We were supposed to have lunch with Sarita, who was organising the reading. I was cool with the idea, sort of, because I was staying reasonably close to wherever they were likely to choose (unless it was some Udipi in JP Nagar or something). But - given the traffic - the thought of turning up in town five hours ahead of a reading because you couldn't go back and return unless you had Scotty to beam you up and back and forth was enough to give you an asthma attack, we decided to meet at the coffee shop attached to Crossword two hours in advance of the reading.
My son and I, always unpunctual, turn up at half past four instead of five. Turning down the aisle with the DVDs, we bump into Sarita, who seems like a soul twin cut adrift - I've never met anyone else who turns up for everything as early as I do and who lurks furtively until it's time to show face. But Sarita is early, we find out, because she needs to get things organised. As we sit in the coffee shop, we see Crossword altered: shelves are carted away, big backdrops appear, as do tables and more chairs than are likely to be filled.
Anjum Hasan joins us soon. Her husband, Zac, had broken his leg a few months ago but will be coming for the reading. I'm secretly gratified, because given the nature of his fracture, I know what an effort it is for him. We've things to discuss, and I'm happy I'd chosen what I was going to read and timed it earlier in the morning. I will be reading two long poems instead of the usual one and I'm more than a little worried about my cough. What if I bend over and start hacking and gasping as if I was being turned inside out, just as the most solemn and breath-consuming poems are about to begin? And with two hours ahead, there's a lot of talking to be done.
People turn up. The chairs fill up. Except for JJ, none of the people here today came for my first reading in Bangalore, so there are no familiar faces. A couple of old school mates - one of them, at least completely unrecognisable (it's a good thing I was told her name. I'd have had trouble remembering) - and a friend from Hyderabad being the only exceptions. Anindita comes in wearing a pink kurta. Practically the first thing she says is, I was wondering if you'd be wearing your pink sari! (I'm not. Why would I repeat clothes? Jools, yes; but not clothes).
It's past seven and the place is more full than I'd have thought - about 35 people. We've spent the previous hour trying to find things for Sanjay - the face of TFA - to say about us. He wants the dope. Anindita and I are reticent. I think Anjum should introduce me, as does Sanjay, but Anjum doesn't want to. She wants to sit and enjoy the reading, and I don't blame her. Finally, armed with the few impersonal lines he has, Sanjay invites us on stage and the reading begins.
Anindita goes first. She said to me that she was nervous but she doesn't look it at all. She has a bunch of printouts that she reads from. We have a lectern, which is better than just a mike. I like to read standing up, but never know what to do with my hands. A lectern is like a table cloth - much can happen unseen behind it.
Anjum had suggested that I should start the questions, because of the awkward silence that drops on everyone straight after the reading is over. I write down the names of the poems, though frankly, not much else registers. I'm looking at my list, wondering frantically if it's too short - I thought I had 20 minutes, but Sarita says I have 30. Midway through Anindita's reading a fly buzzes around her face and the mike. But Anindita handles it really well, shooing it away and re-reading a few lines. Two other things I remember: spontaneous applause after her poem, 'Medusa' and one poem that starts with the 'Dover Beach' line, 'The sea is calm tonight'. Oh, and the Ghazal she ends with.
My turn. I have my notebook with the reading order, and I start. I'm aware of a comment someone made the day after my reading in Rishi Valley, that I ought to give a little more time between poems, for the listener to absorb the words. I rarely say anything by way of explanation - a point that came up in the after-reading interaction at Crossword - so I move from one poem to another almost without pause.
I'm reading very different poems than usual. I've done ten readings in the last three months and I'm sick of the poems in the book. Nearly the only considerations I have are that the listener hasn't heard anything before and I owe it to her to read as if for the first time; and the ways in which I change the reading order gives me a chance to reshape the manuscript, as it were, so that unusual juxtapostitions emerge. But the second is only for me; the audience can have no reason to be interested in reading orders.
Mid-way through my reading, the music, which had been turned down early on, starts to get loud. In the middle of 'Hospital Catalogues', which is practically my showpiece poem, I'm competing with whatever the crap it is on the speakers. As I'm reading, I notice Sarita whispering to Jeet, who gets up and goes away somewhere; other people turn around. I'm surprised I don't stumble through my reading. There's something to be said for knowing one's poems 'by heart'.
I end with the last poem in the book. It's one I've never ever read before, because I've always thought it was too long to hold anyone's interest when read aloud. But I'm surprised to find that it does hold the audience, except for one little bit midway though the third section.
So to the inevitable awkward silence. But since I'd promised to start, I do, with some questions to Anindita. The discussion moves elsewhere. Anjum, who refused to ask questions unless she really had something to ask, had something to say about the choice of subject. She asked it of me, with regard to 'Hospital Catalogues' but I think it was meant for both of us. (Later, at Koshy's we continued to talk about this intermittently, through other conversations. But this is another story.)
This was one post-reading discussions that threw up some interesting points, among them the uses of irony in poetry; the importance (and the lack of) good writing about poetry in India; and the inevitable question about form.
After the signing (and collecting of book coupons!) we severally repaired to Koshy's to wet our whistles. The best compliment I got that evening was when Anjum and Zac both said that I read very well, with a range of emotion and pitch. Yay!
Oh...did I say that in the hours before the reading I had plenty of time to exhaust my bank balance in the buying of films? Derzu Uzala on half-price, Gone With The Wind (I had to own it, you know), and Once Upon A Time amongst other purchases. Sigh.
Those of you who were there - this is the time for you to say what you thought!