Thursday, February 25, 2016

HLF Part 2

A festival of people and literature

If Mahesh Rangarajan, the environmental historian, was brilliant in his discourse on Nature and Nation, the anchor Aloka Parasher-Sen was a knowledgeable facilitator. The session left me, an ignoramus on the subject, thirsting for more, proving quite expensive as I bought every book by Mahesh Rangarajan available at the HLF bookstall.

The panel on Free Speech and Censorship was made memorable by Nayantara Sahgal’s gentle and supportive ways with the firebrand Maharashtrian Dalit writer Urmila Pawar, who was initially quite diffident about her lack of English. In this session and a later one, Pawar spoke of how all Dalit writing started out swearing angrily at God. She was not only the first Dalit woman writer from her part of the world , she was the first feminist author as well.

That evening I met my old friend George Abraham, blind, and one of the best communicators I have known,  in the hotel lobby. With him was Shakila Maharaj, a South African, also blind and a communicator. Though ready to drop at the end of a long day, I decided to wait up for George for a cup of coffe at the restaurant after he returned from his visit to a friend. George, a resident of Delhi,  and I go back a long way—since 2000 in fact, when he came to Chennai to organize the cricket  World Cup for the Blind and I interviewed him for the city portal Chennai Online. When we met around 11pm, it was well worth the wait, for George had stories to tell, stories of his exciting media ventures. He even produced a teleserial, Nazar ya Nazariya, stressing the need to empower the physically challenged. His Score Foundation helps people with disability and he is a proud man who has made light of his own disability, caused in childhood by an attack of meningitis.

George’s friend Shakila is a South African of Indian origin who lives in Durban, and speaks with an Irish accent, thanks to her early years in Ireland. Her husband Maharaj defied parental disapproval to marry her despite her disability. Shakila has had a successful career in the fashion business and now does audio descriptions for films so that the blind can enjoy them in the theatre. She has also written a film script, a comedy with three blind men and their loves, with a dash of mystery thrown into it.

If meeting George after a long gap was thrilling, with Shakila, it was instant friendship. It felt great to be accepted with total trust by someone you have just met. The three of us really hit it off.

George’s panel Through the Lens’s Eye had another member, Partho Bhowmick, who incredibly teaches the visually impaired photography. The panel was moderated by
L Subramani, a blind journalist who guided the conversation expertly, bringing out the best in each panellist. When I asked a question during Q&A time, Subramani stunned me—and the audience—by declaring that he once worked under me and that he owed much of his success to me! I, of course, remembered that he had been a sports correspondent reporting to me at Chennai Online. I was not only embarrassed but moved to tears as Subramani dwelt on my sterling but entirely imaginary qualities. I accosted him immediately after the discussion, and said, “Why did you do what you did? You know I never had a kind word for you when we worked together. I was always pulling you up for some lapse or other, even accusing you of laziness.´ “That is what you did for me sir,” Subramani replied. “You made me an honest, hard working journalist not taking advantage of my disability.”

Through the Lens’s Eye was accompanied by a delightful side show orchestrated by the lovely Anju Khemani—who runs the organization Drama for the Deaf—and a number of deaf members of her theatrical troupe, for whose benefit she was signing furiously throughout the session.

The next afternoon, Shakila and Partha Bhowmick were in conversation with Anju Khemani. Both explained their work most interestingly to  a most attentive audience.

I normally do not ask questions at seminars and panel discussions, rather afraid of making a fool of myself, but this time I could not resist the temptation, only I was a bit late off the starting block. Anju said, “We are already running late, but I will allow this one question from a special guest, who took a special interest in a blind employee. In fact, I am going to invite Mr Ramnarayan to HLF again next year.”

It was all rather heady, not at all what I had expected at HLF. Little did I realise, though, that more pleasant surprises were in store on the morrow.

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