Someone asked me today, who is Nadine Gordimer? Generally, I flounder when asked these questions because it seems so inadequate to say just “author” for people like her. Today, however, I was well prepared because I’d spent a couple of hours faced with a blinding blue and yellow sign, designed by the Government of India, that was hung in the Durbar Hall of Asiatic Society in Mumbai. Nadine Gordimer is a Nobel laureate for literature and an anti-apartheid activist and one of the few people for whom I would abandon sleep and sloth on a Sunday morning. Answering the question of why she’s roaming India was less simple. There appears to be absolutely no reason for her to be here. She doesn’t have a new book. She wasn’t promoting anything and no one was promoting her (there wasn’t even a stall where one could buy her books). But she was here alright, within paper-plane-chucking distance of me, enduring some terrible introductory speeches, an ugly sign, hideous acoustics and reading out a short story of hers titled “The Ultimate Safari.” And I was close enough to hear her voice even without the speakers.
The reading was held in the heart of downtown Mumbai at 10.30 in the morning, which meant there were precisely 5 of us in the crowd who couldn’t qualify for senior citizen benefits. Of the 5, two were teenagers who had clearly been dragged against their will upon the insistence of enthusiastic parents. Personally I felt right at home. As a friend observed, judging from how I engage with the world around me, I’m about 60 and the average age in the room was about 65 so it was a neat fit. This also meant that, unlike an audience made up of preppy 20-somethings, there wasn’t a single cellphone that went off during Gordimer’s reading, people listened and those who asked questions actually did have queries rather than a need to prove how smart and world-weary they are.
What I hadn’t anticipated about Nadine Gordimer is how adorable she looks and how she can bite, despite her 85 years. She’s a delicate, tiny little woman, with bird-bone wrists and an unwavering voice. Her grey-white hair was pulled back into a pom-pom of a bun at the base of her neck. The first thing she did with the bouquet of roses she was given as a welcoming gift was to bury her nose in it. Nothing fazed her – not the guy from Asiatic Society who said in a kindly fashion he was “making an offering of Dr. Nadine Gordimer” to us, almost like Abraham did with Isaac; and not the nine people who pounced on her because no one had checked either of the two microphones that were supposed to be just for her and were obviously not working. When one gentleman asked her how she would react to the observation that writers are irrelevant in the current age, she grinned and said, “It’s a shocking question to ask at this gathering but I’d say you’re absolutely right. Writers are becoming absolutely irrelevant because of the dominance of the image.”
Every time she knew she’d said something pointed, her chin jutted out and her nose lifted a fraction. Like when she said she found Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger “too determined to shock”. She thought it was very powerful but, “he tends to rub it in”, she said. Shashi Tharoor got the tag of “friend” and Salman Rushdie is, in Gordimer’s estimation, “great”. She said she found V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River racist (the nose lifted rather sharply for that one). Someone asked her how she felt about 3 of her books being banned in South Africa in the apartheid era and she replied, “It would have been an insult if they hadn’t been banned.” The shambles that the African National Congress has been reduced to clearly saddens her but even as she admitted that things are grim for South Africa, she urged everyone to remember it has been only 14 years since apartheid was lifted. When she said 14 years, it sounded as though it was merely a snap in time but, for me, the end of apartheid was a lifetime ago, back to the time when imaginary friends were real and I dreamt of marrying the cricketer Jonty Rhodes who spent more time flying towards the cricket ball than on the ground.
The only point at which Gordimer looked a little baffled was when, after the reading and Q&A session, a bespectacled lady sidled her way through the crowd of people getting their books signed and said, “So what was your email again?” Clearly, Gordimer didn’t know her from Adam but the lady persisted. “How do you spell your email?” she tried again. Gordimer looked at the woman and her pen, poised to write on a little notebook, and said, “No.” The other woman said, while studiously noting down the spelling, “Okay, n, o… and then?” Gordimer said again, “No.” The woman looked at Gordimer blankly, as though she was a 4-year-old whose lollipop had just been stolen. “Are you sure?” said the woman in a last-ditch attempt. “N, a…?” she prompted hopefully and earned herself a Gordimer glare that has probably shrivelled up the nerves in her tongue forever.
By about quarter to one, the event was over. Everyone had trickled out of the Asiatic Society and some stood on the building’s famous steps, pondering what to do for lunch. At the foot of the historic building, a cluster of bureaucrats shuffled around with the enormous sign that read “Sahitya Akademi and the Asiatic Society welcome Distinguished South African author and Nobel laureate Dr. Nadine Gordimer”. Which was when I got the phone call, asking me who Nadine Gordimer was. While I read the sign out, the group started walking towards Dalal Street, one man lugging the sign and the others looking exhausted on his behalf, in search of a taxi.