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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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Cinnamon

Cinnamon_Poem

Thin round mints

in a square tin box,

one finger clicks

open the top,

white paper

black letters

rustling inside,

pink tablets tying

her tongue in knots.

“Curiously Strong”

it had boldly warned

of cinnamon breath

for hours long,

take one for now

with more to follow

letting it linger

no hurried swallow.

Sharp edged pins

slowly close in

She shuts her eyes

to catch them spin,

seconds crawl on

behind a racing heart

“Artificially Flavoured” kiss

is ready to depart.

This is the second poem composed on the cellphone during a 40 minute metro ride. Read the first here.

 

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Why you must not make life-transforming decisions on a Monday PLUS 5 Ways to Get Through It

Monday should long ago have been re-christened ‘Hang in There’ Day.

It officially marks the end of all that is glorious, sunny and well-fed. It is the enemy of life spent on roller-blades in empty parking lots, ruminations on the color purple (on your fingernails, not the book) and all categories of happy sounds that end in repetitive consonants.

Monday is the day you wish you were a Princess in a bow-tie (because you could), chewing Sour-Punk and watching The Thick of It to no end. Or atleast that your current partner was a filthy rich bugger who spoiled you silly and you were cannabis-happy to oblige, with no desires of ‘doing something with your life’.

Monday is just downright horrid when it drives in after a three-day long, festival followed weekend.

But it is on such very Mondays that one must never, ever, ever QUIT. Or tell a man (who is obviously wrong for you) that you love him. Or start a blog titled my-turquoise-shoes. (if you must, go for that last one.)

Because Mondays are slimy lizard things that way, designed to make you wonder at the joys of non-alarmy mornings, with what-ifs and the maybe-coulds and the even deadlier, Today-I-must-make-a-life-changing-(extremely stupid, that will only come to light post facto)-decision.

Monday, then, is best dealt with your armor on, your nose neck deep in the fluffy stuff that makes you tick, with no time for thoughts and what-not.

Here’s some things to try out…

1. It’s fine if neither you nor your book-holding arms have a place to stand during morning commute. Ditch the book and watch Outnumbered. Laugh out loud, even if people stare. Because let’s face it, you are a little nuts.

2. Answer ALL emails. It’s either that or editing a 1000 word article (written by someone who thinks Eats, Shoots & Leaves is the autobiography of the Panda from Kung-Fu Panda) on the weaving techniques used by Bedouin tribes, juxtaposed with those found in Romania and North-West Asia.  On Monday. So, emails it is.

3. To keep the warm glow of Sunday still shining over you, have Green Tea with a teaspoon of honey and freshly squeezed lemon. If you can’t get cannabis. Otherwise, have that.

4. Everyone around you will be sleepy, sorry, singing of drudgery. Don’t disown them, these are the blokes you’ll be hangin’ with over the wild wild weekend. Just practice the silent, smiling nod whilst imagining what the nice people in Iceland are doing right now.

5. During the last hour of the day, if you hit your elbow on the bathroom door at work (if it doesn’t happen on it’s own, just go bang it already), scream F*** as loud as you can silently. That will help release all and any forms of tension that may have built up during the day. Even as the excruciating and real pain of the injury passes through your arm and you slowly lose all feeling in a possibly fractured elbow, just don’t pass out in there because God knows no one wants to see that, on any day.

When you do get out, Monday will almost be over. Yayee-oo-aa-hmph.

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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.

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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.

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5 Things you will NEVER forget if you EVER went to a Convent school

Before you start reading, if you were born in the 80s and went to a convent, raise your hands and say “Hell Yeah”, or more appropriately “Hail Mary.” If you didn’t, no need to feel left out. You were tortured by other adults who were not being stern (out of and) in a habit.

Even though I left a home away from home in the hill convent school more than a decade ago, here are some things that follow me around.

1. Lift Your Feet and Walk

When I see or more likely hear people shuffling about, it makes me want to stop them in their track and correct them. But I don’t, for my own good.

2. Cry for Christ

This one was left unsaid, but after reading enough pamphlets on Christ’s life and bawling at the crucifixion scene in a movie at the school theater, you’re always in readiness to cry some more.

3. Graveyard Gossip

As you must be aware, all Convents are built on a graveyard. No, seriously. A silent windy night, a back-lit statue of the Virgin Mary visible from the dormitory corridor and the glistening graveyard white is sure to make you feel like an extra on ‘Blair Witch Project’ (there weren’t any. and there was no ghost. or else, you’re it.)

4. The Forever Two Minute Meal

When you’ve got a nun parading behind you while you eat the daal-with-no-grains you learn to go faster. My personal best was going from a two hour lunch routine, which involved sitting alone at the table and looking on at nothing in particular in 1990s PC (Pre-Convent) to now eating before you can say “What’s that on your plate?”. Its fun, do try it at home.

5. Cursive is King

At and after a convent school you might begin to think that people who cannot form a word by joining letters together should be shipped to another planet. It might not be so bad. They’ll take your husband away (him with the left slant and floating letters that only martians can possibly perfect). Plus the written world will look pretty and who minds that.

Life within the walls of a Convent bears little resemblance to the world outside.

In your first years ‘on the other side’, you think everyone else needs to be “disciplined”. It’s only later that it dawns on you that the ‘cloistered’ convent taught you a language of life that is stuck in 1885. But you learn to roll with it, keeping your Nun avatar in check, but not without saying a shortened version of Our Father in Heaven for the souls of errant beings.

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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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Treasure Chest: Wislawa Szymborska

You know, I’m often scribbling away, gasping at the discovery of words that have set my heart aflutter. And these are often penned in curious places, strewn among hardbound companions or placed in corners I will not discover for days, years even. While there is much joy in that, I’m tempted today to build a new chamber, right here, to preserve them. So that they may lie a little closer, within reach for you and me.

We begin then with her:

…Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

– from ‘The Joy of Writing’ by Wislawa Szymborska

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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.

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Write On

I have been away for a week. There would be punishments for this kind of thing but I’m the boss and not a keen follower of the masochism movement. Instead I can only make a note to self: Live and let write.

No revolutionary events to report but mundane thoughts on things continue. Like happiness worth 50 bucks by way of two (second hand) books I bought for 25 each. Cheap thrills aren’t easy. In the 10 minutes before the 10.30 pm movie show, you must scan piles of mindless junk to get to anything worth more than 25. And when you do, the joy lasts for days on end. If you’re turning your nose up at “second hand” stuff and think you’re cat’s whiskers, well then you better do a good job chasing the tiny rat’s ass I care about your opinion on that one. The great thing about second hand books is that there’s always a story (or more) than what exists between the covers. If you find names or personal notes, you’re lucky. Otherwise you can invent your own story and imagine it played out as the finest drama there ever was.

Talking about drama, there’s enough everyday to belittle Television soap operas. Having your zombie moment at work in the form of picking up the phone and dialing the number on the keyboard instead of the phone pad. Spilling cheese from an eat-on-the-go sandwich all over your clothes on your way to work. Paying 50 bucks and getting lost on your way to a place that’s at a five minute walking distance. Or days going downhill suddenly picking up towards the end and making you a star (at least for a while).

As star vices go, I have those of the restless variety. There is a need to always be doing something that amounts to more than can be summed up in a word (or sentence). There’s the urge to eat the forbidden sweet (did I say “forbidden”? Nonsense. In my world there are no forbidden sweet vices). There’s the desire to watch back-to-back episodes of the favourite show late into the night, with knowledge of how resulting lack of sleep will affect next day at work. There’s the conversation with the almighty where wishes shift priorities at the speed of light/sound, whichever you prefer.

And so the days pass, one bead on a string followed by another.

Jaded, Coloured, Crooked, Pearl white.

Good, Bad or Ugly. But none like the other.