When Jallikattu wished it were one of Hemingway’s muses

When I stepped inside the Café Iruña at the Plaza del Castillo of Pamplona, a typical small town in the north-east of Spain, it was absolutely in the spirit of following the Century-old footsteps of the legendary American Nobel-laureate Ernest Miller Hemingway, one of the undisputed icons of twentieth-Century literature. Certainly you can’t miss Hemingway in Pamplona, but this café is very special. Ever since the 24-year-old young Hemingway, then a reporter of Toronto Star newspaper, came to Pamplona for the first time in 1923, he spent many hours in this café drinking and chatting, even when he returned to the town again and again thereafter. And, what’s more, he immortalised this café through his first and finest novel The Sun Also Rises, which, again, was written from his personal experience of a Spanish summer in 1925 and published in the following year. The working title ‘Fiesta’ was kept in the publication of the novel in Britain and Germany. In The Sun Also Rises, a group of American expatriates travel to Pamplona from Paris, which Hemingway himself did in 1925, to enjoy bull-running, drinking and the lazy lifestyle of a Spanish small-town summer. The characters of this novel were depictions of Hemingway’s own friends. Lady Duff Twysden was portrayed as Lady Brett Ashley, and Brett Ashley’s ex-lover Robert Cohn was none other than Hemingway’s former boxing partner Harold Loeb.

Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter ego in this novel, says, “We had coffee at the Iruña sitting in the comfortable wicker chairs, looking out from the cool of the arcade at the big square.” During most of his visits in Pamplona, Hemingway stayed at the Gran Hotel la Perla, which is in the north-east corner of the Plaza del Castillo. One side of this hotel faces Estafeta Street, one of the main routes in the ‘running of the bulls’. The room Hemingway used to book here is now preserved in his name. Hemingway also stayed in Hotel Quintana a few times, which no longer exists — it was situated diagonally opposite to the café in the Plaza. “It was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs all the way around the square,” Hemingway wrote. However, the square has retained its arcades and possibly all its charms.

Like Jallikattu, the annual bull-taming festival of Tamil Nadu during Pongal festival, Pamplona has its famous San Fermín festival during July 6-14 every year. However, while Jallikattu is played in different towns of Tamil Nadu, the running of the bulls — the main attraction of the San Fermín festival, is restricted within only one place of one town — along a 930-yard street course, from Pamplona’s Santo Domingo street to the Plaza de Toros, up to the bullpen. Again, unlike Jallikattu, the spontaneity of San Fermín is diverse, and participatory in nature where lots of people also run with the bulls. This makes the festivity of San Fermín a distinctive, unique fiesta. People from different parts of the globe come here to party, and many want to feel the thrill while trying to survive the dangerous bull run.

Hemingway’s romance with this small Spanish town of the Navarra province started from his very first visit to this town, and it continued throughout his life. In 1959, when Hemingway, already a Nobel-laureate and Pulitzer prize–winner by then, came to Pamplona for the ninth and final time, he was astonished to see the town flooded by 40,000 tourists during the ‘Fiesta’ — mostly following the footsteps he himself laid down many years ago. Interestingly, in his own reminiscence, published posthumously in The Dangerous Summer in 1985, there were less than 20 tourists when he came there for the first time in 1923, and certainly it was just Hemingway himself who brought Pamplona and its ‘Fiesta’ concerning bull-running to the world.

 

The biggest difference between Jallikattu and San Fermín, in my opinion, is that the fiesta has been popularised, beyond the concerned locality, in other parts of the country as well as internationally, and consequently commands a great deal of tourism revenue.

 

And, today, more than 15 lakh tourists come to experience the ‘Fiesta’ of this small Spanish town which has only 2 lakh residents of its own. It is often argued that Hemingway loved Pamplona much more than the town loved him. However, even today, the town and its people are gladly making profit from this partly one-sided romance. Hemingway is everywhere in Pamplona — be it the Plaza del Castillo, or the life-size statues that stands in a wood-panelled side room of the Café Iruña and outside Pamplona bull ring.

Sitting on a bench at the Plaza del Castillo, I contemplate the bonding that must have taken place between the young American and the Spanish town — the magic which induced the great author towards his life-long romance with this small town. Spaniards, in my experience, are among the most lively people on the globe. A part of that ‘life’, along with the lovely sun, bulls, fantastic coffee, wine, women, fishing — all might be responsible for the chemistry. In The Sun Also Rises, an enthusiastic Jake Barnes says, “It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on.” Hemingway, who was utterly obsessed with bravery and death, must have really taken to the lifestyle and culture of that part of the world. The enthusism about San Fermín was already big among the locals; Hemingway made it universal.

The lady representative at the tourism office of Pamplona gifted me a life-size poster of a photograph of the fiesta — bull-running along with white-dressed spontaneous people as the main protagonists. A depiction of such a scene can be seen in the Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The bulls that run in San Fermín festival are then exposed to death in the bull-fighting that follows, a practice that is common to other parts of Spain too. What is unparalleled in Pamplona is the fantastic fiesta of the running of the bulls, called ‘encierro’. And, in my opinion, bull-running of Pamplona is a true parallel of the bull-taming sport of Jallikattu.

Both Jallikattu and the San Fermín fiesta have been embroiled in protests and legal battles in the recent past. There have been instances of death and heavy injury during the bull-taming and bull-running events in both the cases. However, lots of people believe that they deeply represent the culture of the concerned people. The biggest difference between Jallikattu and San Fermín, in my opinion, is that the fiesta has been popularised, beyond the concerned locality, in other parts of the country as well as internationally, and consequently commands a great deal of tourism revenue.

If bull-running is of special value among the residents of Pamplona, Jallikattu too, which dates back to more than two thousand years ago, is also very much associated with Tamil culture and social customs. There are plenty of mentions of Jallikattu in Tamil literature, ranging from Kalithogai, a Sangam anthology of 150 poems composed around 200 BC, to modern novels. Many Tamil movies have depicted Jallikattu as a symbol of masculinity and social status. The San Fermín festival of Pamplona was fortunate enough to get a passionate visitor like Ernest Hemingway who could successfully spread the ‘fiesta’ of San Fermín to the world through his indisputably powerful writings. Jallikattu can only rue the fact that it didn’t manage to find a Hemingway of its own.

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