelling back in time to change the future. The list of mind-bending fiction is fairly extensive and

BLOOMBERG

Fact against fiction: (clock­ wise from left) Author Jonathan Franzen; George Orwell; and Barn­ hill in Jura, Scotland, where Orwell wrote 1984.

includes the quintessential American author Jack London’s only novel that was banned in his home country, The Iron Heel (1908), the prophetic H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and inspired crime noir gems such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) by the Pulitzer-winning Michael Chabon. However, the only novel that has achieved the status of a literary classic is George Orwell’s 1984—about a Soviet-like Britain reeling under criminal levels of government mind control. India, too, finds a place in counterfactual fiction. There’s Rajshekhar Basu’s 1920s satire The Scripture Read Backwards in

which a Bengali empire has become the dominant cultural and political global power (so there’s no market for fairness creams; instead, Englishwomen are doing their best to darken their skins). British fantasy author Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air (1971) is set in an alternative future where the British never left India but, with Winston Churchill as viceroy, continued to base their economy on ever-expanding colonialism. Quite a few novels exploit this “What if colonialism never ended?” theme and in S.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers (2002), things are taken a step further. Europe has been destroyed by a meteor and Delhi

is the world capital. Narrowing down to crime fiction my search came up with—unexpectedly—Jonathan Franzen’s 1988 debut novel in which a group of conspiratorially minded Indians try to take over the city of St Louis. At the centre of The Twenty-Seventh City is Chief of Police S. Jammu, a workaholic with a penchant for intrigue, distantly related to Indira Gandhi. She’s sent out by her Kashmiri mom to take control of America. Their choice falls on St Louis which used to be the fourth most important city of the US about a hundred years ago, but is now a dying riverside town. The most prominent citizen, chairman of various

municipal bodies and celebrated city builder, is the good-humoured Martin Probst, married to the near-perfect Barbie Probst, and they have a normal and uncomplicated daughter, Luisa. All this is about to change. Martin Probst becomes a primary target in the elaborate conspiracy. Jammu’s psychopathic bisexual henchman Singh manipulates Probst’s daughter into an uncharacteristic teenage rebellion that eventually turns her into a Left-wing intellectual. Singh then kidnaps Barbie while Probst himself is led to believe that his wife eloped with a glamour photographer. Agent Asha, posing as an Indian princess, marries the local beer baron as part of the infiltration of the city’s bigwigs. Suddenly Probst finds himself estranged from both his own family and the city’s ruling elite as life shatters with unexpected

speed and St Louis is about to be turned into an Indian fiefdom. The use of wiretapping and other Orwellian surveillance methods is probably not a coincidence (this story too is set in 1984). One also gets the feeling that Franzen tries to do for America what Salman Rushdie did for Indian fiction with his allegorical Booker-winner Midnight’s Children (1981): The Probsts become symbolic of the American way of life. Franzen uses them to lay bare the structural silliness of the all-American family; he bends the cartoon-like characters this way and that until there’s nobody left standing. Summed up the plot may sound very much like what Shakespeare could have written if LSD was manufactured in his day, and when I finished reading The Twenty-Seventh City, I thought to myself, that an occasional dip into the worlds of counterfactual fiction is healthy for both readers and writers. Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan. Write to him at criminalmind@livemint.com

QUICK LIT | SUPRIYA NAIR

RANDOM CLASSICS

Metro mundanities Penguin’s Metro Reads series’ three new books are easy, sloppy writing

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enguin’s Metro Reads series is tagged with the line, “Every life has a story”. This may be true, but the series doesn’t justify it. In much the way commercial Hindi cinema serves up fanciful stories about improbable situations by disclaiming it as what “the public” demands, the Metro Reads books dish a slop of genre conventions—romance, suspense, action—in familiar Indian locations. It is there that the implicit claim of the Metro Reads tag line, that these books are about people whose stories may not be otherwise heard, begins and ends. And like their Bollywood counterparts, the novels are guilty of a host of narrative sins. In Bharat Wakhlu’s military-academic thriller about terror and a secret treasure in Aishmuqam, Kashmir, there are pleasant stretches of potted history in which readers are told—sometimes through

clumsy, expositionary dialogue—about Kashmir’s dazzling, syncretic past and the Mughal intrigues that shaped it. These chunks of information play out in a plot where an academician and a CBI bureaucrat attempt to outwit an unprincipled professor to a possible treasure, while in a related subplot, a beautiful, young scientist attempts to escape her terrorist kidnappers (and with good reason. An Afghan mercenary who cannot “help noticing that she was well proportioned and full of youthful promise” is hardly salubrious company). If Close Call in Kashmir transplants Dan Brown to the subcontinent, then Partha Sarathi Basu’s With or Without You travels a much shorter distance, by taking the MBA-hero genre of Indian writing in English to its one true home, Gurgaon. Its cavalier attitude to workplace sexual harassment may be easily ignored by some readers. But how many will delight in page after page devoted to the minutiae of advertising agency politics? Great literature has been created out of plots in which there is seemingly little at

The Premier Murder League, 229 pages, With or Without You, 211 pages, Close Call in Kashmir, 232 pages, Penguin India, `150 each. stake, but With or Without You is more successful in mapping malls with coffee shops than the inner lives of its characters. Geeta Sundar’s The Premier Murder League is probably the pulpiest of the three, with a delicious plot involving political murder and cricket corruption. But even as it delves into different strands of public life—cop protagonists, cricket board shenanigans, middle-class crimes of passion—it ends up being about none of these in particular. Sundar’s book is more structured than the other two, but it is also prone to more bizarre narrative revelations and lazy, clumsy sentences that can throw readers out of the plot. For instance, early on, policemen visiting a murder scene say to one another, “Lovely, isn’t it?…It seems

unlikely that any crime could have been committed here.” This sort of banality runs free through the pages of all three novels to such a degree that one is forced to wonder: Do Penguin’s editors believe readers on the Metro are somehow less demanding, or more easily pleased, than their stationary counterparts? This commuter feels bound to point out that even a distracted train traveller can generally tell the difference between easy reading and easy writing. By conflating the first and second, Metro Reads’ small, well-produced volumes come perilously close to being objects of annoyance. Like bad FM radio in written form, they make you want to change the channel. supriya.n@livemint.com

Random House’s new series of translations (whimsically called Random Classics) opens its account with two beautifully produced Bengali­to­English works. The translator and series editor for Bengali, Arunava Sinha, presents Anglophone readers with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Durgeshnandini’ (‘The Chieftain’s Daughter’), often remembered as the first novel ever written in an Indian language. Chattopadhyay adopted a high Romanticism familiar to readers of Sir Walter Scott in his fervent, epic, historical story of love and war in Mughal­administered Bengal. Modern readers may delight in Chattopadhyay’s playful elegance as much as the chance to read a cornerstone of modern Indian literature. Sinha’s confident, unobtrusive translations not only shed light on Chattopadhyay but also succeed in one of Indian writing’s most fraught endeavours, translating Rabindranath Tagore. ‘Three Women’ groups together three famous Tagore novellas, ‘Nashtaneer’ (‘The Broken Nest’), ‘Dui Bon’ (‘Two Sisters’) and ‘Malancha’ (‘The Arbour’). Each is a poignant consideration of women stifled and complicit in their deeply gendered societies, and together they recreate a powerful sense of Random Classics: Tagore’s artistry and humanism. Penguin, Supriya Nair `299 each.


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SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011

Culture FILM

Girls don’t cry

Contrasts: Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan play characters who are different from each other in looks and temperament; and (below) director Raj Kumar Gupta. ABHIJIT BHATLEKAR/MINT

A film based on a real­life criminal case is a rarity in India. Can ‘No One Killed Jessica’ define this genre?

B Y S ANJUKTA S HARMA sanjukta.s@livemint.com

···························· n death, Jessica Lall galvanized sympathy. The murder of this aspiring model at a socialite’s restaurant in Delhi by Manu Sharma, son of a powerwielding politician from Haryana, was a potent trigger for public outrage. Sharma gunned down Lall, who was bartending for the evening, when she refused him a drink. It was like a movie. The moot point of the debate, in the media and in public discourse, ever since the killing in 1999 became simple, and abiding: If someone can get away with murder committed in front of the Capital’s who’s who because he is a politician’s son, who can even think of protecting the Everyman Indian?

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Through the drama, Sabrina Lall, Jessica’s sister, was the stoic protagonist. She was the face of the wronged, in a battle against Delhi’s power elite. When Raj Kumar Gupta, director of the new film No One Killed Jessica, met Sabrina in Delhi every evening for a couple of months in 2009, he was convinced she was going to be the film’s emotional axis. “The words I remember are ‘everybody is human’. She told me this. I was quite startled. Sabrina had a matter-of-fact way of speaking about her struggle. She had kind of gotten used to the loss and there was no room left for emotional or sentimental rants. She just had to keep going on.” Gupta decided he would keep the film’s focus on the emotional journeys of the people around Jessica’s life.

Gupta met others who had been involved in the case—witnesses, investigators, reporters— but for the film’s factual heft, he depended largely on media reports. Later, another character emerged. “After researching for

about three months, I had to distance myself.” The other woman besides Sabrina (played by Vidya Balan) is a journalist named Meera Geti (played by Rani Mukerji), a ballsy, foul-mouthed TV journalist who helps Sabrina

Q&A | VIDYA BALAN

‘I was stripped of all my excesses’ The actor on playing Sabrina Lall and the thrill of working with ‘New Age directors’ B Y U DITA J HUNJHUNWALA ··························· rying to coordinate an interview with Vidya Balan in the week prior to the release of her latest film No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ) was a challenge. So somewhere between a promotional tour of India, New Year’s Eve and her birthday (1 January), I managed an interview between a shopping trip in Mumbai (for a belated Diwali present for her parents) and a drive back home to her new residence in Khar, where she spoke about her role as Sabrina Lall. Edited excerpts:

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2010 was a great year for you. Yes, it was a fabulous year. 2009 finished with Paa being critically and commercially successful. Then Ishqiya did very well. Suddenly, people

were looking at me very differently and I think The Dirty Picture (on the life of Silk Smitha) happened thanks to Ishqiya. I started shooting for NOKJ, which was a strange (but good strange) experience because I was in this completely inconspicuous, nondescript avatar. I shot in the streets of Delhi unrecognized. Then awards for Paa began coming in and then I shot for two months in my favourite city Kolkata for Kahani, which redefined hard work for me. I shot 65 days without a break. There were also endorsement commitments, etc. It’s been crazy. But I am not complaining. How difficult was it playing the part of Sabrina Lall? I was stripped of all my excesses in this film—in terms of make-up, clothes, hair and even in terms of performance. I think director Raj Kumar Gupta really expected, and has managed to extract, an understated performance. The thrill of working with these New Age

directors is that they have such a different take and you are on the same page. Cinema is actually about emotions. While we all know of Sabrina, we do not know what her emotional journey has been. NOKJ is based on a real-life incident but it takes you through the emotional journey of Sabrina and the people involved.

How much of the script is fact and how much fiction? In the case of my character, we have lifted the spirit and strength of character of Sabrina, but the rest is a figment of our imagination. She was kind enough to share a lot of facts with Gupta but we could not have asked her what she felt like at that time. That would have

Extra ‘ordinary’: Balan was initially sceptical of her look in the film.

felt very unfair. Therefore, it was not very different from playing any other character as I have based my characterization on the script. As for fact and fiction: What happened is a fact; how it happened is our interpretation. One cannot know what went on in people’s minds and hearts. If my Sabrina shares any similarities with the real-life Sabrina, it would be a happy coincidence. Much has been said about your “de-glam” look. Gupta wanted the journey of a regular girl. He said, “When you (the viewer) see her you should feel it could be you.” But as an actor and woman, you are a little vain, so at first I was a bit sceptical. But once I got into that look, I could see that girl who could have been Sabrina and I said “wow!” For an actor, that is half the battle won. My attempt was in creating a real person, so whether glam or de-glam is not the criterion for choosing a film. Write to lounge@livemint.com

send the murderer to jail. “I wanted that character to be a b**** with a golden heart, and Rani Mukerji has done the role to a tee,” Gupta says. The media’s role in reopening the case and triggering national debate gets due depiction. No One Killed Jessica is a rarity in another sense. Compared with the cinema of other countries, where real-life murders have been fodder for many memorable films—an eternal favourite of mine is Coen Brothers’ Fargo—Hindi cinema’s crime genre hinges on the Mumbai underworld, and in films before the 1970s, on gold smugglers (such as Teesri Manzil directed by Vijay Anand). Wonderful oddities such as Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar and Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under are inspired by sub-genres of the crime film narrative. No One Killed Jessica is based on a real-life case, though Gupta reiterates that his film can’t be watched just as a crime film. “It is a human drama based on a crime thriller. I wanted the journeys of the two women in the centre of the film to be the driving force.” An associate director with Anurag Kashyap, Gupta made his first film, Aamir, in 2008— again a thriller, but largely about communal identity and the discriminations inherent in the idea of a “terrorist”. It received accolades, but was a blip at the box office. “This film is much bigger in scope. It’s a case that is already in public consciousness and I had to have big actors to make it work. I wrote the script keeping Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan in mind—both in roles that are starkly different from each other, but similar in some fundamental ways.” No One Killed Jessica has already received attention as Mukerji’s “comeback film”. But that’s not why it is important. The test for Gupta has been in how well the stars have performed and also, more crucially, in how well he has interpreted and reimagined a story that has already unfolded cinematically in real life for many years, before it reached its fitting, cathartic closure. No One Killed Jessica released in theatres on Friday.


CULTURE L17 SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM

ART CALENDAR

A window for stories

Three solo shows by veterans testify to their appeal. We tell you why they shouldn’t be missed

B Y S UPRIYA N AIR & H IMANSHU B HAGAT ····························

SUDHIR PATWARDHAN Sudhir Patwardhan’s new works, which go on display in his show Family Fictions, today suggest a new direction for this veteran observer of the intersection between the social and the personal. His charcoal sketches and drawings demonstrate a bold, intimate engagement with people. In his paintings, his gaze remains trained on urban life, as it has in many of his earlier realizations of Mumbai’s public scenes. But this time, it trains itself inward as he paints playful, poignant scenes of life inside apartment houses. Full Circle (acrylic on canvas) arranges old and young members of a family in a tableau of the ages of man. Yet the narrative it suggests is warmer and more personal than an abstract engagement with ageing and death. In the tightly composed, shadowed space of the city apartment, the painting creates a moving comment on the environment it invokes. The theme of enclosure repeats

itself through several of the paintings. At the centre of many of Patwardhan’s works is a window in an apartment wall that cuts out of the enclosure of the observer’s room to show other enclosed spaces. Buildings, verandas and even streets become bound spaces in these works, poised on the edge of cosy suburban comfort and a quiet claustrophobia. In this, as in his other work, Patwardhan affects a compassionate seriousness. His playfulness illumines the eponymous Family Fiction, a work that interrogates fictionality by assembling a motley cast of characters and settings in its space. Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction co-exists with a middleaged Indian woman sitting by a bookshelf; a silhouetted gunman draws the eye to the figure of a nude, fleeing the edges of the canvas. The effect is delightful. Sudhir Patwardhan’s Family Fiction is on at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, from 8-27 January. Prices range from `1-30 lakh.

RANBIR KALEKA Sweet Unease, Ranbir Kaleka’s first solo show in Mumbai, may lead viewers to wonder why it took so long to bring the extraordinary vision of this Patiala-born artist to this city. Bringing together new works with a retrospective of major Kaleka works over the last decade, the show offers a comprehensive look into his fascinating, unsettling trans-media art. Art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote describes Kaleka’s work as imbued with “epic disquiet”. It is a sense that remains consistent

Framed: (clockwise from above) A still from Sweet Unease by Kaleka; Untitled by Haloi; and Street View by Patwardhan. through the themes and concerns of each of his painting/video projection installations. Phantasms rise from tables and walk through eerie, intimate hallways (Fables from the House of Ibaan); history plays out along a railway line through a strange, half-alienating play on a film montage (Not From Here); birth, growth and death become the thematical underpinnings to a montage about a bird (Man with Cockerel). The ethereal effect of Kaleka’s use of media rests on strong structural and emotional patterns in each work; engaging with each installation can effortlessly take up hours at a time, and it’s not hard to imagine the works entrancing casual viewers just as intensely as they do serious critics. Kaleka’s work sometimes evokes a joyous sense of the fantastical. As a man with a hammer pounds on the wall opposite which he is projected, to have a white horse manifest before him (Cul-de-sac in Taxila), it’s hard not to feel a spontaneous delight. But it is the multilayered, long drawn out sophistication of the narratives of each of Kaleka’s installations that complicates them, even more than their conceptualism. In fusing video art with painting, Kaleka’s work finds its most spectacular idiom. In works such as The Kettle, repeated viewings can draw audiences into a nuanced contemplation of time and its illu-

sory effects. The intimate familiarity of a street scene is always present; it is as though Kaleka opens a window through which stories come pouring through. The centrepiece of this effect is perhaps the marvellous, extended Sweet Unease itself. As its characters provoke orientation and disorientation in their endless, ghost story of a dance, it is impossible not to be torn away with an ineffable sense of the world made strange. Ranbir Kaleka’s Sweet Unease is on at Volte, Mumbai, till 15 February. Prices range from `20-65 lakh.

GANESH HALOI Ganesh Haloi’s gouache-onpaper works, made between 2007 and 2008, are being shown

for the first time. The abstract works mark a continuation of the veteran artist’s signature style, featuring straight lines and often slender geometrical shapes against a diffusely hued background. Fittingly, Haloi speaks of his works in abstractions. “Time and space are separated from life and death. Every moment of this separation is marked by this separation,” he says. He describes art as a constant endeavour to move from uncertainty to certainty. The moment of certainty doesn’t last, yielding instantly to uncertainty again, and the journey begins anew. So there is no rest, and this dynamism is reflected in the lines in Haloi’s works that are often at an angle to each other and against a backdrop of subtly shifting shades.

The truth of ever-changing reality comes across starkly in human life: “When I was (a) baby in my mother’s arms I was beautiful like a flower,” he says. “Now I have grown old, my skin is wrinkled and rough, and my hair has become grey... It is a continuous process, but the essence is me.” To Haloi, his essence is his identity as an artist in the world. Art, he says, “quivers between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown, and the present and absent.” Ganesh Haloi’s works will be on display at Gallery Art Motif, New Delhi, from 9-25 January. Prices range from `3-10 lakh. For details, log on to www.galleryartmotif.com supriya.n@livemint.com

TODD ROSENBERG

MUSIC MATTERS

Beat it: Tabla player Sandeep Das is a nominee for the 53rd Grammy awards.

SHUBHA MUDGAL

SOMETHING TO CROON ABOUT

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idding farewell to 2010 and heralding in 2011 was fairly predictable. The usual barrage of the Best and Worst of 2010, the same set of what-do-you-expect-from-theNew-Year questions in most publications, and the even more predictable New Year messages beamed out by celebrities wishing television viewers a “rocking/lovely/ happening/happy/ wonderful” 2011. It is a little difficult to be optimistic at a time when breaking news almost always announces more scams, corruption, criminal negligence and apathy, but Indian musicians do have a little something to cheer about. This year, we have at least two

Indian musicians nominated for the Grammys. I say “at least” because there could well be more tucked away somewhere, unsung, un-felicitated and neglected in their own country. Tabla player Sandeep Das is a nominee for the 53rd Grammy awards in the category Best Classical Crossover Album. Das plays a track written specially for him for the album Off the Map (http://www.silkroadproject. org/MusicArtists/Recordings/ tabid/167/Default.aspx). Based in Delhi, Das is known to lovers of classical music as an acclaimed and worthy disciple of the late tabla maestro Kishan Maharaj. On 13 February, by virtue of his being a featured

artiste on the album Off the Map, he could become an Indian musician with a Grammy to his credit. Sarangi player Dhruba Ghosh could also be doing the country proud as he too has been nominated for a Grammy by virtue of his participation in the album Miho: Journey to the Mountain (http://www.webradiogratis. com/en/inspiration-in-a-heavily -realm/). Ghosh plays on the track Dawn Raga, recorded for the album at the Miho Museum in Japan. The short description of the museum itself is rather

intriguing, and I want desperately to buy the album. Sadly, it is not available in India, may never be for that matter, and at the moment, is sold out even on Amazon.com. Bansuri player Steve Gorn, who is not Indian, but plays the bansuri (and who will play for the Baajaa Gaajaa festival in Pune in February), is also a

Grammy nominee for the same album, and there are at least two musicians of Indian origin, namely pianist Vijay Iyer and singer Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon, who have been nominated for the Grammys in different categories. Tandon’s album Om Namo Narayanaya: Soul Call was composed by

Kolkata-based sarod player Tejendra Narayan Majumdar. So what am I getting at here? A couple of points actually: • More Indian music and musicians are getting recognition internationally, but what about their home ground? How many of us know of these Grammy-nominated musicians and their work, and shouldn’t we be cheering for them and sending them good wishes? • How many of our Indian labels have recorded these musicians in the last few years, and why aren’t albums produced in India getting this kind of international recognition? Why do these accolades come their way only when the producers or record labels are non-Indian? Think about this, but spare a moment to tweet, email, SMS your support to all the nominees from India. They could well give you an even more pleasant surprise in 2012. Write to Shubha at musicmatters@livemint.com


L18 FLAVOURS SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2011 ° WWW.LIVEMINT.COM

PHOTOGRAPHS

KOLKATA CHROMOSOME | SHAMIK BAG & HIMANSHU BHAGAT

COURTESY

MADHUBAN MITRA

AND

MANAS BHATTACHARYA/PHOTOINK

Shuttered up A photography project on the defunct National Instruments Ltd is an elegy to the analogue camera

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he human eye often detects beauty—and apprehends larger truths—in decay. Just like an ancient ruin, images of an abandoned factory that is going to seed can lead to a new awareness of ourselves and our world. Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya spent six months in 2009 taking photographs at the National Instruments Ltd (NIL) manufacturing unit housed in a 10-acre compound in Jadavpur, Kolkata. The factory was inaugurated in 1957; it ceased production in the early 1990s and was eventually declared “sick”. Most of its 5,000 employees took “voluntary retirement” and in January 2009, the premises were handed over to Jadavpur University (JU). Work on building a new university campus is set to begin there now.

In June 2009, before any work commenced at the site, the department of film studies at JU invited Mitra and Bhattacharya—both JU graduates who are now pursuing interests in art, film and photography—to take a look. “We found it fascinating. It seemed like people just got up and left one fine morning,” Mitra says. The place held a special significance for them because of its association with the history of camera manufacturing in India. National 35, the 35mm camera, used to be made here, and the development of India’s first, locally made SLR camera was under way when the unit was shut down. Moinak Biswas, a professor at the film studies department which initiated the project, talks about his first visit to the factory. “I was stunned,” he says. “It seemed like a frozen

moment from our industrial past and history of photography.” The fact that NIL’s Jadavpur unit was the centre of India’s indigenous camera-manufacturing effort was a key reason why its premises were thrown open for visual archiving. Mitra recalls how the camera assembly unit was full of rusting and decaying spare parts and how the buildings, constructed in the late 1950s, had big windows and doors that let in plenty of natural light. She found she and Bhattacharya were spending a lot of time there, gradually becoming quite familiar with the place. She describes their six-month project photographing the factory as an elegy to the analogue camera (analogue refers to cameras that—unlike the now ubiquitous digital cameras—use a roll of film). Mitra feels compelled to explain that they used digital cameras for the project because of the “time constraint”. The fruits of their labour—colour photographs and some very innovative “photo films”—are currently on display at an exhibition

Through a Lens, Darkly, at the Photoink gallery in New Delhi. With their rich texture and adroit play of light and shadows, the photos seem to luxuriate in the bleakness and decay. Images of abandoned work tables and lathe machines, rusting camera-body shells, cobwebbed office rooms, still wall clocks and switchboards of 1960s vintage, all set against peeling walls and empty, decrepit halls, tell a larger story—the death of the socialist vision in which PSUs (public sector units) occupied the commanding heights of India’s economy and were supposed to usher in an era of self-sufficient and equitable prosperity. The images also document the personal traces left behind by workers. “We found that people created pockets of privacy and belonging in large worksheds,” Mitra says. “Things such as playing cards, letters, shirts in cupboards.” The entire frame of one photograph is occupied by a close-up of a love letter, in neat, handwritten Bengali, that was found in the factory. Today, a large board announcing the upcoming JU campus stands on the

Requiem: (clockwise from above) Images from the series Autopsy of the Great Indian Camera, The Archaeology of Absence and Temp Mort.

periphery of the NIL compound. Inside, there is little activity barring the 14-odd guards who work in shifts. Security person Lakshmikanta Mal says the place last came alive when actor Vidya Balan was here to shoot for the yet-to-release film Kahani. The foundation stone embedded in the wall next to the foyer outlines NIL’s Nehruvian roots. It was laid in 1953 and states that the guest of honour was K.C. Reddy, then Union minister for production. The now defunct ministry of production harks back to another era, as do the two dust-covered Ambassador cars standing nearby, with flattened tyres and 1960s registration numbers. The employee roster, in fading print on yellowed paper, is still pasted on a noticeboard. And some words in Bengali can still be made out on a torn and faded political poster—shramik (workers), paribartan (change), utkhyat (eviction), bandho (closed), prokolpo (project)—aptly evoking the strident spirit of West Bengal’s recent industrial history. Right next to the main gate is the door with the sign “Receiving Counter for Repair Instruments—Repair of optical, optomechanical instruments, including cameras and binoculars of all make undertaken.” The door—bearing the legend “No entry without business”— remains firmly bolted; and the lock on it has a coat of rust. Mitra recalls how, while they were working on the project, people would still come to get their cameras repaired, unaware that the facility had shut down. Biswas, who has co-directed the Bengali film Sthaniyo Sangbad, admits that his involvement with the NIL project, just like the subject matter of his film, is linked to a deep sense of loss. “Like NIL, many PSUs started floundering from the 1980s. With the coming of liberalization and Manmohan Singh, all of them have been allowed to wither away. They have made way for housing complexes and shopping malls.” Through a Lens, Darkly will be on display at the Photoink gallery, New Delhi, until 12 February. For details, log on to www.photoink.net



Lounge for 08 Jan 2011