Rap, cafes and writers

(Published in the Business Standard, Speaking Volumes, December 19, 2006)

Between the weddings and the concerts, most Dilliwallas know that winter in the capital belongs to the poets. In an era now forgotten, this meant the grand mushairas where scores and hundreds of poets gathered to match their wits and their metres. In our time, you could start with rap and end with dastangoi, as many did last week.

Malika Booker, like many of today’s poets, blurs genres: she’s a fantastic story teller who can either recite a poem straight, use rap to get her message across, or act out a dramatic monologue. She’s fun to watch, her black boots tapping an absent rhythm, her silver-and-black stole accentuating her hand gestures: “I’m writing about taboos,” she had said at one point, giving herself the freedom to reinterpret family histories with humour instead of anger.

At one point, she reads along with fledgling rapper Taru Dalmia—who, typically of this generation of poets, has his own MySpace page (www.myspace.com/delhisultanate). Though Dalmia’s act has a few rough edges, he brings the house down with his “dark skin girl”, a plea to all those cinnamon-coloured, coffee-coloured, nutmeg-hued women out there to throw away their Fair & Lovely tubes. Some of his rap attacks the people who live their lives according to Page Three, switching between confusion and “yoga fusion”. One of the private pleasures of watching this at the British Council is noticing that the people who laugh the hardest are the ones whom Dalmia’s angst is aimed at.

Next door, on the lawns of the IIC Annexe, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and K Satchinandan did more conventional—but just as entertaining—poetry readings. Allan Sealy had joined them, along with several other writers, the previous day, but there was considerable confusion over whether the readings were open to everyone or only to invitees, and the audience was disappointingly small.

But by the second day, Delhi’s finest had decided not to wait for an invitation and showed up in force for Mehrotra, one of India’s toughest critics and most sensitive poets (I love these two lines from ‘Genealogy’, for instance: “Each man is an unfinished fiction/ And I’m the last survivor of what was a family..) Mahmood Farooqi, who used to set the stage on fire in his Delhi University days, and Daanish Husain were next. By now, their performances of ‘dastangoi’—the venerable Mughal tradition of storytelling from a body of work that jumbles legends, myths and the literature of that time with admirable carelessness—have become fixtures on the Delhi menu, and they didn’t disappoint their admirers.

And if poets weren’t enough, all you have to do to find Delhi’s other writers in winter is to have a cup of coffee. Jeet Thayil—yes, he’s a poet, but he’s working on a non-fiction book– Indrajit Hazra and a dozen younger writers have been quietly reinventing the age-old tradition of writers working in taverns, as Shakespeare and Co did, or cafes, as Baudelaire in Paris and Arun Kolatkar in Bombay once did. Step into a Café Coffee Day or a Barista or any one of the dozens of coffee shops that have sprung up around Delhi, and if it’s the middle of the day, chances are high that the quiet chap working on his laptop is a writer.

Thayil explained once that he liked the sense of working in relative peace while fragments of conversation revealed tiny chapters of other people’s lives to him. Other writers say that cafes provide an environment that falls halfway between the comfortable informality of home, without the distractions, and the impersonal workspace of an office, without the annoyances.

A friend in publishing asked me recently why I didn’t work out of cafes myself, seeing that my home is a cross between a zoo and a dharamshala. I had to explain that while the space works for me, the coffee is a bad idea—I drink so many cups in an absent sort of way at a Barista clone that I come home twitchy, insomniac and broke. She shrugged in a be-like-that sort of way. “Now that it’s winter and more writers are doing this,” she said, “I fully expect to find my next four manuscripts somewhere between the Arabica and the Jamaican Blue Mountain beans.”





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