Month: December 2010

S. Mitra Kalita: An interview

“Home is a place you can always come back to,” writes S. Mitra Kalita in My Two Indias: A Journey to the Ends of Opportunity (HarperCollins), an exploration into the two divergent faces, and facets, of the country her parents left when they were 30. Interestingly, it was at 30 when Kalita made a “reverse journey” in 2006 when she came to India to work for a business newspaper (Mint). When Kalita arrived in New Delhi — with her artist husband, Nitin Mukul, and her two-year-old daughter, Naya — she was caught in the bubble of India’s booming, free-market economy. As she reported on the new economy, the other India — the India of the poor, the India of rising inequality — couldn’t escape her eyes.

In the book, she tries to reconcile the many faces of India that are so contrastly at odds with one other.
Kalita’s was a journey that enabled her to understand the bewildering country of her origin better. Her parents come from Assam and are now settled in the US. Though she was not born in India, she has always stayed attached to her roots. She sings Bhupen Hazarika’s songs and performs bihu every year. As does her daughter, Naya, now 6.

The book goes back and forth between the old and the new India — the India of her native village Sadiya and that of a metropolis like Delhi — as Kalita seeks to have a better perspective on the country’s economy, education, society and polity. Kalita writes in the epilogue: “With the benefit of hindsight and distance we could see merit in some parts of the Indian system.”

Kalita, who has earlier worked with the Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press, has written on immigration for years. She knows that people, actually, never leave. “They always say they leave for better opportunity, but the reality is there is always something else to it,” she says.
In 2008, opportunity called Kalita back to New York City where she is currently working with the Wall Street Journal.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q. At many levels, the book captures a very personal journey you made to India. What was the trigger for this journey?
A. My whole life I have wondered what it would have been like if my father never left. And that could one undo someone’s migration. I came as far I could to make the reverse journey. This also happened in the backdrop of my daughter turning two. As a parent, you hit a point where nothing forces you to question your values or challenge them like raising a child. So much of what my parents passed on to me came from their Indian villages. I wondered how on earth was I going to do that with a child that had no village to speak of. In many ways, I represented a typical American. I moved around quite a bit. Of course, the job brought me here. But there was always another side to it. There was also a desire to answer the question: What could have been if my father had never left?
I came to India, a country on the rise. While I was here, there began in the US the greatest recession in a generation. Because I wrote a lot about innovation in India, I believe that there is so much to learn from failures. Once I heard people speak of India in in terms I couldn’t imagine I will hear in my lifetime, there was a personal curiosity of just wanting to see what that looked like. The opportunity to cover the recession also worked as a drive.

Q. With what perspective did you approach India when you set out to write the book?
A.
A lot of Westerners have written books about India. And there is no dearth of Westerners talking about the culture shock. I was pretty self-aware of many who have come before me and dissected India, perhaps through a similar lens. Where I bring the difference is two-fold: One, that I am an Indian-American. Two, my perspective on India was not of a Delhiite. I have great sympathy for the workers that managers curse. They come with no exposure into the workforce. Many of them are my cousins. Many of them probably could have been my parents. That is a perspective unique from some of the Westerners who write about the Indian economy. I also didn’t dwell on Delhi as a historical city that it is. Some of the beautiful books have been written about that. I didn’t think that was what I brought to the table. It was very ironical for someone who grew up in New York to articulate ways of an Indian village. I did that because I had lived so much of it through my upbringing. For a generation that grew up after liberalisation and in a much more urbanised India, it is a perspective that a lot of young journalists no longer have.

Q. On a lighter note, how soon did you realise that you had had enough of India?
A.
I don’t think it was as jarring as that. I think that if somebody were to say, ‘Would you come back?’ and if there was a right opportunity, I wouldn’t turn that down. You never say never. The process, pretty climactic and evident in the book, was the process of gaining admissions for my daughter in a nursery school. Because education and workplace training was such an important part of my job, I focused a lot on how undergrads in colleges were not being prepared for the workplace. Little did I realise that so much of that preparation, the lack of which was actually stripping Indians of the ability to innovate and think outside the box, starts at the age of 3 or 4. That process was difficult to go through although, ultimately, we prevailed. Just like something works out for so many processes in India. Nonetheless, it left a bitter taste in my mouth and I wondered: Can anyone really make it here without someone putting in a word or giving a donation. Ultimately, what sent me back was a phone call for another job.

Q. Were you happy to have been able to refresh your perspectives on India as you made this journey?
A.
I wrote about technology in India for years where I would always use the term leapfrogging. Little did I think that a journalist could leapfrog her career. You write about that for other people. But if I hadn’t come to India, there was no way I would have been in this position at the Wall Street Journal, a global newspaper. In the last five years alone, India has just exploded. I don’t think that my perspective of covering the recession would have been even possible had I not been through a booming economy. And for that alone I am intensely grateful to India. The other thing I am really grateful to the country is that it exposed a complacency within me that somehow good times will keep rolling.

Also, in a country where nine newspapers landed with a thud at my doorstep every morning, what better reminder could be of the role of journalists in the society. You have people hungry for information. It’s a real privilege that I was able to be a part of that. The other privilege was that Mint, that started as an experiment, was quite successful. There are a lot of reporters who have come through the newsroom and gone on to better things. When I started out, the paper didn’t even have a name and people in the US felt it was crazy for abandoning my job and joining a no-name newspaper in India. It’s nice to be able to have proven them wrong.

Q. Did you at all feel that this entailed some risks?
A.
Of course, there was a risk. I knew journalists coming to the US from India who were told that their experience didn’t count for anything. Having worked with both the American and the Indian journalists now, I think that there is a lot that journalists in the US can learn from the hustle of Indian newsrooms, from their competition. For example, we started the newsroom from scratch which enabled us to integrate technology and staff in a way that the West is still trying to do. It’s quite a challenge.

Q. As a business journalist, how do you view the trajectory of India’s economic growth?
A.
The trajectory of its growth is quite impressive if you look at where other global economies are right now. While it experienced a blip in the fall of 2008, it bounded pretty quickly. The real market and stock markets are still going very strong. It has really served as some kind of a bedrock with some stability in a world that is reeling from the recession. That’s commendable. A lot of what sent the world into recession — living with new means, being very comfortable with debt, lending being very free — shouldn’t be forgotten as India continues its ride. If you look at the real state bubble, there are still lessons to be drawn from what other countries have gone through. There has to be cautious optimism.

The other significant thing for India and China to bear in mind is that the US consumer has still not rebounded. Unemployment in the US is still very high. Even though the markets may say we are doing just fine, they are dependent on the strength of the US consumers. You can’t be a member of the global economy and say, ‘We are going to go on our own right now.’ It’s all integrated. Similarly, the US can’t decline jobs being outsourced to Bengaluru. India and China can also not just focus on their domestic market.
I don’t think I can be entirely celebratory. India has somewhat cautious approach to opening up. The recession, if anything, has forced the world to ask the same questions that India is going through: What is the role of the government in uplifting the people? In the US, it is a huge issue. Can we get ourselves out of this deficit? Whether we still have safety networks for individuals?

Q. You didn’t want this to be a ‘business book’, did you? Did you want it to be a memoir?
A.
I didn’t set out to write it as a memoir. I actually think I am too young to have done that. And it’s not a family story. It’s very hard to write about India as an outsider without saying, ‘Look this is my perspective, but I am an outsider.’ It became the device not to have used that excuse every minute, perhaps replacing the apology to tell it like it is. There have been a lot of Indian economy books, but they are not always accessible. They are not something that people will pick up. We are so quickly in the midst of change that it’s hard to sit and examine what this has done to the daily rhythm of an Indian household.

Q. What is your idea of home?
A.
I consider myself a product of many places. India, in its sense of home, is truly generous. I do feel like this is home. Delhi is home. Assam is home. The place we call home is representative of all the different walks we come from.

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HAYWATCH

The world came calling to Kerala to keep date with a conversation about the written word at the first edition of Hay Festival, an exuberant celebration of literature and life, held at the Kanakakunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram from November 12 to 14.

At the festival, Kerala became one with the word. And one with the world. Milling around in the sprawling premises of the historic palace for three days were authors divided by cultures, poets divided by languages, filmmakers divided by genres and people divided by ideologies. But what they had in common was the sheer love for literature, thirst for ideas, hunger for knowledge. And they all got an ample dose in the whirl of cerebral bohemianism associated with the Hay-on-Wye, that little town on the Welsh border that has sprung onto the world map for courting literary and cultural icons of our times.

MAN ON THE MOVE

Minutes after Peter Florence, the founder-director of Hay-on-Wye, walked out of the last session on the last day of the festival, I caught hold of him for what I thought would be a fleeting conversation. But when we settled down for an interview, Florence, visibly agog and upbeat upon the completion of Hay’s debut venture in India, betrayed no signs of rushing through the conversation. He couldn’t possibly have done that anyway, I later reasoned, for the festival itself was a conversation after all: A conversation on literature and life. In about 30 odd minutes, I discovered how Florence, a great conversationalist who floored one and all at his sessions with Simon Schama, Shashi Tharoor and Michelle Paver, could be an interviewer’s delight.

We were sitting in the authors’ green room, adjacent to the Palace Hall, where Schama was holding forth on Barack Obama the man and the “superhero” leader. People were buzzing in and around the hall. A stream of young men and women kept trickling in, trickling out. As we talked, we could hear their arguments, claps and whoops, cheer and chatter. Literature was thrumming in the air. Several steps below, at the Nishagandhi Amphitheatre, Irish folk-rock legend and activist Bob Geldof was strumming his guitar for a concert that would wind up the “Woodstock of the mind”.
In a candid display of an incredible sense of joie de vivre, the very hallmark of Hay, Florence, a man of constant joy, described to me the power of literature and the philosophy behind the phenomenal movement called Hay which, in its first year at the Indian soil, was only testing (back)waters. Florence said he wanted to see whether it was possible to have a festival like Hay here, whether it had a future, if it might grow organically, if there was an audience for it. “The answer to all these things is yes,” said a beaming Florence.

It was the third day of the festival director’s first India visit. And it already felt “absolutely like home.” All thanks to Hay and the kind of crowds that it managed to draw. “It is the best you could have actually,” he said, talking about the festival’s argumentative, contrary and pluralist strands. Argumentative and pluralist like India itself. In many ways, it was like planting the sapling of the celebration called Hay in India. Something which Florence has done in many, many countries. In Kerala, what struck him the most was the fact that people “just got in”. They were inquisitive, demanding and absolutely generous in spirit. “We are in Kerala. It works,” Florence said, rejoicing in Hay’s Kerala moment, exulting in its success.

The Kerala Hay Festival aimed at achieving three things: One, study climate change as broadly as possible. Two, address the idea of emerging democracies. Three, look at the Dravidian language and culture and “put it at the same stage as other better-known international cultures and give it the same status”. Florence said what he had to bring to Kerala was some ideas, energy and structure. “But this has to become a Keralan festival,” he said, adding that the festival was both local and global. Going “glocal”, perhaps, is a magic mantra as much relevant in the literary world as it is elsewhere. Like Hay festivals elsewhere, Hay Kerala had a strong local identity. So while Vikram Seth or Sebastian Faulks were star attractions at the festival, no less starry, albeit in their own ambits, were Paul Zacharia or K. Satchidanandan.

Malayalam, said Florence, was a culture of 10-20 million (“who knows how many!”) speakers. But chances were that there were some “damn fine writers” for whom being published in English was not the be-all and end-all. “The sheer majestic, Maximilious power of the English language doesn’t invalidate great writing in any of the Indian languages for which there are hundreds and millions of readers. And that is a huge exploration to go on,” he said.

While for Florence, the entire world is literally a stage to ferment great ideas, it is the Commonwealth countries (“ethically and morally bewildering, the most bizarre, indefensible congregation of people”) that is on his radar. The Commonwealth, he says, creates untold wealth of cultures and civilisations. While it makes us wonder about whatever the past might have been, it is the realities of the present that make us all “connected in various ways”.

In the next few years, Florence will be interested in seeing how this festival will relate to (A) the rest of India and its multiplicity of languages, (B) the Arab World and (C) its neighbourhood. That’s the most incredibly fulfilling aspiration for Florence who is fascinated by a Mongol- Malay-Spanish-African-Welsh hybrid. “I’m floored by the idea that this might be place to have a look at all those things,” he said.

Hay has tasted the beaches and the backwaters, but Florence feels it will take at least three years for the festival to find its connect. After five years, it will secure firm foothold. “What will happen in the first five years is unknown. We know that we need more loos. We know that we need to have more food on the site. What we don’t know is what will be the energy that the festival will release, some of the connections that will be made and where it feels it wants to go. However, what we do know is that we are going to find out,” he said. If it’s the audience that makes a festival’s life, Hay already has a life of its own.

‘A PARTY FOR THE ENLIGHTENMENT’

At the root of Hay festivals all over the world is exchange of ideas. There is an element of the festival which happens on the stage. And there is another element which finds manifestation in the conversations between the writers and the media. And the latter, said Florence, was a crucial element of the festival.

Hay is not and will never be about one thing. Florence said he will be bored to tears if he had to do a poetry festival, for example. Much of Hay’s identity emanates from Florence’s personal philosophy: “I like mixing stuff. I like the energy that comes off people who do different things. I’m not good at high art. I am not that refined. I like rough stuff. I love synthesising. I also love extroversion. I like stuff that is bursting out. And I like difference.”

It’s no wonder Hay is about many things: “We are not interested in purism. We are impurists. We are bastards. We are Mongols. We are mix and matches. I’d like it to be more like life. Yes, of course, we want literature, which is a great human art form and, in many ways, more accessible than art and more individuating than music. But that’s part of the conversation about science, life, education, civilisation, politics, love and death — all the things that we do. Hay is also about the other stuff we do: Drinking and shagging and hanging around the place. It’s about socilisation. It’s a way of being together.”

According to Florence, in the dutifully connected world we live in, there is a yearning, a hunger to share what we know with people over a cup of coffee. It is absolute and increasing and more vaulable. It’s all about forming the human contact at some deep level.

When Florence goes on the proposed Africa tour — Cairo, Lagos, Cape Town — next year, it is this yearning to form meaningful and productive human contact that will play out in all its beauty. Ditto with the pan south Asian 39 literary project that he plans to launch to promote writing in the region.

After India, the other great culture Florence longs to have an opportunity to explore is Russia because “so many of the greatest novels and greatest poems have been written by Russian authors”. He said Russian society was in a state of violent change, a state of transformation, although not revolutionary. It’s a phase that, history shows us, has yielded the richest response from writers. The turbulent times of Queen Elizabeth I in England witnessed the greatest achievement of literature than anywhere else. The 19th century in France gave us Gustave Flaubert and in Russia, the most extraordinary period of the country’s history, it gave us Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander Pushkin. There was an incredible flowering of Czech literature between 1968-1989.

Florence was “willing to bet” that exactly the same rules applied in India: Bad times are good for writers. “The whole idea of what writers are for is called into question sometimes. But writers are individuals who are not obligated by economy as filmmakers or musicians are. They are completely free to respond as individuals,” he said.

Florence, who had started the Hay festival with his father (Norman Florence) in 1988, said his father was wonderfully and naturally responsive and sympathetic to great writing. “He told me about literature more than any of my professors. We never agreed about anything though. And he was always right,” he smiled and said.

Soon after they had started the festival with winnings from a poker game, they had a group of about 15 odd people. “Everybody had to rub in together. It was a family game,” Florence said, who devised the festival by trying to answer a simple question: Who do you think will be the most interesting people to talk to? More than two decades later, it’s the same game. “It is infinitely rewarding. I feel like the luckiest, most extraordinarily advantaged person as I’ve spent my life talking and listening to some of the most brilliant people in the world,” he said.

On a good day, Florence said, he feels like he is contributing to education. On a bad day, he feels it’s like an employment. Most of them are good days. Each time Florence fears he is becoming complacent, he does a reality check: “What we do isn’t life and death. I am no soldier, doctor or a teacher.”

“If you ever write this,” Florence told me, gesturing with his hands, “Put this in heavy inverted coma: It’s like having a party for the enlightenment. There is no greater gift than new ideas or good stories.”

As Florence goes around the world “hanging out with the nicest bunch of mates I can possibly imagine,” he gets to explore the world through its stories. It’s better than going to university. Or even better than “having to or pretending to be” an actor. But it also imposes an incredible humanity on him. “I know nothing. And I know that I know nothing. But I have a constant source of wonder as to how the same rule applies around the world. A rule that says people are happy to learn and share their stuff. They are happy to listen. I have learnt that this has the capacity to make people happy,” he said.

Hay is a literary fever, but not quite a hysteria. Florence would rather have it small than make an spectacle out of it. In India, it appears he’s not aiming at turning it into a literary “show”. He said: “We are not the IPL. We are not trying to sell stuff. We are not trying to fill stadia. It’s a small-scale, intimate thing.”

Hay-on-Thiruvananthapuram might be small, but it could have profound ramifications with its resonances going way beyond what happened at a small hilltop in mid-November.

HAY, DEFINED

In that stimulating conversation on the last day of the festival, which I am glad I had, Florence defined Hay to me rather succinctly. Hay was all about idea, energy and exchange. It was about getting to know the world through stories. It was about the yearning to share. To talk. To listen. And the festival got its “kernel” (executive director Lyndy Cooke’s word) quite right.

Hay is also about bonhomie, unrestrained and generous, the spirit of which is so fabulously epitomised by its producer, Teamwork Productions’ MD Sanjoy K. Roy. Roy’s friendliness is contagious. Like he does every year at the Jaipur Literature Festival, he played the role of a host to perfection.

On the first day, while I was having lunch with fellow scribes and friends, four local Malayalis on the next table were trying to settle in to relish their fish curry and rice, when Roy happened to pass by. Smiling at them, he asked: “Are you all enjoying? Are you being looked after?” All of them smiled back at Roy. They mumbled: “Thank you.”

I don’t know if Roy knew them personally. But even if he didn’t, the foursome must have felt like they belonged there. It was a small gesture. But it fits into Hay’s big picture of ideas and visions. A picture of literary and cultural camaraderie, creative cravings for company, food and fun.

Hay, in many ways, is about life. And any good literature, anywhere in the world, essentially deals with life. Aren’t books our window to many lives, many worlds, many cultures? Don’t they bring to us the beauty of different narratives, different times, different zeitgeists?

During the three days of debates and discussions (not to forget the charged, free flow of conversations in the lush, emerald green lawns over appams, carrot juice or red rice), I got my mind messed up with bright, bristling ideas that shape literature, culture, history and politics of diverse societies and nations. (Isn’t getting your mind messed up a step, albeit small, towards understanding big ideas and finding clarity and meaning in them?).

Soaking in the festival’s sights and sounds, tuning in to scintillating conversations while keeping my sense of wonder all the time, for three days I could feel that literature was beautiful, life was beautiful. I was glad I made it to Hay for it’s not very often that I get to see Vikram Seth breaking into a limerick or an impromptu hiaku while discussing the landscape of his novels and his love for taking a line out for a walk or Simon Schama talking about the A-Z of his picks from culture and current affairs from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to the crisis of democracy in America. It’s not often that I listen to Mexican novelist and essayist Jorge Volpi explaining that Latin American writing went beyond magic realism. It’s not often that I find myself in the midst of numbers, made to believe that they governed much of our lives: The session with British mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, whom I had the privilege to introduce at the festival, was a wonderful exploration into the number kingdom.

Yes, there were some authors snuggled within their ivory towers, but mostly, they mingled and were receptive.

Hay-on-Thiruvananthapuram was highbrow without having any highbrow pretensions. It was less sanctimonious and more inclusive. While the Kovalam literay festival, also a three-day affair at the same venue, remains insular even though running into its third edition, the Hay Festival had the no-holds-barred feel about it. And that explained why almost everyone flocked to the festival, from the elderly Malayali gentlemen with childlike inquisitiveness to school children, with the open minds of adults, vying with one another for a brush with their literaray heroes, getting their favourite titles signed by the respective writer.

On a personal, less relevant, note, Hay meant getting a bit sun-burnt and then soaked in the sudden rain and finding myself amidst the serene palm landscapes and sandy beaches, a welcome escape from the rough and tumble of life in a metro. There are memories of playing with the quicksand, walking barefoot on the beach, getting food for thought over banana upside down cake, seeking solace in sparkling red Shiraz, singing Geldof’s long-forgotten songs, watching an angry Sting, a surprise entry at Geldof’s concert, sticking out his tongue at a TV journalist, discovering Matchbox Twenty through a new-found friend and spending some quality time with valued pals.

There is also a memory of writers of all hues divesting themselves, on the last night of the festival, of their clothes, getting down to the basics, sloshing around on the seashore, splashing into the waves. Becoming one with water, one with the waves.

Hay fever in Kerala is over. But I can still feel the surge of brilliant ideas on life and literature knocking about in my head. The writers who participated in the festival have returned to their worlds, but I can still sense the tingling rush of creative energy they collectively emitted coursing through my veins.

When the curtains came down on the festival in Thiruvananthapuram on November 14, it wasn’t quite the end for Hay Festival. It was only a beginning — the beginning of an engagement with stories and ideas that will scintillate the minds of people, year after year.