Finally, with one night left, I sat down and made a plan of ALL four of my readings. I have to admit that this is one of the most satisfying activities ever. I can sit for hours rearranging the order of poems, finding in every new ordering strange confluences and connections.
I have to also say that my major trauma about packing this time included wondering how I'd pack all the copies of my book in a tiny suitcase in addition to all the things I consider indispensible.*
It's a good thing I'd taken all this trouble. Once in Chennai, I didn't have any time to even look at the list or the book or my new poems before any of the four readings. Don't ask.
Friday, 28th December. Forum Art Gallery, Adayar.
The first reading is always the most anticipated. That's because one has no preconceptions. I don't know how I will get there, what the place will be like when I do (though I do crane my neck when we reach Padmanabhanagar, hoping to identify the house in which I spent a couple of days each vacation in a high fever with tonsilitis).
What I do know is that at least three people I know will be there at this reading. Two of them are family; one of them is a school teacher I haven't seen for more than ten years, but who was pretty much in loco parentis through all my years at Rishi Valley.
Forum is a lovely little space, cool and green. There's an exhibition of Korean ceramics and stuff on but there's still enough space to accommodate about 15 chairs. I wonder if that's too many, going by the reports I've been hearing of readings so far. the mic is being set up and though I don't know it yet, this is the best sound I will have of all the four readings.
The first ten minutes are spent catching up with Uma akka and Dipali's old teacher, who appear to know each other. People start to come and settle down. The place looks reassuringly full. Sivakami, one of the organisers of the PwPF, and a poet in her own right, introduces me and I begin. The reading is informal, with people requesting me to read some poems again (I was trying out some stuff I'd never read before, primarily because I think some poems work better on the page. If I was going to experiment during this festival, this was clearly the audience to do it with.) The new poems came towards the end, though I did return to the book before I finished.
Reading over, people came to buy copies, get them signed and introduce themselves. I met Rahul, who stood at the door to the gallery through the reading, taking turns with his wife to hold on to their baby (who behaved very, very well), and a couple of Caferati folks.
Regrets: I wish that I'd read out 'The Twinning of Cities' here. I never did read the poem out, because it's a very long one and there was no other audience, in retrospect, that seemed attentive enough or responsive enough.
Cheshire Cat didn't come. Bah. (Since regrets, like joys, ought to be multiplied, or at least transmitted asap, Cat, you will like to know that I read out a recent poem called 'Mise en Scène' which is mostly a meditation on Kiarostami's films. Ha.)
Also, no photographs. I remembered only much later. After all the readings were done.
Intermission (Part 1). Vasanta Vihar, KFI.
Uma akka was waiting to whisk me away. We had already made plans for lunch. Siddhartha Menon (his bio, for some strange reason, has Vivek's poems and things), an old school friend who now teaches at RV and who was reading on the same days as I, at different locations, was also to come. Uma Akka and I went ahead, jabbering away as soon as we sat in her car. There was much to catch up on and we got on with the business of filling up the last decade or two. I can safely say that we got to only the introduction by the time we had to leave.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The KFI is a lovely old place, with the kind of white, cool buildings from early in the last century. Sid joined us shortly and many conversations took place but with the unhurried peace of the place itself. It turned out that because of my bio at the PwP site, Siddhartha had been reading my blog. Especially the post on Rishi Valley. We talked about some of the things I said in that post, and Uma Akka joined us with many things to say about the whole issue.
The most bizarre thing about the two hours or so I spent there was how many times people recognised me. It was, truly, weird. The office folk, the ones who deal with videos and books covers and photographs I can understand; but some other lady, someone who was obviously there to visit the study centre, came up to me after lunch when we were washing up, and asked me if I was the girl in the video, the one who said dah dah dah and K held my hand and said something something. I said yes, but I'm astonished. Not least because I can't have changed so little...can I? Come on!
This is also surprising because - I don't know if this happens to anyone else - but it's not often that I can recognise people outside their context. I see a doctor from the hospital at an art gallery, and I know I ought to recognise him, but can't. Or a parent from school who keeps looking at me at a movie theatre, expecting me to know instantly who they are. Now, if the doc had come to the gallery in his OT clothes or the parent had a sign saying S's Parent, it would be much easier.
Intermission (Part 2). Landmark, City Center. Atrium.
Vivek had more or less said he could not make it to any of my readings, but we were going to meet and hang out for a bit. He was already waiting, looking very spaced out. Turned out that he was only chewing over a few lines of something he was writing.
I hate malls. They are noisy and full of people I wouldn't want to meet anywhere. (Barring only friends I've agreed to meet at these places!). Vivek had several things to say about the sounds at malls.
He had mailed me one copy of The Book of Shadows earlier but it got lost in transit. Very sweetly, he undertook to make another copy and had brought it with him. We were like shifty mafiosi, effecting a complex exchange of goods in the most unobtrusive manner possible: books, poems, low-voiced conversations. Someone ought to speak softly at malls, after all!
We exchanged copies of our books which we'd agreed to sell at the others' readings. Vivek gave me two copies. (Vivek, you'll be happy to know that I sold both.)
Oh, and we had a mini reading right there. Since I'd never heard him read his poems, and he wanted to hear some of my new work, we sat and read stuff out to each other. It was more fun than the reading that followed, I can tell you.
Friday, 28th December. Landmark, City Center.
We went upstairs to check out the Landmark (Vivek was going to hear Siddhartha read at the other Landmark, in Nungambakkam) and watched the guy set up. Vivek left and I quietly panicked: the place had more crystal and watches and other stuff than books. I swear to you, it looked less like a bookshop and more like a mela. There were distinct sounds of people haggling. Or at the very least, having a fight over some goods.
The Landmark people had a raised platform with a lectern and a chair. I refused the chair but a photographer from the Hindu insisted that I sit in it and hold my book up and pretend to read. By this time, family had arrived, as had Eric, who though not an organiser, had heard nearly every poet read, sometimes more than once. He warned me that the cordless mike was a bad one and that I should take the other one. For some reason, this appeared to offend the person who was setting up the regular mike and he made a great show of disconnecting everything and beginning to walk off. Eric apologised; the manager cajoled the dude; my panic threatened to become a thing on a grander scale.
Family occupied four of the seven odd chairs arranged. Every reading is supposed to have a volunteer, and so far only Suresh, the guy deputed to escort me to and from my readings, was there. Is someone going to introduce me, I asked him. He didn't know but assured me someone else would be there soon.
Things more or less went downhill from there. Devika, from Prakriti Foundation, finally came, but I introduced myself to a bemused bunch of shoppers. Some girls giggled and hid in the aisles. A little earlier, they had come over, looked at the book and asked if it was meant for kids. Behind another bookshelf, near the entrance someone was enthusiastically applying packing tape on a large item that had just been sold and was clearly being gift-wrapped. I interrupted my reading to ask him to shut up.
It was the worst reading. Honestly. I was distracted by all the noise (though they had, mercifully, turned the music off), the comings and goings and the frank indifference of all these people to the reading. I don't mind having people who are sitting in front of me who don't care for the poetry; I will engage to catch their attention. But I can't read to a bunch of people who take a moment to stare at you with their mouth open and the minute you catch their eye, scoot behind the relative safety of a bookshelf. I bet they were reading Dan Brown there.
Thank god that was one reading done.
Regrets: Either I misplaced, or someone stole, six copies of my book. Bah.
Saturday, 29th December. Apparao Galleries, Nungambakkam.
No one in the area seemed to know where Apparao Galleries was. Not that it was a problem for me, but of all the people who came in at least three of four said they had trouble finding the place.
It's a sweet place. A little cooler and more distant than Forum but something about the place reminded me of the interiors of old houses in Mahim after they've had a fresh coat of paint. In the room where I was to read, there were several pieces of art displayed, at least one piece on every available table. I arranged my books with the piece- of- art as a prop. I'm not sure the gallery owner, who came in a little while later to ask if I needed anything else, noticed. I needed a mike, but didn't remember to ask until after she'd left.
Sharanya was there; a young man who had heard about the festival just the evening before and who, it turned out, knew several other people I did; a couple of Caferati folks (they were at every reading but the Landmark one!); and as a final and unexpected surprise, David. David and I have been exchanging mails for a couple of years now. He had read earlier in the festival but was supposed to be in Bangalore. I had no idea he had returned, and though he came after the main reading, things continued for long enough after for some good interactions.
This reading, I must say, was less planned. I didn't stick to the script, such as it was. Somehow, midway through the reading, I just flipped through the pages and read what I felt like, which was more organic and for me, fun. The discussion that followed was long-ranging and sometimes a little much, but everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Regrets: That I thought of calling Fowzia, my cameraperson friend from FTII days, too late. She would have come if only she had known. Of such things are true regrets made.
Intermission. Galloping Gooseberries and Amethyst.
Sharanya and I had planned to hang out, with a possibility of meeting Tishani later. Tishani said she'd met us as Amethyst, so Sharanya and I had lunch first. I've been reading Sharanya's blog for a few months now, it turns out for approximately as long as she's been reading mine. I'd read her poems on Soft Blow and had told Mani Rao about them. Our circles collided in several ways and we chatted through lunch and a couple of hours zipped by.
Amethyst is such a wonderful place! Why did no one ever tell me about it before? (see - this is why I hate going to Chennai. I always do the family thing and it's either weddings or funerals or endless visits to people whose connection to me I can never remember. So I don't know about places like Amethyst.) Through several lattes and conversations, at Amethyst, a man was changing cushion covers, and using one empty chair at our table to dump uncovered cushions. It was the most surreal event of my entire two days in Chennai.
Tishani - who I met at Jaipur last year (yes! It's officially 'last year' now!) turns up a little later and we gossip, chat and exchange notes on our respective readings. For the last twenty minutes there, I was deeply unhappy about the forthcoming reading at Subway, which I knew would be bad but which, with my head bloody but unbowed, I was determined to endure.
Saturday, 29th.December. Subway, Nungambakkam.
When I got to Subway Nungambakkam, it was at least 45 minutes early (no fault of mine, despite my pathological inability to be late or even just on time for anything; the car had to go elsewhere and I had to accommodate myself) and the 'temporary manager' was arranging chairs and tables so one portion of the place looked like a mini United Nations summit room. Long, oblong, with dreary chairs arranged conference-like. I told them to please change the arrangement. They asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink. I shuddered and asked for some water in a faint voice.
And then, I nearly had a heart attack. Arun, a friend of mine who is incapable of turning up anywhere on time (he came for the Landmark reading at half past seven, at least 35 minutes after all traces of an event had been removed), came in with a colleague. When I recovered my powers of speech I asked him how come, and he reminded me that the reading was supposed to be at 4.30. Turns out he didn't know it had been shifted back to 6.30 and was turning up for the 4.30 reading. I have to say, here, that this was the single most heartening thing about the whole festival: I mean, he must think I'm a rockstar, to be able to keep a bunch of people who want to stuff their faces with carbs and uncooked miscellany, enthralled for two whole hours. And I must be wiser than I realise, for omitting to tell him that the reading had been postponed for a couple of hours.
So Arun was there, and his colleague, and Sanjay from Prakriti. We waited for another quarter of an hour. Jugal, another Caferati friend, texted me to say he was searching from the place.
And then, the most dramatic thing of the entire two days happened (see, I think I feel kind of fond of the Subway reading, after all.): a man bustled in, folder under his arm, and proceeded to sit at my table (Danny you met your match. Danny says doc it's only a scratch). He introduced himself: a long name I can't remember but that's not my fault. It really isn't. He asked me what I do. I said, 'I write.' He looked startled and after a second took my hand and shook it for a full minute, saying the while that he really liked that answer. In a minute he had told me about how he also wrote poetry, only in Tamil instead of English; and had I heard of Vairamuthu? (I said I had) and how Vairamuthu had won something for which the reward was to read out a poem at a Republic Day function; how he had won that award the year after Vairamuthu; he showed me photographs of himself reading at some Kavi Sammelan; he took out a note pad and started to ask me to give him either my phone number or some other information.
This was when I jumped up and indicated that I wanted to start the reading. I requested him to move back one table, and addressed myself to all of four people (including the Prakriti volunteer). Other people sat at their tables while I introduced myself and looked very self-conscious. I can't think why: I was the one reading. Why were they looking embarrassed?! Some of them took off after two poems. Once again, I rapidly changed the selection of poems and reading order. Mid-way through, more or less in time for 'Hospital Catalogues', Jugal walked in. That really made things just that little bit easier, knowing someone who liked my work was there.
I read out a silly poem, just to entertain myself.
Read it carefully; it plays a starring role in what follows.
There were, surprisingly enough, a few claps from other tables when I was done. And a couple of questions. Arun, predictably, said he didn't understand a thing, though I don't really buy it. Jugal said my one sonnet was uncharacteristically abstract, in the sense that it wasn't as cinematic or visual as my other poems.
While I was signing copies of books, Folder Man returned. He showed me the note pad again, in which he had, during the reading, collected phone numbers of emails of those present in the audience.
He asked me for my email.
I said, 'Sorry, I don't give my email out to anybody.'
'You don't give your email out?' He was speechless. Then he recovered enough to say, 'You are very frank. I admire someone who says that.'
Continuing to look disbelieving, he says, 'I have never met anyone who says they hate rainbows.'
Then, after a minute, when I say nothing, 'I hope I never meet anyone again who says they hate rainbows.'
Exeunt Folder Man.
I suppose I should be suitably abashed.
*with some changes, of course. Took the hairdryer but ditched the umbrella. You know...on account of assuming Chennai had done with its rains the previous week, and I was with family and they'd better have something that would do. Also, I had stacks of inhaler paraphernalia this time.