Farrukh Dhondy | Ordeal to enter India; and ways to avoid writers at literary fests

A very pleasant and talkative driver drove me through the several traffic jams and road-work hold-ups in six hours to the Pink City

“O Bachchoo why is terror so hard to define?
--Behold the mosquito drowning in your wine!
O Bachchoo why does fear stalk the fading twilit sky?
--Hear the screech of flocks of birds circling as they fly
O Bachchoo where does yearning end and fulfilment start

-The poets say the answers are the murmurs of your heart.”

From Kya Bholey -- Bhej Dey Soney Aur Chandi Ke Goley! by Bachchoo

Travel was, perhaps for Marco Polo, Hiuen Tsang and the characters of Around the World in Eighty Days a challenge and a pleasure. Today the challenge remains and one may add other qualities to it, such as nuisance, frustration and annoyance. Getting from London to New Delhi in order to get to Jaipur for a literary festival was precisely all those.

The Government of India requires all entrants to fill in a form which demands copies of passports and vaccination certificates in a particular software format. Apart from those, it requires all manner of, in my humble judgment, irrelevant detail. Some of it may be, in a bureaucrat’s view, necessary to keep India safe from infection by the likes of myself. Once complete, one submits the form and waits for a reply from the Government of India. It instructs you to print this reply and carry it when travelling.

Not being a 12-year-old nerd, I struggled for a few hours with it. Finally, the certificate arrived. I folded it into my passport. I might as well have rolled it into a joint and smoked it, because neither at the departure desks in London or the arrival -- immigration, customs and security checks – in New Delhi, did anyone bother to ask me for it.

Perhaps one of the reasons for subjecting would-be entrants to Bharat Mata to this ordeal is a test of their patience, diligence and tolerance of irrelevant procedure, ensuring that only patient, diligent and bureaucratically-tolerant people gain entry to this clean and peasant land.

I have decided, gentle reader, not to bore you with details of my encounters with the policemen and women at security checks of Indian airports. No opportunity to speak truth to power there. I will say that my experience at these security check stations reinforced my conviction that being an Indian policeperson was a cushy deal - what with free crisp uniforms and idle duties.

All this being the case, I decided not to travel by air from Delhi airport to Jaipur, but to go by hired car instead. A very pleasant and talkative driver drove me through the several traffic jams and road-work hold-ups in six hours to the Pink City. The motorists on this journey are regaled every 10 yards with huge hoardings advertising “hotels” and hospitals and selling consumer goods. Half of these sales hoardings sell jewellery. There are photographs of models wearing rich necklaces and bangles of gold and precious stones and pictures of glittering diamonds on lush, contrasting felt. The vendors of treasure must have buyers for this extravagance. Evidence of prosperity? Not if one keeps one’s eyes open and takes in the ribbon of poverty and scrawny cattle on the journey, mile after mile.

And the other half of these advertising hoardings seemed to be about some sort of condiment or narcotic with pictures of two handsome film stars holding up two fingers to the public in a “V” sign. I am sure these film stars, and the advertising executives who designed the hoardings, are unaware that this particular “V” sign, with the back of one’s hand facing the viewer, is conventionally used to urge people to go some distance and have sex.

(The popular phrase for such an injunction can be represented by the letters F and O.)

The other “V” sign, popularised by Winston Churchill, consists of holding the same fore and middle fingers up, like bunnies’ ears, but with the palm of the hand facing the viewer. That sign means Victory. But perhaps I’m mistaken and the two handsome film stars and the advertisers know precisely what their signage means and feel that the masochists will gratefully see the humorous side of being enjoined to such action and will immediately buy whatever they are selling.

Saying which, leaves me little space to tell you how I prospered at the literary festival. I will say, though, that it was an opportunity to meet and socialise with old friends, among whom were Dolly Thakore, who was there to launch her autobiography, Mahua Moitra, who was her usual firebrand self, Ruth Padel, Ranjit Hoskote, Arundhati Subramaniam and my dear Jeet Thayil, all stimulating poets.

I must admit I did spend a few detours and executed some dodges in the “writer’s pavilion” -- a space with a bar and food and tables on a large enclosed law -- avoiding encounters with a couple of people. Why? Well, the first was a lady writer whose work I had characterised in the media, in ironic revenge for some nastiness she’d published, as socially-conscious prose for the intellectually handicapped and masturbatorilly challenged. The other person I successfully avoided was an ex-editor whose magazine published some nasty lies about me and had to pay out a handsome sum when threatened by Channel 4, for whom I then worked, with a libel suit. From which time I’ve been convinced that being libelled is not a liability. Bring it on!

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