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Liturgy of the Ajiaco

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In the maestro's shadow: Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
In the maestro's shadow: Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

ANITA NAIR

Impressions of the Bogota Book Fair

But what I was to truly delight in was the gallery of Colombian writers and their own coming to terms with the holy cow of Colombian literature: Garcia Marquez.

THE hardest thing was trying to stay awake. I tried to convince myself: My poor body was still ticking to Indian time and it protested at being forced to look and seem intelligent when it ought to have been asleep. And yet, if the utterances were not as weighty or ponderous or if the translation of what the other writers read wasn't so halting or faltering, I would stand a better chance. Instead as I bit down yawn after yawn that made me almost swallow my tongue, I tried to gather myself together.

At the opening

This was Bogota, Colombia and I am sitting at the opening of the writers' congress at the Bogota Book Fair. Topic: Literature and the city. Or, was it sex and the city. No, that's the name of a TV series. I think of the aleph. In a short story, Borges describes it as "one of the points in space that contains all points... Where without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world seen from every angle co exist."Unfortunately this was not and I told myself that writers very seldom make good public speakers. They tend to twist their thoughts into incoherent knots that leave the listeners floundering as much as the writer himself or herself.I flicked through my pointers I made on the hotel pad. Earlier in the day, I had voiced my doubts, "How can I talk about a city I know nothing about? Or, its literature? Of which I know nothing about too?""Improvise," someone offered. I have always gone by the adage: When in doubt, don't discourse or declaim, just chat. And so that's what I did despite wanting to stand and stretch. And perhaps stare.

Vivid voices

And yet, the evening wasn't without a glimmer of hope. I am the kind of person who will recommend a restaurant even if only one of its dishes is worth eating. But amidst such ponderous babble at the congress, there did emerge some voices — clear, distinct and vivid. Hector Abad, Gonzalo Mallarino ... Suddenly Bogota came alive for me.Thus far I had seen very little of the city itself. The interiors of restaurants, public library auditoriums and the Botero and gold museum. If large-scale viewing of Botero's art confirmed what I have loved about his perspective, I was enchanted just as perhaps the Spanish conquistadors were by the sheer magnificence of the artwork in gold. But what I was to truly delight in was the gallery of Colombian writers and their own coming to terms with the holy cow of Colombian literature — Garcia Marquez.For me, one of the greatest attractions of Bangalore is its near absence of a literary elite. Bangalore has its writers; from playwrights to historians to critics to novelists to poets to essayists. Nevertheless each one is an island and one is in no danger of them merging to form factions or power groups. And thus of one ever having to be part of a coterie or a clique.

Numerous writers

I have never met as many writers as I did in Bogota. And, until I read them, I will never be able to follow the trails of their imagination. So for now I have to be content with first impressions. In many ways, they are like the country itself. A bouquet garni of land and mindscapes. From quiet, shy, blending-into-the-wall kind to the gregarious and flamboyant types to the mellow content-in-their-skins ones to youthfully aggressive alpha males....At various public events the question would pose itself again and again in various shades. "Garcia Marquez and Magic Realism". What did they think? Was that the path to follow?' The writers, I discovered, reacted in varying degrees of diplomacy. From the extremely cautious to the ambivalent to the almost rebellious "that was then, this is now". At one point, I thought of stepping in and helping a hapless writer. I had my standard response ready: In 1955, Angel Flores applied the term magic realism to Spanish-American writing describing it as 19th century realism dotted with fantastical moments beyond spontaneous human combustion; a `Dickens with weirdness' if you please. Later the definition extended to include folkloric elements. Except that I was sure that the response would be who the f.... is Dickens?Besides how do you translate `weirdness' into Spanish without making it sound like an enviable state of mind to be trapped in? So I retreated behind silence and let them cope. How do they do it? I wondered. Stomach this question without letting rancour show. For instance, how does someone like Spinoza, referred to as the maestro, live under the behemoth shadow of a writer who doesn't even live in Colombia any more.I used to think that it was challenging to be a writer in India. But it must be bloody awful to be one in Colombia where the public, reading or otherwise, don't seem to want to see beyond Garcia Marquez. As writers, all of us harbour this delusion that we have created this unique masterpiece, which the whole world ought to be giving its right arm and leg to read and critics ought to be queuing up to review and bookstores ought to buy by truckloads. It must hit an author, any author hard: That you are merely part of a process; that in the assembly line, you are merely a few grams of recycled paper and printers' ink. And to top it all, you have to contend with the Ajiaco-like legendary status of Garcia Marquez.The Ajiaco, for the uninitiated, is a meaty stew made of corn, potatoes, chicken and served with white rice, cubes of avocado, capers and chilli mixed with coriander and onion. Once a staple but now merely talked about with fond nostalgia, the Ajiaco these days is only seen at public banquets and an occasional old-fashioned Sunday lunch. This liturgy of the Ajiaco, if only it would ever pause for a moment, there would be so much more scope to delight in the high notes of other Colombian fare.The explosion of a samosa-like crusty empanada in the mouth or the quiet content that the maize biscuit, the arepa, evokes. The seriously exotic tamarindo juice or the excess of cuajada con melao, cottage cheese with sugarcane syrup. Or merely the wholesome eggish fleshiness of the plain avocado.Something tells me that these are the books I want to read and the books that ought to be read.


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