The Venue, Victoria Memorial, Calcutta
We stood there, excitement coursing through our veins, too hyped up, even for the coffee being offered for a mere 10 Rupees (10 pence), by a vendor by the gate. We were going to meet our idol, our inspiration for turning to pen and paper in a bid to unravel and interpret our very existence.
We had arrived early, in the hope to grab the best seats, but they, the security, would not let us enter for another half an hour. “What to do?” as they say here. We were right opposite St Paul’s Cathedral and we could see the tip of the hallowed Victoria Memorial, which was to be our backdrop for the evening and we could see men in white polo shirts milling around, with a certain air of authority awarded to them by the badge they wore along with their scowl. We had no choice but to wait for permission to enter.
And eventually enter, we did. Near the front of the line, we made a mad dash for the seating area, a good 5 minutes and a round about route through the Park. We got there, ahead of the crowd we had left behind. We were triumphant and puffed up with success until, ALAS! Not only were there people there before us, but there was also VIP reserved seating for the first three rows. Never mind, we thought, the fourth best seats in the house were good enough for us, Aam Aadmi or ordinary folk. We seated ourselves, a good thirty minutes before the event was due to start and we chatted and learned a bit more about each other.
At the entrance, whilst waiting to be allowed in, I met two girls, who were to be my bosom buddies for the evening. We had made the mad dash together and we, all three of us wrote, or attempted to write. This made for a pretty special bond, in itself. We swore to wait for each other and pull each other along and save seats for whatever the evening had in store. One of the girls was a ‘guest’ lecturer in English Literature, in a Calcutta College another was a third year graduate student in Presidency, an institution mentioned in Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowlands.
Each one of us felt a connection with this literary luminary. For me, it was the fact that her stories centre on the lives of Indian families straddling two different cultures. She has seen what I have seen, experienced what I have experienced. She has seen the longing in her father’s eyes when he related the tales of his youth or the sudden breathlessness in her mother’s voice when she remembers that time at her father’s feet, learning to sing. It was the broken Bengali in English accents the embarrassment at not being able to pick out the bones from fish on a steel thali or the fact that we were neither here nor there.
They call it Diasporic Literature. I call it ‘my life in writing.’
When this beautiful woman finally emerged from the shadows of the enclave, not quite American, not quite Indian, I held my breath. A part, that really vain, ambitious part, that likes to dream, wondered if that could ever be me up there. And when she spoke, it was my life she spoke of. It was a profound experience. The fact that she took books to gatherings so she would not have to interact with those around her, the fact that when she visited India she longed to have a little water bottle to take with her to school, like her cousins. It was those things that suddenly made me yearn to meet her. I needed to tell her, “I know! I’ve faced it too! This exact same thing is what I feel! I too want to write! You are me!” How stupid and weird and darn right crazy!
But then the veil fell away. She was not accessible. I’ll be honest here, because, I can write what I like, it’s my blog and I’m entitled to an opinion and I doubt she cares anyway. She seemed socially awkward. She seemed offended easily and unable to take an objective stance on her own writings. When I asked which was her favourite piece of work she looked horrified. “I don’t have one, I can’t answer that. That would be like which one of my children do I love the best!”
But I know, as a writer, there are some pieces, I have put out there that I can say are definitely better than others. Some I would do differently, some I would print out and frame and keep just as it is. That’s what makes you a better writer right? That’s how you grow, surely? But hey, who am I to make such judgements, I’m not the published author, around here!
She did not want to interact with her fans, and I hasten to add, for the Namesake, her short stories and not The Lowlands, I will always be her fan! She did not want to sign any books, although she was forced to, I think, and she seemed too damned serious! But that’s writers for you, I guess! Who knows! I haven’t met enough of them.
However, it was a magical evening! The Victoria Memorial was the perfect location! I met some wonderful people and best of all, my father was there to experience it with me.
This is why I’m in Calcutta. This is what my life is all about! And here’s to many, many more such wondrous events to come!