Saturday, September 10, 2011

Kota Literary Festival

Pushpesh Pant, who teaches with us in JNU, and is a food critic and writer, invited me to go to the Kota Literary Festival, which is an extension of the Jaipur Festival. I stood at the  Nizamud-din  Railway station, waiting for my fellow travellers to arrive, since one of them had a combined ticket. It was a blazing hot day,  I had arrived much too early, and waited at the station with Chekhov's Letters, (published by Penguin) to help me pass the time. Three minutes before the train was to leave,  S.S Nirupam, who works with the magazine Sarita, and had to put an issue arrived. Pushpesh Pant had got caught in a visa queue, and would not make it to the conference. I travelled with Anamika, the well known Hindi poet, and Manisha Pande who writes a very popular blog for India Today. Our companions in the compartment, were a book seller and his wife, Mr Jain of Jain Book Depot, Kota who told us about the book trade in a small town, where 90 percent of the books sold are English text books.
The town is four hours from Delhi, and we reached on schedule at 8.15 p.m, but Mr Jain whom everyone  in the compartment knew, said it was fifteen minutes late. Raining and all lit up, Kota looked pretty. But once the conference began we found ourselves tied to the velocity of the discussions, which were heady, given that the Vardhman Mahaveer Open University saw the work of the authors in the four language groups (Rajasthani, Hindi, Sanskrit and English)  necessary for the production of the lucid prose that Open Universities require.
It rained without stop for the two days that we spent in Kota, and everything was so green, I could have been in Kerala. It was amazing, and the residents said that they have had continuous rainfall for the last four months. In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined Rajasthan to be so green, but as the proud residents of Kota said, they have no water or electricity problems, but are not on the tourist map, though they are well known for Kota stone, Kota sarees, (which are very fine and crisp cottons,)  and the kachoris. Kachoris are stuffed  deep fried puris, with thick crusts, and a  delicious filling of roasted urad dal, besan, hing, pounded chillies, and coriander seeds. The workers and the rich merchants of the city stand elbow to elbow buying these hot from a shop called Ratan, on the Nayapura flyover. The Open University is hoping that an annual literary festival and the famous savouries of Kota will create a space for the guaranteeing of an airport to their kasbah. Talking to many of the people who were from Kota, and who had come to the conference, I discovered that they all spoke highly of their town. Kota has the sense of comfort and charm that its residents enjoy, and they don't have a tradition of eating out, because they are good cooks, who eat at home. It was pouring, but two of the participants thought it would be a good idea to go to a mall, to a barrista, to a promenade cafe (all aspects of conference life that they are used to)...these things do not exist in Kota, and good thing too!  If Kota gets its airports, the kachori as Kota nivasis know it, will probably become an obscure savoury  on a multinational cuisine list,which costs 80 rupees each, instead of 8 rupees each. Maybe democracy has its own ways of asserting itself in Kota, in the aim of the Open University, which is to reach out to one lakh students, many of whom will be first generation learners, and the celebration of the kachori on rainy evenings, by its inhabitants who unequivocally love their town, and are proud of it. The poets and writers at the conference, both men and women, speaking in Hindi, English, Sanskrit and Rajasthani made the event memorable, and the Open University will soon make their work available in print. The internet as the most significant means of communication was the topic of discussion for an entire session, where young poets and writers showcased their work in journals which are now household names..

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