Room service

Published in May 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveller India

Hyatt Regency Delhi
Hyatt Regency is centrally located at the hub of Bhikaji Cama Place.
Hyatt-Regency-Delhi-PRINT-16.jpgLong stays
Location: Centrally located in the commercial hub of Bhikaji Cama Place
Look: Native sandstone structure inspired by the Gupta age; interiors in cream, brown, purple and grey
Crowd: Mainly leisure and corporate travellers, hip young entrepreneurs
Rooms: All rooms and suites have free Wi-Fi; there are also fully equipped serviced apartments for long stays
Eating and drinking: While China Kitchen does excellent Asian, La Piazza offers Italian
Best thing: The instant feedback via the dedicated WhatsApp number
Worst thing: Some rooms need an update (ask for a newly renovated room)
Price: Doubles from Rs10,000

JW Marriott Hotel New Delhi Aerocity
The 523 rooms help host large events.
Location: A few minutes’ drive from the international airport
Look: Steel and glass outside, an understated palette of light oak, dark wood and olive inside
Crowd: Think in-transit guests, large groups and well-known names such as P Chidambaram
Rooms: 523 rooms help host large events. Female guests get rooms near the lifts, in case of an emergency
Eating and drinking: K3 for Indian, Italian and Canton fare. Akira Back is a superb Japanese-Korean restaurant
Best thing: Watching planes take off and land from runway-facing rooms
Worst thing: There’s no neighbourhood to speak of, as most of Aerocity’s still being built
Price: Doubles from Rs15,000

The Leela Palace New Delhi
The Leela Palace New Delhi is located in the high security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Leela.jpgShort stays
Location: In the high-security diplomatic area, close to Rashtrapati Bhavan
Look: Murano glass chandeliers, Turkish carpets, exquisite flowers, modern Indian art on the walls
Crowd: Those who like to work and play, and royals such as the king of Morocco
Rooms: The 254-key hotel has three suites with plunge pools, which overlook the city
Eating and drinking: French-Italian gourmet restaurant Le Cirque and MEGU for modern Japanese
Best thing: The Library Bar (for whiskies and cigars), which serves till 1am
Worst thing: Being popular for weddings, it can get crowded and noisy
Price: Doubles from Rs20,000

Trident, Gurgaon
The Trident, Gurgaon is close to several major company offices.
In transit
Location: Close to several major company offices in DLF Phase II and III, including TCS and Microsoft
Look: A blend of Moroccan, Mughal and Rajasthani styles; plenty of natural light and water bodies
Crowd: Corporate travellers, including young entrepreneurs
Rooms: The plush rooms and suites offer lovely views of the garden or the reflection pool
Eating and drinking: Three restaurants, including Konomi for modern Japanese; it stocks a range of sakes and shochus
Best thing: The heated outdoor pool, especially in winter
Worst thing: There are few dining or nightlife options in the immediate vicinity
Price: Doubles from Rs24,000

My bookshop won’t tell you what people are reading: A bookseller’s lament as he waves goodbye

Published on 9 August, 2015 in

An interview with Ajit Vikram Singh, owner of Delhi’s beloved Fact & Fiction bookshop, which has announced its closure.

DSC_0934It is around five in the evening when I reach Fact & Fiction, one of New Delhi’s oldest independent bookstores, whose owner, Ajit Vikram Singh has announced his decision to shut shop. For every booklover in Delhi, it’s a time to mourn, however briefly.

There was a time when I too, like many others, used to frequent the bookshop, at times to buy books, and at others, when I ran out of money, to simply hang around and browse. Today, as I sit across the table from Singh, poking him with questions that he is probably tired of hearing and answering, I am amazed the irony of my own much-delayed visit. We have all delayed so much that the shop has to close down. Over to Singh.

Response to stimuli
“Running a bookshop is a very organic thing,” begins Singh, “you don’t stuff it full of books that you like. I started Fact & Fiction back in 1984 with very few books. When those books sold, I put more of the same kind on the shelf. It was a response to stimuli and that’s how it grows. You put the best books on the subject that works. This wasn’t the mix when I started – it kept changing over the years.

“It’s been a long time coming. I didn’t want to lose interest in books till the very end; I was still ordering books and I was still trying to stay engaged, I mean I can’t think of it as the end. It’s not a business, it’s my life. I’d hate to bid adieu but I don’t know, I don’t see any space, I don’t see any other avenue.

“The book trade doesn’t seem to want bookshops like ours. Since all these e-tailers have come in, the book trade has just gone their way. They’ve extended all support, all help to them, put all their focus on them, and they’ve just let booksellers like us be. Let this event be a reminder to the trade that they’ve got to include and support everyone the best way they can.

“After thirty years, I think it is bad news for me too. Earlier, going to the bookshop was a regular affair. Obviously things have changed over this period of time. But till the shutters come down, I’ll keep ordering books.”

I urge him to begin from the beginning.

Starting point
“I loved books and I wanted to do something with books. I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged reading. My father was an omnivorous reader. He read everything – from Batman comics to Chandrakanta, and from science fiction to philosophy. He was a great role model for me. My mother too was an avid reader and she read in Hindi.

“Buying books as a kid was one thing that I will always cherish. Personally, I went through several phases of reading. At times science fiction, other times occult, and a lot of non-fiction and history books too. People who start a bookshop think that they’ll spend all their time reading, but unfortunately, after being at the bookshop the whole day, when I go back home and pick up a book to read, I realise that sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

Where do old books go?
“Books in India are cheaper than anywhere else in the world. If price was such a big concern and the readership was so motivated, why isn’t there a second-hand book trade in India? This is a question that I’ve been asking myself for so many years now.

“Real estate prices are higher in New York and London, but all of these cities have a very healthy and thriving second-hand book culture. Here, either the book goes to the pavement or to the rag-picker, or – worst case scenario – gets pulped. There is no system of retaining the books.

“I’m told Calcutta has a College Street, but it’s all largely textbooks, and same is the case with the Daryaganj market. From among a thousand books you might find a handful of classics or contemporary fiction or non-fiction. Basically, the reading culture is not there. The education system in India does not promote reading as a thing of enjoyment. Reading shouldn’t be an ordeal but maybe it’s made to appear so.

“The kinds of books most Indians are buying are either related to their professions, motivational books, or quick reads. Or they keep oscillating between the seven or ten most-hyped books. They don’t have the time to discover or pursue other books.”

What triggered the decline in demand?
“Some of it is because retail sale in the area (where Fact & Fiction is located) has suffered collectively. Many shops have shut down, so there’s a general decline because of this. Secondly, parking has become chaotic and people don’t like to come here. The Vasant Vihar area in itself has become very a problem because accessibility has become very limited thanks to the new flyovers. It’s a combination of a lot of reasons.

“The presence of e-tailing has really grown leaps and bounds in a short time. They’re now advertising on television and newspapers. They create this uncertainty in the market, so that you always feel that something is available at a cheaper price, even if it is not. The psychology has changed, as a retailer you don’t feel confident. Consumers may not get a discount here and they may not get a discount online as well, but the attitude is such that they’re always looking for that elusive lower price.”

Change in buying patterns
“One cannot make out the trend of what everybody else is reading by looking at my bookshop, because it has a slant towards certain kind of books and I’m attracting those kinds of people. I have nothing against the new crop of authors, clearly people are reading them and therefore they sell, but the unfortunate part is that they don’t lead you to reading something else, something better.

“For example, the good thing about the Harry Potter series was that people who read Harry Potter went on to read books by JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and a whole genre of such authors. It dispelled a myth that children can’t read 600-page books, that they’ve got Attention Deficiency Syndrome.

“These books elevated the genre of fantasy fiction, and I am truly grateful to the Harry Potter series for that. But a lot of these contemporary Indian authors don’t seem to be leading readers anywhere else. They don’t get you into the process of discovering other new writer or of going after something else. They have a fan following and they just make their readers wait for their own books.”

Woodpecker Film Festival 2014 | Spotlight on social issues

Published on 5 December, 2014 in Mint

The second edition of the Woodpecker Film Festival will feature 64 movies on subjects like environment, gender, education, children, religion and culture

A still from 'Rainbows are Real', directed by Ritesh Sharma

A still from ‘Rainbows are Real’, directed by Ritesh Sharma

Indian cinema turned 100 last year, and while the centenary was celebrated with festivities focusing on Bollywood, two former print journalists—Narender Yadav and Tanvi Rustagi—put together a team to do something different. They launched the three-day Woodpecker Film Festival in the winter of 2013 as a dedicated platform for documentaries and short films focusing on contemporary socio-economic, developmental and cultural issues.

“Besides Bollywood, many other genres are part of cinematic traditions in India, but they got hardly any mention in the celebrations of 100 years of cinema. We wanted to put the spotlight on diverse works produced all across India. This included films and documentaries, as well as advertisements about socially relevant issues,” says Yadav.

This year’s edition of the Woodpecker festival will screen 64 films (in seven Indian languages) across 10 categories—including environment, forest and wildlife, livelihoods, gender, children, education, religion and culture. The festival will open on 11 December at the Capital’s India Habitat Centre with a short Marathi film called Babai. Directed by Amit Sonawane and Kavita Datir, the film chronicles the life of an 81-year-old woman porter and won the Best Short Documentary Award at the recently concluded International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala.

The Pad Piper directed and produced by Akansha Sood Singh, which won the National Award for Best Scientific Film in 2013, documents the story of the man who invented an affordable sanitary napkin for millions of under-privileged women, Candles In The Wind, directed by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl, reveals the reality behind farmer suicides in Punjab and the crisis that widows of these farmers are facing. In Search Of Destiny, directed by Aakash Arun, captures the life of coin divers who make a livelihood retrieving coins thrown into the Yamuna river as offerings to the gods. Ritesh Sharma’s Rainbows Are Real centres on the trials and tribulations of the transgender community.

The festival is one of the few film festivals across the globe that brings together a mélange of visual content on one stage. It is also a platform where student film-makers get to showcase their work. This year, 16 films made by student film-makers from the Film and Television Institute of India, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia and Delhi University will be screened. But the highlight is a masterclass on “Film Restoration And Preservation”, to be conducted by renowned film-maker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.

The Woodpecker Film Festival 2014 will be held from 11-13 December, at Gulmohar Hall, India Habitat Centre, Lodi Road. Timings vary. The masterclass will be held on 12 December, 3-5pm. For the schedule, call 41661868 or visit

Indies rock South Asian music

Published on 7 November 2014 in Mint

Fourteen bands will perform at the three-day festival starting today

In 2007, India assumed the chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) for the first time. It was also the year the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), in collaboration with the ministry of external affairs and performing and visual arts group Seher, organized the first South Asian Bands Festival in the Capital.

“We realized that the general Indian public, especially the youth, did not know enough about Saarc,” says Seher’s Sanjeev Bhargava, who designed the festival that has since become an annual event. “And what could have been better than the theme of music, which appeals to everyone? We ensured every artiste/band that has performed spoke a little about Saarc, so as to convey the message,” says Bhargava.

Bangladesh band Chirkutt

Bangladesh band Chirkutt

Music bands from the eight member nations of Saarc—India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka—came together for three days to present concerts. That year, well-known Indian bands like Indian Ocean, Advaita, Raghu Dixit Project, East India Company and Midival Punditz performed on the same stage as Strings from Pakistan, Anusheh Anadil and her band Bangla from Bangladesh, Stigmata from Sri Lanka and Zero Degree Atoll of the Maldives, among others.

The festival, initially organized at the Central Park in Connaught Place and now held at the historic Purana Qila, has become an event that fans of rock, metal and even Bollywood music (Shankar, Ehsaan & Loy and Salim-Sulaiman have been to the festival in previous years) pencil into their calendars. “Over the years, we’ve had audiences of all age groups, from 17-70, including people in wheelchairs,” says Bhargava.

This year, the festival will feature 14 bands, including Indian progressive fusion singer Kabul and his band Rock Veda, which will start the festival on Friday with its scintillating rendition of Indian classical and creative contemporary numbers. It will be followed by eclectic compositions by Chirkutt, the Bangladeshi epic-fusion band which will be performing in India for the first time. They will be followed by musical soundscapes by the New Delhi-based band Mrigya and textured melodies by Pakistan’s Zebunissa Bangash, best known for her Coke Studio performance and recent stint with Bollywood tracks in films like Madras Café and Highway.

Other outfits that will perform over the weekend include The Forsaken, a Bhutanese heavy metal band that mostly plays covers of songs by well-known rock bands like Metallica, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and AC/DC. Success, a rock and electronic music band from the guest country France, will conclude the festival on Sunday.

The South Asian Bands Festival will be held from 7-9 November, 6pm onwards, at Purana Qila, Mathura Road. Click here for the schedule. . For details, call 9873798874.


Stamp of creativity

Published on 13 September in The Hindu Business Line

Artist CR Pakrashi’s memoir describes the birth of stamps, 56 in all, on his drawing board

Chitta Ranjan Pakrashi is 94 years old. We meet him at his Kailash Colony residence in New Delhi over a typical Bengali mid-morning snack of tea and Marie biscuits. We are seated in his large living room, where his desk is overflowing with pencils, paintbrushes, drawing sheets and books. He finishes his tea and points to two huge frames on a wall that grandly display the 56 commemorative stamps he has designed over the last 50 years.

“I came to Delhi in 1945 after graduating from Government School of Arts and Craft, Calcutta. I was employed as an industrial designer by the Ministry of Commerce. Stamp designing happened completely by coincidence,” says Pakrashi.

CR PakrashiIn his 10th year in Delhi his eye caught a government advertisement inviting postal stamp designs for the 2,500th anniversary of Lord Buddha. Confident he had the skills, Pakrashi delved into the mechanics of stamp designing. He explored the various representations of Lord Buddha without actually showing the face or figure. He won first place for his symbolic design of the Bodhi (banyan) tree with Mohenjo-daro seals under a moonlit night — to denote that it was on such a night that the Buddha attained nirvana. This work fetched him the first of three national awards.

Pakrashi’s memoir, A Stamp Is Born (Niyogi Books), recounts several interesting anecdotes from his five-decade career. While the Jai Bangla stamp (1973) is a glimpse into his childhood in pre-independent Bangladesh, the original design of the Gandhi centenary stamp (1969) landed him in religion-related controversy. And while Mangal Pandey’s sketch in the 1984 stamp created to honour India’s freedom struggle raised doubts about its authenticity, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi’s portraits (1973) invited debates about copyright issues.

“A lot of study and artistic precision went into the designs. It took me days, and sometimes months to craft the stamps because I didn’t rely on anyone for the research. I created multiple drafts until I reached a design that made me happy before submitting it to the postal department,” he says.

His research included visiting the Ramakrishna Mission in New Delhi for reference material to commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s historic Chicago address, and spending hours in the Nehru Museum and Library and Gandhi Darshan Museum for a suitable design for the freedom struggle stamp.

Postage stamp designing is a unique art form with close links to a nation’s heritage and history. It requires not only visual skill but also the ability to capture the central theme within a 3.55 x 2.50 frame — the standard print area of a commemorative stamp. From carrying relevant and pithy messages from the issuing country to the rest of the world, to serving the everyday purpose of delivering mails, stamps command a following all their own. While e-mails may have overtaken handwritten letters in utility, Pakrashi is certain the postage system will never die out.

Meanwhile, his creations will continue to capture the nation’s imagination: the 1985 stamp for the Indian National Congress’s centenary bearing portraits of all the 60 Congress presidents till that date, a set of stamps to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations (1995), the stamp to mark the opening of one lakh post offices (1968), and the stamp in honour of Ustad Bismillah Khan (2008), among many others. “Art never loses its charm, and this form remains exclusive. I hope my book will be of use to philatelists, designers, art students and the general public,” says the veteran stamp-maker.

Tribute to Roald Dahl

Published on 4 July, 2014 in Time Out Delhi

Kids get an opportunity to enact Roald Dahl’s works, says Time Out

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl

There are few writers who could grip the imagination of children and adults as well as Roald Dahl. Best loved for his books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and The Witches, the former RAF pilot took up writing after he almost died in a fighter plane crash in 1942 in World War II. Not everybody may know that he also wrote the screenplays for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Bond film You Only Live Twice. While convalescing in England with a fractured skull, he would complain of severe headaches and blackouts. Dahl would also have strange dreams, which he would later attribute as the inspiration behind his first collection of short stories, Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying.

To honour the magic of his work, the unexpected and menacing twists to his stories and the fantastical elements, which left the ageless reader wide-eyed in wonder and disbelief, Cynosure India, a local theatre production house is organising a month-long workshop called The Summer Factory for children aged above eight this fortnight. In an email interview, Nitya Kukreja, founder of Cynosure India, told us what’s in store for children.

What works of Roald Dahl will you be focusing at?
While every one of Roald Dahl’s works is a treasure, for this workshop, the focus is on extracts from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches. Each story is a personal favourite and my aim is to work on the confidence and skills of each child.

Tell us about the theatre exercises, concepts and ideas that the kids will be introduced to.
We have great fun imagining and portraying scenes and portions of the books. For example, we try and recreated how the “Ladder-less Window-Cleaning Company” in The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me would work; how the chocolate factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory really functions with all the oompa loompas; or perhaps, how witches sit together or go about collecting various funny ingredients for their magic potions in The Witches. These will be accompanied by an amalgamation of voice exercises, breathing techniques, music and movement, which comprise the workshop and lay special emphasis on diction and pronunciation.

Take us through the workshop.
The children will be encouraged to work on selected scenes from the books. This will provide a basic framework for them to create their own dialogues, songs and improvisations using Dahl’s magical characters… which we will incorporate into one final performance.

What in your opinion is the beauty of Dahl’s children’s stories?
How he could put himself in their shoes and think like them.

Is there a screening process for kids who wish to participate?
There’s no screening. I believe we’re all here to learn. An enthusiasm for acting is all the children need to be part of the workshop.

The Summer Factory is on from Sat July 5 at the India Habitat Centre.

Fun in fundamentals

Published on 9 May, 2014 in Time Out Delhi

Forget textbooks. The Nehru Learning Centre for Children & Youth put the zing back into learning.

Learning by rote can be boring for kids. The Nehru Learning Centre for Children & Youth’s new programme plans to alleviate this daily chore by incorporating fun activities for kids, such as playing with puppets, listening to stories or simply appreciating the simple things in life.

Currently spearheaded by documentary filmmaker, writer, teacher and former Time Out Delhi Kids editor Samina Mishra, NLCCY, which was founded in 2007, has been organising open activities and events for children. It sets out to achieve all that government-funded schools cannot or don’t do, primarily due to shortage of funds. The centre offers an interactive space for children outside their scheduled school hours, where they interact and work with writers, filmmakers and teachers. This summer, four engaging workshops, each five days long, will see youngsters from different schools and backgrounds come together under one roof to learn something new. The “Crafts with Seeds, Pods and Leaves” workshop, on from May 19, will be conducted by illustrator and craftsperson Indu Harikumar. The “Glove Puppetry” workshop, conducted by Katkatha Puppet Arts Trust, will focus on how to make and manipulate glove puppet characters. Two other workshops – “Shadow Puppetry” and “Matka Planetarium” – are slated for the month end and beginning of June.

“The centre’s mandate of reaching out to those who have little access to cultural resources is a critical one,” said Mishra. “Access to knowledge and cultural resources is imperative in bridging inequality and creating room for social mobility. On the one hand, we have large numbers of children who may be enrolled in schools, but in real terms are divorced from this kind of access. And on the other, we have middle-class and elite children who are increasingly growing up in compartmentalised lives with little awareness of the lives of those other than themselves.” Mishra has been working with NLCCY since August 2013. Working in conjunction with Mahesh Rangarajan, director of The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library and the team, Mishra conceived the current programming structure.

The centre works with around 40 NDMC schools and transport is provided to all child­ren, whenever there’s a programme or a workshop. Currently, there are three ongoing programmes – “Story Cupboard” (Kitabon ka Pitara), “Talking to Teachers” (Shikshakon se Baatcheet) and “The World Around Us” (Hamari Duniya). “Our programmes are conceived to cover all aspects of communication and learning,” Mishra said. “The sessions are usually bilingual because most of the children aren’t well-versed with conversing in English. We intend to make the sessions as comprehensive as possible, but at the same time they’re also encouraged to communicate in English to facilitate the habit.”

“Story Cupboard”, a monthly programme, has writers, illustrators, storytellers and others involved with children’s books, interacting with kids by reading from a book, sharing a story or encouraging them to share theirs. “Talking to Teachers” includes presentations and workshops. “We have had a team of teachers from the Central Institute of Education, a maths workshop by the organisation, Jodo Gyan and a theatre workshop by Sukhesh Arora for this programme,” said Mishra. “The World Around Us” is also a bi-monthly programme where scientists and environmentalists present their work and interact with the children. The recently organised “Butterfly Walk” with Surya Prakash who teaches at JNU and a session on Himalayan ecology with Malavika Chauhan was a huge success. Each session is 90 minutes long, which includes time for a discussion and an activity – writing, drawing, or a quiz. Some well-known personalities who have participated in the programmes include poet and art critic Prayag Shukla, filmmaker Krishnendu Bose, academician Nandini Chandra, writer Subhadra Sen Gupta, writer and storyteller Anupa Lal, filmmaker Pushpa Rawat and environmental journalist Bahar Dutt.

NLCCY also plans to organise special events such as Wildlife Week, Children’s Day, and Dr Martin Luther King Day. Last month, they arranged a storytelling session of the book Sadako and the Thousand Cranes by Eleanor Coerr for International Peace Day, where children were taught to make origami cranes.

Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Hopefully, NLCCY can introduce kids to a world where dreams can really come true.