Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Local: a book reading

Had that rarest of experiences today, a book reading/discussion that was actually enjoyable - as compared to the usual incestuous, self-congratulatory, littered-with-literati, look-at-us-we’re-the-Few-Who-Read affairs (yes, yes, I know I have three fingers firmly pointed back at myself, but I’ll still rant self-righteously). The occasion was a relatively modest one, nary a fancy toothpick in sight, and the centre of attention was Jaideep Varma (who I mentioned here, in another context) and his book Local, about an advertising executive who deals with the madness of life and travel in Mumbai by spending his nights in the local trains.

As the careful reader might have gathered by now, I’m not a fan of book readings. They usually bore the living daylights out of me; through long and painful experience, I’ve learnt that I lack the fine sensibilities required to appreciate an author’s eloquence in bringing his characters to life for an audience. So this pleasantly informal little event (held in an area that couldn’t have been more than 10 ft by 8 ft) was a nice surprise. Very spontaneous, nothing that resembled a rehearsed speech. One of the things Jaideep got right was to read out six or seven short, punchy excerpts from his book, rather than a single l-o-o-n-n-g, eye-glazing, soul-deadening passage. I have a low attention span and this sort of thing works for me; at a reading a few months ago, where Salman Rushdie read out a complete short story he’d written, I failed to register anything beyond the first few sentences. (And just so as not to confuse issues, yes I still am a Rushdie fan.)

But enough about all my flaws. I haven’t read Local yet so this isn’t a plug, but I found the premise interesting based on those few passages I heard. (Blogger Nikhil Pahwa, who I met at the event and who has spent much time traveling on Mumbai’s trains, knew a lot more about the book’s subject matter than I did.) Will get around to it soon.

Oh by the way the debate that followed the reading was interesting too, though it focused mainly on topics that are far too complex for a short discussion: the fact that there isn’t enough good writing on contemporary life being published in India, and who is to blame for this –writers, publishers or readers? Or – shudder – the media? (In my insider capacity, I had touched on that aspect with Jaideep before the event began - don’t get me started on some of the A-class morons masquerading as book page editors, and the bizarre notions they have about what is relevant and what isn’t.) Also, the economics of book production, marketing and publication. The spurious distinctions made between pulp and literary fiction. And other things I don’t remember now. Lots of nice banter between Jaideep, the IndiaLog editors and Vijay Nambisan, who was guest of honour. All very cosy and everyone agreed to disagree, which is the best thing to do at book discussions, as in life.


  1. I feel the exact same way about book readings (however, I still keep attending them!). For some reason, I can't focus for more than 5 minutes if I don't take notes. even if it's a topic that interests me, I usually find myself zoning out. I like it better when the author just chats with and answers questions from the audience, as opposed to reading straight from the book. I figure I can read the book on my own anyway, I'd rather hear what the author has to say on his/her book and other issues.

  2. kindly elaborate on the books editor theme :)

  3. Michelle: my thoughts exactly.

    Samit baba: not who you think (in fact, no one you know). More later.

  4. what purpose do these book readings serve?

    a while back when i was based in mumbai i had made an effort (yeah in mumbai its an effort) to attend one of these. ashok banker's reading of his first volume of ramayana. maybe it was a bad choice, but the whole shindig seemed like an 'event'. it was like a theme party(theme: piety), banker is kurta clad that too in full white and flaming tika on his forehead, sitting cross legged on a small stage. his voice trembled at certain moments indicating something of great importance is being touched upon RIGHT NOW. to complete the scene there were women who kept their heads covered with their pallus, and the men looked somber enough.

    and then came the question and answers. sorry to say that but the journos asked the most inane and pissing off questions. the classic one being(if i remember correctly) do you think the ramayana has any relevance in the current day.

    am i supposed to beleive that these things actually sell more books? and if they actually do that, do they sell in such huge volulmes that the authors would subject themselves to such mindlessness?

  5. Thanks Jai for being there and for what you said. Hi theidiot, we meet again! But this time, i totally agree with your observations on readings and banker's, in particular. Banker is a completely inconsistent nutcase anyway, but readings are generally a very strange phenomenon i cannot fully understand. Sometimes i think it is really only for the media, but sometimes, especially when the mainstream media is not covering you, it at least lets a few people know about your book. A few sell too. No, not huge volumes, but better than zero.

  6. Jai,

    Did you say 8X10? Please tell me you're talking about meters, not feet!

    If in feet, it sounds like it might have been uncomfortably cozy...

  7. Amardeep: yup, thought about it later and realised I'd exaggerated. But honestly, it couldn't have been more than 12 by 14 feet (the area where the small audience was seated, that is).

    Eight by 10 meters would actually have been extravagant by the standards of many book events in Delhi. Except the large celebrity-infested shindigs (though even in those most of the people are clustered in a small space,around the kebab-bearing waiters!)