Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A Sense of Home: India and the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Dawn breaks over Delhi as our train snakes across the outskirts of the city. All over these dust scarred suburbs there are small fires around which groups of figures crouch. Like shadow puppets in waiting. The train gathers speed and I catch a glimpse of a man stretched out on a makeshift bed beside a flickering bonfire. Somewhere in my head a memory is triggered. The lights blink through the trees, sharper than the neon, stronger than the hesitant dawn. Like the fireflies Ruskin saw in Italy, ‘moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves.’ These are the street people, my Indian friend tells me later, who have nothing but bits of wood to keep them warm against the chill January air. My eyes are gritty with tiredness. I cannot keep my camera steady for the long exposure it needs in this uncertain light. So I simply have to look. And remember.

The sky lightens and lightens but a milky mist floats over the ground. It shrouds the laurel and the ‘boom’ trees, knee deep, now, in mile after mile of yellow mustard fields. The land appears as a watercolour painting, softened and remote. And utterly beautiful. For the second time I am reminded of Italy and the countryside of the Bassa, the lower Po plain. A land also laden with dreams and myths; a landscape marked by man and his temporary existence.

It is forty-seven years since I have witnessed an Eastern sunrise but it seems I have not forgotten the sense of it. Perhaps that is why I have always felt at home in Italy.

Jaipur plunges us into a more direct kind of colour. Kingfisher blues and crumbling pinks, marigold-yellow holy trees and crimson pomegranate seeds against a sun-stained hand. For a painter to rediscover colour in this way is enormously thrilling. Years ago, as a child, as the boat carrying me to England headed for Southampton’s docks, I decided to turn my back on colour. I have no idea why. But for now just being in the midst of it all is enough. Ideas flit and swim around and then are lost in an overlay of other thoughts. How many will remain intact when I go back to England, remains to be seen. My sketchbooks bulges with half-finished drawings, labels of a particular searing green, small exquisite matchbox lids and scraps of hand dyed cotton. I am returning home.

At the festival people approach me. Some have flown from Colombo for this largest of literary events in the calendar. I scan their faces, foolishly looking for the place where I was born, knowing I shall not visit it again. Not until the politics within the country changes; until the wrong that was done is redressed. That is another story, too painful to contemplate at this moment. For here in Jaipur all is warmth and friendliness. I meet two wonderful Marathi writers secure in the language in which they write, secure in the place where they were born and have always lived.

On the last night of the festival, on the way back in the taxi, one of them begins to sing a morning raga. Quickly we take out our mobile phones, wanting to capture the moment, telling our singer laughingly, that his voice is that of a much younger man.
‘I know,’ he says, unperturbed, a mischievous glint in his eye.
In the now deserted street an elephant and its keeper returning from a wedding wait patiently for our car to pass before lumbering on, bells tinkling delicately into the night. In the darkness the image is a fleeting one.

Back in Delhi, before I begin the long flight to Heathrow, my new friend says,

‘Come back, Roma, and I will take you to the south where you will feel even closer to the land.’

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