It started innocently enough. I would roll my eyes and tell my friends: “Oh, I’ve gotta go to this thing for work. Yeah, just this book launch. I should be out of there in an hour.”
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It was like an ingrained Pavlovian response: Don’t act excited about books. Books are not cool. Do not let anyone know that you’re a closet nerd.
Sure, you can try to convince me, as my mother used to when I was a child: Reading is Cool! Trust me, for all the Harry Potter hoopla and Salman Rushdie with his model girlfriends, I doubt many of us would be caught behind a red rope discussing the nuances of Jane Austen’s History of England.
Even so, I secretly wish I were an Upper West Side New York book publisher, ensconced in tweed and cigar smoke, chuckling over that time Updike and I got into a bit of trouble in Nantucket. Hence, I would go off happily to these book launches in the hope that some of the tweed would rub off Mark Tully’s shoulders as I passed by.
Books rock: The launch of Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s Eunuch Park earlier this month in New Delhi, where the band Menwhopause played. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
But a few months ago—perhaps it was at the launch of Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a MegaCity under leafy trees at Lodi, the garden restaurant, with a glass of wine in my hand—that I suddenly realized my wonderfully stodgy book events were no longer quite so stodgy. One after another acquaintance drifted by—a model and her boyfriend, a film director, a photographer. I thought, “What are they doing here?” Same thing as me, it turned out: attending a Page 3 event.
Two years ago, a typical book launch took me to the India Habitat Centre, where a packed auditorium would listen in rapt attention as Andrew Whitehead of the BBC read a harrowing, tragic escape from A Mission to Kashmir. After a question-and-answer session with very serious questions asked, I would mingle with the crowd over tea and buttery cookies, feeling out of place amid people intellectually beyond my league.
Fast forward to 2009. It’s 10.30 on a Saturday night and the Park Hotel poolside is jam-packed with beautiful people. I squeeze through a gaggle of short-skirted models giggling around the music booth bumping Eastern European tunes (a mix Rana Dasgupta made specifically to match the theme of his new novel Solo, I’m informed). I push past uniformed waiters, grabbing a glass of wine on the way. Finally, at the edge of the pool, I find a friend regaling artist Subodh Gupta with some tale that has him bending over with laughter. We all air-kiss hello.
It feels odd to try and readjust to this new paradigm. Suddenly, my secret adventures in the book world are becoming the most popular events in town. “Hey, Melissa, can we go with you to that graphic novel launch?” “Are you going to The Imperial for the book party?” “Do you have an extra invite?”
Hard sell: A Qawwali recital at the launch of Omair Ahmad’s book. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Delhiites always bemoan the lack of a night life. The clubs are far-flung—in Gurgaon, in Noida. People prefer farmhouse parties, where you only ever see the same friends you’ve seen since kindergarten. But suddenly the book launches have stepped in to play the role of social event manager. Even The New York Times recommended Delhi’s book parties last month in its travel section.
And with publishing houses pumping out new volumes, there is no dearth of events. Sure, the slowdown may mean that instead of 200 launches, we’ll see about 180 this year. But that’s still a new book and an accompanying launch almost every other day. And unlike everything else that completely dries up in the summer, the books still keep coming. Rather than perhaps a big-ticket event a week, the number has dropped to every other week.
It’s not just the free wine or a night out that keeps people coming. Each launch, as if in a great effort to stand out from the crowd, seems to be getting more entertaining and becoming more of a spectacle.
I stumble in late to the launch of Omair Ahmad’s The Storyteller’s Tale and nearly interrupt a sitar recital. A few minutes later, a qawwali starts.
Besides his book launch at Lodi restaurant, Miller, in collaboration with Penguin India, conducted walks around the city and held an elaborate treasure hunt with the help of Google Maps and Facebook to promote the book. People scurried through streets until one couple reached the prize: Rs5,000, to be spent on Penguin books.
At The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay launch at the British Council, author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi added a rather peculiar musical event. At the author’s request, the doors were locked, the lights dimmed and techno music swelled. Over the music, the recorded voice of the author came on, reading out one of the sex scenes from the book. The author stood silently in front of a fidgeting audience. The book didn’t receive the kindest of reviews, but it did sit on the Oxford Bookstore’s best-selling list for some months.
The erudite atmosphere of a book launch may have been lost in the din of the techno music and the rush to the bar. I did manage to feel momentarily learned when I found myself in a discussion on the merits of Samuel Johnson’s biography with a Delhi University professor. But I have to admit, I was a bit distracted by a stylist and a rock musician flirting behind us.
As I headed off for a vacation last week, I got an insistent email from a friend: “Eunuch Park launches on Thursday. You in?” Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s book party would feature a reading and a performance by my favourite local band, Menwhopause, at the Café Morrison bar.
I wrote back, “Should I cancel my trip to Italy for it?” He answered, “Yes”. I don’t think my friend was kidding.
For upcoming launches, check out the events page at Penguin Books India (www.penguinbooksindia.com). Also visit HarperCollins Publishers India (www.harpercollins.co.in) and Roli Books (www.rolibooks.com) for details on more such events.