Menka Shivdasani is someone i knew in my first stint as a journo, many more years ago than i care to remember (the magazine i wrote for featured her as a Face To Watch in poetry, on the recommendations of Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezeikel, a prediction i'm happy to say was on the money).
We bumped into each other at the SATCT launch at Oxford Bookstore last year (Check out these pictures and these accounts), and have kept in touch since. She's also been a friend and supporter of Caferati.
Menka invited me to a lunch with a group of poets a couple of weeks ago. Despite the many litres of beer i inhaled to insulate myself from the feelings of inadequacy i get when i'm surrounded by so many talented writers, i noticed that she has a lovely house, and from behind my glass, said it was jusht made for readingsh. Politely refraining from pointing out that the house was made for her and her family, Menka offered to host a Caferati read-meet any time, and that's why the ink-stained hordes (or should that be "RSI-afflicted" in this day and age?) invaded her garden yesterday.
Please note: i was there on time. Early actually. Very early. (When people like me, the kind that are so laid-back that we fall over on our butts, actually get finagled into taking responsibility for something, we nervously overcompensate.)
i picked up Vijay and Ratna Shetty on the way in, and they squeezed in amongst the samosas, jalebis and folding chairs without a murmur of protest. First to arrive was Ajit, who styles himself "Zorba the Fenugreek" on Ryze and on his blog. Followed shortly by Manisha's Pajero, which disgorged, besides the lady herself, a freshly-shaved Arjun Bali and Runa D with a friend. We were then joined by - and i don't remember the exact order they trooped in - Mayuri (currently "On loan from hell!!") Sharma, Pallavi Jayakar, Soeb Fatehi, Dinesh "The Heretic" Ramakrishnan (what is this epidemic of exotic/wiseass/weird handles on a business network anyway?), and in a surprise appearance, Amit Mukerjee, better known to this blog as "Khuto," with a friend. John Matthew who lives practically next door, came in last with Sonia Menezes (who lives in Pune, but came in from Santa Cruz) and Max Babi, who bussed in from Peshwatown. But i forget - Raamesh Raghavan got in halfway through the readings, after being given an impromptu but comprehensive tour of Belapur by a rick driver who didn't know the area. Jugal Mody's valiant expedition to the hinterland foundered at Wadala, foiled by Harbour Line maintainance work (i did publish bus routes, laddie), and Atanu Sarma had called in sick in the morning, done in by the 'flu.
Right then. The readings. i may have the order muddled up (take notes, Griffin, take notes), but broadly, here's what happened.
Damini, Menka's nine-year old daughter, took the hot seat (a garden swing) first, and read a distinctly feminist short story.
John debuted the first two poems he ever wrote, Is White a Colour? and The Bombay Train Song! The first poem, the audience thought, went along predictable lines, except one line that stood out: "They swaddled my father in white." From the second, a reference to a certain fellow commuter preceded by an unpronounced comma caused much debate on said commuter's personal hygiene, before John revealed that the line merely asked me, er, i mean the fellow commuter, to identify a station based on purely olfactory evidence. Overall, the general consensus was that John's verse is far more tightly written than his prose.
Arjun started off by reading a poem called Desperately on behalf of one of Caferati's Nagpur members, Rajendra Pradhan. And followed it up with an unfinished piece of his own, one that he had started to write for the Spring writing exercise on our message board. His story, set amidst the celebration of the Basant festival in Pakistan, left most of us wondering why he thought it was incomplete. Speaking for myself, i saw a growth in his style as a writer - the pieces he read at his first read-meet sounded more like film treatment notes to me (only natural, since he makes films for a living), but with these, he showed he could handle nuanced dialogue and description on a page as well. And he reads well too.
Pallavi read some of the poems she wrote for our First Line Last Line exercise. Unfortunately, i can only find this one and this one on the board. Perhaps someone can point out the others and i'll link to them? Wonderfully crafted, poems, i thought, and i think most of the audience agreed. One small reservation, though: some mispronounced words detracted from her otherwise warm and expressive reading style.
Amit read a few selection from the recently published volume of his translations of Bengali poets, The Unsevered Toungue. Amit is one who reads powerfully and well, and by demand, read the original Bengali poems as well. Perhaps, if copyright issues permit, he'll blog the poems he read? And Amit, i noticed you tapping away at your laptop so perhaps we'll see the meet from your eyes too? Oh yes, do post links to those pictures you took if you upload them. (update: he did.)
Sonia read two short prose contributions, one developed from the (UP)set the Pace series on the board, and the other called My Alter Ego. Must confess i didn't listen in here - got sidetracked by a phone call, which i thought was another lost member of Caferati asking directions, so i can't comment on her reading. Apologies, Sonia. i have them in my mailbox, so i'll try and make up for it by reading them aloud to myself, hm?
Manisha read an essay she says has never found publication, called Bechari biwis? Not. This piece, about bored wives and the hobbies they took up with devout fervour, was met with some confusion, with some in the audience emphatically certain it was a poem. Once this was cleared up, my criticism (too many American references) was promptly shot down by all, and Manisha went on to read a poem about what women of a certain age hear more often than they want to, Get Off! An encore was demanded and supplied. And here, i have another nitpick, Manisha. You read your own poems in a throwaway style. And i know it's not because you can't read, because i've heard you do full justice to other people's work. Have more faith in your own work, girl!
Ajit, who wasn't on the scheduled list of readers, was hoiked out of his deep lawn chair by the crowd to read some of the Hindi verse he writes in his elaborate scrapbook. His attempts to transalate them on the fly prompted a discussion on what another language could do to a poetic thought, how some things just did not retain their flavour in translation, and the like. The argument concluded with Manisha, who has published poetry in Hindi, agreeing to attempt to do English versions of The Fenugreek's work.
Max, starting deadpan, and with a smile broadening under his beard as he read, brought the entire gathering to a crescendo of snorts and giggles and finally outright laughter with his story, Outwitting the Shadow, which i see he has blogged already. The only critique offered - but that one was voiced by many - was that it went on for one paragraph too long.
While Menka decided if she was going to read or not, i quickly slipped in a couple of poems, Ole! (an encore was requested, but that was because no one could hear me the first time) and Why i didn't write you a Valentine.
Menka started with several poems from her book of verse, Stet, including Diary of a Mad Housewife, which is one i've had the good fortune to hear her read before (i must cringingly admit that i can't find the sheet on which i wrote down the titles of the others), and one of her more recent works, which she was initially reluctant to read, because it was a new voice. Again, the title eludes my pathetic memory, but i heard the different voice she talked about, a quieter, calmer, more contented voice, one that had seen more life, and acquired more perspective. Another thing that caught our attention was her ability to read from memory, looking into our eyes, though she held the book in front of her. Speaking for myself, i can barely remember my haikus - but by now you know how bad a memory i have.
i did remember to get the snacks, though, and hungry writers descended on the samosas, chole and jalebis like Page Three people on a photo-opp. Even the ones who were in a tearing hurry to get back to the city stopped to fill up plates for the safari back home.
The rest of us stayed on for a while, chatting into the dusk, swatting away the odd mosquito. It's always nice to put faces and voices to names one reads on the board and the blog, to see how the personality you encounter face to face compares with the one that comes across with words on a screen and a thumbnail mug shot(or in the case of some weirdos, icons). That, despite the sometimes unstructured - and frequently too polite - feedback sessions, the people who don't show up without informing the organisers, the Maybes who land up unannounced, is the reason why i think the read-meets are a brilliant idea.
Here's a raised coffee mug to many more.