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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


It may not always show but I'm a stressed wreck before every session. I need aqua pura - lots of it. The throat feels parched all the time, the thoughts seem like a steady stream of unconsciousness, the hour always seems 60 minutes too long. Then the session starts, time flies, so much is said and when it's all over, I realise I've barely got past 5 of my 20 prepared questions - the rest of it has developed through the discussion. All of this happens at lit fests organised by experienced folks and festival directors.

A couple of months ago, in a fit of fool-hardiness, three good friends got together. They talked books. They talked authors, the ones they met, the ones who never got heard, the way they should be - for various reasons and on a whim they started something called Literatti. One of the friends happened to yours truly. The minute we thought we had the perfect thing going, our Marketing brain - Tripta Singh moved to Hong Kong, Maniza ended up with too much on her plate. That left me - the last woman standing, that's till Jayapriya of Jacaranda walked right in. Her confidence inspired me, we could get the author readings back on track.

That's how 'A Reading by Rana Dasgupta' happened. Rana was one of my first guests on Off The Shelf. I'd loved the book, the fairy-tale take on globalisation. We'd ended that phone conversation, so many moons ago with hope of meeting somewhere in the world. That meeting happened this year at the Ubud Writers Fest. Rana mentioned a visit to Singapore, something that had me enormously exicted. Let's do a reading, I suggested. He agreed and that was the start.

As an author, Rana is brilliant. He's also a publicist's dream. And if I may add tech savvy, his website is proof. Send him an email and you get a response quick time.

Why was I nervous then? We'd discussed how we'd do the reading. Rough formats always help. People had RSVP-ed. But by 2:45pm, only five bright students from the Global Indian International School had arrived. Then Zafar got there and it was a relief. When I asked him if everyone who'd said yes, would show, he calmly assured me, they would. After all, it was a Saturday afternoon and timing's do tend to fluctuate.

Rana was wrapping up the last of his interviews downstairs and true to Zafar's word, the room was filling up. Having moderated authors sessions across continents, I know there's nothing like a room filled up, an audience is what everyone needs. A couple of thoughts were playing in my head, though there wasn't much time to engage in it, the school students had questions for me.

"What shall we call you, Mam or Aunty?"
"You can call me, Deepika."

"No, that would be disrespectful," they reminded me.
"Then, whatever you wish."

"Aunty, we haven't read the book, can we still ask questions?"
"Of course."
"Is he a nice author?"
"You'll find out in less than 10 minutes."

The students from 6th and 7th standard and their questions were the biggest assurance that we'd got something to remember on our hands.

The reading was part of the lead-up to the Singapore Writers Festival. And Phan Ming Yen, Director, Artistic Development, The Arts House gave us a short and sweet trail of Crossings.

With that, it was time to know Rana and his writing better.

Singapore turned out to be the perfect talking point. One of the stories in 'Tokyo Cancelled' was inspired by the time he spent in Malaysia, his visit to Singapore and the contrasts between the world. A short reading followed. Then it was thoughts fast and furious. Globalisation and literature, the significance of fairy tales for writing about the contemporary world, the places he picked. Why writing? Was it fool-hardy to plunge into writing full-time? Like many others before him, Rana's debut was also written while he had a full-time job that helped him criss-cross the globe, with some places inspiring some of the stories that made it to the book. Then his move to Delhi - something that was meant to be a three month experiment. "It was love," he said of his journey to the Indian capital. Three months has turned into a couple of years and the energy of the city, the people around him continue to inspire him as much as they did, the first time he got there. Then the 13 stories - not a story less, not a story more. It was nothing to do with luck or numbers, it was more a case of the number of stories that fell in place. Sharing his writing. Rana had no qualms on that front or taking the criticism or comments that follow.

The conversation was interspersed with sharing of stories of flights cancelled. The students in our midst turned out to be the perfect story-tellers. One of them was too young to remember, she told us, but she did remember where she was when the flight was cancelled, another one made a will leaving everything to her friends, one delightful boy spoke of his life in transit, a long-distance flight cancelled and how gameboy came to the rescue. There were some stunning tales in a perfectly global landscape.

We sat between worlds, inspired by works of art, thoughts, questions, the title of the book questioned:
"Why 'Tokyo Cancelled' why not Singapore cancelled or KL cancelled?"
"Was 'Tokyo Cancelled' your title?"

"No, I had over 100 possible titles, scribbled in my note pad and I can't imagine I ever thought of them."

"Who is your favourite author?"
Rana picked Roald Dahl and left us with this gripping reading from his forthcoming book, currently titled 'Half Life'. It's set in Bulgaria, look out for it in 2009....

With the exception of his back, which tortures him every morning, the man's health is still passable, and yet, by the sheer force of numbers, his death cannot be so far away.

As a child, the man watched his grandmother stick up biographies of the dead on the trees outside their house. She had come from a village near the Black Sea - cut off, now, by the border - and it was the dead from this distant village whose accomplishments were memorialised on the trunks of the plane trees planted equidistantly along their street. Every day, it seemed, was the death-day of someone or other from that remote place, and his grandmother told him the stories over morning tea as she wrote out her obituaries. She tied them with string to the trees, where they decomposed gradually in the rain, to be renewed the following year.

"How do you remember?" he asked her again and again, for it seemed marvellous that the entire history of that lost dynasty could be preserved in her mind. But his father disapproved of the rural practice, and her own life was never written up on a tree.

Sensitive, like all infants, to the beyond, the man had in those years a powerful sense of the infinitude of generations.

P.S. A special thank you Robin Greatbatch for sparing the venue, the helpful staff who gave 'service with a smile', a new meaning. To everyone from the SWF, the Arts House, Alina from MPH Books, to Jayapriya, Zafar, Bala and everyone of you who showed up. Saturday afternoons are never easy and I'm truly appreciative of the time you spared. And to Rana, for leaving us with so many thoughts. As Ron, rightly mentions on his website: "it takes 20 mins to read a story of the 13 and the whole day to analyse it." In my case, its longer than a day for sure. Don't know about my 8 year old, who has set herself the target of finishing it before her brush with David Davidar. Yes, more readings are on their way. Watch this space.

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