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In which Vikram Seth is (possibly) Drunk and Arundhati Roy asks Who I Am

The room is bathed in a red light reflecting off from the neatly laid out chairs and tables covered in red linen. The stage is lit, the podium is set, with a placard in front of it reminding everyone what this evening is about. It is the posthumous launch of Editor Unplugged, the autobiography ‘sequel’ of Journalist & Outlook Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Vinod Mehta.

AloneI walk in dressed in red corduroy pants (and a non-committal black & white tee), unaware then of being co-ordinated with the color of the night. My friend is waiting, with his brand new camera around his neck, waiting for her and him. She is a woman with a Man Booker Prize. He is A (bi-sexual) Suitable Boy. She is launching the book. He is going to read from it. They are the reason I’m not attending a string music festival that night at a garden across town.

IMG_20150331_185404771My friend ventures out into the thin crowd to thrust his camera unabashedly into the faces of attendees, only the remotely famous ones. I stand in a corner, watching him, wondering what wine they’ll be serving. And then she walks in, clad in a plain saree (is it light brown, with a green tinge, or does it bear the shade of dust in Delhi?). It is paired with a gold and green blouse that fits so well I want to ask her where she got it stitched. The saree is from “a small shop in Meherchand Market”, she’ll be telling gushing ladies later that evening.

IMG_20150331_195449800By now I’ve smiled at other guests, the kind of smile that simply acknowledges another human being, strangers though they may be. I’ve had a glass of white wine (of indeterminate origin, since the waiter does not know and I’d have to walk to the bar to find out, and well, let’s leave it be because it’s a nice drink on a fine evening). And then he walks in, with a non-polythene packet from the publisher (with the book inside I presume) and his mother on his arm. He’s short. He’s wearing a blue blazer and you can see that his hair will soon leave him. Some already have.

IMG_20150331_200348576After greeting certain other guests, they run into each other and smile, politely. They’re not friends. They’re here for respective roles in the book launch drama.

He’s called in first to read a passage from the book. He walks to the podium with the book packet in one hand and a glass of red (Merlot?) wine in the other. The audience will need theirs too. The reading is boring to say the least, irreverently mis-pronounced to say it all. In his drunken slur, ‘rummaging’ becomes ‘scrummaging’, silent pauses are deafening, not poignant and while he raises an arm to settle sparse but flowing locks, we all forget the man that we’ve gathered together to celebrate. And everyone claps.

“Vinod was in love with me.” She is looking in the distance as she talks about the editor who published her copious politically-incorrect essays that got both of them into trouble. My eyes dart towards the gentleman’s wife seated at the table near the stage. I can’t see her face. “We were partners.” She continues in a similar vein, taking everyone along on a walk through her years working with a man she believed stood for ‘fearless journalism’. Perhaps there are tears, if only a hint. But it now feels like an obituary in prose, befitting the event.

She smiles as she walks away from the podium and the guests are encouraged to wine and dine (with finger food). I wonder if I should ask her to write something in my book, not her book, but the one I’ve been reading. It’s from the 18th century so I presume she wouldn’t be miffed. Watching her I imagine she would smile even if she was miffed. I ask my friend if I should do it and he wants to click our picture together instead.

She is standing next to me and smiling at the camera. This is all quite neurotic (with an unhealthy sprinkling of thrill).

“And who are you”, she asks.

“I’m Manika.”

She goes back to smiling at me, at the camera and again at everyone else in this garden party book launch, before making a royal exit, the first for the night.

We follow soon after, less royally, leaving behind one of the many worlds that seem wonderful at a distance, are a tad humorous up close, and are positively entertaining if you’re watching from the sidelines, preferably with a witty partner and/or fine wine.

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Theatre Review: ASMITA’s adaption of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan

This Christmas Eve theatre enthusiasts lined up outside the Sri Ram Centre in Central Delhi to meet Ramkali, the central character in ASMITA Theatre Group’s adaption of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. This adaptation of the famous and theatrically challenging play was directed by Arvind Gaur, known for his innovative and thought-provoking work.

In the crowded theatre packed with people seated even in the aisles, the show began with a setting in the streets of Delhi. Three Gods descend on earth in search of a night shelter and after a laborious search by the humble water-seller are graciously accommodated by Ramkali (Shui Ta in the original), a poor prostitute. Being rewarded for her goodness brings nothing but misfortune to her as she finds her tobacco shop inviting more freeloaders than customers. Her solution is the creation of an imaginary cousin, Ramlal, who sternly sets things right by being ruthless. What follows is a glimpse of the trials and tribulations of this “good woman” and her attempt at reconciling the two personas, even as true love eludes her just as happiness does. She is pushed to the brink trying to do the right thing in the wrong place.

With strong lead characters, especially in Ms. Shilpi Marwaha who played Ramkali (and the impersonated brother Ramlal), the play held the audience’s interest through all the drama that unfolded over two hours. Rhythmic songs and fine-tuned stage movements added the much needed flavor, though last Act seemed to stretch on for longer than desired.

Mr. Gaur is no armchair Director. He began the show with a solemn request to all for keeping their mobile phones silent (there were several rule-breakers during the show). After the curtains were raised he could be seen moving his hands about boisterously to guide his actors from the small window behind the spectators.

The audience cackled at snide remarks, laughed raucously at loud physical humor and watched silently at the emotionally charged moments during each Act. Thunderous applause resounded in the end for the team that had brought it all alive, allowing each spectator to forget their passions within and the winter chill without.

Even as the audience filed out into the cold Christmas night, members of the backstage team could be seen carrying an empty bench used during the play back to where it belonged, in a neighbourhood park as a homeless man’s bed for the night.