Home >Mint-lounge >Features >The fall guy at any book launch

I got into trouble at yet another book launch the other day. This one was for Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s excellent biography of my favourite politician, titled Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. The thing was scheduled for 6.30pm and I was at the venue by 6.15. We began a little after 6.20 with my interviewing Mukhopadhyay before he took questions from the audience. The young among them appeared to like what Modi stood for and were puzzled by why there was any wariness of him.

Mukhopadhyay was composed and articulate through a couple of strange questions, and it was quite a good, fast-paced show. I thought things had gone swimmingly as we were stepping off the stage.

And there I was ambushed. A small lady, perhaps 65 or so, got up from the first row. “Why did we begin at 6.20 when the invite said 6?" she asked. This was not an unreasonable question because the invite was indeed for 6pm. The organizers had sent me a schedule which said so, except that they added a half hour for things to settle down and kick-off was set for 6.30.

I told the lady it may have been a small error in communication. “No," she said, “the newspapers said it was 6.30". I was not aware of that, I said.

“Why" she asked, “were we made to come and waste 20 minutes?"

I apologized. She didn’t accept, and she assumed I was the cause. With controlled anger, she kept at it, raising her voice. The crowd hadn’t begun to disperse because the signing remained and now the attention was on us.

I didn’t know what to add except, politely but stupidly, asking her if she had bought the book. She had. Would she like me to help her get it signed? “Can’t I do that myself?" she said. “Why couldn’t you start on time? Please tell me that." My ears were burning in shame now, but I stood till she had spent herself, and exhausted me.

When Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece by her brother Mir Murtaza, released her book in Mumbai, I fell in it again.

I have been writing columns in Pakistan for years and the publisher asked if I would handle the interaction at the Crossword on Kemp’s Corner. The place was packed and this was for two reasons. The name Bhutto and the fact that Fatima’s pictures had been published in newspapers. She is absolutely gorgeous and this is why I got into trouble.

The first question from someone was why the cover of her book, Songs of Blood and Sword, was so violent. She laughed and accepted that it was, and said it may have been a mistake. The audience was entirely hers from then on.

The best part of the book tells the story of her father, who was shot by the police in 1996 when his sister Benazir was prime minister. Fatima thinks Benazir’s husband Asif Zardari may have had something to do with it.

I found this a little extreme and questioned the logic of it. Fatima had told The Indian Express she couldn’t read Urdu and so I asked also how much of Pakistan she could really know.

The audience became hostile to my questioning. At one point some women in the front row began to do “tch-tch" to show their irritation. From then on, I did not interview so much as throw some half-volleys her way.

Such then is the lot of the poor book launch moderator.

While I may be disliked, and perhaps less than competent, there are others who are excellent. Writer Manu Joseph is a good moderator. Or so I am told. I wanted to see him in action at the Times Literary Carnival where he was managing the launch of my friend Meenal Baghel’s book, Death in Mumbai. However, I was in the next hall with William Dalrymple for a reading of his book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Arun Shourie had dropped out and I was asked to fill in the role of the godless sceptic.

My record of being pummelled by the audience remained intact. This was not surprising because, when I finally asked for a show of hands, the 2,000-strong upper-class audience was 99% believing (damn you Art of Living).

Historian Ramachandra Guha doesn’t need a moderator and delivers a solo performance. I heard him at the release of his book of essays a few months ago. He is animated at the podium, swaying as he speaks. He delivers long but complete sentences without pauses. It is the manner of a writer whose thoughts are already in place.

The diarist from Outlook attended the event in Delhi and observed sadly, after listening to Guha speak for an hour without a break, that no stronger refreshment than tea was available. This was witty, but Guha is not boring because he’s anecdotal.

His is a good style but unusual. Most book launches need someone to play the foil, or, as in my case, fall guy.

If you are an author and really want to look good with your audience, ask your publisher to get me as your moderator.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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