After a pasta-laden brownie-stuffed lunch, M and I whiled away more than 3 hours sitting under the trees in an old bungalow-turned-yellow café in the heart of the city. We planned to have lunch at our usual haunt and follow it up with attending Amitav Ghosh’s reading at Landmark. (AquaM joined us only for lunch.) I was annoyed that the café was unreasonably crowded; inflation apparently had no effect on keeping people indoors. We talked about completely useless things, useless in the economic sense. Nobody would pay us to give our opinion on people, places, or writing. We basked in comfortable silence.
M’s observed that more than half of the population of the café was white. I kept noticing weird things, which could be almost discriminatory. Like the two German guys in the next table were given water in glasses while we were given paper cups. At one other time, I saw a white kid sipping from a glass with a fancy looped straw. I did try not to read too much into it. Maybe, they ran out of glasses and straws by the time they served us. Which brought the topic to Occam’s Razor. According to this principle, a given situation has many explanations, but usually the simplest one is right. But as M pointed out that need not be always be so. And so we aimlessly shifted from topic to topic.
The stack of virgin white paper napkins was so tempting. So I started doodling on them. I drew really bad versions of the sinewy trees that dipped and lifted. I could just about manage the petals of the white flowers that dropped from time to time from the trees. I tried to draw a guy with a red floral shirt but he got up and left as soon as I put pen to napkin! I gesticulated so wildly while talking that the waiter came running to our table. He thought I was calling him! So I put on a smile and acted as though I did indeed call the waiter to switch on the fan.
When we reached Landmark, Ghosh has already started reading. A small part of the store was cleared for a few chairs for the audience and a makeshift podium for Ghosh. The whole affair was very amateurishly handled. Almost all the seats were filled. I had no idea that he was so popular here in Chennai. After his reading, he didn’t know whom to ask whether there was a question-answer session. But people came up with questions anyway. Some were academic, some were inane but he answered all of them with equanimity and humor. The best question – I think – was about why The Calcutta Chromosome differed from his usual oeuvre. And his answer was rib-tickling, “The whole thing actually started with a bout of malaria.” A pause. Two seconds later the stunned audience burst into laughter. Followed by an intellectual explanation: “You know, malaria also induces the kind of hallucinations that opium does.” He played the audience like a professional.
After the questions, we looked around at the books – Ghosh’s books that is – arranged neatly in similar dust jackets. I was so torn between all of them. M chose The Sea of Poppies and finally I chose Dancing in Cambodia, his book of essays. Why? Because it was a really unknown book and I knew that while the other fiction books would be around, this would be the first of the lot that would disappear, not just off the shelves but into some obscure black hole either a University library or worse the store rooms of the bookstore.
We stood in line waiting to get a book autographed. I had never done this. I did get one other book autographed but that was in such a hurry that I caught Arundhati Roy climbing into her car and borrowed a pen from her agent, the famous David Godwin! In the middle of this waiting, a guy came up to us and gave us a piece of paper. He told us to write our names so that Ghosh can write our names down flawlessly.
M went first. And they chatted. When I presented his own book to the author, he looked at my name and went “Oh oh oh!” The reason was that I share his surname, which brought general smiles all around. Then I asked my question – Whom does he write for? Is it himself? And if not, who is his ideal reader? He answered, “I write for my friends…but mostly for myself.” I thought, is that all? Where was the famous Ghosh eloquence? But there were people standing in line. So I thanked him. In any case, I was very happy with the ohs!
Another near-perfect day had come to an end.