Daljit Nagra was in India between 25 November – 5 December on a touring promotion of his latest novel Ramayana: A Retelling . He performed extracts from his latest compelling read in front of packed audiences in venues across Bangalore, New Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai as part of the Times Lit Fest. He shares some moments from his journey on the road and interacting with young audiences. Some moments from his reading:
Bangalore, 25 November, 2015
Venue: Vidya Shilp Academy school
Timing: 9:00 am – 3 pm
I suspect I’m crossing no line of tact by saying the traffic situation is impossible in Bangalore. Not only are the roads teeming with cars, motor bikes and horn bleats but there is no concept of lane driving. Drivers find a gap and invent a lane then shuffle along the jam-packed roads. I imagine all this would cause frustration. That’s too polite. I imagine it’d cause rage, proper road rage! So when on my third day here, my driver has an accident, my first but no doubt not last of the trip, he knocks a motorbike and both drivers head from their vehicles for a showdown.
Daljit Nagra at the Vidya Shilp Academy school in Bangalore
I look away fearing fisticuffs and expletives. Instead, when I look up the drivers are checking each other vehicles and noticing nothing much has happened. Then in the 30 degree heat they seem to be wearing wry benign looks and seem to be chatting as though they’re about to exchange addresses for a meet up. When they eventually part, they seem lit with smiles as they return back into the traffic.
This must be an example of that famous laid-back, affable geniality attributed to Bangaloreans. I’m left wondering, if there’s any chance of the DVLA inculcating this gentility into the next generation of our British drivers?
New Delhi, 30 November, 2015
Venue: Maidens Hotel
Session: Performance reading
At the Delhi Festival last night, I watched the great Indian poet, Jeet Thayil, author of Booker Prize shortlisted Narcopolis, read from his Collected Poems. After the reading I bought his book and whilst queuing for the autograph, I bumped into a girl and a boy. It turned out although they looked like lean teenagers they were in their early 20s. I asked them about their poetry reading at school and they said they’d read mostly British Romantic poets and so they knew of very few Indian poets who write in English.
Daljit Nagra at a performance reading of “Ramayana… in New Delhi
I asked them whether they were poets and both said that they were performance poets. They’d independently and quietly been writing page poetry then one day they’d gone on Youtube and discovered the likes of B Zephaniah and K Tempest. These clips had changed their lives because they too wanted to be performance poets.
They had both quit studies in Law to see if they could homogenise performance poetry in India. Into an Indian Poetry Society. They now live in Bangalore and have been funded in this venture by a young start-up entrepreneur. They both believe young people are not being encouraged into individual expression of if they are writing poetry they have no outlet for it. So this young couple, Shantanu and Nandini, have been visiting campuses around the country to spot new talent and give them an online presence.
I said I’d pass on their emails to people I know at The Poetry Society in Great Britain and to Apples & Snakes. Perhaps we are able to support this valiant cause.
Chandigarh, 1-2 December
Venue: British Library; Vivek High School; Yadavindra Public School, Mohali
Timing: 3 pm
I have returned to the land of my ancestors as a poet, for the first time. Whilst being driven around and at poetry readings I’ve found myself hearing Dylan Thomas’ chiasmus about his own background, Ah the land of my fathers; my fathers can keep it! I felt this most potently last night at a reading I gave in Chandigarh.
Daljit Nagra at the British Library in Chandigarh
The audience for my event was even gendered and well-balanced in age, from College students up to a few elderly individuals. Once I was introduced by the MC I duly took the podium but there were no customary applause. Only stony silence. So I thought I’d try and lighten the mood with a couple of my more humorous poems. Neither was there laughter at my best lines nor was there applause at the end of each poem. Instead, each spectator seemed to wear a brow-knitted angered look. On it went, the stony silence, the perplexed look from each viewer. Anyway, I stopped reading ahead of time because I suspected my reading was clearly unwanted. Perhaps it had offended.
Yet when I was asked for questions, I was flooded by a stream of insightful questions. The audience put up their hands and whilst still not smiling, at least there were many lovely questions about my work which went on for over 40 minutes. Even after the event had finished, several people came up to me to discuss poetic and political issues. These issues helped me deepen, and are helping me deepen an understanding of myself.
Audience members enjoy the reading session at the British Library
So what I learned about my ancestors: their serious looks are scary looks (which I must have worn all my life in England!), they don’t care for humour but only for deadly serious poetry, they are wonderfully brilliant listeners and supremely interiorised about their appreciation; they allow you to elicit their pleasure by asking you brilliant questions.
I am proud to say the land of my fathers is a land I’d like to keep close to my heart. Next time I read in Punjab, I’ll come fully prepared to treat the silent treatment as a sign of affection.