Two recent book launches in Delhi, or, why The Babu is an embittered soul: Launch number one was Ashok Banker’s. Wherein Ashok, who uttered the immortal line, “You will never see my picture on Page Three” (Page Three being the wretched hell of the tits-and-Indian-ass city supplements) is hijacked by various Page Three photographers, who immortalise his trademark white, I-have-been-changed-by-the-Ramayana homespun gig for generations of Kylie Minogue backside watchers. Next on agenda, Book Reading. This entails Ashok and talented actor Lushin Dubey indulging in melodramatic exchanges from Banker’s Ramayana. In Act Two, enter the Rambhakts who demand to know what Ashok’s view is on Ram’s world finally being reclaimed by Ram bhakts. Ashok says he has no opinion, he’s just a writer. Next up are the Secularists, who demand to know whether Ashok wasn’t upset by a) the demolition of the Babri Masjid b) the killing of Muslims in the Gujarat riots. To which, Ashok Banker replies that he has no opinions, he’s just a writer.
We all adjourn at this point for refreshments: in deference to the holy scriptures of the Ramayana, despite the fact that Banker’s reworked them via Tolkien’s sagas, the fare is vegetarian and distinctly non-alcoholic. The Babu, an embittered soul after these many hours of mediocre prose and below-par questions, reaches for a restorative, which turns out to be something called an Orange Blossom. “Lovely, innit?” trills an impressionable editor, “just like the mocktails in Calcutta bars!” The Babu waits until she’s taken a largish sip in order to deliver his verdict: “Wonderful, tastes exactly like puked up and twice-warmed blancmange.” To the sounds of a hapless editor retching in the loo, the Babu bids adieu to his friends.
The next one up is the launch of the talented Raj Kamal Jha’s If You Are Afraid of Heights. This is far more in the general mould of Indian book launches. Three fearsomely experienced panelists discourse at interminable length about a) the poetry of RKJ’s prose b) the postcolonialist framework in which RKJ operates and c) the fraught question of readership, to which they return the collective answer that none is only par for the course, and Jha, as a writer who owns a certain small but dedicated band of readers, is merely an unruly contradicting example.
Why, you might ask, is the audience silent during the two hours (the Babu does not exaggerate) in the wintry chill of the India International Centre lawns that this discussion soaks up? The answers are: a) they’re all friends of either the author or the panelists b) they’ve been discreetly paid off in advance c) they’re too stewed to the gills with free booze to contest the complete irrelevance of the evening.
What the evening establishes is this: Raj Kamal Jha is an intelligent, iconoclastic writer whose opinions are worth listening to, except that they’re drowned out by the white noise of many panelists attempting to prove their worth; that the only way to keep an audience glued to a book reading/ discussion is to keep them supplied with booze and snacks; and that the most important thing people who read passages from books need to know is this, speak into the mike and make sure that it’s actually on.
And the Babu stumbles out into the cold, seeking his next Kingfisher beer, wondering when the central paradox will hit people: Raj is perfectly capable of holding an audience spellbound on his own—so why was the paraphernalia in place at all? As for the book, it’s miles ahead of the experimental, tentative The Blue Bedspread: here, Raj is a poet of Calcutta, a somewhat over-mannered raconteur of the stories that never get told, a crusader who punctures our view of ourself by insisting that we recognise our silent complicity, our willingness to endorse views that are specious if they promote our own comfort. In other words, despite his nice-man demeanour, Raj is one of the last of the true revolutionaries. The failure of this polite, verbose evening at the IIC is an indication simply that we’re blocking his voice.
But the Babu’s left wondering why book launches, and readings, in India don’t obey a simple rule: delete whatever is extraneous to a conversation. Instead of which, the history of book launches seems to be a history of meaningless digressions. The man who grabs the mike is king, and he will rule until someone braver wrests the mike from his cold, dead hands, and his yappy, repetitive mouth.