By Ganesh Saili
In this time for literary festivals, I find myself returning to Kasauli’s famed Khushwant Singh Literary Fest held a few years ago. As guests, my wife and I had been put up at a lodge above the hill station’s solitary club in an army area. Hearing a commotion on the flat down below, I casually nattered: ‘How nice to hear army jawans on parade!’
‘That’s not soldiers!’ said Abha. ‘Those are some folks protesting against yesterday’s debate!’ True! Only yesterday author Nalini Singh had waxed eloquent about the virtues of secular days.
Day Two: My turn and along with six other authors, I am seated on the stage. Nearby is Iron-Pants – her sole claim to fame was she knew everybody. One look tells me she’s already decided she didn’t like me, regardless of the fact that I had not even opened my mouth. She looks down her nose at me, dismissively with: ‘Strictly speaking aren’t you a non-fiction writer?’
Oops! How I wish I had known that writers came cooked, shrink wrapped and ready-to-eat. Or was she upset seeing me at what she thought was the high table and would be happier to see me where I really belonged – with the chhokra-boys in the backyard – barefoot among the servants.
‘Serves you right!’ I quietly assured myself, despite feeling like a train passenger who had turned up on the wrong platform. But I knew that in the miracle of life, pedestrians do walk into jumbo jets.
Reassured, I am on a roll. I shall go down but not without a fight. ‘Guilty as charged!’ says my disembodied voice.
It is my ‘Not-tonight-Josephine!’ moment but my Inquisitor is like an enraged pit-bull, she latches on with her firmly clenched jaw and does not relent. Refusing to let go, she tosses me in the manner of a rag-doll. Those who know me in my mountain home shall vouch that I have no problem with my people skills. What I need to work on is my tolerance for idiots. Duct tape and bubble wrap would help to muffle the sound, but will refuse to shut up.
‘Didn’t you once write the Kama Sutra?’ She natters, wagging her finger at me, in the manner of a store keeper who has caught me shoplifting.
Through a dark tunnel, I hear a disengaged voice say: ‘Vatsayana did!’ Adding: ‘I did write a chatty commentary.’
Pushed to the wall, how I wish I could turn into the Hulk, thump my chest, half-snarl and hiss to say: ‘Yes! I did and ‘twas translated into two dozen languages the world over.’
Trouble is, while there were times when authors were simply people who wrote, in our times one is sandwiched between celebrity-authors and publishers. You cannot be part of the gang until your sales-graph takes on the appearance of a fighter-jet taking off.
I know there shall be a time. This much I know, I will get back to you by writing about you. After all, to a writer, folks like you are but grist for the mill.
Someone said that there are three things writers can do with a woman. Love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature. But that is the path for noble writers. And she is not epic material. So literature is a no-no. And anyway, I am a peddler of words, I merely yoke them together. My path has to be the middle path. Somehow, images of spools of duct tape and bubble wrap keep entering my mind.
A restless murmur passes through the restless crowd. The packed hall looms like a mountain. But that mountain and I are old friends, we know each other. My luck held as Iron Pants like the Grim Reaper moved on to the next author.
But I will always remember her like gravel in my shoe. And that, my friends, is precisely why old monkeys are caught last.
(Ganesh Saili, born and home-grown in the hills, belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide)