Mumbai spawns books. It isn’t quite as good at producing readers. But there is a small band of people who turn up at book readings. At the end of the reading, most organizers leave some time for questions. This is when the old Parsi lady asks: “Do you write with a pen or a pencil, or do you just enter it into your computer?”
If she is absent, and she often is if there is cheese and wine to be had at some other cultural do, there is the old man who wants to ask how you got the idea to do the book.
But these are the easy ones, simply because an old hand at the readings game can turn them to her or his advantage. The first can be turned into a disquisition on literary Ludditism or into a paean to the pencil. The second can be turned into anything from an attack on everyone else in the genre to a description of an epiphanic experience involving the goddess of learning, her swan and an ethereal morning in the foothills of the Himalayas.
But some of the worst questions are the statements. When Amitava Kumar was reading from Husband of a Fanatic at the British Council, a young man stood up and asked whether it was not true that like many pseudo-secularists, Amitava Kumar had also prostituted his private life in the interests of his writing?
That’s a downright attack and is often easier to deal with than the fuzzywuzzy self-censors. They normally begin with: “I think your poetry, and I must say when I say ‘think’ I mean ‘think’ (waving inverted commas in the air), and I know this can be misconstrued, but still, well, okay, let me say that it’s about intense subjectivity, isn’t it?”
At this, the benumbed poet says: “My poetry is about intense subjectivity?”
“No, my question,” says the questioner.
Then there is the VIQ or Very Intellectual Questioner. “In your attempt to reify the non-linearity of our subjective experience, and let us take that as a given, do you feel you have in some way lost out on what Walter Benjamin calls the model of messianic time?” This is the kind of question that makes you wonder what happened to simple ones like: “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
When Kiran Desai read from The Inheritance of Loss at Crossword, another author came up to her and said: “I have come to your reading to see what a Booker prize winner looks like.”
Desai, who bids fair to being the world’s most civil author, said: “Thank you,” somewhat faintly.
“Because,” said the indefatigable author, who writes about IIT, “I am never going to win one.”
“Don’t say that,” said Desai, looking anguished.
But the best question ever asked must go to the young woman, who asked Salman Rushdie: “When you first heard about the fatwa, were you
e) or did you just think in the words of the song from Amar Prem, Kuch to log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehena?
Rushdie didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, of course,” he said, “That song from Amar Prem . That was the first thing to cross my mind.”
Jerry Pinto is the author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org