It’s the Paris Book Fair. But only a silly fou would not call it the Salon du Livre de Paris. In fact, only a crétin would have been inside the gigantic interiors of the Porte de Versailles exhibition grounds between March 23 and 27 and conduct conversations in a language other than français. But then, for five days there I was, sitting at my publisher’s stand, telling every sucker paying 6 euros (Rs 330 a pop, ladies and gentlemen!) to buy the French pocket edition of my novel that I hardly spoke French. “Je ne parle pas français,” spoke the automaton bearing my name.
Secretly, I had hoped to bump into that Parisian, Milan Kundera, whose 2005 book Le Rideau (The Curtain) will very soon be available in its English edition in India. Instead, I rubbed shoulders with some of the most happening crop of Indian writers. This year’s Salon had as its special theme, Lettres Indiennes — Indian literature, for those who have problems with my accent. So I was prepared to pretend being a writer in the presence of real ones like I. Allan Sealy, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amit Chaudhuri, Githa Hariharan, Tarun Tejpal, Sarnath Banerjee, Ruchir Joshi, Ravi Shankar Etteth, Urvashi Butalia and Altaf Tyrewala.
Apart from dropping by at various discussion events involving the likes of Shashi Tharoor (who preferred Evian to Koffi), Sunil Khilnani (who actually managed to find a cricket bar near his hotel where he could follow the World Cup), Vikram Seth (who sat sage-like with his fingers interlocked, head thrown back and eyes closed probably thinking of the Chinese poet Du Fu while the drone droned on), I also managed to share the stage on a panel discussion with the venerable U.R. Ananthamurthy.
Me protests too much
To begin with, the subject of the discussion was what the French too call ‘dodgy’: Protest and Writing. After T. Tejpal nicely pointed out that writing doesn’t aim as much to protest as it aims to subvert, after A. Chaudhuri had read out (as a protest?) one of his poems that stemmed from him once hearing the word ‘rioting’ on TV in Berlin and mistaking it for ‘writing’, after G. Hariharan spoke about the writer also being a citizen and therefore having duties, after A. Tyrewalla had announced that he was a Byculla Boy who has grown up around incidents of everyday protest, after I. Hazra had muttered something about writing — and drinking — being little acts of protest to rectify a boring life, it was U.R. Ananthamurthy’s turn to hold forth on how Indian writers writing in English had succumbed to the imperialistic-hegemonic “language of George Bush”. Hurt and feeling suddenly like a genuine-fake Louis Vuitton handbag that is sold next to Leopold’s in Bombay, I reacted churlishly.
“But Mr Ananthamurthy, we wouldn’t have been able to understand each other, you speaking Malayalam and I speaking Bengali, if it wasn’t for English. What is this clamour for being ‘authentic’?” It was only later that someone kindly pointed out to me that U.R. wrote in Kannada.
Never at the ambassador’s
Being outside the 30-strong possé of writers invited by the Sahitya Akademi and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations gave me the relative freedom of an unscheduled five days in Paris. Also, not representing my State or Church in Paris allowed me to quaff more Beaujoulais than deemed ‘writerly’ according to Akademi regulations. Ruchir Joshi was very kind, though, to supply me within the book fair grounds with quarter bottles of Merlot at regular intervals — this supply coming in good stead while signing copies of my novel and talking to my publishers about the utter genius of the English chanteur Morrissey and explaining them the basic rules of cricket.
But there was one evening when I did not mind participating in desi fun. The Indian ambassador in Paris was hosting a dinner’n’drinks at his residence for the real writers. The only problem was that I, a mere journo with pretensions of being a novelist, wasn’t invited. Even with my publishers insisting that everything had been arranged and that I would not be thrown off from the ambassadorial steps, I took up Tarun Tejpal’s kind offer to ‘lend’ me his invitation card.
As I negotiated with the Paris metro and asked an Arab gentleman for directions outside the Bir-Hakeim station (“So you’re going to the Indian embassy, eh?” he said suitably impressed), I kept thinking whether I would get star treatment for being one of France’s best selling Indian writers, for being Tarun Tejpal, that is. The evening was supposed to have started at 7 pm. It was drizzling and 8.30 pm and I was still walking the streets of Paris, the sky above intermittently lighting up with the sweeping beam from the nearby Eiffel Tower. Reluctantly, I foresook my Tarun Tejpal persona and decided to have dinner at what turned out to be a truly wonderful Vietnamese restaurant. And the best part was that the owner, for some reason or other, thought I spoke excellent French.
I would only know later that the ambassador had buckled under the pressure of playing host to a veritable free-for-all. “By some time in the evening, he had started picking up napkins from the floor,” said one invited author who was there. “Suddenly we found ourselves being served desserts,” said a slightly disappointed publisher.
Mind your language
There were two groups of people who bought my book at the Salon. One group bought it because they liked the blurb; the other, because they were “fascinated by India” and wanted my book as an addition to their collection of bandhnis and Shah Rukh Khan DVDs. A lady requested that I write her name in Hindi on her copy. I explained that my mother tongue was Bengali and wrote something nice in Bengali. Half an hour later, she was back looking upset.
“Isn’t he also Bengali?” she asked fishing an Amit Chaudhuri novel out of her bag. Apparently, Amit had insisted on writing a line only in English. I comforted her by telling her, “You know these big authors...”