last post from India – rubbing shoulders with a Bollywood star in Bhubaneswar

What brought me to this city, little known outside India, and the capital of the state Orissa, was an invitation from the local university Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT). Out of the blue, the director of external relations Dr. Prasad got in touch last year, inviting me to attend their annual writer’s festival. I would have loved to come, even just for the language: I was addressed as “esteemed Madam”. “On behalf of Kadamini Media Lt. Bhubaneswar, I would like to request your goodself to kindly consider gracing the National Level Writers’ Seminar as the Guest of Honour,” the invitation stated. But I couldn’t make it due to previous commitments. So they delayed the invitation for a year.

The seminar was due to take place on the morning of Jan. 6. When I arrived at Bhubaneswar airport on the evening of 4th, I was welcomed by a team of men, a few from the university and a few writers and I was presented with two bouquets of flowers. Then I was taken to a five star hotel. Holding onto my flowers, I was pleased with this treatment but also felt uneasy. At the time, I actually had little idea what to expect about the whole thing.

The next morning, I was taken to meet a lady editor of a popular family magazine, who is the sister of the founder Dr. Samanta of KIIT university, a well-known local character. Upon arrival, she handed me a bunch of flowers. I came to see that this is just the custom here.

The most interesting part of the morning tour was a school for the tribal children. Sixty two tribal groups live in the mountains and jungles in Orrisa, accounting for about 30% of the population. Most of them are too poor to send their children to school. Dr. Samanta, from a poor family himself, has set up a school for them. Now, 17,000 from pre-school to postgraduate, are studying here for free. The tribal people have their distinctive culture, expressed in painting, handicrafts and music. I thought some of the paintings done by the children are charming.

The afternoon was saved for sightseeing. After the madness of Mumbai and Calcutta, it was refreshing to see a delightful, laid-back city like Bhubaneswar. Capital of Kalinga Empire (7th to 11th century), the architectural legacy is the main attraction of the city. Unfortunately, some of the Hindu temples don’t allow non-believers to come in. Once even Indra Ghandi was denied entry because her husband was a Parsi. In one of the major temples, foreigners can only stand in a raised platform by the entrance, which is guarded by two lions with handlebar moustaches. There I watched with amusement how a semi-naked priest performed some kind of ritual in front of a crowd.

On the morning of the seminar, the wife and son of Dr. Prasade, my main contact point with KIIT University, turned up with yet another bouquet, a massive one. Then we were taken to a villa inside a hotel to meet a very famous Bollywood Kufung actor by the name Dharmendra Dewal who has appeared in over 300 films. In his early 60’s, the star still looks handsome with a big presence. But what did he get anything to do with the writers’ seminar? I asked my minder from the university after we left the villa. My minder replied that the star was also a guest of the honour because he is a producer and he writes scripts. In fact, he turned out to be the star of the show.

Soon we left the hotel for the university in a convoy, including the actor and ten of his body guards, three of his own, flown from Mumbai with him, and the rest hired locally, I was to learn. When we arrived, dozens of journalists and photographers and a large crowd were waiting by the gate. With a star’s poised air, Dewal waved and greeted the crowds and allowed time for photographing. As he was ushered towards to conference hall where the seminar was to take place, people fought to get close to him and his body guards pushed them away. More than any other nationalities, the Indians adore their stars and celebrities. The founder Dr. Samanta kept trying to drag me to the front, as a fellow guest, but it proved to be difficult. I thought the situation hilarious and I was only too happy to be in his shadow. It took a long while for us to walk through a tent where publishers displayed the books and magazines they produced. Quite a few people asked me to sign my name. I understand that my bio has been translated into Oriya, the official language of Orissa.

About ten writers were invited to sit on the stage. Several from other states in India and I was the only one from abroad. After the fuss of introduction and presenting flowers and gifts, the founder gave a lengthy speech. Several writers did their presentations before the star actor stole the show. Usually, there were fair amount of coming and going among the audience but the hall housing thousands of people went silent. Everyone hang every word he uttered. In his element, the actor spoke about ten minutes, which made people laugh and clap. I was right after him. It was a hard act to follow. But I tried my best. As requested by the organizer, I talked about my story, how I became a writer, also about the literary scene in China. The speaker after me was a turbaned poet from Punjab, a impressive man with an air of great dignity. He read out a poem which was inspired by his China trip a few years back. He dedicated the poem to me. After that, while the seminar was going on, I was taken to the backroom to be interviewed by various journalists.

Just as I was thinking I’ve done my dues, I was told to get myself ready at 3.45. How funny, I thought to myself, that I’ve become a dancing monkey, perform upon request. Actually I didn’t mind about the last one. We – the actor, myself, and a few writers, were taken to address the school of tribal children. All of them sat neatly in the school ground, clapping to welcome us, their faces blossoming to smiles of flowers. This time, we were told to speak for five minutes. I taught them how to say ni hao, talked a little about my story and said a couple of jokes. When I returned to my seat from the podium, the actor stopped me to congratulate me: “Good for you to tell the children such an inspiring story. It is important for them to get inspired,” he said, holding my hand. His hand is surprisingly soft for a kungfu actor. Maybe he does have a soft heart as people say.

I enjoyed my experience in Bhubaneswar not only because my ego was massage with flowers and such but there’s comforting thought that I might have inspired some children.

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