Diaries of a lit groupie: Saturday

Mumbai is always a bit of a social confusion. Each time I am there I have to decide that I am not seeing some people whom I would dearly love to see. But I ALWAYS see Paddy whom I have known since I was ten. Paddy and I were bonded at the waist as children, holed up in rooms reading, smuggling books in and out and having hysteria over lines and passages that no one else found as funny as we did. (Particularly Rupert Baxter screaming 'Heh! Muh!' instead of 'Help! Murder' in Something New.) These days Paddy and I read very different things but she is still book addicted. Her Mahim flat is overflowing with the latest fantasy novels. At one point the kitchen shelves were full of huge, shiny books, instead of spices and vessels, something I adored her for. On Saturday after stuffing our faces at Mondy's, Paddy, Snegum and I went to a discussion at Max Mueller.   This is where I was going to catch Suniti, I hoped.

When we got there the session had not started but standing in the dark corridor outside the hall looking sweet and professorial was St.Suniti herself. She has the rare kind of face that has smiled so much at some point that it no longer needs to. Even Snegum, who is inclined to leap and start at the sight of new people, fell in love with her because she looks like her favourite kind of Maharashtrian woman.

I grinned like a maniac and pounced on her. She looked alarmed and dragged me to a quiet corner so that I did not frighten the general public. When I revealed my intentions she briskly fixed up a time slot and told me which areas were off-limits. I nodded and nodded and smiled and smiled and looked more incompetent and manic by the minute. The only thing that kept me focussed was her stunning voice.

And then it was off to the session. Its patently clear that these panel discussions are just there so that writers don't look stupid standing around while we stare at them. No one expects anything to come out of them but this one wasn't half bad. The panelists were Geoff Dyer, Blake Morrison, Esther Freud, Suniti Namjoshi and Toby Litt and they were going to tickle that dead horse --  writers, credentials, authority and responsibility. Everyone was neat and clever and said bright, politically correct things. Toby Litt was particularly funny, squashing an IIT, Powai type boy in the audience who announced that a) fantasy is easy to write and b) people like Douglas Adams and Issac Asimov  had the proper credentials to write because they knew science. Toby made everyone laugh by saying, 'I must disagree. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide is about being English in outer space.'  Snegum and I were fascinated in an adolescent manner by one of the writers whose left wrist was bandaged.

It was illuminating to watch the rest of the panel when Suniti began to speak. She was the only non-white person on the panel discussing authenticity. Almost as if a switch had gone off, the rest of the panel had polite, near-blank expressions. Fun to watch.

After the panel Suniti found me again and asked me to go find a copy of her new book Sycorax before the interview. Aargh! Shock and dismay because I had thought I had read everything available in the country. Snegum and I scooted down to the Oxford Bookstore and demanded a copy. It was there in the stocks but wrongly categorised in children's literature. None of the assistants could assist, insisting that the talk that was on at the time prevented them from getting to the bookshelves where the book surely was. The talk was between Amit Chauduri and Ian Jack. Amit Chauduri sounded bright and like someone I would like to read. However I was completely and utterly distracted by the presence of a white-haired man who could be perhaps Himself, The Mr Mehrotra. Now I could only will the bloody session to get over so that I could find Sycorax and stare like sycophant.

After the session was over, I saw a young chap talking to the person who could be Mr Mehrotra. (I have only seen this one picture of him on a twenty year old  book.) After they finished their conversation and Could-Be-Mr.Mehrotra turned away I went to the young chap and asked him. He was super sweet and offered to introduce me. Five seconds later I was gazing stupidly into the face of coolness. He asked, 'Oh what have you read?'  I beamed.  'Everything! Particularly The Absent Traveller''. "Oh I am reading some of that tomorrow. ' I beamed once more and took myself off.

Ten minutes later it was clear that the bookstore had no way of finding Sycorax and I had less than an hour to find the book and get to the venue. I charged towards the exit, hoping to round up Snegum on the way. Coming up the aisle was Mr M. I grinned breezily and said. 'Dont worry, I am leaving so that you dont think I am stalking you.' He laughed and said, 'Come here. I want to talk to you.' He briskly asked me what I did and where I lived. I told him about moving to Delhi recently and added that one of my plans when moving had been to go to Allahabad, stand outside his house and stare at him with binoculars. Quick as a whip, he replied, 'This is easier, isn't it?' My heart melted and I needed Snegum's support to get out and find a cab.

Onto Crossword where the book was found in five minutes flat by a hot young man. Skimming wildly as we went we got into the next cab trying to get ourselves to Phoenix Mills in time where Suniti was due to read at the Indian launch of a Brit litjournal.

At the best of times, malls make me ill but nothing beats the immense grossness of taking away work from thousands of mill workers and building something for lotus-eaters and then shamelessly retaining the original name. Or so I thought. RR ,who wrote a play about Mumbai's textile mill workers told me that last week someone had suggested to him that he stage his play COTTON 56, POLYESTER 84 in the middle of the mall. RR,  no longer looks outraged, just tired, says that the mall's designer thought it cool to keep pictures of defunct looms and photos of some of the workers who lost their jobs, as part of the decor.

The hunt for the venue ended in a huge and scary boutique which had furniture, books and bird cages all meant to make one's house look more interesting. Snegum and I hung around, reasonably entertained by eavesdropping on someone instructing all the waiters on etiquette for the cocktail party after the launch. 'I want you all to look cheerful. Smile. Keep offering the guests refills...' He made it sound so good, we wanted to be cocktail waiters.

Finally Suniti arrived looking hassled by the scary people whose launch it was. She was brisk and sweet and funny. I was a little disoriented discussing her openly political writing in this wierd place. I barely got ten minutes in all and was interrupted by a rather smug Farooq Dhondy who was miffed when Suniti did not recognise him. 'Dilip Chitre?', she asked in a tentative manner offending him considerably. Then she compounded her error by asking him whether he had seen Dilip Chitre, she needed someone with good Marathi. When Farooq offered himself she said 'No, no. My Marathi is as good as yours. I want excellent Marathi.' I tried to hide under the table at this point.

Interview done, Snegum and I fled. The next day was for poetry and at least a short visit to the beach.


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