Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Book Launch And A Diwali

During the 17 years of my professional life, I have always faced the dais, sitting quietly among the audience and taking notes. So it was natural for my mouth to go dry when I walked into the hall that was now beginning to fill up with people who would soon comprise the audience, listening to veteran theatre artiste P.C. Ramakrishna read from my book, Chai, Chai.

When the Madras Book Club proposed to hold a launch function in Chennai, I politely made two requests. One, Mr Ramakrishna should read from my book. I had heard him read V.S. Naipaul and Dom Moraes when these two idols of mine visited the city on different occasions, and since then it had been my secret dream to have Mr Ramakrishna read from my book if I ever wrote one. His voice makes even mediocre prose sound lyrical. Request no. 2 was that I should not be asked to speak at the function: it is nice to have a chat with individual readers and guests during high tea or a cocktail party, but the thought of addressing an ‘audience’ has always made me hugely nervous.

Fortunately, both my requests were accepted. But I was told that Mr Ramakrishna would have a ‘dialogue’ with me after the reading. Which meant I still had to face the audience and speak – no escape. About two dozen guests were already there when I walked into Binny’s Hall at Taj Connemara. I shook hands with some familiar faces and then headed for the water counter. I took a few sips, but my mouth remained dry. The hall was filling up fast. Few more sips of water, but no luck.

A well-known face walked in. He bought a copy at the venue and came to me. He said he could not stay on because he had a meeting, so could I please sign it for him now? He was Ramkumar, the well-known producer and the son of the legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan. “I think I’ll finish it tonight,” he said, and asked me to write down my email ID on the back page. My mouth began to feel better.

It is pointless to narrate what happened during the rest of the evening because it was a public event and those who were present are bound to have their own opinion about how the function went. As far as I am concerned, I was hugely nervous then; but now, looking back, I feel smug. Mr Ramakrishna read from my book – a dream come true; the hall was packed – the nightmare of empty seats averted; I signed over 30 books – and I am no Naipaul. The evening of October 15 was indeed a gratifying one. My heartfelt thanks to all of you who made the evening successful, especially the two readers of this blog who came all the way from Bangalore only for this event.

But the most gratifying moment that evening, for me, was when Mr Madhu, a senior member of the book club, said nice things about my blog while proposing the vote of thanks. He singled out this post for heaping praise on Ganga Mail – the story of a woman called Shivani who, at 40, realises that all her life, she has lived as a dutiful daughter, a dutiful wife, a dutiful mother, but never as herself. “And the only time when she is herself is when she is standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom,” Mr Madhu told the audience about my post. I felt quite proud, till I realised my father was there too among the audience. But father is cool; it would have been embarrassing if mother was there. She would have certainly asked me later, “What all do you write? You have a wife now, so who is this other woman called Shivani? When will you mend your ways?” But then, as most of you know, my mother missed the event by about six weeks.

If at all there is something that makes me truly glad about the evening, it is the date: October 15, just two days before Diwali. Today is Diwali. If the Gods had not been unkind, I should have been in Kanpur now with my family, smelling and savouring the typical autumn fragrance in the air, rather than putting up with the incessant sound of crackers that shook me out of sleep at six in the morning. The sound was so loud that I knew someone in my building was bursting the crackers. For a while I lay on the bed, putting up with the explosions. But when they became unbearable, I went to the balcony to spot the source of the obnoxious explosions. To my great surprise, or should I say horror, it turned out to be the middle-aged woman in the building who still has the power to make heads turn. From the balcony, I watched her placing the ‘bomb’ on the road, bending over to light the fire, in the process thrusting out her ample but shapely posterior, and then running back as the ‘bomb’ exploded. Her family, standing at a safe distance, applauded her. Still half-asleep, I could not decide whether to appreciate the sight of her thrust-out butt or to feel irritated by the explosions. But my road was in a mess: littered by paper fragments from the exploded ‘bombs’.

I have never stayed in Chennai, or in any other place, during Diwali: all my life, no matter where I have been, I have always made it a point to be in Kanpur during the festival, come what may. The only exception was the year 1994 when, for reasons I can’t recall, I was detained in Delhi. As the years wore on, I took the Diwali visits very seriously. My mother had developed a heart condition, and one never knew which Diwali would be the last one in the company of the entire family. I tried to make the most of each visit, taking as many pictures I could. Each year, after the end of Diwali, I would touch wood and take the train or flight back to Chennai.

But I had no idea that the Diwali of 2008 would be my last Diwali with the entire family. My mother, in spite of her dilated heart, wasn’t doing so badly. Nevertheless, I took pictures as usual, little knowing that they would be the last pictures I would be taking as an unorphaned son. My mom died just six weeks before this year’s Diwali. According to Hindu custom, we are not supposed to celebrate any festival for one whole year. So even if I went home this Diwali, it would have comprised awkward and painful moments between me, my father and my brother.

Therefore, the book launch came in handy. The success of the event distracted us from the fact that we should all have ideally been in Kanpur at this moment. So, is there God who first buggers you and then seeks to alleviate your pain? I do not know. I want to show you a picture of my mother which I took last Diwali – little did I know then that this would be our last Diwali together. I sought blessings from this picture when I went for the book-launch function.


Rg said...

Perhaps each pain is always rewarded by a ray of happiness to complete the circle of life and its balance. It may be vice versa as well. I dont know.
All I can say is I am sure your mother was with you today. She was there beside you, with you. Marvelling at your happiness and anxious with your nervousness as you launched your 'first' baby.

hems said...

My Namaste to aunty-ji. I'm sure she was smiling at the sight of her son's shyness in front of an admiring audience!

Anonymous said...

as far as the book launch is concerned, you played the writer really well.
And, Iam sure, your mother was the happiest that evening to see her son's dream come true...

Ardra said...

Felt very happy to read about the Book launch. May there be many more.
I too would like to think that your mother was with you that day and always...

Krishnan said...

Itching to get hold of your book. Read a good review of it in The Hindu today.