Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What not to do at a book launch

by Gouri Dange and others

(PS: for the vast majority of interested, interesting and graceful attendees at book launches, what you will read below is for your amusement, and not aimed at you at all.)

At the recent launch party at the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park for Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, someone snatched the novelist's glasses from his face and ran off – leaving behind a ransom note asking for $100,000 for their return.

This piece of news finally made me reach for my keyboard and type out a long overdue list - of things that attendees at a book launch are well-advised not to do. No doubt, making off with the writer’s glasses straight from his nose would head the list, but there are other torts and misdemeanours that people would do well not to indulge in.

This list is not just a compilation from my own experiences, but of the experiences of several writers and writer-friends.

First, when we send you the invitation, don’t immediately mail back querulously questioning a) the venue that we have chosen/ are stuck with b) the date that we have arrived at after much intricate planning c) the choice of personality who has agreed to read from and release the book. Of course it could have been at a better place, better time, better season, with a celeb who you particularly like... and we’re sorry for disappointing you on all scores, but we don’t conjure up book launches by twirling a tinsel wand, we put them together after mental, physical, social and financial contortions of the most fantastic kind. So shut up and tell us in time if you’re coming or not, is all that is expected of you.

We writers, forced to be our own marketers and PR persons, are constantly trying to find the fine line between sending you the invite well in advance so that you can plan to come, but not sending it so early that you will forget about it. So whatever day we choose to send you the invite, do not expect us to continue playing secretary to you. Do have the grace to mark the day on your own, in your own calendar/similar device, and don’t expect us to remind you closer to the time. Some of you tend to snap at us when we do remind you. We can’t seem to get it right on this score, so be a little kind and less imperious.

Another constant see-saw that we are trying to work is this: We writers-in-launch-mode realise that your Blackberry gags at attachments, so our anxiously designed elaborate e-invitations end up irritating you. This is why we put the gist – place, date, time – in the body copy of the text. Surely that is considerate enough? So desist from writing to us in an offhand way from your wretched devices instructing us to put it all on SMS format for you so that you can send it to your friends. We understand the good intention, but it’s a pain, and why don’t you do it for us if you really love us? As for jpeg, pdf, corel and other such formats, we would love to pander to your every whim about what format you would like the invitation in, but deal with it, whatever format we send you.

If you really do intend coming for the event, stop groaning about traffic and distances, and plan how you will get there. Keep the address with you – either on your phone or scribbled on your palm (the body part or the device), or on paper or in your head. Do not, and this bears repetition, do not call the writer an hour before (sometimes half hour, or 5 minutes, even) the event itself, and ask for directions. And really, this is just not the time to provide a fresh insight into how the venue and day is all wrong and that parking is such a bitch in your city, and all that jazz. We writers do not personally arrange for your city roads to be such a bitch on any given evening.

Once you have made it to the venue, we really do not want to hear about what a hard time you had getting there, how you had to ditch your car somewhere and hoof it, how you went to the wrong store, and how the cabbie didn’t give you change. On any other day we would have some mindspace for this – today, we don’t.

Once the event begins, it would be nice if you would switch off your phone, and also not keep a fake engaged look on your face while you jab at your phone keys. Really, we don’t want just your bodies there, we want your minds, such as they are, present and participating.

Do not bring your own book that you just published to our book launch and hawk it. It’s plain lousy manners. As for working the crowd with your business card, please...I mean really. Some of you also tend to ask questions in the interactive part of the reading/launch, that are only a verbal vehicle to tell people who you are and how you’re so good at what you do. Stop. Just stop. Go do it somewhere else.

Remember, it’s about the book. So questions about finances, advances, and other intricacies of the book business can perhaps be asked of us on our email ids, but certainly not at the book launch. You are more than welcome to ask and tell about what you liked or didn’t like about the book. But asking after the health of my wealth? No.

When it is time to buy your copy and get it signed from the writer, do not leak out of the door empty-handed. Maybe you don’t want to wait in line for a signed copy and that’s fine. But do buy a copy. Well this isn’t a hard and fast rule...but it would be nice if you’d buy one.

If you do come up to our table for a signed copy, do not use this time to catch up on your/our offspring, parents, pets. This is not the time. And this is certainly not the time to tell us about how you had to make elaborate parking/babysitting/office arrangements to be there. Present the book, have it signed, say nice things, and let the queue move.

At launches where there are things like salmon or oysters on toast served, kindly do not eat the tidbit and leave the toast behind. (This is a well-documented occurrence.) This causes the waiters to walk about with just the dry toast pieces on a platter, and less canny guests end up having to eat those; they then become moody and sulky and tend to leave without buying any books.

Do not walk up to us writers after the launch and ask things like “But where’s the media? No media?” This may come as a shock to you, but a) journos don’t show up for most launches – their story is usually that ‘evenings are hellish at the office’ b) you may have not read them, but we do have reviews and interviews out there; it’s just that you may not see a real live journalist at our readings/launches c) it really is more important for a book to have actual readers present than the media, whatever anyone tells you.

Lastly, if you did not attend our reading/launch, do not appear on gmail chat or SMS two days after the event saying ‘How did your thing go? It was when?’ The answer doesn’t really matter to you, and we both know it. Our fingers can tap out only that many things in one lifetime, and telling you ‘the launch was awesome’ or ‘missed you there’ or some such thing is a waste of taps, which we want to save for our actual writing.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nobody ever finds the one...and everybody finds the one

A couple of years ago, I found myself dealing with a particularly strong round of parental pressure to marry and the simultaneous absence in my life of anyone with whom there seemed any prospect of a happy life together. As I contemplated the twin possibilities of lifelong singlehood on the one hand and a potentially unhappy marriage to someone my mother wheeled out on the other, my future looked bleak. In a moment of weakness – perhaps brought on by alcohol – I told a woman friend what I was going through.
Shaizia had been an ad film producer in Mumbai before giving it up to run a lodge and restaurant in a Tamil Nadu temple town called Thiruvannamalai. She joked about being the first Muslim woman saint in the place. Her experiences, and the difficulties she had been through, had made her wise. I trusted in her ability to give good advice.
But that day, she said something I had trouble believing. “It’s possible to love almost anyone”, she told me.
When we are in love, we believe that no one else can take the place of the loved one. There is, we believe, something unique about the person that makes us love them. In that state, we forgive – and even like - their flaws and idiosyncracies. Of course this honeymoon generally doesn't last, and the scales fall off our eyes. Love then experiences its true test. If it survives the test, we marry and perhaps procreate. If not, we pick up the pieces of our heart and look again.
Most of us do fall in love more than once in our lifetimes. Every individual on this planet is unique (hence that quip: you’re unique, just like everyone else). More than one of those unique individuals can – and usually does – appeal to us, at different times. In fact, in some life-complicating instances, more than one person may even appeal to us at the same time.
I’ve been in love a few times. None of them lasted, to my regret, but they were all beautiful relationships in their own different ways. Some were incomplete, some even unspoken. They were relationships that simmered under the surface, rich with the possibilities of what might have been.
Thinking back, I realise there is little in common in those women I loved. They were all very different people, from diverse backgrounds. Yes, they were all in a certain age band, they all had a decent education, and they were all attractive. But then, there must be at least a million women in this world of six billion people who fit those criteria.
I could possibly have fallen in love with any of them. It was other factors that had determined my choices in the end.
The first of these was availability. I had only ever fallen in love with women who suggested they might be available – not easily, perhaps, but the door wasn’t shut and bolted. These women had come into my life – and I into theirs – at times when we both seemed open to the idea of flirting and dating. Attraction had had the chance to express itself.
The second was proximity. A relationship could develop simply because the person was around to spend time with. I’ve had incredible bonding with at least one woman with whom no relationship ever happened because we were in different cities. Distance snuffed out the flames before they had a chance to spark romance. After endless long Gmail chats and phone conversations, we had moved on to date other people.
We truly grew to love those ‘other people’. The beginnings might have been guarded, and casual. Yet, in time, the relationships acquired a tenderness and affection that was special. The other people became the most important people in our lives. Of course it wasn’t always perfect – is anything ever – but it was special enough and rare enough.
I wasn’t really thinking of love when I entered this other relationship. It seemed like an interesting friendship, with vague possibilities of becoming something more. Yet, it grew to become an addiction. I had not set out to love her. I doubted there could be a relationship between us. Yet it happened, because I did not stop it from happening.
It’s easy enough, really, to fall in love, as long as one is not decided against it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

MIB to the rescue

The French and Belgians are considering banning it. The Australians might follow. The Saudis and Iranians are quite appreciative of it. And in our own India, there are all shades of opinion about it. Considering all the excitement this garment generates, you’d think the burqa is, well, the bikini.

The battle of the burqa — or more accurately, the naqab, which is the veil that covers the face — seems to be about a lot of things. It pits the ‘liberal’ West against the forces of orthodoxy in Islam. It pits feminists against male chauvinists. It pits a secularism that denies individuals the right to exhibit religious symbols in public against those who wish to wear such symbols on their faces.

At core, the issue is really simple. It’s about the freedom of adults to choose their wardrobes. If a person wishes to go about in a bikini, that’s her choice. If she wishes to go about in a burqa and naqab, that’s her choice too. No priest or government has any business telling individuals what clothes to wear.

Of course, priests and governments love to take themselves seriously. They love to exercise control. And they have power, of a sort, so defying them is not always easy.

This is where the MIB should come in to zap those evil control freak aliens in our midst. MIB, short for Men In Burqas, would subvert the orthodoxies of both the governments and the priests simultaneously.

It would subvert the governments very directly, by defying the ban against the garment. It would also subvert the mullahs, because it challenges their use of the garment, which is to establish male control over women.

If men in all the places where the burqa is a contentious garment begin wearing it voluntarily in public, it makes a mockery of all the illiberal forces battling over it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

No God in Sight

Good Hindus believe a dip in the right river at the right spot on the right day resets their sin counter to zero. The Kumbh Mela has grown over thousands of years around this belief. Kumbh bathers believe they emerge from the river with freshly washed souls, and possibly places in heaven.

This year the Mahakumbh is in Haridwar in Uttarakhand till April 28. The river is of course the holy Ganga which is severely polluted like all our major rivers. The perfect spot is a stretch of about 100 m at a place called Har ki Pauri. The right days are 11 holy days, which come once every 12 years. However even among the holy days there is a hierarchy. This April 14 was Mesh Sankranti, the day of the final Shahi Snan, the holiest of holies.

Since there are 850 million Hindus in India, most desirous of clear consciences and heaven, the crowds of bathers on holy days can get rather overwhelming.

Delhi to Haridwar is 208 km. The drive took nine hours thanks to traffic jams. At the end of it, we were deposited in the middle of a jam somewhere on the outskirts of the Kumbh town. Crowds milled around everywhere, carrying bags and bundles on their heads, jostling to unknown destinations. We picked our burdens and joined the unending procession of souls.

It took us another two and a half hours of walking to get to the media centre near Har ki Pauri. It was past midnight when we reached. The officials had left. We had been told there were tents reserved for us, but couldn’t get any. We were homeless.

The HT photographer with whom I was travelling had bumped into a friend on the way. This gentleman suggested we try our luck in hotels. It seemed unlikely we would find a room; the roadsides were jammed with people sleeping wherever they could find space. But Mr Tyagi knew a hotelier, so we went.

Rs 1,200 room for Rs 10,000

It was a plain little hotel near the Ganga called Suryoday. There was one last 3-bed room available. The tariff on the board opposite the reception counter said Rs 1,200. The hotelier said he would give it to us because of his great friendship with Mr Tyagi, but it would cost Rs 10,000 a night. He wasn’t inclined to budge from this price; hotel rooms in the area were being taken for Rs 60,000 for four nights, he said.

Mr Tyagi called a couple of other hotels, and found this to be true. So, after some deliberation, we took the room. Both photographers had cameras and laptops with them. We were all carrying things we were afraid we’d lose. We couldn’t sleep on the pavement.

Over the next couple of days, the crowds increased. On April 14, about 14 million people took the Ganga dip in Haridwar, according to the Uttarakhand police. Haridwar town and district together have a population of 1.4 million. With more than 10 times its population in visitors, the entire town looked like Howrah railway station or Mumbai Central at rush hour.

Everywhere, crowds milled day and night, on their way for the holy dip. No one seemed to know the way. Everyone just walked where the flow took them. It was fine; all roads led to the holy dip. Occasionally, someone would stop, exhausted from the walk, and get shoved along by a waiting policeman blowing his whistle. Stopping was not allowed.

The only places one could stop for a brief bit were the roadside shops. There is an industry of spiritual supplements out there, with stalls selling everything from rudraksha beads to tridents.

Apart from these objects, Babas and Matajis of all hues peddle their brands of spirituality. They stare out of hoardings, selling a range of spiritual options. There’s Soham Baba, whose hoardings call for an end to global warming. And the sants of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who predictably warn that Hinduism is under threat. And even Yogmata Keila Devi, who is a Japanese woman named Keiko Aikawa. Her cause is world peace.

They all have thousands of followers who crowd into their camps. It’s a bit like Pragati Maidan during the Auto Expo, with tents instead of permanent structures, and brands of Hinduism instead of car brands.

I could feel no spirituality in the surroundings. Not in the greedy hoteliers ripping off all comers for as much as they can. Not in the cycle rickshaw pullers, who demanded Rs 1,200 for a 6 km ride. Not in the priests on the ghats, promising pujas at heightened rates. Certainly not in the politicians on their VIP visits, pretending to wash away their myriad sins. Not even in the Naga sadhus who raced into the waters of the Ganga at Har ki Pauri for the Shahi Snan on April 14. It had been reduced to a media spectacle, because there were only the sadhus, hemmed in by rows of police, on one ghat. And facing them, a tower with the world’s media confined to it like animals in a pen, over an empty ghat from which the pilgrims had been forcibly evicted by the police.

And yet … it’s a great pilgrimage.

In our journey, we had become part of the flow of humanity, solitary souls lost in that great river as it coursed to its inevitable destination. Our possessions had become burdens we were forced to carry. Our companions had been chosen largely by fate. Some fellow travellers, we lost in the melee, and could not meet again for the rest of the journey. We encountered greed and corruption, but also the simple faith of the millions who undertook this terrible journey.

The Kumbh is a great pilgrimage, because it is a metaphor for human life.