On my first trip to the US, I was doing one of my favorite things (browsing through the aisles of a library) when I came across a slim little volume whose title caught my attention. When I lifted the book off the shelf, I discovered that it was dog-eared and had yellowed pages. I opened it and smelt its pages. It had that unique smell books with yellowed pages have so I sat down and began to read at random.
Last week at the Jaipur Literature Festival, a fellow author did the same to my book. He didn’t smell it – perhaps because Pioneer Boulevard is not an old book, perhaps because he isn’t as odd as the author of Pioneer Boulevard – and he was already seated, but he opened my book and began to read where it had fallen open.
We were in the Clarks Amer lounge, and my fellow author and I had swapped books to while away the half-hour before dinner. Like my book, his had an exquisitely designed cover, but unlike mine, the back cover had words like elegiac and lyrical. Since it was a novel, I began reading from page 1. Had it been a collection of short stories, I might have done what I did with the library book so many years ago.
My fellow author’s novel began with a lengthy description of a village scene. I don’t mind a novel opening with lengthy descriptions of village scenes (the Victorian novel is my favorite fiction genre, after all), but the narrative kept jumping from past to present, and the first two pages had far too many “There was’s.”Had I been alone in a quiet room I might have forced myself to get into the book, multiple “There was’s” notwithstanding, but the Clarks lounge was buzzing with activity and more conducive to people-watching. I think a wedding reception was underway in the adjacent ballroom. A teenager, who looked thirty-something because of her elaborate hairdo, fully painted face, and black velvet gown, stumbled towards the restroom in her five-inch heels. A boy in a three-piece suit and bowtie, about as tall as my younger nephew (who turned ten since my last post) and with the same pinchable cheeks,strutted pastwith a self-satisfied smirk. I wondered why these kids weren’t wearing Indian clothes. For weddings especially, there’s nothing like Indian clothes.
To appear to be reading my fellow author’s book, so as not to hurt his feelings (or display my ignorance, should he grill me before dinner), I kept turning the pages at regular intervals, but between that and people-watching, I was trying to discover which of my stories my fellow author was reading. (I’m both proud and ashamed to admit that he seemed to be genuinely engrossed in what he was reading.) I eventually discovered, based on the layout, that when he had opened my book at random, the page had opened to the title story. But this post is not about Pioneer Boulevard or “Pioneer Boulevard.”
Ah, the beauties of print. If I had said that aloud you’d have thought I was engaging in double talk. The italics and quotes make you think no such thing. Whatever else you may be thinking is none of my business, so I’ll get on with my story.
The title of the book I had picked up in that American library so long ago was Only in America. It’s a collection of essays about things that happen only in America (or so the author thought). Imust have read two or three chapters but can remember only one of them. The essay was about a debate at some college on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. One side argued that the plays had to have been written by Sir Francis Bacon because of the erudition in the plays, and the other side argued in favor of Shakespeare. Someone on this side argued that based on the wisdom in the plays, they could only have been written by someone who “mostly stayed home, read a few books, and studied life.”
I never forgot that line (which is why I’ve been bold enough to set it in quotes even though I don’t have the book in front of me), but I didn’t quote it when a supervisor asked for my opinion about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Nor did I point out the obvious problem of nomenclature (even skeptics must refer to them as Shakespeare’s plays). I merely said I believe in genius.
Creative writing teachers will call the foregoing paragraphs “writing in.” By which they’d mean it’s what is cut by editors (who like to cut to the chase). Fortunately I don’t have to worry about editors just now, but in consideration of you, dear reader, perhaps I should cut to the chase. I remembered Only in America because I wanted to title this post “Only in India.” But in Indian English (which I warned you last time I have been brushing up), we add “only” at the end (as in, “I am like that only”). And when in India it’s best to use Indian English only.
I’d like to tell you about some of my experiences these past six weeks and five days in the land of my birth, but I am at an internet café in the nation’s capital and my ride is waiting (impatiently, if the horn means anything). Someone I met in Jaipur had told me not to travel in Delhi after dark. He is an honorable man, and it’s dark now, so I’ll better get going. But I can’t leave you without a story. It’s not a story proper (though I think this is a blog proper). It’s just snippets from a conversation with a taxi driver on my last night in Jaipur (translated from Hindi for the reader who doesn’t know the language).
I was on my way to the Writers Ball, and the driver who showed up looked like a kid. I immediately asked him his age, and he said he was nineteen. Now that’s better than ninety, but I didn’t feel comfortable so I probed further. In retrospect, I should have remembered that ignorance is bliss, but alas, I have a faulty memory. I don’t remember adages when I need them most.
“Only nineteen? How long have you been driving?”
“Not one ant has been killed.”
I don’t know he knew that, but he said it with such confidence that I believed him – until he added, “Once or twice I’ve hit a small animal, but no accidents.”
The Writers Ball was at Le Meridien in an area called Kukas, about 25 km from the city center. The driver had to call his company three times to ask for directions.
“Hotel’s name is Le Median,” I heard him say at one point.
“Le MeRIdien,” I corrected.
“LOVE Meridien,” he repeated. “In Cooker.”
“KuKAS,” I corrected, but this time he ignored me.
Had I not been watchful, we’d have missed the turnout to Le Meridien. I let the driver go when I reached, because a Canadian couple I’d met on the first night of the lit fest were also attending the ball, and they said they’d drop me back to my hotel when it ended. How we got back is an interesting story, but I doubt you’ll hear it. I have more interesting things to tell you when I come back. And I will be back.