Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I gatecrashed an event. I’ve known people who have gatecrashed in the past. The motivation has generally been the free alcohol or narcotics. Occasionally a gatecrashed party has held the promise of some “action”, especially if one could last till the end when the soundtrack goes from “Candy Shop” to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I had no idea whether the event I had set my sights on would have any alcohol but I was reasonably certain that it would have no dishy men because, being Bengali, I was going to gatecrash a book reading. And as wonderful and charming as Amitav Ghosh is, it’s really hard to imagine women throwing themselves at him and him responding with anything more than a erudite little lecture on etymology. (This is not a problem I have with Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, but that probably comes from having witnessed with me own blinkers how suavely he shepherded an attractive blonde away from a glass of wine and towards the door marked exit. For all we know, he probably got her into a cab and had her dropped home but for me, it was one of those epiphanic moments in life. I realised like does not meet like because if it did then I should have been the one being shepherded to the exit by Mr. Rushdie given I am, like him, short, fat and balding. Instead I stood around and waited for Martin Amis to take the stage and be his monstrous self.)
So Amitav Ghosh was in town to launch his new novel “Sea of Poppies“, a supposedly tantalising beginning to a trilogy based on the opium trade in the 19th century. I say supposedly because I haven’t read it yet and because descriptive phrases like “vexed colonial history” frighten me. Almost everyone else has read it, however, because the book has been available for the past three-odd weeks which made this launch a little futile but hey, I was four rows away from Amitav Ghosh. I think he even looked in my direction twice. Such are the things that make my Bengali nervous system tingle.
For the launch, Ghosh’s new publisher Penguin had organised terrible snacks, decent wine, a conversation between Ghosh and Naresh Fernandes, editor of Time Out Mumbai, and a reading by actor Rahul Bose. When Bose isn’t acting or doing book readings, he plays rugby professionally (or at least as professionally as Indians can play rugby with the tallest of our dudes reaching an average All Blacks player’s navel). The iron he has pumped to make up for him having the vital statistics of a runt has resulted in him looking like a squished Ken doll. And, from the look of the crisp, white short-sleeved shirt he wore, it seems he gets the sleeves altered so that they bite into the bulge of his biceps. This has the unfortunate effect of making the shirt puff out at the shoulders, like the sleeves of Victorian dresses. Imagine this on a tiny, buff man with goldfish eyes – very disturbing.
Equally disturbing was how the four passages Bose read from “Sea of Poppies” made my enthusiasm to read the book fall by about 40 notches. It’s probably the result of having seen Bose “act” in movies like “Jhankaar Beats” and “Pyar ke Side Effects” (don’t trust the IMDb ratings; these movies border on unwatchable). It was a good selection of passages because they ranged from comic to ominously violent but somehow, especially in case of the early passages which were peppered with crude humour and lewd expletives, they sounded forced and un-Amitav-Ghosh. That might also have been because of the way they were read. Bose took it upon himself to give a performance rather than just a reading. So, when he was reading a bit where a character evades the whip while being flogged, he did a little pelvic jiggle that eunuch dancers would be proud of. Blessedly, soon after the jiggle, the reading came to an end, Bose got off stage and Ghosh readied himself to talk about “Sea of Poppies” by patting himself down to check where the little collar microphone was and if it had been smothered in the folds of his Nehru jacket.
You’d think that crafting an engaging conversation with an erudite gent would be an easy task but it’s a surprisingly difficult thing to engineer when you’ve got a time limit and an audience. At the beginning of the evening, Ghosh mentioned Fernandes and he were neighbours in Brooklyn (grr… lucky dog. What on earth possessed me to live in Manhattan for my brief New York experience? Maybe if I’d set up tent in Prospect Park instead of Central Park, I could have been a “new friend”…. Sigh.) and it was clear that they do have something of a rapport. There is an air of geekiness that surrounds events like this and it seems incongruous when the room is filled with designer brands and coiffed hair. But Ghosh is one of the few novelists whom almost everyone seems to have read, including artists (and that’s pretty huge; it’s cross-fertilisation in the creative field and we rarely see that here, especially since we have more of a creative patch than a field). If you asked those gathered at this posh hotel or hopped across the road to the Experimental Theatre of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t read at least one of his books (unless you insist on being bone-headed and ask the security guard). How many at the book launch cared that Bombay was on the verge of collapsing until opium trade and the ship-building that it required revived the city’s fortunes is a completely different matter. Because most of us were there to hear about him and his experience of writing the book, rather than a history lesson. The conversation between Ghosh and Fernandes began with the latter recounting the two of them sitting in Suketu Mehta‘s apartment after 9/11 – two big names, one cataclysmic event; yes sir, we’re listening. Ghosh vehemently arguing that “Sea of Poppies” did not belong to the 9/11 fiction category seemed to deflate Fernandes a little and the conversation turned away from personal snippets to a history seminar that was engaging but perhaps not quite electric. The one Ghosh comment that did have the entire room literally abuzz was when the writer pointed out that generations of cantankerous Indian babies – including Ghosh – have been quietened by mothers with a dose of gripe water. Which happens to be a tincture of opium. No wonder the old black and white pictures of mum, dad, uncle and auntie show such happy babies.
To enjoy yourself at this book launch, you had to be the kind of person who finds fun in the fact that the word “balti” comes from the Portuguese word for bucket or that mandir (the Hindi word for temple) has been in the Oxford English Dictionary for decades. Incidentally, Ghosh said that the storming of the Winter Palace by Indian soldiers was, to his mind, as great an act of violence as the burning of the library of Alexandria. According to him, the Governor of Bengal is seriously thinking about returning to China whatever Bengal acquired from the loot that came from the storming. The Dalai Lama would be proud, I’m sure.
Making a conversation feel cosy enough to make the audience feel part of the relationship between author and moderator while making it accessible and relevant to the book in question is tough. While Ghosh and Fernandes spoke wisely about the opium trade, 9/11, imperialism and English language, I remembered watching David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, chat with Ian McEwan. Remnick was surprisingly fantastic and he drew out McEwan so that us gawping literature groupies felt like we were being let into how the author conceived, crafted and felt the novels he wrote. That’s the vicarious bonding experience for which people like me gatecrash book readings.
Though for those who gatecrashed for free alcohol, it was as good a Saturday night as they could have hoped for. Wine flowed as did whiskey. Tiny servings of dessert appeared magically under our noses from time to time and full marks to the waiters for not tripping over artist Jitish Kallat’s pointy shoes which make the Wicked Witch of the West’s shoewear look dainty. Paparazzi-esque photographers must have been terribly disappointed because, despite the flashing diamonds, the only socialite-favourite at the gathering was Rahul Bose. Petty jealousies came out in whispers and delighted gasps punctured polite, praising conversations. Being the sneaky little thing that I am, I delicately walked along the edges of the puddling conversations and eavesdropped to find out what the city’s intellectual elite is pondering about:
– The luddite, philistines of Reliance were turning the film industry into a circus. How dare they hold two huge press conferences at Cannes film festival announcing they’re putting $1 billion into films? 69 films? Is this a joke? Why on earth didn’t they make it 68 or 70? And is it true that Shyam Benegal is going to go over to the dark side and direct films for them?
– Who is the idiot editor in the New York Times who not only lets Anand Giridharadas’ badly researched and intensely biased writing pass but also lets it go all the way up to the damn front page? Not just that, it becomes the most e-mailed article! Every Patel on Wall Street probably forwarded to his entire clan and then made special thepla in celebration. Damn Gujjus.
– How awesome is it that India is hitting the front page of the New York Times, all thanks to Anand Giridharadas? He’s had three articles in a row reach the haloed front sections of the paper? Is Thomas Friedman sweating under his collar?
– Photography in India is dead. Wait, is that Dayanita Singh in that corner over there? Is she taking a picture of me?
– Publishers are cows.
– You must go to Machu Pichu. It’s wonderful. So much history there. I wish I could have read “Sea of Poppies” there but it hadn’t released. I took the new Rushdie though. Somehow, though, Florence and Machu Pichu don’t work so well together. Opium would have been a far better match.
– I don’t believe Ghosh said Time Out has the best writing in India. Obviously, he’s friends with the editor.
– Are Rahul Bose’s biceps real? Apparently they make chickens look plump by injecting them water. Can you do that with humans?
– How cheap! They’ve got only desserts and vegetarian snacks. The last time I came here, they had a wonderful chicken and shitake mushroom thing. You’d think Penguin could afford better snacks.