Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The snobbery and intellectual passion that is India

The poor, meanwhile, have been swept out of the capital - I only saw a handful of beggars


I was in Delhi last week, for the Kitab book festival, an idiosyncratic event organised by an outrageous young man, beautiful, dangerous and captivating. I didn't know this when the invitation arrived by e-mail. As we corresponded, Pablo Ganguli, the festival director, came across as middle-aged, serious, at times worn out with the trouble of it all.

Writers, as all book event organisers know, are a trying lot. I imagined he was a 50-year-old academic or a rarely published but tremblingly committed novelist who wanted to bring together British and Indian writers to share words and worlds. Since the beginning of March, when my mother died, I had been feeling vulnerable and melancholic. A jamboree in the heat and dust of Delhi was either going to make me feel even more lost or would give me heart.

I hadn't checked the air tickets. The travel was sponsored by Etihad, a new airline of the Emirates with spanking new aircraft and courteous hostesses. One of the airline bossmen gets The Independent and loves reading books, so he happily upgraded most delegates, but even in plush lounges hours with travelling companions is like being in Big Brother. You find out their secrets; they witness you dribbling slumped in velvet chairs.

Pablo, in fact only 22, is like Ariel in The Tempest, a creature who moves imperceptibly between boundaries, appears and disappears, magicks, sulks and shimmies, infuriates and intoxicates. The shape-shifter wears sequinned gowns and knitted hats, holds you with his green-lensed eyes. When a young teenager in Calcutta, he fell in love with one of our very own ambassadors. They ended up in Papua New Guinea, Pablo now the first ever gay British ambassadorial consort.

That was then. Now Pablo resides happily in Marrakech, where last year he whimsically decided to arrange a gathering of writers from the UK. He managed to get funds and the people he wanted, even though he was largely unknown in literary circles in the UK. Those who attended say they will never forget the starry nights out there with Sufi poets speaking beauteously to enchant.

Delhi was a harder challenge, and somewhat more chaotic, but Pablo pulled it off again, with chutzpah. Intense self-reflection mixed with glamour; talent with narcissism. There was William Dalrymple, the unrivalled descriptive writer, reading from his new book on the last Moguls, looking and sounding like a pasha - his girth is now as expansive as his ego. His fine words moved most of the audience, though some Indian detractors later muttered complaints about these "new imperialists who come now to steal our own tales".

Young male Asian writers from both countries, deep beyond their years, debated the world, Iraq and the heady century they inhabit, and struggle to comprehend. Clare Short spoke more directly and incisively than I have ever heard her, and then there was Goldie Hawn (yes, really), bubbling and laughing on stage in front of a smallish audience which was too learned to be awestruck by her tales of Hollywood. Apparently Short and Hawn became best friends at a grand dinner.

But then this is India, land of the finest snobs money can buy. At another rich party, six of us, including Pablo, journalists and a publisher, were ejected by rough minders, only to be asked back in by the host, some kind of heritage Prince. One dazzling woman was wearing what looked like a jewelled sleeve on one arm. I touched it and asked if it was silver. "No," she snapped contemptuously: "White gold, actually, and real diamonds." Dear oh dear.

At another party for Delhi fashion week, in a faux Mediterranean restaurant, lovely elfins high on cocaine and/or cocktails were flitting and falling over as seedy men watched and touched their helpless flesh. Oh, these parts of India shine all right, lit up by millions of willing acolytes of globalised mass culture. They have no sense of history, no core identity.

The poor, meanwhile, have been swept out of the capital - I only saw a handful of beggars - their shanties bulldozed in much the way Mugabe has ordered in Zimbabwe. Only two years ago, Delhi seemed to be a place of more mix, complexity and pity than it was this time.

I went with an activist friend and his wife to sit with patient protesters, displaced by vast multinational dam-building projects, victims whose voices are ignored by the powerful. Crammed under a single sheet of sacking to keep out the burning sun, their eyes were bright. Dozens of blue butterflies suddenly arrived to sit on sweaty heads and discoloured turbans, a moment of surreal beauty. This is where Arundhati Roy comes everyday, and others like her.

What is heartening is that unlike the UK, the intellectual classes and the newspapers have not rushed to embrace brash new India. They have watched the descent into consumer psychosis in the UK and US, the environmental and emotional devastation that results from a life of too much. They detest and resist the surrender of Indian politics to US manipulations.

Listening to such intelligent Indian sceptics at the festival gave many of us hope that the projected greatness of New India may come from her ability to provide an alternative to the inevitable, the end of history as the globalisers see it. And yes, I came back full of spirit once again.


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