Drinking from A Silver Urn
There are streets in Jaipur, an old Rajasthan city in North India, that seemed unchanged over long spans of time. You can spot a tourist by the way they walk along such roads. They are highly focused on not stepping in cow shit or little garbage igloos sculpted by the wind, tires, and sandaled feet. Where an annual literary festival is held over five days at Diggi Palace. It’s hard paying attention to two or three things at once. Whether attending a festival talk or walking down a Jaipur side road, you have a choice. On the road you reduce your probability of stepping on shit or piles of garbage with more bacteria than your entire genome, or getting ploughed from the side, back (most likely angle) or a full frontal collision. The general risk applies to any literary festival event. But as I said, it’s your choice.
The first day I paid full attention to the street. I almost was hit three or four times by rickshaws, bicyclists, motorcyclists and the near sighted Jaipur middle class driver in one of these pencil box sized inexpensive India designed and manufactured cars, the kind you saw on Mr. Bean. By day two, my tolerance had vastly expanded when it came to accidentally stepping on nasty stuff.
You can tell a lot about a place by the condition of the sanitation and its streets; when the channel is set up to meet both important social needs—the need to shit and the need to get to a place even though in the case these Jaipur streets, the place they were rushing to didn’t apparently involve using a toilet.
Like anywhere else city experience depends on the people who inhabit them. Clear New York City of its population and replenish it with ten million Indians imported from Jaipur and the surrounding towns, and ask yourself if the New York City experience would remain the same after the Indians settled in.
Most of the people in the streets of Jaipur in January are cold. Some of them warm themselves over small fires set in the gutter of the road. It’s smoky, dusty and cold like the blade of stiletto shoved into your ribs. Rickshaw drivers line up along the top of the road on one side, and on the other are the tuk-tuk drivers. Poverty has its own class distinctions and on the way down the ladder—your identity is defined by your means of transportation, and those on the bottom rung are on foot.
When a foreigner takes long walks along streets no longer used for walking except by people so poor they are on their last legs, he is doing something peculiar in the eyes of the Indians. That explains the constant solicitation by rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. Actually rickshaw drivers hover at a low number on the scale of vocal harassment. They hardly try and are easily discouraged when ignored. Not tuk-tuk drivers. They have a horn and they use it to announce they are inviting you to jump inside. You look at their clothes, shoes and faces and you see they have nothing but the tuk-tuk. That’s it. A rickety, beat up tuk-tuk is all that stands between them and the plunge into the rickshaw class. That makes tuk-tuk drivers all the more desperate and persistent. It wasn’t just the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers; it was the faces of the people in the market, behind the stall counters, their customers, and the lassi wallahs. You rarely found a smile. It wasn’t they didn’t know how to smile, it just the result of how and where they lived. Their faces said to you, “Look around at this shit, would you be smiling?”
No one can comprehend what a billion people actually means. It’s beyond anything in our experience. A billion is an abstraction. In that sense it means nothing what we think it means. Take the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers—because of the large population there will emerge many more such people who have the means to become such a driver, than there is a need for the service. In other words, they are condemned to float on the thin membrane of survival and hope they will be spared falling through.
If there was ever an example of the balm of gods, deities, sadhus and rituals, stroll along a road lined with rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. There you will find the true believers congregating in clumps, warming their hands over a small fire on the road. My arrival in India for the first time a couple of decades ago was the turning point when my clutching to the Panglossian fantasy ended. Voltaire’s Candide brought me face to face with the unreasonably optimistic attitude of life. That things will get better, they will be different, and this dogma or that will bring a life free of suffering. India teaches you that are an illusion. In terms of loss, that is one of the toughest ones to let go of—all of our democratic, North American values, ethics and morality, our political system, democracy, are premised on things will get better.
Of course it is a lie, a convincing fabrication, one we like to tell ourselves, and resent someone like me telling them that this illusion isn’t necessarily shared by a lot of people who lived in places like Jaipur. Bundi, a small village four hours outside of Jaipur, where I once spent two weeks, showed me that there was always some other place more fucked than the one you found yourself in. Compared to Bundi’s population, the Jaipur Rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers were making it in the big city. But I am a writer and not a politician who needs to tell voters what they want to hear about ‘life’ and ‘existence’ to get elected. It’s a pity that Voltaire never made a journey to India. Candide would have been a different book.
You might argue, even in Jaipur the average person is likely to be better off than his or her parents and grandparents. I leave the demographics of Jaipur to the experts. But the impression walking the streets in and around the old Pink City, that if a lot of people lived in worse conditions than the people I saw, I tried to ask how people would survive long enough to reproduce another messy lump of poverty marginally less in the shit that they were. Pink, you might be thinking, why pink for the walls enclosing a city? Colours schemes, like ideology and technology, emerge from the accidental convergence of taste, personality and fashion of time, hand down as visual reminder how easily susceptible we are to historical mockery. I wasn’t in Jaipur to walk around broken streets with germ-infected spores hanging like nano dirigibles waiting to fly up my nose, colonize my mouth and eyes. No, I came to the city in order to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival, which is held at Diggi Palace in Jaipur every year. Jaipur has managed over a couple of decades to become a literary Mecca attracting devotees who fly in from around the world to pay homage to the latest literary Jedi. A fusion of Star Wars heroes and Islamic Hajj.
Over the years, I’ve been invited to participate in festivals in America, Canada, Germany, Spain and Argentina, and was the recipient of the royal treatment as a panelist. You experience what it is like to drink from the silver urn in front of an audience clutching paper cups. Such an invitation is the equivalent of touring Jaipur as the raja’s high table guest. I wasn’t invited to Jaipur. I went as a reader. I went as the audience. When you go to a literary festival as a reader you are like one of the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers on the road. You are a transport for others. In the case of others at a literary festival, you are transporting egos and reputations. I was to learn, that a reader’s role at a literary festival is not unlike a rickshaw driver straining his muscles to get you and your baggage up a steep mountain road. Like the people in the street and shops around the Pink City, I was another face, another pilgrim in the crowd looking to get a glimpse at the palace entourage moving to their place where they looked down from the stage as this vast mass whose lives were as invisible to them as their lives were visible to us.
Glimpses of the modern world were everywhere—the cellphone, TVs, computers in the hotels and offices but in the area around the Pink City I saw that most of the people in the area have no benefit from modernity. The latest inventions from technological driven world had shot past their rickshaws and tuk-tuks leaving them to eat dust, piss against a wall or wait for a passenger. The advantages of the modern world had never quite reached them and they live their lives in a world of hand to mouth poverty, one their ancestors would have recognized.
The invited speakers at the Jaipur Literary Festival received the full VIP treatment—proper transport, hotel, meals, special nametags, microphones, photos on website pages, printed on brochures, put them in the limelight. It gives fans a reason to go and listen to what their favourite writer might have to say. Once you’ve been an honored guest, a guru with something worth saying, you naturally evolve an archduke’s sense of entitlement. It took me a day to adjust to my new status as a ‘participant’. Like all former elites who have been overthrown in a revolution, what I thought was the festival life among the attendees wasn’t at all what it was really like. No wonder the elites fought from ancient to modern times, often to the bitter end, as to maintain that place at the high table had an existential element. They sense it was a long drop to the feeding troughs below. And they were right in their fear. In all theocracies Pilgrims are expendable and the priesthood rarely expandable. For centuries that was the model of our politics. Now it is the model for literary festivals.
January 2015 the Jaipur Literary Festival featured a number of famous and near-famous authors invited to speak on panels: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Nicholson Baker, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Will Self, Hanif Kureishi, and Zia Haider Rahman. As was to be expected, the British authors captivated the audience with their combination of wit, style, charm and turn of phase, that melted the pilgrims into a single loyal, pliable unit of accolades—they could have marched us as a mob up the hill to demand that the organizer upgrade their room or fly them home on a first class ticket, and we would have done their bidding gladly. We might have been readers; but there were huge numbers of us at these panel events. I once spoke to an audience of several hundred people at a literary festival in Spain and another in Germany, but the Jaipur Literary Festival audiences were immense, Gandhi sized masses dressed for sitting attentively in the open and in dreary cold of January. At one event, their number expanded like fruit flies to the thousands.
That takes me back to that number we can’t comprehend—a billion. Six thousand people turned out to see VS Naipaul. It seemed, at the time, something like a billion people. The point is, as the Jaipur Literary Festival is free, and once you’ve done a few forts and palaces, there’s not much other to do than to walk down shit covered side streets, going to gawk at and be entertained by authors, many of whom had been persuaded to leave their comfortable homes for Jaipur. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the literary hajii over a five-day period. I was one of them, wearing a tag with no name but with highly ambiguous word: Participant.
I’ve asked myself, why do the British authors all sound like a version of David Cameron or Sean Connery? Having been educated and taught in England, I had a rough idea—British authors were those who had trained for politics or the stage, but couldn’t get elected an acting job. So they turned to writing. They are naturally theatrical and easily switched into a series of funny regional accents. For foreigners, the British speaker can say just about any insane, stupid or silly thing and come across as having spoken the truth. The British authors are like the old Roman roads and fortresses, with their precision, planning, elegance and design. You can be bedazzled by such roads if you ignore the main function of the road isn’t the road but the place it takes you or in the case of the fortress, rather than going into awe over the battlements and ramparts, you ought to be concentrating on the question of defending against whom and what? We tend to look at authors, roads, and fortresses stripped of their essential function. Here’s a good definition of insanity—to marvel with exalted reverence at something that your mind has isolated and totally ignored its context.
Literary festivals are breeding grounds for this kind of collective insanity.
The presence of the British authors reinforced what most of us know that the celebrity culture, like the Borg, has absorbed writers and politicians, and turned them into performers beguile their audience with wit. Sometimes they also read to their audience. That can be a mistake. In the case of one of the British authors, it was sad he’d not been told never to read to an audience as what he had written never matched his improvised riffs. There is an overlap of literary lid on the political jar. Jeffrey Archer springs to mind as does Salman Rushdie, whose appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival was dropped after a political protest started to get out of hand. Rushdie that is, not Archer who as far as I know has never worked the Indians up into a frenzy of shouting for his head.
The point is all writers invited to participate in a major festival have been invited based on a political decision. He or she will be popular and draw an audience, and make money and prestige for the festival and its organizers. Festivals are, after all, creatures born from the womb of capitalism. Celebrity culture, like investment banking, is a money-spinner and a number of people at the top benefit. They design a business model that takes the best of Stalin’s regime and a Mafia organization based on omerta. So like most tyrannies the audience is left to wonder what really happened behind the Kremlin-like gray walls that approved one invitation and not another. The fact is, literary festivals, like elections for politicians, no one is thinking beyond this author or politicians makes me happy, reinforces my good feelings about myself, my life, my identity, and that’s just fucking good enough. Thank you very much for asking.
The one thing I learned as an invited author to a literary festival panel was never to follow a British author, unless he’s limited to reading from his book. Otherwise, I’d be finished before the curtain came up and what the audience would see before them was a Canadian who moved in the literary swimming pool and who was nothing like the British author who had swam all those backstrokes and after doing a series of back flips off the high board. As authors from North America, we can’t help but sounding like someone talking in burst about the weather on a shopping mall escalator, or worse that distant thwack of a machete whacking a path through a virgin forest.
The real turn around that celebrity corner was the election of Ronald Regan in 1980. Jimmy Carter was the last non-professional actor elected to the American presidency. Tony Blair played a similar role in taking Britain deep into the makeup room and celebrity trailer culture of Hollywood. TV nighttime talk shows and the Daily Show in North America cemented the celebrity deal for politicians. They’ve come a long ways since riding horse in B-cowboy movies that would big in the 1950s. Not surprising, Rushdie inadvertently created a hole in the universe that showed that a literary author could be turned into a large, mass seller through politics and death threats. We have come to expect the author to be foremost a performer; it is the performance that sells a lot of books. This had the benefit of unlocking readers from the guilt of having to read the book. The performance, like the movie, was an acceptable substitute for reading. No one who bought a book was expected to read it. Or read all of it. That was to miss the point. It was having the book as a souvenirs of an experience of seeing and hearing a celebrity. Better a book that is signed by the performer.
Living in Thailand, the Jaipur Literary Festival also gave me a perspective on the political situation in that country. I had stumbled upon one of the reasons the current leader in Thailand seems out of synch with the behavior of contemporary politicians; as a military big shot, he never had to earn his stripes as an entertainer for the masses.
I suspect for thousands of years people had expectation of their rulers was to be shouted at, an object of invisibility or outrage, someone to be threatened, and a subject to pay tribute without asking why. Our ancestors lived in a world where it was common for a leader to wave his fist at them, screamed at them to listen and shut up. We have only started to adjust to a world where politicians are scripted, dressed, made-up, and rehearsed before they step behind a podium. That is why they are hardly say anything in a speech that might make anyone, anywhere upset or god forbid, angry. You don’t sell a product by stimulating people to think. That’s the road to failure. Instead you make them laugh, feel good about themselves, and feel they like you. There are writers like that too. They want to make every reader happy with the promise you won’t be bouncing from side to side to avoid the shit or garbage piled up on you road of life, and ignore the puke on your boots.
There was a large upside to the Jaipur Literary Festival. The chance to reflect on the political situation at home.
It is difficult for a dictator to stand outside of his conventional military culture and worldview hammered into his skull or to question it. Tyrants punish questioning or criticism as a form of rebellion. If your worldview was shaped by command and control, giving orders, it is highly likely that the world of giving an explanation for your actions or policies and listening to the opinion of others is alien. In Jaipur it was a relief to be a place where people could make fun of authorities, laugh at them, or criticize their ideas and cast doubts on their writing of history, their competence and honesty. No one was arrested and hauled off for an attitude adjustment. It takes a while to relax when you’ve been living in a dictatorship. Show business is cruel in ways the generals don’t easily tolerate. Audience ratings, like election ballots, are popularity contests among those who tell the best stories. Generals tell terrible stories, and that is partly the reason they so quickly lose control and have to become more brutal, paranoid, and ruthless.
There is a vast degree of misunderstanding between the world of command and control and the world of public performers who manipulate an audience to accept poverty, global warming, shit in the road is always their fault. In the modern celebrity world, shouting orders at audience violates an unwritten code that is the Magna Carta of the vast entertainment industry—audiences expect to be seduced, in fact they have been domesticated by seduction most of their lives; it has become the natural order of things. We crave seduction. Not even Western schools bother any longer to order and drill students into submission to authority. Think of this transition as the difference between love-making and rape. Walking the back streets of Jaipur, seduced or ordered, most of the locals were doomed just like their ancestors stretching in an unbroken line for hundreds of years had been doomed. They had no way out of the Pink City, no exit from their lives, and spent their days running after foreigners to sell a hand puppet as if this cruel irony was living.
The festival lasted five days. After it ended, we moved hotels to a place a hundred and fifty meters from the arches gateway to the Pink City.
Walking along the side roads that were used by rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, cows and dogs I thought about what I’d heard and experienced at the festival. Thoughts in India are never long before being interrupted with a horn blast or someone begging for money or trying to sell a hand-made puppet or hand-painted silk squares with colorful elephants.
I turned into lane stretching half a kilometer between rows of shops and ending at the entrance to the Pink City. Shoes, gems, baked goods, shampoo and mouthwash shops, hole in the wall places, with eagle eyed staff jumping into my path pinning me between the tuk-tuks and rickshaws racing down the street and their bodies. It felt like a hostage taking situation. They guard their patch on the pavement like an NFL guard. The Indians rarely smile. The more aggressive ones show their teeth as they seek to make a sale. Their skin and bone dogs wonder about the world outside where the rumors must have filtered back to Jaipur about a place where dogs are man’s best friends.
Jaipur gave me the space to think about the idea of ‘literary’ and ‘festival’ used to describe the gathering I’d attended. When I travel to a new place, I walk around and find a place to read. On this trip I packed Charles Bukowski’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories and Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. As I read Bukowski, a couple of observations floated to the surface. He would have immediately known that Bukowski was exactly the kind of writer who’d never be invited to the Jaipur Literary Festival. He was too raw, exposed, and truthful about his relationship to people, authority, and conventional morality. He didn’t play the game that was demanded. He’d have shown up drunk and slurring his words and would paw at the moderator’s beasts. He short-circuited the seduction ritual with huge quantities of beer, wine, and whisky.
As down and out as Bukowski was, crashing into the lives of others and like a parasite burrowing into their nest, fridges, and booze supply until all was sucked dry and then moving along, he would have been no where near the bottom of the heap of people who lived on the back streets of Jaipur. That may have been a good reason not to invite him. His kind of life, attitude, style, and whippet like speed to a liquor cabinet worked extremely well to expose the cant of American middle-class and dog-walking culture but outside of that realm, stripped of its context, it had little meaning. For Charles Bukowski or someone like Henry Miller they never worried about stepping in shit as they bounced from whorehouse to bar like a slinky with too much kinetic energy.
In Train to Pakistan a district official comes to a village called Mano Majara where Hindu Sikh and Muslim had lived in peace. But partition would change everything in their world. The village is dirt poor. It’s a hardscrabble place about to be sucked into the vortex of mass dislocation and wholesale murder. The official is shown great deference and respect, given all of the amenities including a young girl barely one foot into womanhood who comes from the village. Her role is to provide sexual services to this physically repellant and morally corrupted official. She has no choice in the matter. She was no different from the puppets sold on the streets. Someone else pulled the strings and she accepted the hand that fate had dealt her. Ultimately is an illicit affair between a Sikh boy and Muslim girl.
As I looked up from the Khushwant’s India of 1947 and out at the people in the street, I wondered how much the lives of most of these people had changed in relation to power. From the look of things they had been treading water from centuries and the waterline still rested chin high. A few more degrees dip in the temperature would dispatch the next group of the most vulnerable.
All that wit and humor on the stage at the festival was light years away from the reality of their hard lives. Reading Bukowski and Singh in Jaipur made me aware how I can lick my finger and the change the page of the book on a whim. If the passage I am reading is slow, annoying or ponderous and my forefinger is my army. Bury that scene by turning the page. But when I looked up from the book, sitting along a street in Jaipur, there was no page to flip. I was in place with a long history of invasions, wars, murders, and alliances. Billions of pages might detail the history. It was no use trying to flip them. There were too many. History gave me the finger. Fuck you, was the message from the past, we turn the page on you. Your life is nothing but a short story. But our pages as history turn so slowly there is no way to read them all let alone assign moral responsibility for what happened.
History was a major topic at the festival. From the crusades, the blunders of the CIA, the role of Indians in WWI, the Cultural Revolution in China, the mythology of Mahabharata. History is a record of vanity and suffering buried among the lies and inflated self-flattery and congratulations of the victors. The tragedy of human existence was before my eyes. I didn’t have to read a book to find that out there is madness in the world and when it boils over in revolutions, genocides, wars, and pogroms, those at the bottom suffer the most. We repress most of this knowledge about the world because it is too painful to process. We are encouraged to blind ourselves such knowledge because we wish to continue living in the world where our ignorance is the mainstay of keeping us sane. That’s another reasons the celebrity author is so popular. We’ve become part of the ignorance machinery. An author’s popularity with the masses correlates with his or her ability to create an illusion of knowing. It works because we are conditioned over a lifetime to mistake distractions for knowledge. We know no other way to be. Until we sit on a side street in a shitty part of Jaipur watching a rickshaw pedal by a skeleton with a minimum of flesh attached, someone whose gods gave him a chance to wipe the bitterness from his mouth and keep on moving.
The stakeholders in reality run their games in backrooms. The rest of us are one of the chips in large stacks moved on a table with a bet attached. We ride a cultural gulf stream, one which prefers the illusion of democracy. Our celebrity trained politicians, authors, movie stars, TV celebrities, sports heroes combined with our gods distract us from the reality of our life. The Indian boy selling the puppets in front of Mr. Donut in Jaipur is the message no one wants to think about. It’s not witty or funny or amusing. It’s terrifying.
India is the place to go for enlightenment. That’s a small ‘e’ enlightenment experience where the scales drop from your eyes and you see first hand in places like Jaipur, Bundi, and Varanasi the long process of primate domination has always been much the same. We only see the effect: its vanity and suffering. But we ignore the cause. Literary festivals, like the one in Jaipur, are another form of primate domination activity. We repress from our consciousness that the people we have read and listen to on panels are not really telling us what we need to know, and they aren’t really what we think they are. They have their own alpha monkeys with sharp teeth on their back. They are one nightmare away from waking up. Perhaps that’s why we go to see celebrities. It might just be the performance where they truly wake up, throw away the mask, and tell some suppressed truth about existence. Make us see what we’ve been blinded to see. If only they had the guts. If only I had the guts. But “guts” is just a plain word for emotions and emotions are the well from which we draw our illusions.
I am glad I wasn’t a speaker, that I didn’t appear on stage, that I didn’t feel the pressure to meet the emotional needs of an audience whose illusions needed nurturing—the usual ones: that we are special, that our lives have meaning, that people who write books and say witty things really know something about existence. I could have saved the five days of panels by going to the weapons room at 18th century City Palace inside the Pink City, the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The palace complex houses, among other treasures, an astounding collection of swords, daggers, shields, flintlocks, muskets, battle axes, some in thoughtful daisy wheel patterns to make them look like objects of art rather than objects of murder.
In another place in the same massive compound I discovered two huge sterling silver vessels 1.6 meters in height. Each had the capacity to hold 4000 litres of water. The silver urns were commissioned by a Maharaja who decided it would be a good idea to cart his own water supply from the Ganges River for his personal use on a1901 trip to England. The water urns were made from 14000 melted silver coins. Just maybe the vast array of war and ritual weapons in the room had some causal connection to the 14000 silver coins. Security guards flanked the urns. Sentinels from the past, guarding a treasure a testament to one man’s thirst and how he collected silver to quench it. How those coins were acquired is likely noted in a history book or a document on someone’s shelf, but the words on the pages are too heavy to turn.
The weapons and the urns are a clue to the mystery of why things are the way they are in Jaipur and most other places and have been for a very long time. Only the weapons and urns have changed with technology and fashion. The basic idea, though, doesn’t belong to Jaipur. The weapons and urns are reminders not just about the past; they mark a moment when you can say, now I understand something useful about the relationship of people, power, faith, and existence. The relationship between face, water, and power. Some glimmer of knowledge that makes sense of the boy on the street selling puppets, the old rickshaw drivers, the burly chested tuk-tuk driver, people on the street and in the bazaars—all of them united by the belief that all you need to survive are good brakes, a horn and luck.
The Jaipur Literary Festival organizers should commission miniature two silver urns filled with a couple of soup spoons of water from the Ganges River and present them as a gift to the most famous speaker. The ceremony would be the crowning of the new Maharaja in the literary world. The glory, the pomp, the ritual would inflate the crowds beyond seating capacity. It is the performance they want to witness. India is a place where history lives, wake up that sleeping giant, commercialize the silver urns and other artifacts, allow celebrity authors to bring adapt the traditions behind the objects, fitting them comfortably into our modern, global culture.
If I would be invited to a literary festival I’d take a couple of things other than a silver urn. I’d bring along a pair of brakes, a steering wheel with horn, and an amulet. That’s the fate of pilgrims. One more thing—don’t worry yourself should you step into a steaming pile of cow shit. Just keep moving ahead. I’d tell the audience this is all you need in your knapsack as you keep a pace ahead of the powerful who are searching for silver to their own urn. And they would wonder whether to laugh, wondering if I had told them a punch line to a joke, and if so when would I explain it to them through an amusing story. Then I’d tell them about the weapon room daisy pattern of flintlocks and the silver urns as tall as the average man. Then I shut up and stay silent for the rest of the performance. And I would never be invited back again.