Diaries of a lit groupie: Sunday

Snegum and I threw ourselves out of the house fairly early since this was going to be a packed day full of poetry and we also wanted to meet some friends in any window of time that opened up. Also, Snegum was clear that there was no way she was going home without having wet her feet in the sea.

Listen, do you have any clue what one should wear at a lit-fest? I have figured what to wear at a party thrown by gay men anywhere, to a wedding in Chennai in summer, to a play in Delhi in winter, at the World Social Forum and to lunch in Tiruvalla. What does one wear as a lit-groupie in Mumbai where one does not want to frighten people, look like a wallflower or look like one is trying too hard?

SB, writer and publisher, was wearing a black summer shift, making her look relaxed and leggy. The very lovely Tishani Doshi wore a saree immediately reminding us that she is a dancer who trained under Chandralekha. The elder statesmen of the poetry world, AK Mehrotra, Dilip Chitre and Adil Jussawala all wore neat, unremarkable pants-shirt-waistcoat combinations. Eunice D' Souza was wearing her trademark saree and smirk, making me think me of the dozens of brilliant Eunice-in-the-classroom stories I have heard. The flotsam and jetsam like me wore blindingly bright and ridiculously cheerful Tshirts and dresses. Today's venue was Prithvi theatre and its cafe. I saw KK Menon going by, looking tall and calm. What did Prithvi regulars make of the writerly lot, all of whom looked vague and few of whom looked like they got out much?

FInally the readings began. Adil Jussawala was the first one to stand in the spotlight, stooped over his notebook. Jussawala read Colour Problems in the family and a few other poems in a clear, unpretentious manner letting the words float up to the listeners in the dark theatre. Suniti came next, and read a sequence Twelve Ways of Looking at a Giant from her new book Sycorax.  Wonderful poems in themselves,  the excellent timbre of Suniti's face and her permanently puckish expression  made everyone  laugh and relax.  I looked around and saw that the theatre was nearly full, always a happy sight. (I will post the Giant poems soon.)

A lot of ink has been spent in writing about Mumbai, some great, some indifferent.  Dilip Chitre has been one of the Bombay greats, one of our few bilngual poets, writing both in Marathi and English. The first few poems he read in his ringing voice, such as Gruesome Weather only made me wrinkle my groupie brow. However , when he got to Ruins, a poem he dedicated to Adil Jussawala, my hair stood on end. It is a poem that asks his fellow poet, what they have achieved from writing poetry and was it a task worth their lifetimes. (What reader did we bear our cross for?/ Even vultures have stopped visiting the towers). He goes on to ask if there were other people to take on the task (Is something about to happen? Is your baton about to freeze?)

I was still shivering when Deepankar Khiwani came on stage. Deepankar read in a fading, dolorous manner that instantly irritated me, partly because I was still stuck in the earlier poem, partly because I hate seeing arty agonies when people are reading poetry. Through a mist I heard him saying words like "concordant,' 'felicitous', 'disconnectedness' and at some point, 'equipoise.' I resigned myself to my fate by thinking of brownies at the cafe.

When Snegum and I came out we were suddenly aware that there was going to be an Open Mic event in the afternoon. Did I dare read at the Prithvi Cafe? Aargh. I put it out of my mind with the comforting thought that I was carrying no poems with me. We ate, stared at the pretty people, eyed the bandage-wristed writer and bought great masses of boiled peanuts. Snegum said that when she is famous and has public readings she would allow people to eat peanuts while listening to her. I argued that she would not.

In this manner time passed until the next session. In this session was Vivek Narayanan who began his reading off-stage alarming half the audience. Then he appeared on stage and read for a rather long time. While some of his poems had charm, I wondered again what they would be like without the topical references. He also sang some phrases tonelessly. While Vivek's views on performing poetry are public and interesting, his performance itself would be more interesting if it was more relaxed and less studiedly self-conscious.

Jane Bhandari came next. I have never read Jane Bhandari and found that her poems were young and fun. She was followed by Jackie Kay. Once more I was astonished by Jackie's aura.  She was luminous, warm and supremely funny, mimicking people, telling anecdotes and giggling at everything. I could see that most people in the audience were visibly restraining herself from jumping on stage and hugging her. Even AK Mehrotra was laughing openly. I adored her poem about Bessie Smith's men, which would have been slightly less fun if she had not reading it in her amazing Glasgow accent. And then came Mr.Mehrotra who read from The Absent Traveller and a couple from Middle Earth.  He also read a few new poems.

Outside in the sunlight I was once again torn. To take part in the Open Mic event or not? Looking around at the cafe I was terrified. Also where was I going to find my poems? I rummaged through my bag and found a notebook with three poems I had copied out for Queer Cafe. Then I wrote down three more from memory. Then I ran about asking people about the Open Mic event. First, I was told that I was too late. then I was told that there was not going to be such an event.

Then the Open Mic event was announced. I found a girl who signed me on. I went looking for SB who was drinking something tall and cool. She said,  'Of course, you must read.' I calmed somewhat and went to where all the people who signed up were. I found myself sitting next to a dubious self-published poet and panicked again. I looked about saw Suniti, AK Mehrotra and all the Big Noises walking about and panicked. What on earth was I thinking? I might as well commit professional suicide. Snegum was tranquil and shelled boiled peanuts for me, in an assembly line production that lasted right up to the moment I stood up to read. First, Vivek Narayanan read some helpful, sardonic guidelines about performing poetry. The only thing that I heard in the chaos of that noisy lunch crowd was 'Stand with your feet apart.' I had discovered that for myself and was reassured. It cant be that bad. Kavita Jindal began to read from her collection Raincheck Renewed. Midway through her reading the power went off across Mumbai. In the surprising silence after that, other people stood up to read. Kavita's voice was too soft to carry across the cafe. A wonderful old man stood up and recited Auden's Funeral Blues. Toby Litt read a few poems in his self-deprecating manner. And then it was me. A two foot high, wobbly stool was thrust at me. I can trip over my own feet (and have done so) so  my brain went into deep freeze. Here I was being asked to climb this thing bhari sadas mein. I climbed on, it held steady and I began. In the middle of my reading I looked up into the face of a Hindi movie villain in a blue shirt. I recognised his slightly scary face from 80's movie but that fit well into the surreal feeling of reading that day.

Five minutes later I was done, off the stool and ready to run off to the beach.


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