among betters at Amit Chaudhuri's book reading


The British Council had organized a reading by Amit Chaudhuri of his recent book, The Immortals. I have a few visualizations of writers, and this man fit the clean, clever type. He appeared like he had just then risen off a bath, dried, dressed, and come right over. Crisp blue shirt fallen over the trousers, straight hair fallen forward upon the brow—so fresh the audience leaned toward him soon as he entered.

He had a smile that matched, a half grin which on a lesser face would have seemed a sneer. The women must have thought him cute, maybe handsome, the boyish man with the university-look stamped all over him.

I cannot follow a reading, just as I've never been able to listen to a lecture. Precisely when Amit Chaudhuri began to read the old man behind me started to snore. (The first thing Chaudhuri did after picking up the mike was to ask, "is this working?" with the NRI's innocent lost expression. And the mike didn't fail him, in that it did fail him, right after his question, letting off a high-pitched static that crackled until the end.) People suddenly began to cough and softly hawk and clear their throats of the stuff their throats had brought into the clean bright room from the main street.

Many closed their eyes for a better hearing, and I did too, but the old man behind me stopped snoring and began to kick my chair to a metronomic rhythm. I turned round and opened my eyes at him and he gave me a paternal smile and stopped kicking but resumed after a while. I shifted my chair some inches. He shifted his crossed legs and continued to tap my chair-legs with a side-swinging of the feet. I became philosophical, and forgave him, but now I could register nothing any more of the reading except a random word or two, and the names of characters that were repeated—Ram Lal, Shyamji, Nirmalya. I released my eyes and let them rove.

I searched for who looked most intellectual. The women won; the men were too ordinary, in dress and aspect and posture. The most intellectual were the tall young women with large stick-on maroon bindis on the middle of the forehead. They wore matching earthy saris such as they sell in ethnic stores. And the older women seemed very clever too, and the suggestion of awe-inspiring accomplishments radiated from their smart coiffeur: cropped grey hair brushed back and round the back of the neck, and curved down the back of the ear to a sleek finish. The smile on their faces sealed the pronouncement of great knowing.

I glanced at a mountainous man behind me, seated next to the man who wouldn't stop knocking my chair. He wore a soiled silken jacket which slept like a pet upon every square inch of his folded flesh. His hair went up like Lord Shiva's and came down in perfect helixes of electric colors, yellow and red and orange and green, bright and pure, and some color had bled to where his cheeks were free of beard. Was it paint or dye he had given his hair, I couldn't tell. He seemed genial and detached and harlmess, but I had no courage to look on at the very interesting man. He was possibly a musician, and intellectually sound, maybe, because Amit Chaudhuri had nodded to him earlier as he entered. Amit Chaudhuri plays Jazz and Hindusthani and the fusion of them, and a CD of his is recently released.

I enjoyed his reading voice, the lull that writers bring to a reading, and the elevating feeling from being surrounded by extraordinary people. I investigated every face seeking one soul like mine, but I couldn't tell who was level with my intellectual rank. Some people have told me I can give writing a try, and I have sometimes believed them, but, in that room, among some sixty people some of whom were standing, I saw myself better, and the realization hit me hard when Amit Chaudhuri finished his reading and sat and spoke of the concept of nothing. He said the concept of nothing is elusive for today's Indians, and moved on to another idea, the idea of the here being impacted by the elsewhere.

None betrayed themselves to be my peer even when the time came for questions, and the questions I understood even less, except the last question, from a young lady who asked how Amit Chaudhuri tackles the blank page. I took a very good look at her so that I may recognize her when she gets published, as someone I've seen when she was afraid of the blank page. Her face crinkled and flushed just so slightly when she spoke her question, and she was so young and so pretty in her sweater with its broad horizontal stripes, I must confess I was angry for a moment at those blank pages that were worrying her. Whereas Amit Chaudhuri said he fears the blank page only when he's been paid a large book-advance.

The air had cleared and had a sharp pleasant nip to it when we came out, and I could breathe deep and not cough and I walked a happy gait to my car parked some distance away, in UB City. Today, Amit Chaudhuri's book arrived from Flipkart, and it looks good, and I'm looking forward to reading it.