Friday, August 05, 2005

In August Company
Prufrock Two's post on an article by novelist Adam Langer in The Book Standard, where he divides authors he's interviewed into categories, got me thinking.

One of Langer's categories is "The Genuinely Decent Human Being". My nomination for this category is Amitav Ghosh. I had the privilege of talking to the man during the launch of his latest novel, The Hungry Tide, at the Park Hotel, New Delhi, last year. I had been looking forward to the encounter and had made sure that I arrived half-an-hour early for the event. When he arrived, I was introduced to him by The Significant Other, who had interviewed him a couple of days ago for a story she was doing for her publication. Ghosh, dressed in a simple kurta-pajama, gave me a warm handshake. But before I could strike up a conversation, he was whisked away by his PR handlers. Inside Agni, the Park's resto-bar, he was immediately surrounded by mediapersons and P3P types. I hung around, waiting for an opportunity to speak to him. My repeated attempts to get his attention were being thwarted and I was losing all hope of getting to do a one-on-one with him. It was then that the crowd around him thinned and he called out to me. My mind was racing, I wanted to talk to him about so many
things: about his days in Delhi University's North Campus, his memories of Kolkata's Gol Park and Jodhpur Park, his PhD in Arabic at the University of Alexandria, how after reading the "Calcutta Chromosome", I had visited the SSKM Hospital to look at the plaque honouring Sir Ronald Ross fro his work on malaria there. But there was so little time. And then I remembered an essay of his, "The Testimony Of My Grandfather's Bookcase", in which he talked about his grandfather's collection of books and how it had been the biggest attraction of his visits to his house in Calcutta. Coincidentally, my best childhood memories are those spent at my grandpa's place browsing through his three big bookcases. And it so happened, that there was this book, "The Bridge Over The Drina" by Ivo Andric, which Ghosh had mentioned in his essay. We got talking about it. There was not a trace of any foreign accent in his Bangla, and his English was perfect. But then, time was running out. After all, he was not there to chat with a starry-eyed fan, he was there to launch a book. I barely had time to get him to autograph a copy of "The Calcutta Chromosome", which he gladly did. Ghosh again got caught up in the hubbub of the event. I stood there, a hundred little things unsaid, but euphoric. My day was made.
"He/She Who Does Not Suffer Fools Gladly" is Langer's next category. And my nominee is Khushwant Singh. I remember approaching him once for a quote at the World Book Fair in Delhi's Pragati Maidan. He dismissed me with a curt: "Let me take a look at the book fair first!"
"The Unself-conscious Subject", in my opinion, has to be Arun Shourie (before his brush with politics). This incident again happened at the World Book Fair. Arundhati Roy was signing copies of her just-launched God Of Small Things (this was long before she had become The Activist For Big Issues). In a deep-blue polo neck , she looked stunning. People flocked to her, entranced by her smile and her sparkling nose stud. I suddenly noticed a dapper-looking gentleman pass by, casting a sideways look at the adulation being showered on the New Author On the Block. He looked familiar. It took me a few minutes to realise that it was Shourie. I walked up to him and asked if he too was here for a book-signing event. The man was so overjoyed at having been recognised that he almost embraced me and with a broad smile said, "No, I don't do such things." And with that he melted in the crowd.
“The Real Person And Image Don’t Match Individual” is a category I just created for Upamanyu Chatterjee. When I met him, he looked like a typical St Stephen’s-educated career diplomat rather than the creator of the pot-smoking, Establishment-bashing Agastya Sen.
And, finally, "The Consummate Storyteller" has to be Samit Basu. This guy is a raconteur par excellence.

I heartily agree with all your rankings. And must add one of my own: "Slightly Startled By Own Fame" and the award must go to Anurag Mathur. He is the most nondescript of authors, walking into book launches with a slightly sheepish and guilty air, as if he somehow believes he has no right to be there. And suspects everybody else thinks so too. I've never met a more unassuming author, no, not even Samit Basu, the raconteur par excellence.
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