Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Dubai Literary Festival

Not being a mall hopper I am always on a quest for the unusual during my regular visits to Dubai to be with my family. The highlight this time was attending the 10th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature held this month at the Intercontinental Hotel Dubai Festival City. As Press you can take in any number of programmes, but otherwise you attend each session for a fee. What was immensely gratifying is the professional way it is conducted, the choice of speakers, and the rigid sense of punctuality from start to finish.
Dotted with interesting zones, the Festival space includes a Festival Bookshop, a book signing area, a Creekside cafĂ© with lounging mats and soft pouffes, a Foundation Friends Lounge, a Family Oasis with activities for the children, Childrens reading zone,  Heritage Majlis where poetry, readings go on throughout the day. And the concept which really seemed wonderful was the emphasis on children’s literature, and encouraging children of all ages to explore books.
I looked forward to listening to Alexander McCall Smith, for I’ve loved reading his books beginning with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Smith’s fast paced writing, spiced with humour. Author of more than 100 books, McCall Smith was recently awarded the prestigious Medal of Honour for Achievement in Literature by the National Arts Club of America. He was not able to make it on the scheduled date, owing to airports closed in Europe due to heavy snow and blizzards. I did catch up on him at a later date, and it was one  hour of mischief, laughter and story telling all the way.
 I landed at Melissa Hemsley’s talk which did interest me being a foodie and a cookbook author myself. Hemsley is the author of Eat Happy 30 minute Feel Good Food, and charmingly put across her views on healthy home cooked meals which can be completed in 30 minutes.
The biggest bonus was attending a lecture by Shashi Tharoor, interviewed by William Dalrymple. Brilliant as usual, Shashi talked to a packed hall, where there was not a single seat empty, and many stood throughout the programme, riveted to the speaker as he led us on to the atrocities committed by the British Raj, and lambasted them for reducing the richest independent country of the world in the 17th Century having a GDP of 27% to third world poverty in 200 years. By the time the British left, India’s share of the world GDP had plummeted to just over 3%. Emperor Aurangazeb’s wealth alone was more than that of all the heads of state of the world put together. The damage done by colonialism is unquantifiable, and when you think of 3 million people who died unnecessarily during a tumultuous period, any sum of money paid as compensation would not justify this enormous loss of life and property.
The British had a revisionist populist history which was taught in schools and colleges alike, making out that they had done a big favour to India by ruling them. Britain owes reparation to our country, and though people say people who were offenders and those who were severely affected are no longer there,  it makes sense to at least render a public apology.
“India, a country sophisticated in textiles, in banking, in merchandise was submitted to 200 years of plunder and loot, to line the British coffers.”  My own feelings about the weaving industry reduced to tatters found an answering chord in Shashi Tharoor’s description of the East India Company destroying our handloom industry, one which wove muslin called woven winds, soft as clouds and passing through a small ring, sold as British calico… William Bentinck, governor of Madras and later governor-general, wrote that ‘the bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India.’ Tariffs of 70 per cent and more were imposed on the textiles India produced, and cheap British cottons flooded the Indian market.
Indian soldiers were harnessed to fight for the British in World War 1 and Indian taxpayers had to contribute  8 billion pounds to pay for expenses. We were foolish enough to support wars against ourselves, while they pocketed all the profits.
 Tharoor’s personality, his diction, his articulate speech and his passion and anger against Indians having to wear British yokels earned him deafening applause and he must have had the longest queue of fans waiting for him to sign the books they bought, the latest being  Inglorious Empire.. What the British did to India .
On the second day of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, William Darymple author of Kohinoor, History of the World’s most Infamous Diamond with Anita Anand British TV journalist gave us what he called the true history of the famous gemstone.
Why would the magnificient gem among the world’s largest, weighing about 105.6 carats be anywhere but in India?  It sits on the purple crown of the Queen Mother, on the Maltese Cross and being displayed in the Tower of London. Read the book to find out the methods of trickery, bloodshed, or sheer generosity if you will deployed to change ownership.
Darymple and Anand uncovered layers of four centuries of histories to substantiate that India was the only known source of diamonds, before they were mined in Brazil in 1725. The Kohinoor which ironically meant the Mountain of Light was mired for centuries in murder, larceny, bloodshed and calamities and bode evil for its owners. In the 17th century, the Kohinoor Diamond occupied pride of place in the magnificent Peacock Throne, which was commissioned by Shah Jahan. In 1739 the Persian ruler conquered Delhi, with his frenzy of carnage and carried off the throne with all his jeweled booty to Persia.
In an unbelievable magical historical tour the diamond was grabbed by the East India Company to the Crown of Queen Mother  Elizabeth.

And now there are six claimants to the infamous diamond, India of course, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Afganistan and Taliban.  According to Darymple, India has the strongest claim, but whether the claim will be considered is another question. There is a U.N rule regarding loot that has to be returned, but operational only from the 20th Century! So the chances of India ever getting this National Treasure back is anyones guess…