Mumbai / Bombay: The Times Lit Fest - December 2nd to 6th 2016

Nearly a week in the extraordinary environment of the Times Lit Fest in Mumbai, exploring the city, meeting authors from all over India and the world, and reading my poems. Undoubtedly one of the most lush festivals I have attended, known for its generous treatment of invited authors, and so it was, in the most grand of hotels, flown in great comfort, a sanitised version of India as my first experience of the country I have wanted to visit for so very long. I had a truly memorable time, sharing the stage with friends like Ranjit Hoskote, so many stimulated conversations, so much new literature to discover and some really intense and brilliant days going into Bombay itself, meeting the people who make the city what it is, unique.

Mumbai: a travelogue

Reading more history than poetry or fiction, I have come to see the reading of my own nation’s past as a kind of responsibility, to actually have some insight into what is pervading the present, and knowing how little the average British person knows about British history. India is an enormous detail in this pursuit and so I have spent a decade envisioning the country that I will visit, to read a few poems.  

The first day after arrival I take to go into southern Mumbai, to the colonial legacy, to the tip of the Arabic sea, and spend many hours walking around the Colaba, along narrow pavements, harangued by the very intensity of the place, which I have expected and do not mind. But India is going through a unique crisis, demonetisation, and queues of tired and irate locals line up outside of banks to empty their accounts. It adds an unusually combative air to the otherwise hectic streets. I stand beneath the Gateway to India, sit in Merchant’s café, I have been reading about Rudyard Kipling’s parents, after landing here, having to live in tents in the broiling heat before accommodation was found for them. I visit the old churches, the cathedral, seek out the gravestones with British names. It’s present everywhere, Empire, but absent all the same. The starbucks as prevalent as the past. As is the brutal physical proximity of poverty, people begging that look too thin to not be close to dying, children running between traffic that seems not to see them, stray dogs limping, birds being sold in cages. I see a spider crawl out and between a bunch of bananas being sold on a cart. Besides boutiques and the bank queues. I walk out of Colaba along Nariman point and along the queen’s necklace, sweating profusely before taking a rattling cab back to the financial district, Bandra, where I am staying, crossing the great sea bridge and flowing in between tuk tuks and traffic jams. 

As will be a feature of the trip, and as is the case for most of these journeys I’m fortunate to make, it is the staff at the hotel to whom I connect with the quickest. Having spent many years in service industries before teaching for a living alongside my art and writing, having cleaned toilets and waited tables, my desire to show respect for those working in these jobs normally translates to some lovely conversations and connections, and discoveries about these almost uniformly humble, generous and intelligent people. Many working at the hotel have travelled thousands of kilometres for this work, others are local, all are full of interest and advice when asked, and after exchanging emails, many will go on to be pen pals long after the trip is done.

The next day is my big festival day, a full schedule of events I wish to see before my own in the evening. The festival is set in Mehboob Studios, a spawling canvas of tents and lawns and aircraft hangars made up with stages. I get to see Andrew speak wonderfully on the global character and reception of Shakespeare, see a powerful panel of poets with Aborigine writer Lionel Fogarty being a particular highlight. The heat and the quality of the light create a real delay in consciousness, I feel heightened senses, feel the atmosphere as dense and colourful. I flit from one event to the other and then relax in the author’s lounge, making some new friends and getting to see my friend Ranjit Hoskote, who is really responsible for my presence in Mumbai and will share in my event. Ranjit is a really wonderful poet, curator and art critic, and more than all this, his is rare company. He is uniformly intelligent and kind, subtle and deft, gracious and insightful. I have taken to him the moment we met, in Swansea I think, and this festival, so atmospheric and vivid with its heat and thick humid air and bright airy light, is a wonderful setting to talk with him for hours. Of the many things we discuss, I ask him about the switch from Bombay to Mumbai, and am given an education, and what I take to be gentle permission to use Bombay should I wish to. I wish to, but continue to use Mumbai. Our event, with Ruth Padel and Gieve Patel, is a lovely occasion. We each read and then chat briefly about some of the issues connecting our output, deftly drawn out by Ranjit. The audience is attentive and it’s nice to talk with many younger poets and poetry fans after the audience. 

My third day sees a return to the festival, wanting to catch more of the programme on its last day, and as a particular highlight, a panel on travel writing with William Dalrymple, Jonathan Clements and Alexander Frater. From Mehboob I take a cab into the heart of the city, to Byculla, simply for the drive, for the chance to look around, see more of the city itself, having been told it isn’t walkable. I see apartment buildings with concierges blur into shacks, architecture of found items, corrugated iron, pools of water in the street, children resting out of the sun, stray dogs, goats tethered, people staring out and away into the road, barber shops in sheds, surreal advertising boards, hand written signs. I see some sights of quite overwhelming poverty, from my air conditioned taxi. I see hundreds, thousands of people out of the window, busy at their work, sitting in their homes, talking, shouting, sitting. I am aware of my seat in the car, the cool air, the money in my pocket, the hotel I am staying within, the food in my stomach. I think of what more I will be able to write about it. Children are knocking on my window at a red light.

The last night at dinner in the hotel I play with my food a bit. I’ve been writing anyway. I’ve got some books coming out next year, quite a number of emails backed up. The food is offered as a buffet, but not a buffet like in England, each dish is incredible quality and chef’s wait by the food to tell you about it, to greet you. I have eaten so much each night I’m starting to actually tire of it, the maximal effect. The richness of the food. But I’m very very grateful for it and talk to everyone who’ll look at me as they pass by, offering more water or checking that everything is to my liking.

I find myself on the flight back to London squat next to the remarkable Alexander Frater and Bridget Monahan, two writers I had witnessed speak at the festival, but not yet met in person. I stop by hoping not to disturb them, being invited to sit, talking avidly for a good hour or more. Alexander, whose extraordinary journalistic career had him commission Bruce Chatwin, Norman Lewis and others to each write a travel book in the genres great 80s heyday, alongside his own Chasing the Monsoon, which had him nearly mobbed in India, where the book is enormously popular, is as generous as can be, asking after my poetry more than he will speak of his own writing. And Bridget, famed for her novels, tells me how she was born in the Raj and witnessed the last parade of British soldiers under the Gateway to India in 1948. Where I had stood so awed, just days before. What a place to return to, how full of meaning for you, I offer. She shrugs, but agrees to write about it, on my urging. This is the purpose of these travels for me, not in a glib way, as people are as awful as they are good, but for the fact of meeting those who are good, who would not have been met otherwise. To find roads one did not know existed, to speak to those who know more than I.