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A collaboration over too much coffee.
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31 January, 2005

A most rewarding evening

"How many times can I tell you, that it's 'trunk' maa..not ta-dunk"

Although I misquote from a prize-winning book here, it set me thinking about the disdain and contempt that is often acquired by some upon learning of the English language. The borrowed superiority clearly visible that evening in the swishing silk sarees and eyebrows permanently raised above noses looking down upon lesser mortals, and these were just the women. The men in the audience disguised their contempt in carefully tousled hair and well worn silk or in mothballed tweed, reading glasses poised in hands, their fingertips stained by tell-tale cigarette tar. Everyone in that gathering wandered the lobby of the Nehru Center with that knowing air that storks appear to have when stepping through the bulrushes, that need to be recognized as superior to say, the fish in the waters. Here, I was the outsider. Though suitably camouflaged, I was guilty of knowing that I did not belong.

'women come and go, talking of Michelangelo...'

A chocolate-coated pair of lips exhale at my side. The perfume must be expensive, for it begins choking the living daylights out of me. "Haven't seen you after the vee-dee-yaah que-and-eh?" The accent reminds me of apple-pie laced with arsenic. I am tempted to speak my mind, but the silver around my neck allows me to mutter but a faint 'oh' and leave it at that. Fortunately she is distracted by another, and she leaves me to read the SMS that offers respite. There would be faces in whose familiarity I would find shelter. Reading books is such a solitary occupation, and I am one of those who is happiest when alone in their company. Then why would I be seeking familiarity in a gathering that was about to celebrate authorship? I have plenty of time to think about this as my rabid punctuality has left me plenty of minutes before the sandglass is overturned and seats are offered, turning readers into audience.

Maybe I am over-reacting, but the air seems to have a bite to it, venomous, not cold. The publishers as well as the published are here. Rubbing shoulders with the desirous...What am I doing here?

I find amusement as people struggle to seek seats in the 'reserved for invitees' rows, and when two nosy ladies (who offer me more reason for suppressed laughter as the evening progresses) sitting next to me, rather unforgivably and impolitely ask, why I look familiar, I give in to the temptation and in my sexiest sibilant hiss, lie happily, "not famous enough, I'm afraid, but if it helps, I was one of the nominees a couple of years ago"... They sigh, happy to have spotted a writer. I hate myself.

But then the lights dim and transport me into a world of words where the gods are invoked and invited to the gathering by Aruna Sairam. Her voice is definitely soaked in orange honey and chocolate. And I know the pleas work because the harpies sitting beside me are silenced and I forget to brush away the crumbs of a chocolate covered shortbread bar that I have sneaked in the folds of my saree, past the ushers who had raucously reminded as we made our way to the seats just a while ago, 'no food and drink inside'.

'I'm nobody, who are you?'

I lick the chocolate off my fingers in the quiet absence of lights as I take in the readings of recently translated works from regional languages. A minor break between the readings allows those two cooing pigeon-chested women sitting next to me make remarks about everything from the 'need to wear' black for a reading to why it was pure hoity-toityness when the compere insisted on pronouncing the name of the author as the Bengali 'rotho' and not the simple 'rath' as spelt in the Queen's own. But who cared when one was tasting that slice of life at a police station in Calcutta?

'the minstrel of far-away climes'

Baul is the street philosopher, his feet caked from the shifting tides of the Ganga, his words at once simple, at once profound, whipped the few nodding heads awake, and made my evening so much brighter. The songs of Lalan Fakir put a salve to my irritation with the section of the audience I found myself in. How we get identified by the threads we wear and the rosaries we carry said the baul in song...and I detached myself happily from my neighbors, transported into an 'appreciate' mode. There are more readings, this time from the novels written in English. I have never been a fan of audio books, but this time I close my eyes and feel the anger and get irritated with the policeman who boarded the boat with a gun...

'its time we allowed Jane Austen to retire from our curriculum'

For someone who has spent girlhood sighing over Darcy and dreaming of the rough and ready Heathcliff, words to this effect by none other than U.R Anantha Murthy would automatically produce a snort of utter disbelief. But that would be on some other day. Now, I was clapping my hands with the rest simply because of the context in which they were said. I suppose the time has come for a boy from Kashmir to read novels set in Orissa and for someone deep down South to read Manipuri short stories. I sighed and snuggled deeper in my chair. I had my favorites marked out from the shortlist, and the awards were soon to be announced. I admit freely that I had read only 'The Brain fever Bird' and 'Moving On' from the English short-list, and 'Waiting for Rain' and 'Yantrarudha' from the 'translated into English' section, but still hoped that one of the books I had read would win.

The grace and the dignity of the authors and the selectors overwhelmed me, and I knew then that it did not matter whether the huge checks (literally) reminded me a bit of a cricket man-of-the-match presentation (from the distance I think the awardees themselves felt a bit foolish posing with them for the cameras), it did not matter whether the audience was in silks or sackcloth, that somewhere I had hated the idea that literature needed sponsors, nothing mattered. It was fitting homage to words, and a tribute to men and women who could string them together for the rest of us who would be so mesmerised by their art that we would then proceed to forget dinners, forget tending to offspring, forget to water the geraniums, feed the cat...

Clutching the book of excerpts, savoring the happy noise of the literati feeding under the fairy lights after the ceremony, I come face to face with the man who is no more just a name who recommends books at Crossword, he is the amazing self-confessed omnivore of words: R.Sriram, the force behind these awards. I thank him but I know how inadequate and inarticulate I feel. I come back home, the cool January breeze whipping my hitherto ruly hair into their usual frenzy dreaming about being a part of the Hutch-Crossword-Caferati Poetry Awards someday, completely humbled by my experience of the evening.

The Hutch Crossword Book Awards for the Year 2004, were announced that evening. Amitav Ghosh won the English Fiction category for his book The Hungry Tide, and Astride The Wheel Yantrarudha by Chandrasekhar Rath/J Nayak won the Indian Language Fiction Translation Category.

The shortlisted books include: 'If You Are Afraid Of Heights' by Raj Kamal Jha, 'Moving On' by Shashi Deshpande, 'The Brainfever Bird' by I. Allen Sealy; 'Bait' by Mahasweta Devi/Sumanta Banerjee, 'In The Name Of The Mother' by Mahasweta Devi/Radha Chakravarty, 'The Birth Of The Maitreya' by Bani Basu/Sipra Bhattacharya, 'The Outcaste Akkarmashi' by Sharankumar Limbale/Santosh Bhoomkar and 'Waiting For Rain' by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay/Nilanjan Bhattacharya.

(references to 'trunk not ta-dunk', the 'slice of life at the police station', 'the boarding of the boat by a policeman with a gun', etc. were part of readings from the shortlisted books)

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Manish..

Loved reading about the awards....
and couldn't stop self from sharing this piece (boul geet) that have heard long back....


Sab Loke Koy Lalan Ki Jaat E Sansare
Lalan Bole Jaater Ki Rup Dekhlam Na Ei Najore
Jagat Jure Jaater Katha, Galpo Kore Jatha Tatha
Jawa Kimba Asar Belai Jaater Chinha Roy Kare?


Translation:
All are anxious to know what religion of the world Lalan actually belongs to
Lalan submits his ignorance and says,“ I have failed to visualize how one’s religion looks like”
They, from all corners of the globe,Keep on talking about religion
And indulge in idle chatting on the subject
But, who bears any mark of religion,When he is born or sets out for his last journey?

Susmita

01 February, 2005 10:34  

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