Friday, August 28, 2009

Man on the prowl - Talk by Chandrahas Choudhuri

I finally ventured out of Gurgaon into the far faraway land of Delhi literati whose escapades, so far, I have followed only on their cross-linked blogs.

The event was a talk by Chandrahas Choudhuri, author of Arzee the Dwarf, who – along with Tarun, a friend, and Jai Singh – will always keep alive in me the fire of the shuddering realisation that there are people who’ve read more books in a year that I will ever read in a lifetime. Chandrahas is the excellent book reviewer from Mint and I’ve followed his blog without actually reading most of the books he reviews.

The talk was a British Council in Delhi, a place, as I discovered, just outside the Outer Ring of CP near the Statesman building. It took me a lot of time to get there and get the car parked. The building was very beautiful but like much of Delhi virtually inaccessible to a daily-wage earner from Gurgaon like me.

I entered the auditorium just as Chandrahas was beginning his talk after an introduction by someone called Mark that I’d missed.

A little about my expectations from the talk. I had read the first teaser chapter in the blog of the author and had not liked it very much. Coming as it did around the time I had skimmed through the disasters of ‘You are here’ by Meenaxi Reddy and ‘My friend Sancho’ (Earlier, the Sancho-author’s claim in an interview that his favourite author at ten was Dostovesky had put me in a depression – I graduated to Hardy Boys at twelve!) I was getting increasingly suspicious of bloggers turning authors.

I browsed a little more in Landmark (it might sound I browse there every day but it’s more like five times a year) and started liking it. First of all, it’s a novel – finally. And not an extended-blog of an ego-inflating exercise. The author has obviously chosen a story alien to his own self and it sticks. Being short and having a glorious personality is not as easy I make it seem; imagine being a dwarf. In an interview, the author talked about he saw a handsome dwarf once and thought if being good-looking at that height didn’t make things worse for you and therein lay the spark for the tale. I was surprised as the thought had occurred to me too a long time ago, tho’ no handsome dwarf fell on my head from the apple tree I ruminated under.

As I browsed through the first forty-odd pages of the book, I realised that it was a brave book since it ventured beyond the author’s own habitus and that whatever I have learned of forms and contents from my readings – though not a scratch on Chandrahas’ own expressions at the start of many of his reviews – the book performed very well on those fronts. I remember at which phrase I actually kept the book back on the shelf – a poet-driver telling Arzee ‘Requited love – that is the paradise raised from nothing but a pair of synchronized imaginations.’ I was put off by the too many words and especially the “synchronized.’ He’s talking about love – goddammit, I thought. Why not use something like ‘imaginations commingled’? Doesn’t ‘commingle’ replicate the angelic euphoria and the bells you hear within more than the mechanical ‘synchronized’, I thought. (I am not making this up – this is what I thought then.) Lyricism, for me, is very important in a novel. Something the greats like Dickens understood. Try reading his books aloud to yourself and you will understand.

My second reading of the book happened yesterday at LM. I had been sick for a couple of days and the fever broke yesterday. During this time, I had hardly eaten and I was craving for a Zinger burger meal. LM’s luck that it’s placed right next to a KFC on MG Road (Having a flat between LM and KFC is paradise for me – stuff love, requited or not.) Here, I finally decided that Arzee is a very good book indeed. The author, in successive chapters, throws light on some of the main characters, beside the protagonist, in a beautifully described Mumbai chawl-like building, where the protagonist’s thoughts range from almost falling dizzy with a temptation of suicide yawning under him as a hole to pathetic self-pity to a sudden pang for someone lost to falling in love with a voice – belonging, as he realises later, to a blind girl. All very credibly portrayed. And the best of authors can falter at this. A brilliant scene. The next scene, where the protagonist is clowning in a mall dressed as a Limzee bottle, starts with panache, as if the author is atoning for the almost grey morose tone, similar in texture to the building where most of the previous scene takes place, of the previous chapter.

‘All afternoon, a big green furry bottle – big for a bottle, that is, but small for a human being, which under the surface it undoubtedly was, since it walked on two legs, wildly waved two arms, and emitted a medley of squawks, neighs and moos, mixed with snatches of dialogue from movies and ululating calls of – ‘Auto! Auto!’ – a large green bottle had been scooting around the Inorbit Mall in the suburb of Malad, creating a stir.

A very good beginning to a paragraph as it is, I feel that the impact would have been more if the author had truncated it to this effect –

‘All afternoon, a big green furry bottle wildly waving two arms – and emitting a medley of squawks, neighs and moos, mixed with snatches of dialogue from movies and ululating calls of ‘Auto! Auto!’ – scooted on two short legs around the Inorbit Mall in the suburb of Malad, creating a stir.’

For even though, I started liking the book well enough to thinking of buying it, I found it still a bit laboured on its humour. None of the delightful – Buddha running through a village wit. And it makes Arzee's relentless self-pitying stream of thoughts tedious to read after some time. In my opinion, humour is the most brilliant ink that a pen which speaks of human tragedy dips into. The reason I go back to reading 'English Augist' once every coupe of years is to relish the brilliant wit with which Upmanyu underlines Agastya's alienation and his inner throes. In fact, the wit in Arzee reminded me of a friend's, a comparison I will speak about later. The author needs to work there.

Coming to the lecture, after the browsing, I realised that the book was not for the casual reader – though the writing is very simple and straight-forward – since the freshness of breath from the urban angst and my college strongest my life coolest sophomoric stuff churning by the gazillions would be lost in most people who have not anguished between the yawning gap between the writings from other countries, even Pakistan, and our own. I imagined a small quiet high-brow huddle where I will furtively lurk in the shadows like an interloping mosquito looking for a silent suck of blood while no one was looking.

Imagine my surprise, when the door opened to an auditorium with around a hundred people sitting in plush sand-brown seats and the author confidently standing on the bare stage, bare but for a Perspex lectern with the British Council logo on the author’s right and a low table with a glass top and spindly legs on his left with a few standing copies of his book. I was directed to one of the two seats available somewhere in the middle. As I sat, I realised that there were a few seats available in the front two rows where I thought, rightly so as I later realised, I recognized a few faces from some of the cross-referential literati blog posts.

The talk was short – an hour at the most – and I soon realised, too basic for my taste. Instead of budding writers, or even mature readers, it was catered more towards budding readers. And in this, as the Q&As revealed, the author had gauged the standing of the majority of the audience well.

Chandrahas is a natural speaker, reminding me again of the friend whose unfortunate short-coming (I couldn’t resist the pun) of low wit he shares, but seems like an honest and nice guy. And no doubt, humble. (Here the author describes his reading skills as humble which, after listening to him talk impromptu and make much sense, I am sure, are not.)

He spoke mainly about rules of writing which to sum briefly were – read without a plan and outside your comfort zone, the power of knowing the etymology of the words you intend to use (I found his “my favourite book being Oxford Eng Dictt” a bit fatuous), keeping a notebook (Loved the phrase he used – catching a thought on its wing), making notes on the book you read (which I do, read Anne Fadiman’s excellent Ex Libris for an entire chapter on this), reading poetry (alas! My Achilles’ heel!) to understand why words need to be used sparsely and powerfully – though Arzee itself, I feel, is a bit too worded, think about form beside the content – not very well explained but I understood what he meant – the thought he’s put on form shows beautifully in Arzee, using the internet and being patient.

He spoke almost nothing about the book – the wings of whose expectation had flown me fotry kilometres from my Aravali perch after taking a half day leave. Where he labored the most, which word he spent a couple of months searching for, the pangs of self-doubt, the brilliant epiphanies on the darkest nights, the inspiration for some thoughts incidents and characters, the subtle interplay he’s trying to point towards – none of it.

And once the Q&A started, I realised that most of the audience, and by most I mean something over 95%, hadn’t read a word of Arzee.

The beginning question was ‘I read the line by Atal Bihari Vajpayee “You can choose your friend, not your neighbours.” How do I include them in some Hindi poetry I want to write?’ this was uttered in halting English by a young man, something that usually makes the British Council tuitions attending types either snickering or nodding in vigorous guilty awareness of their privileges, and was so attended.

With this question, I realised one another aspect of Chandrahas – his greatness, or perhaps his astounding ability to not let his befuddled frustration show. For me this question is like asking ‘Meri nani mar gayi hain, main kalkatta kaise jaun?’ in a forum to answer question on AIDS. Kudos to Chandrahas to actually form some reply to it with lots of laughs and warmth.

An unlikely trio sat in front of me, behind the girl with a smile to stop your heart, a tall thin man with hair of a shape I do not have the vocabulary to describe, another with a looooong pony tail and again bony features, and – here the unlikely part starts – a well built sardaarji, slightly towards the flabby, with a mountain of a turban. Throughout the lecture, they exchanged meaningful glances (no, not those meanings) and even titters – if that word could be used to describe the giggles of males like these. I was rather awed by their act and decided that they must be knowing something about the author that I didn’t. A passing mention of the young gentleman on my right who brought memories of attending lectures in audis like this when, for some reason, he would get flustered every time I took some notes, and then hurriedly copy them from my pad to his.

After this brilliant start, the sardaarji raised his arm. I caught my breath waiting for him to stand tall and reveal that he was Rushdie in guise. Instead, the sardaarji started with an introduction to his doctor self (Chandrahas had mentioned his admiration for people who can follow literary fiction besides working) – I was shocked when he mentioned that he had eight years of experience, same as mine more or less, when the man was clearly a decade older than me at least but thankfully he mentioned that he’d switched a few jobs before medical. After the brief biodata, the question came. The author had said that you should read deeply and stuff you can’t comprehend right away, while in competition exams you’re required to read comprehensions in minutes! Laughter.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the wit! The sort you find in small-town parties tottering with a glass in hand and placing a hand over your shoulder and shouting in a stale whiskey-laden breath ‘Young Man!’

I would have rolled my eyes all the way back if the girl in front had not been turning her head behind to have a look at the sardaarji.

More questions were asked. All of them almost screaming that no one (save perhaps a couple) of the questioners had even attempted to understand where the author was coming from. Some of the questions were like asking Geet Sethi about carrom. These are the times you want to kick Delhi in the nuts. Its loudness, its obsessive hankering to talk talk talk and strut strut strut without caring to first nurture the substance within. I doubt if these standard of questions would have been asked in Bangalore or Chennai.

The sardaarji tried to butt once more in – without feeling the need, this time, for the author to pass him the turn to speak or the mike to be passed to him – but the author was able to cut him very skilfully.

The session over, we lined to buy the book. The author had mentioned that he’d sold only 20 books so far and I hope to heavens he was joking. Working on sales projections this month, you realise that even the tiniest niches of India’s emerging consumer class translates to a consumption of billions of dollars. And here you have this fine famous blogger and reviewer with a commendable book and he’s managed to sell twenty?!

I shuffled and ran into a discussion where an author suggested I join his fan club, and I politely refused. Behind me in the line stood a lady I recognised from a jacket blurb of short stories collection I had browsed through the day before. Mridula Koshy. A down-to-earth sweet lady. I had read only one story of hers, and not been able to concentrate enough – she doesn’t write easily – to form an opinion. Some other time maybe.

After some time we realised that the line was being cut abundantly and concentrated on moving ahead. And so I finally met Chandrahas who took the book I had just bought (at 20% discount! Touche, LandMark!) and hurriedly scrawled over it uttering some polite gurgles both of us didn’t give much weight to – especially after the couple of minutes he’s spent bending an ear to listen better to the girl ahead of me. (Yes, he’s not quite dwarfish.) Just as Chandrahas took my book to sign, the sardaarji made an appearance behind him and shouted that the author seriously consider his question -- to which Chandrahas laughed and promised to take it offline.

Once over, I hung around the back of the audi. A stage always makes me feel sad and remember my happy days on it; and I sat on a seat in the back drinking the stage, the curtains parted aside, the wings, the stereo, the lights, the carpeted aisles dropping to it – and left after some minutes.

I walked from there to CP, taking the outer circle where the shops are more crowded and bustling than the inner, drinking in the sights I always took for granted and am so denied in the sanitized cocooned urbania of Gurgaon, had some bhelpuri, followed some cops as they went about harassing street hawkers and push-cart vendors, even those with licenses, and sat under a tree for an hour, at the corner of the inner circle. I watched people board autos – I still vividly remember the African teenaged boys, the Keralite huddle in their mundus(?) haggling with a boy selling handkerchiefs, a very pretty girl cross the street with a bearded admittedly-handsome fella, and listening to a spindly young man on my right, who sat on his haunches on the cemented circle under the tree, and told someone on the phone that things will improve after September and not to think of marriage before that as his good time is staring after October.

I don’t know why I wrote so much today. It’s been a day without meaning – a day like the ones I used to spend a long time ago never knowing how much I will miss them. This is the first time I am speaking in words about these days. My last years in Lucknow and then Bangalore were spent in the shadows of such events (not in Lucknow tho’) and shunting around markets watching people – always absolutely alone. And silent. When I came back home, when home was not an empty apartment and I had people to ask me where I had been, I would give non-committal replies – and not that I knew the answers. These were my happiest days.


Nothing Spectacular said...

i couldn't have put it better myself (the last bit of your blog). such days usually depend on me - every time i lose myself and my ridiculously trivial present to reopen the portal to the fantastically relevant future, such days come about. though i can always do with more!

Karan said...

Anshuman, very well written, evocative piece. Strangely, I have been following your blog avidly since someone pointed out a scathing negative review(and that's an understatement)of me and subsequently, my novel, on it.

Your views on my writing notwithstanding, I find your writing very meaningful. Was inexplicably touched by the last few lines today so decided to drop in a word.

Hope you keep writing--and even increase the frequency of your posts.They do make a difference!

Karan Bajaj

gayatri said...

How true about book reviews - esp. part where questions are like asking Geet Sethi on Carrom.
Long time ago, i went to a famous (internationally acclaimed) Indian doctor's book launch. He summarized that his latest book contained all the facts relating to how to have a healty heart including not eating Maida, fried stuff etc. And at the end of it, the high tea was nothing but full of carbonated drinks, pastries, samosas - all things he had mentioned were "avoid".

Bland Spice said...

It sometimes surprises me how the writings spilling almost unaware, opening an unknown facet of my own life, and which i feel almost shy to reveal -- sometimes, finds a resonance in other people's hearts.

Vishesh and Karan, thanks for the comment.

Karan, you have a really big heart! Do understand that my reviews are also a brand of over-the-top humour I try to inject.