Missing the bus, as the many Jedi Masters in my life have told me over the decades, has terrible consequences. But at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week, I discovered to my happy surprise that missing the bus — or at least the hotel pool car — has benefits.
While the vortex of all things shiny and literary was at the venerable Diggi Palace some 20 minutes away from my hotel, bursts of interesting rendezvous happened in the cars I was bundled into after waking up late each day.
The first day, I struck up a conversation with Mohammed ‘Exploding Mangoes’ Hanif who, armed with Elton John goggles and a mop of unruly hair, seemed to be either harbouring a hangover or a healthy aesthetic distaste for the literary gangbang that we were hurtling towards. “There are way too many journalists,” Hanif, a BBC journo living in Karachi, told the Hindustan Times journo (me). I explained that one downside of having a free-for-all literary festival was that the only people who took undue advantage of such a democratic situation were the hacks. Boy, was I glad that unlike last year — when I tagged writer Ian McEwan as if I was his unwanted biological offspring — this time round, my role in Jaipur was confined to moderating a session with the Irish-American writer Michael Patrick McDonald.
If it was Hanif in the car on my first day, the second day, my automobile partner was the significantly more glamorous Nandita Das. While I have, in the past, confined my opinion about the lovely Ms Das to my intense curiosity about the on-set chemistry between her and Shabana Azmi in Mira Nair’s Fire, in real life next to me, she struck me as such a pleasant, very un-Bollywood person. (She said as much: “I don’t know why they’ve called the session I’m in, ‘Scripting Bollywood’. I have no interest in Bollywood!”) She spoke about her first movie as a director, Firaaq, and how post-production work has left her pooped.
After a small discussion about the great ‘Dilli-Bombay’ rivalry — both of us batting for Delhi — we were at Diggi facing a huge crowd. Were they there to see Nandita? Were they there for me? It turned out that the washed masses were there to see Amitabh Bachchan, not that well known for his writing, but what the hell.
So did I hang out with Mr B? Well, I did the next best thing. Hang out with Mr b — Chetan Bhagat, who, without doubt, was the second-most hankered-after person in the fest. I owed him an apology. Not too long ago, I had missed another bus (read: got caught in traffic) and had landed up far too late to moderate a session with him. I overheard some kids asking him that challenging question for all authors, “Sir, and who is your inspiration?”
“Why don’t you tell him that I inspire you?” I muttered into his ear. “Ok, done. But how? How do you inspire me?” the Bhagvat Chetan grinned. I slithered away while he answered the pen-wielding, snotty kids with the straightest of round faces, “My inspiration is god.”
With Tom and that guy
Who would I have as my co-passenger in the car on my last day but Thomas ‘Schindler’s Ark’ Keneally? Looking like an elderly Captain Ahab — white cardboard beard minus a moustache — his strong, nasal Australian accented voice sounded more like that of a writer of boys’ adventure stories than that of a Holocaust hero.
“So are you a writer too?” I told him I was, not going into further details that I was also there as an undercover journalist working for a sinister mainstream newspaper. He spoke of his next book, on famines in which he goes into the Irish and the Ethiopian famines “via” the Great Bengal famine. “These famines had remarkable similarities; that they were totally man-made was just one,” he said.
Next to him was another passenger whom Keneally and I greeted. “I’m Prasoon, Prasoon Joshi,” he said quietly. “You write for the Times of India, right?,” I turned and asked him. “No, I’m a poet, screenwriter and I work in advertising.” Oh, I thought to myself, while Keneally and the guy yapped away about an Aussie beer ad that has the whole cast singing the Carmina Burana. “Oh, I love that ad,” gushed Prasoon suddenly.
Only back in Delhi was I told who this Prasoon bloke was.