Saturday, July 08, 2006

PEN@Prithvi: Deciphering the City

In May last year, PEN tried to re-invent itself. They moved to new premises (from ground floor to second floor), inducted new executive committee members : Literary organiser and activist Aspi Mistry, writer Sampurna Chattarji, architect Savio Lobo and journalist Ronita Torcota.

At that time, PEN secretary Ranjit Hoskote said that, "the PEN committee went through a lot of introspection and has now inducted four new members in the executive committee. This, the PEN feels will save the literary body from going through a phase of inertia that it underwent in the last nine months."

Unfortunately this did not work out as planned. PEN went through another phase of inertia. They then felt that maybe South Mumbai was too far away for most of their target audience & so 3 months back they started PEN @ Prithvi. The first meeting in May garnered a large audience, but at todays meeting there were just 23 of us. Including Ranjit, Sampurna and the 3 panelists.

The Invitation from Sampurna said :
A panel discussion with Naresh Fernandes, writer and editor, Altaf Tyrewala, novelist, and Nishtha Jain, filmmaker, talking about ways of understanding the city/urbanscape through their own methodologies of making.
Date: Saturday, 8 July 2006
Time: 6.30 pm onwards
Place: Prithvi House, 1st floor (opposite Prithvi Theatre, Janki Kutir, Juhu, Bombay)

Most Mumbaiyyas would recognise Naresh's name as the editor of Time Out, Mumbai but not as many would know that, he is also the co-editor with Jerry Pinto of Bombay Meri Jaan, an anthology of writing about India's largest city. In 1996, he was among the authors of Murder of the Mills, a citizens' report on industrial sickness in Mumbai's textile industry, and in 1993 he was among the contributors to When Bombay Burned, a collection of reportage and commentary on the Mumbai riots.

Naresh started the discussion with a few incidents from his youth, linked them to his experience as a Wall Street Journalist in New York. He dwelled on how other than the Rajabai Tower & The Gateway of India there was no other monument that could be identified with Bombay (he did admit that VT was too large to fit on the cover page)
The setting was informal (shoes off & seating on chaadars) so his chatty informal style went perfectly well with it. He was interesting & amusing to listen to.

Altaf Tyrewala is the author of No God in Sight (Penguin, 2005). Time Out, Mumbai readers would also recognise him from his column 'Tyred & Tested'

Altaf read out a short piece on his relationship and feelings towards Bombay, which will be printed in a future issue of Time Out, Mumbai Essentially it was about how the city keeps calling him back and how he feels moored to Bombay. He also read out one of the short stories from his new book. Seems like that too will be in monologues like the previous one.

I have a soft corner for Altaf, since the time I met him at a Juhu Book Club Meeting and he remembered my name from a piece of fiction I had written for the Caferati Flash Fiction Contest and he had judged. Read about that episode here.

If reading his book was a pleasure, listening to him read from it, was an experience that actually transported us into the mind of his protagonist.

Nishta Jain's 2005 film, City of Photos explores neighborhood photo studios, unearthing the imaginary buried under gritty physical realities. Currently she is shooting a film about the city of Mumbai as seen, experienced and imagined by migrants to the city, including herself. Her other films are Call it Slut (2006) and Shadows Out of Time (2002).

From this point the quality degenerated. Nishta kept rambling, mostly off topic, highly prejudiced against muslims. (for eg : describing her City of Photos where one of the backgrounds at the studios for pictures was the crashing of the twin towers she said "I thought only the muslims wanted to take their pictures in front of that background, rejoicing and all that, but even others were taking their pictures with it") All this while when Altaf was seated right next to her. Its not wrong to have an opinion, but you also need to be sensitive to the feelings of people around you. Wonder how someone so prejudiced and closed to new ideas & concepts can be a documentary film maker. She went on & on & on in a monologue highly punctuated with "You know's" (minimum of twice in each & every sentence)

This started a verbal free-for-all by some attendees between whenever she stopped to catch her breath and her actually catching it. A lot of pseudo intellectual crap was bandied about by those who wanted their voice heard. (eg: 1 woman - "Suketu came home and read to us one of the stories from his book, of the birds fling in the taxi in Worli"- no one gave her any "bhav" so at this point she added- "from Maximum City you know") A few members did come up with a few good points, but they were overshadowed by those with verbal diarhoea. Naresh & Altaf wisely distanced themselves mentally from these attempts at verbal one-up(wo)manship.

Ranjit wisely called an end to the chaos (albeit an hour too late). Sampurna announced the relaunch of "PENumbra" the magazine. Most of us rushed away to salvage the rest of our Saturday evening.

I did enjoy the first 2 speakers, after that it was a waste of time. Nothing about the city was deciphered. There were some large cribs against other cities. some talk about villages being feudalistic & cities being capitalistic. In villages you survive but in cities like Mumbai you live & other such high sounding notions & inane conversation topics. None of which would benefit anyone in the crowd nor would be remembered by any.

Most memorable incident of the evening ? Altaf completed his reading, looked around at the audience for reactions & once Nishta started to ramble, he gave a quick questioning look at his wife (I didn't catch her name), she gave him an approving look & a nod & only then did he smile a relaxed smile. Authors are human too. . .

PEN - Indian chapter of International association of Poets, Playwrights, editors, Essayists & Novelists. They hold regular readings and workshops. You can be an Associate member or a full member. No qualifications to be an Associate Member. One has to have 2 published works for full membership.


Anonymous said...

I was at the back of the room at that reading too, and you obviously missed the point of what was a very stimulating discussion. I'm astonished by your dismissal of the proceedings as "pseudo-intellectual crap", just because you didn't understand what was going on. That's a pretty anti-intellectual statement to make. There used to be a time people made an effort to learn new things, and were ashamed of showing stupidity. You, however, are quite brash in displaying yours. You really can't expect the world to work overtime to amuse you all the time: life has different pitches and not all of them are instantaneously comprehensible. It wouldn't hurt to stop being so smug in your ignorance and do the work it takes to really grapple with the world.

Kim said...

"A lot" of the people who were "contributing" to the discussion were isolated in their little bubbles & thought that Bombay is all rosy & gay. They hadn't really opened themselves up to the fact that life extends beyond the not so little flats bequeathed to them.

When asked which place was synonymous with political activity in Bombay, they could only vaguely remember Azad Maidan. Totally disconnected from the events of the last 20 years when Shivaji park has been the hot site for political rallies. If this does not indicate a disconnectedness from the present then ......

I understood very well what was going on. Most people were just trying to show off that they were smarter than the others & were there to demonstrate intellectual one-upmanship whether the points they made were valid or relevant made no difference. They just wanted their voice/opinion heard. This is not a healthy environment for a debate/discussion

This is why I labeled them pseudo intellectuals. But if intellectual means ignoring ground realities, then yes they were extremely intellectual.

If you want a stimulating discussion, attend a meeting of the Juhu Book Club or a workshop conducted by Bioscope, watch a play at Prithvi or NCPA. Those are much more enlightening & interesting. If you had taken the time to read any of the other posts on this blog, you may learn something......

Leave me your name & email address, v can have a direct discussion on this, instead of me re-routing thru pkblogs.

Anonymous said...

well, we'll just have to agree to disagree. i didn't notice the one-upmanship at all: i thought it was a discussion of an extremely high standard. i was attending for the first time and while it was apparent that many of those people know each other from before, i don't think the atmosphere was forbidding. but i didn't participate in the discussion because it was obviously bouncing between people who had thought arrived at their points of view after a great deal of thought, and i was thrilled just to be a spectator.
however, i really do think that you're being dismissive because you failed to comprehend what was happening and that you're compensating for your ignorance with brashness.

Kim said...

1st of all. Thanks for keeping on coming back to check for my replies.....

The atmosphere was never forbidding, I don't think I felt that or said that I felt that. It just turned real boring after awhile.

The initial part of the panel discussion was absolutely great. I think Naresh & Altaf both did a great job. But after that there was no focus, just a lot of people wanting to have thier voices heard & no proper moderation either. Not having moderation is a wonderful way to have an open discussion, but at some times people need to be gently nudged back on the right track especially if there is a pre-set topic.

You say "people had arrived at their points of view after a great deal of thought" Most people there hadn't given any thought & that was the problem. There was a guy 'Gyaan' at the meeting who HAD put in a lot of thought, but no one was willing to listen to him.

I TEACH beahvior as a Science & I think I'm reasonably well attuned to understand the under currents that are going on in a gathering.

Read some of my other posts & some of my other blogs before dismissing my point of view as stemming from ignorance.

I liked 67% of the panel discussion & 15% of the open discussion. Whether I attend the next meeting or not I will decide after checking out the panel of speakers. But that's my prerogative.

This is MY blog which I write to reflect my opinions. Whether you agree with them or not, whether you agree with me or not is beside the point. I write because I want to express my opinion, I'm not forcing anyone to read my opinion or agree with me. Hence I'm engaging in this debate. Otherwise would have just kept deleting all yr comments (grin) simply because u did not agree with me.