Last weekend, between the 7th and 8th of October, we watched a play, stole grapes from a vineyard, and walked through long corridors lined with books from all over.
The play – “3, Sakina Manzil” – was by Ramu Ramanathan, a Mumbai-based playwright. It was brought to Frankfurt as part of the events surrounding the Frankfurt Book Fair, where India was the “Guest of honor” this year. Such events are rare in Europe, and I chose to add this evening at the theater to our weekend itinerary (Blogger Alpha and her friend S were visiting us on their Europe tour, and had to put up with such indoor events in their weekend sight-seeing agenda).
A play with two characters, “3, Sakina Manzil” is set in the 1940s, and centered around the Bombay dock explosion that took place in 1944. As I watched the spotlight move from one character to the other, as I heard them speak in that English we Indians have adopted and made our own, as I experienced the story unfold in the Bombay atmosphere with names, expressions, images that spoke of an Indianness I’ve known since childhood but miss now, I felt a wave of nostalgia flow through me, a wave that held me in a trance throughout the play. Later, S mentioned that it could have been shorter in places, but I had been unable to notice any of that. To me, it filled a large vacuum created, on the one hand, by limited opportunities for such “authentic Indian experiences”, and on the other by the increasing scope my work (an occupation that has little to do with the world of art I long to be a part of) is having on my life these days.
After the play, the author spent close to an hour answering questions. The audience was predominantly German, and it conveyed a warm appreciation for the play, significant understanding of the art and a great deal of curiosity towards the specifics of Indian culture and theater scene in India: “The woman in the play was shown as a strong character – were Indian women like that in those days?” ; “Why did you choose an unhappy ending? Wouldn’t it have been more popular among the Indian audience had it been otherwise?” ; “How many such plays are staged in Mumbai? What is the infrastructure? Is it possible to make a living out of theater?”.
Ramu Ramanathan answered all questions with a simplicity and clarity that reflected his down-to-earth nature. It was surprising to hear that although he had been writing plays for many years and staging them in India, none of his plays had been published (He spoke of an ongoing attempt since four years, with the manuscript going back and forth between him and the publishers who were asking for one change after another ). However, a Dutch translation of “3, Sakina Manzil” was on the pipeline, and it was hoped that this would spur further interest among foreign audiences (This was the first time they were staging it outside India). He spoke of the strong theater culture in Maharashtra (“There is a joke amongst us: you only need to scratch a Maharashtrian and he’d end up writing a play!”), and of a lifestyle that sometimes involved staging three plays in different theaters in the city on the same day, which meant the props had to be simple enough to be disassembled within minutes and packed into a van, a vehicle where the actors and playwrights lived while on the move.
All this served only to enhance my nostalgia; I consoled my mind telling myself that this intensity of experience would not be possible had I been able to watch Indian plays every other weekend.
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Earlier that day we drove to Sasbachwalden, a small town in the Black Forest region.
We walked through mostly empty streets lined with pretty tudor cottages, crossing now and then a bubbling brook. Soon our path wounded around a small hill and ended next to a vineyard full of ripe grapes. The girls made most of the opportunity; I wouldn’t be surprised if Germany reports a small dip in wine production for the year 2006.
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On Sunday afternoon we visited the Frankfurt book fair. The “India” theme was splattered all around: on posters, brochures, giant wall hangings displaying authors from the sub-continent, events with famous Indian personalities (we narrowly missed a press-conference with Mira Nair; other events, like readings from authors like Vikram Chandra, Pankaj Mishra, Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor, U.R. Ananthamurthy etc had been held through the week).
We had only a couple of hours before the event closed, and as I wandered through the halls the familiar feeling of cultural density enveloped me: I could not imagine another situation where one could get a glimpse of such a wide array of cultures in so small an area. It made you realize how much more there is to be seen, experienced.
Each year I come back from the fair with a list of books (only a list, as books are not typically for sale at the trade fair). This time one book caught my attention: Privacy, a collection of stunning black and white portraits of families in Delhi, by Dayanita Singh.
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It was an eventful weekend, one that passed too soon. Alpha, true to the traits one sees in her writing, was full of humor. Her enthusiasm is infectious: there wasn’t a single dull moment throughout the weekend (which, with someone like me around, is quite a feat – you only need to ask my sister). She left behind plenty of laughter, and a book I’m beginning to love: Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Thank you, Alpha.