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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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2

This is the End

Manika Dhama, a Metro-loving poet and writer, had a great fall at the Rajiv Chowk Metro station in Central Delhi early Monday morning. It did not end well. Witnesses noted that she missed a step while poring over “a fat book”. The staff have since identified it to be Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Ms Dhama was a lover of dusty libraries and bitter coffee. Her little known blog Eggfacemomhead carried stories from her life as a Delhi woman, poet and mother, some of which had been published in local newspapers. An avid traveler and amateur photographer, she had only recently discovered the Joy of Cooking (both the book and the act).

“She was always giving us relationship and work advice”, said a colleague on the phone from Ms Dhama’s Delhi office.

Condolences continued to pour in from her 200 Facebook friends, 48 Instagrammers and 106 Twitter followers. A comment on a picture of Ms Dhama and her three year old daughter reads, “She looks just like you. Can’t believe you’re gone!” It got 184 likes.

Ms Dhama is survived by a large and loving family, a home library and about half a dozen unfinished writings.

Don’t cry for me just yet. This is a ‘self-obituary’ written for The Delhiwalla.

The series  invites Delhiites across the world to write their obituary in 200 words. The idea is to share with the world how you will like to be remembered after you are gone. (May you live a long life, of course!) Please mail your self-obit to mayankaustensoofi@gmail.com.

Quote
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Abstract art_Love by panc

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

– Shakespeare Sonnet 116

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On These Tracks

Aeneas_Leaving_Dido

‘Doomed Love’ was scribbled on the cover
Of Aeneas and Dido in time torn asunder
Just then a voice joined my morning ride
Cowering behind a cellphone smile.

The journey she had made for him
To take her mind off sordid things
All tangled now in unshakable vows
He was leaving it all for now.

Her voice quivered as she said “Goodbye!”
“Go then, forever”, she cried
The tears I heard but did not see
Her troubles lay bare next to me.

Words didn’t fly off the page again
I said “forget”, only to myself
Life could look better without that love
The one that hurt you so much.

Ring ring ring it did again
“No more, no more” in refrain
Trembling she rose to face it all
Dido among the Delhi winds.

—-

This poem was composed on a cellphone during a 40 minute metro ride.

7

Leaving the Bestsellers to Dolts? Beware! You Could Be A Book Snob.

Reading Woman with Parasol  - Henri Matisse“Which books were you most inspired by?”

“Hardy Boys”.

When you hear a grown man tell a crowded auditorium that his inspiration to become a writer came from a children’s mystery book series, you can be forgiven for staring with your mouth agape. And when that man is a bestselling author you have decided to stay away from, there’s enough to pat your back.

Delivering the Penguin Annual Lecture at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi yesterday, Dan Brown convinced me (and perhaps many others in the audience) that he is the lucky recipient of absolutely undeserved attention.

Accompanying a writer friend who had to cover the event, I had been drawn to the lecture by hoping to uncover the biggest mystery surrounding bestselling authors: How does such trash give scores of people giddy knees. Last evening was not going to answer that question in totality, even after marvelous words of wisdom from Mr. Brown: At being asked whether writers were soft targets on controversial issues and what responsibilities they had, he explained, “They say the pen is mightier than the sword. The thing about the pen is, it can reach a million people. A sword, well…”

It was an entertaining evening though, mostly because of the audience, like the chump who stood up to proudly state “Sir, I’ve just finished reading The Da Vinci Code, it is the first book I have EVER read” or when Brown looked particularly nervous and fidgety at being asked how he researched for his books or decided what to include or keep out. He finally answered, “I spent one year researching for my books.” Imagine, a whole year of research on books that proclaim to lay bare buried secrets of one of the most prominent religions of the world. Reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time could take longer.

While I’m still questioning the worth of this “gleefully erudite” novel and its writer, it has pushed me to ponder over another matter: Could I possibly be a book snob?

Here’s the dilemma. Just because Wodehouse makes me chuckle and Proust makes my heart sing, should I necessarily roll my eyes at readers engrossed in Dan Brown or even the likes of Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi?

Or, as a bibliophile, should I simply rejoice at them having found books, utter drivel as they may be?

Many who argue for the latter state that these writers have brought non-readers to the written word, even considering them instrumental in keeping publishers afloat. The argument runs that Shakespeare also played to the gallery in his time. Who knows how these men will come to be revered in future they say. ‘All fiction is entertainment after all. These men have caught the pulse of the multitude, give them that at least.’

A young girl in the audience at last evening’s lecture asked Dan Brown why each of his books has a murder in the first few pages.

“I want my books to be fun. I want people to regret putting them down to complete their daily chores.”

What really is better or right or worth a celebration then? Should we leave it at letting people discover what they might in words, with whomsoever they choose for company?

In 2005, Salman Rushdie called The Da Vinci Code, “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”. And yet sometimes the same person may discover and enjoy both him and Brown at different times.

The answer I believe rests in timelessness. For true art may lack universal appeal but it can hardly enjoy only fleeting attention.

Given the lifetime worth of wonders to devour, the choice may not really be between murder in five pages or description of insomnia over fifty. It is about realizing that life is too short to read Dan Brown.

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Redemption Ride

I am in love with the Delhi Metro. For one, I get to read (or watch Suits on my phone. Aha). Mothers who (can make time to) read is a group with fewer members than the Micronesian Parliament. And I refuse to be thrown off it. The metro also provides the best alternative to moving my feet vigorously on the pedal without getting anywhere. So everyday I shove, race and celebrate the acquisition of a seat, at best, and a space to place stationery feet at the very least.

On most days my head is bowed in reverence to the words in my hands. But often the action around is engaging enough to invite a look or disturbing enough to dread. While I’m almost always in the “women’s coach”, sometimes an empty seat in the “general compartment” draws me in. In the former, I have seen and heard (not eavesdropped but God some people are loud) enough life histories to feed a potboiler. Women have fainted, howled, offered a seat to heavy-set women thinking they were pregnant, proclaimed their love for possibly dubious men and first-rate rum.

Being part of a “general”-anything is sure to be fraught with mediocrity and the thus-named metro compartments come with their own share of debased drama. Nose-in-book is a cure for many things but is a meek defense against crotch-in-face. Especially, if said crotch is riddled with a fidgety hand that you want to smack with aforementioned book. A hardbound copy of Proust would be a possible weapon for it. But with only the last two volumes of In Search of Lost Time remaining to be devoured, I’ve placed Paris aside for the moment and am on a most fascinating journey with Rebecca West through (erstwhile) Yugoslavia. However, my copy of her tome is a paperback and hence ill-placed to combat a denim-dressed crotch.

Despite curious distractions we continue our journey, Rebecca and I, in Herzegovina, Dalmatia, Kosovo and beyond, past garish Turkish remnants and ruined cathedrals, with history dancing forever beside us. In the haze of a garrulous metro ride, the sights, scents and sounds of her world meet mine, ensuring that 2014 Delhi can be 1931 Balkans and our lot in life can truly seek redemption through reading.

4

Songs After Sundown

Songs After Sundown

A river cried God’s name in vain

As treasures spilled onto the streets from a tome

Forsaken love mocked the crimson earth

The night wore a shade of moonshine and verse.

 

Under green tints and shadow games

Wars had begun in the minds of men

They ate words, warm and uncut

While truant leaves churned fortunes in a cup.

 

Time flew in on a half-torn wing

Vanity and want shared a rummy drink

They danced among strewn letters of life

Polished by eyes behind velvet screens.

3

Lifesaving Techniques: Now only a book-shelf away

The NamesakeIn Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake Ashok Ganguly survives a train accident because rescue workers spot him, thanks to the copy of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat that he is holding. That book, in effect, saves his life.
Books have often come to my rescue on journeys that were either too long or too tedious or at other times in unexpected ways.

If the trains taking me from Delhi to Gwalior and back, in the winter of 1999, had met with an accident, I may have survived or been caught dead with a copy of the only Danielle Steel novel I’ve read. I don’t remember the title. It was about a woman whose life kept getting worse as the novel progressed. I would’ve thrown the book out of the train window if it hadn’t been a borrowed copy. I just recall a black cover and the hope at the time that I had a newspaper to cover it. I certainly did not want to be caught dead with it.

Who Moved My Cheese?Reading in the car isn’t the best thing to do, but the long wait at traffic lights in Delhi often comes to the rescue. On a certain Sunday ten years ago, I discovered Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese in the dashboard of my friend’s car. We were on our way to the India Habitat Centre from NOIDA. I had finished the book in the car by the time we were on our way back. So had we been in an accident that day, my only hope of survival would have been a 50 odd page self-help book. Hardly exciting, considering I wasn’t helping my ‘self’ very much by reading about mice, who were supposed to represent something greater and more meaningful.

Bombay--London--New YorkAnother book I read over a week or so on my way to work and back was Amitava Kumar’s Bombay-London-New York. I can best describe it as a literary travelogue. It was an interesting read, though I always drew a blank from people if I told them what I was reading those days. But at least being caught dead with it wouldn’t have given me nightmares in my afterlife.

To the LighthouseBeginning of 2007 saw me reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse on the flight from Delhi to Dubai. Supposedly you can be jailed in Dubai for just about anything. Therefore, I decided to carry something non-controversial. An early 20th century British author, a dead one at that, didn’t look like a one way ticket to jail. And had there been hijackers on the plane, they would have had to confiscate my harmless copy of Woolf. I may have even been let off for giving them ideas about suicide, Virginia Woolf style.

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in IranAnother lifesaver was Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad. Waiting at the Delhi airport for two hours was made easier by imagining I was in Tehran, very much a part of the ‘adventures’ of this ‘hyphenated american’ journalist. If not for this book, there would have been hell to pay. I would have definitely killed some person or the other if I had to wait for two hours in the heat with nothing to do!

As a result of all of the above, there is one superstition in my life that takes precedence over others:

Always carry a book with you.

You never know how it could end up saving your life.

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Street-Side Sunday Surprise

(This post originally appeared here)

When Edward Spenser wrote his epic poem The Faerie Queene celebrating the Tudor Dynasty and Elizabeth I, little could he have imagined that more than 400 years later the monetary worth of his words would be tested by a weighing contraption installed in Delhi.

At 0.82 kgs, Spenser’s allegorical masterpiece exchanges hands at Rs. 180. Meanwhile, a student laments at not having located Homer in the ‘Classic Novel at Rs. 200’ pile while another is contemplating picking up Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy.

Jostling amidst book hungry crowds at the weekly market in Daryaganj is a treat every Delhi dweller and city traveller must partake in. Stretching for nearly two kilometres on Asaf Ali Road is a pavement full of the most eclectic collection of books you’d find anywhere. From a 1942 Yugoslavian edition ofTwenty Thousand Leagues to Monet’s letters, Premchand’s Complete Works or a tattered Jackie Collins paperback, this Sunday book market is certainly for everyone. Whether your vocation or interests lie in art, architecture, design, food, medicine or comics, you’ll find that strolling through the narrow pathway lining the book-display is a wonderful way to start your Sunday.

Prices differ based on discounts over printed rates, fixed weight-based calculations or simply grab-as-you-go short change (Rs. 10 for second hand P.D. James for instance). And all of these remain at the discretion of the shopkeeper. Even if you’ve spotted a nearly new hardbound copy of Victor Hugo’s Complete Works, it is unwise to display the gleam in your eyes. Bargaining would become that much more difficult. Instead it’s advisable to leisurely pick up the desired copy, turn it around, flip through its pages (even as your heart continues to flutter ever so much) and then nonchalantly ask for the best price. It may also do well to carry a bag along to fill all your goodies in. Books within reach that are not bought for seemingly avoidable reasons are what bibliophile nightmares are made of.

Having begun in the 1960s, the Daryaganj Book Bazaar has lived through decades of changes the city has witnessed. The book market has retained its charm among students, academics, collectors and travellers ever eager to dive hand-first in search of a treasure. There are those who flock here as a Sunday morning ritual and others who’re crossing it off the list of things to do in the city. Either way, the activity promises a Sunday morning well spent. And one that is likely to end in unparalleled joy at having found a gem you weren’t even searching for.

3

10 Things They Don’t Teach You in Pregnancy School

Knowledge sharing on Motherhood is unfairly tilted on the side of pregnancy-related information (maybe because there’s a giant woman on that side of the scale). Very little is said about what really goes on behind unbolted doors and open parking lots. Here’s my contribution to the What-To-Expect-When-The-Baby-Is-Outside-Your-Body section of the library.

1. There is no such thing as ‘private space’.

Prepare to be watched (touched, kissed even) while you’re trying to unload body junk in YOUR bathroom. No you cannot lock the door. Yes it’ll happen everyday.

2. Remember the days when you slept without a care in the world.

History, in this case, will not repeat itself. And there’s a new alarm to boot. Foot-in-mouth.

3. Put on your thinking caps, all the time.

You have to say something when your little girl points to a bra (or even what-lies-beneath) and asks “Mommy, what’s that?” Undergarment. Chest. In case you’re wondering.

4. Learn to say “Fudge”.

Its a 5 letter replacement for an oft needed 4 letter word.

5. Bid Adieu to Moaning Rights

Sex, at the odd chance that you get to indulge in it, must be carried out in stealth, like teenagers sneaking a smoke break. You could say there’s a unique adventure in that. Many wouldn’t agree. But you could say it.

6. Master the Deep Breath

Projectile Vomit on your face, Nosy Strangers telling you how to hold your baby, Chocolate hands on your linen pants. A deep breath tells you there’s a good life across the river.

7. Hide the Caffeine

If you love coffee (you don’t? seriously? let’s pretend this never happened) then you must consume it like sex (#5 above). A toddler will take to coffee like a cat jumping off the ledge chasing a pigeon. Them cuckoo. And with caffeine in their system, them the sort of young-wild-free you don’t want in your house. No Ma’am.

8. Watch the Baby Talk

Male colleagues, Twenty-something juniors, Unmarried friends might smile but frankly no one wants to hear what your little one said or did or ate or spilled. Everyday. That conversation is best had with always eager grandparents, the other parent of aforementioned baby and the baby.

9. Forget Television (or Beer/or Beer in front on the Television)

You can’t enforce No-TV rules and then put your feet up and watch Suits. If you must, there’s humping tigers on Discovery. And who needs television when life with a child resembles most features on ‘America’s Funniest Videos’. Go make your own TV. Better still, READ.

10. Get Flexible

You must have seen the cute little picture of a baby in a mother’s lap as she works from the comfort of her home.

And you thought, “Aww. I want that!”

Well, that picture is a lie.

Reality looks more like a toddler dancing in your lap pressing random keys on your laptop. As long as she doesn’t hit send, we’re safe. Learn magic maneuvers that involve arms (and legs) going around said toddler. Practice hard. Also, Proust must now be devoured under lamp-light after baby is asleep. So, (10a) Get a lamp.