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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Chandigarh Diary: notes from the fringes of a litfest

The Rock Garden in Chandigarh

I have just returned from my second visit to Chandigarh. The Chandigarh Literature Festival (CLF), organised by the Adab Foundation, has a unique format which places critics — and books — ahead of authors' and publishers' pitches. Each critic is invited to nominate, in advance, a book they think should be more widely read. At the fest, she or he introduces the book and conducts a conversation about it with the author. As a critic, it's a real pleasure to choose a book I think is worth discussing, rather than having to be part of a "panel" of someone else's design. If you want to spend a relaxed weekend hearing books being discussed, without any queues, I recommend a trip to Chandigarh this time next year.

Last year, I was too caught up with the festival to see anything of the city, except to note that it was cleaner and greener — and emptier — than any Indian urban space I've seen. This year, my hotel was further out: a rather lonely bit of Panchkula opulence, ringed by fields and the dusty outcrop of the Morni Hills. (A taxi driver told one co-delegate that it was owned by the outgoing CM, though I have no evidence for whether this is true.)

I'm quite unused to spending all my time in a new place holed up in some building. And hanging out only with other non-locals always seems a bit of a cop-out. So I was thrilled that on the last day, the festival organisers offered us a spot of sightseeing. Escorted by three schoolteachers — among the CLF's shiny, happy volunteers — we went first to Sukhna Lake. It was a Sunday morning, and families were out in full strength. As were the geese. A whole gaggle of geese waddled up the ghat-like steps, honking loudly, and surrounded a father and son offering bits of roti. As soon as we climbed back up to the promenade, I saw a sign: "Do not feed migratory birds." I don't know if the geese were migratory or local, but I did see some brown-headed ducks keeping a dignified distance from the handouts.

The obligatory visit to the Rock Garden followed. We lined up behind a huge crowd of visitors: two school groups, plus a set of tourists from Maharashtra in royal blue caps. Expecting a vast expanse of parkland, I was surprised by the tightly-wound paths, often with high walls on either side. The average walker can squeeze through the narrow entrances if she stops and stoops — but only just. The crowd made it hard to get a sense of the space. But it revealed its contours in other ways: the ebb and flow of people forming little eddies and occasional blockages. As each passage opened out into a courtyard, pavilions, bridges, flowing water and, slowly, vast armies of figures began to appear — human, animal, bird.

The garden has an incredible history. In the early 1950s, a Roads Inspector for the Public Works Division started gathering debris from the villages that were being demolished to create Le Corbusier's planned city. Working alone, he transported these materials — cement, sand, iron slag and other waste, like broken crockery, ceramic tiles, and glass bangles — to a gorge within what was then a forest buffer zone, and began creating his strange secret wonderland. It took 18 years for Nek Chand's illegal creation to come to the notice of the city authorities. Officials considered demolishing the complex, but the garden soon gathered popular support and was opened to the public in 1976. The bureaucratic establishment even named Nek Chand "Sub-divisional Engineer, Rock Garden", giving him a team of 50 labourers to help finish the garden.

In a city that is the poster-child of high modernist planning, Nek Chand’s vision feels like a necessary corrective. A maze-like space in a city of straight lines, it is a marvellously surreal response to the symmetry imposed upon the city by Le Corbusier.

It didn't last. In 1990, a plan to bulldoze a VIP road through the garden was thwarted only by public demonstrations. Funding began to dry up, and in 1996, when Nek Chand was away on a tour of the U.S., the city withdrew its staff, resulting in acts of vandalism. Since then, the garden has been run by the Nek Chand Foundation, receiving some 5,000 visitors a day.

In a city that is the poster-child of high modernist planning, Nek Chand's vision feels like a necessary corrective. A maze-like space in a city of straight lines, it is a marvellously surreal response to the symmetry imposed upon the city by Le Corbusier. And the sculptures made from construction waste offer an eloquent comment on the process of creation — how the new demands the destruction of the old, and yet how the old can find unexpected new form.

The litfest had opened with a discussion of "30 years of Operation Blue Star", the only session filled with non-literary speakers: editors, journalists and bureaucrats. Several retired local bureaucrats grabbed the mike, angrily providing alternative versions of events. I was glad the litfest hadn't shied away from an important political commemoration, but it did seem clear that that the conversation had barely begun.

On my last day, I met a respected Chandigarh historian who said he had considered attending the festival, but hadn't for two reasons. One, he felt, it ought to be in the university or the museum, not in the Chandigarh Club, "where people only go to drink and play cards". And two, why was a litfest discussing Operation Blue Star? Clearly the new must try harder to work with the old. The city needs to channel the spirit of Nek Chand.

 
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