The last email that I got from the organizers of the South Asian Festival of Sufism and Buddhism (the word Buddhism continued to be spelled with one d throughout) clearly specified the hotel, gave the detailed address – apart from the street number, the metro pillars where it was located (98-99) – as well as phone numbers of the hotel.
The Jet Air flight reached Delhi well on time and I hoped to reach the hotel in Karol Bagh, sign in, dump my bags and go off, shopping or tasting the street fare in this busy shopping centre. But easier said than done. Despite the detailed directions, my pre-paid taxi driver had difficulty locating the hotel. When I requested him to call the numbers on the copy of the email I had with me, he said there was no response. Finally, by asking passersby and auto drivers, he managed to reach Hotel Swati. I heaved a sigh of relief. Then, I noticed, to my utter horror, the sign “Closed” on the front door. How can it be closed, I thought. Only yesterday I received my last e-mail with instructions to hand over my boarding pass to Mr Sethi. Previously, we had always got a couple of contact numbers of people in FOSWAL (Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature), one of the organizers of the festival – the other was Sahitya Akademi. This time, all I had were several numbers of the hotel. Had it been evening, I would have panicked. But it was a glorious afternoon in spring.
I stepped into the restaurant adjacent to the hotel. Did they have any idea about the South Asian Festival to be held at Sahitya Akademi from the next day? The manager shook his head. The place had been shut down ten days ago because of a fire in which 14 persons lost their lives. There was no point showing them the email I had because it only had numbers of the hotel that was closed. Strangely enough, the restaurant was associated with Swati Hotel – in fact I saw one of the staff hovering around with a Hotel Swati badge. (And afterwards, when the very kind gentleman who gave me a cup of tea and helped me connect to their wi-fi gave me his card, I learnt he was the General Manager of Swati Hotel.)
Luckily for me, someone from Sahitya Akademi was contacted and I was referred to the hotel the delegates had been switched to. So off I went, hoping that the rest of the festival would be calmer.
However, there was always something a little crazy about what used to be called SAARC Conferences until the undeclared war between India and Pakistan changed the nomenclature to South Asian and the word Conference to Festival. (Anyone interested in a vivid picture of what these conferences/ festivals were/are like should read Kaiser Haq's “At a Mad Dreamer's 'SAARCUS': The 11th Saarc Writers' Conference, 7-9 Oct 2004, published in The Daily Star on Oct 23, 2004.)
Ms Ajeet Cour, the brains and spirit behind the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature, is 84 years old. Despite her age and her poor health, she still holds the reins. She calls herself “Khana Badosh,” the title of her autobiography that won her a Sahitya Akademi award (“Khana Badosh” translates as gypsy). She has had tragedies in her life, but still hopes that one day there will be peace, that one day what she was forced to rename South Asian will once again be SAARC, that Pakistani writers and folk musicians will once more participate in her events..
In 2004, Haq described her frenetic energy: “Ms Ajeet Cour is a phenomenon, more like a force of nature than a real person. Diminutive for a sardarni, she is a bundle of manic energy, which is directed with ruthless determination in the service of her hobby horses. At seventy she possesses more vigour and vim than a pair of healthy thirty-five year-olds.”
Fifteen years later, Ms Cour has become slower and frailer, but her determination is there still. She does not listen to others easily. There is always “a mild disorder” in her events, call them conferences or festivals. Thus she gives six minutes to poets to read and ten minutes to paper readers for their presentations. How can one do adequate justice to Sufism or Buddhism in ten minutes?
And yet, surprisingly, her conferences/ festivals have always been inspiring. It was at a folk festival organized by Ms Cour that I saw malangs from a shrine in Lahore dancing a whirling dervish dance, at another that I saw a choreographed performance of the relationship between Shams of Tabriz and Rumi, and at yet another that I first heard Parvati Baul.
For the past several years, FOSWAL had been arranging a Writers Conference/Festival in February and a Folk Conference/Festival in October.
Last year, Ms Cour had to have an eye operation. This led to the postponement of the Writers Festival scheduled for February to October. The October Folk Festival was accordingly shifted and became the South Asian Festival of Sufism and Buddhism this February.
Not qualified to speak about either Sufism or Buddhism, I still could not refuse Ms. Cour's gracious invitation. So I went. And yes, apart from the chaos on the day of my arrival, I got more out of it than I gave.
At the inaugural, I was privileged to hear brilliant speeches by Dr. Karam Tej Singh Sarao and Professor Ashis Nandy. Mr Muchkund Dubey, former High Commissioner to Bangladesh, recited two of his Hindi translations from his bilingual book on Lalon Shah, published by the Sahitya Akademi.
And through the three-day festival, I was overwhelmed by some of the poetry I heard and the poets I met. There was Suharshani Dharmaratne, from Sri Lanka, who recited two poems, “Why, Amma, Why Do They Call It Black July” and “Even on Valentine's Day We Quarrelled”; Tenzin Tsundae, a Tibetan refugee, whose experience of homelessness brought tears to my eyes; Kala Ramesh, staunch vegan and haiku poet, who recited her evocative haiku, among them,
what I make of dreams
holds the moon
the rising sun between
Dr. Anand Kumar, who used to be closely associated with FOSWAL read two stanzas of a baramasa (what we call baromashi) from his translation of Padmavat, written in 1540 by the Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in Awadhi. I wondered how Alaol, the court poet of the King of Arakan, managed to lay his hands on Jayasi's poem to write his Padmavati in 1652. And how did Alaol manage to read Awadhi?
The festival left me hungry for more. Mr Alim-ur-Rahman Khan's ten-minute brilliant introduction to Sufism – perhaps the most detailed of the festival – made me want a Sufi conference in Bangladesh. And, yes, inspired by Ms Ajeet Cour, I would like it to be a mix of papers and performance, where Baul and Maijbhandari songs could be presented as well as versions made popular by rock bands along with scholarly discussions on Sufism.
Post script: Dr Kaiser Haq mellowed down enough to attend another SAARC Literary Conference as an aftermath of which he edited Padma Meghna Jamuna: Modern Poetry from Bangladesh (Delhi: SAARC Foundation, 2009).
Niaz Zaman is Advisor, Department of English, Independent University, Bangladesh.