The Gentle Reader: Nisha Susan
Four years ago Sabbah had written eleven short stories about different generations of a family in Madurai. At the time of submission to publishers, she had loved most of the stories. When ten of the stories were picked and arranged into a book called How To Eat in Madurai, Maami, she had still loved the stories. When the book finally reached the public, three years later, the delay had taken the gloss off a bit.
During the wait it had become difficult for her not to snarl at acquaintances in Bangalore who earnestly asked her how much her advance had been and whether in her ‘professional opinion’ The White Tiger deserved the Booker. As a writer who hadn’t been published yet, she told herself, she was not required to have an opinion or to be gracious. She was not required to be anything.
During the wait it seemed to her that her publishing house was run by strange, contrary women who sent her emails deliberately strewn with grammatical errors. The woman who called her most often had a conversational tic of saying ‘fair enough’ when nothing was being debated, driving Sabbah into a disproportionate rage. Another woman mailed her asking for her bio every three months (or so it seemed). Yet another wrote to her objecting to the titles of her stories (“Your titles have literary resonance but don’t mean anything”) and to her photo (“Your photo does not have any literary resonance”).
Then when she had almost given up, a writer friend recommended that she ‘sign up one of these new agents’. Sabbah, who’d thought that all literary agents were Jewish and lived in New York, was pleased at the prospect of meeting such an entity. (She had loved Joys of Yiddish and often gifted copies to people who she thought would appreciate the economy of wickedness in Yiddish.) Three email conversations and a trip to Delhi later, she had ‘signed’ an agent.
She was secretly disappointed that far from being colourful and rude, her agent was a pleasant, well-spoken middle-aged woman called Shakuntala. She was indeterminate North Indian in origin and habitually wore smart trousers. She was vegetarian, and when Sabbah asked her whether she found it difficult to be so in Delhi, she responded, “Food is not a priority for me. I find eating boring.” Sabbah, who lived in a city where people customarily greeted each other by asking whether they’d eaten, was quelled.
Whether it was the briskness of her agent or cosmic timing, she didn’t know, but a week after signing an agent, her publisher suddenly woke up. Nothing would do but for the book to be out that month. She even got a miffed email reprimanding her for delaying the process by not organising her photo for the book jacket.
Suddenly the book (stories, jacket, price, photo, cover design, copyright, her name) was out in shops (well, some). Sabbah’s friends had made a game of marching into Bangalore bookshops and loudly demanding her book. Unfortunately Sabbah herself was not so proud of the book now. Her historical research was excellent but her prose, she thought now, was Dolly Partonesque – big-haired and over the top. She read the stories for the first time in two years. She was more than a little horrified at how arch some of them seemed. It would have been better, she thought now, to be a bad writer than to be arch. She was a whisker away from twee. Every cliché that had ever been claimed about Indian writers seemed to be there. Mango-monsoon-pudding, she spat.
But the publishing house offered her a second book “if she had any ideas, preferably historical.”
“Ideas? Do you have any?” Shakuntala wanted to know on the phone. There was more than a hint of impatience in her voice.
Sabbah panicked. If she said she had no ideas, would the offer of the second book vanish? Forever?
“Well, I had this one idea. There is a character from the second story, she is a very minor character, but I think… interesting. Jamuna, the Gujarati bride?”
“Yes, the Gujarati bride is brought to Madurai in the 1800s. I had hinted that she is from a shipping family. I thought I could develop a novel around her… about how her family were originally slave-traders and how they change from that…”
“Hmmm,” said Shakuntala. “Send me an email. It sounds workable. Don’t be like Vikram Chandra and take eight years, though.” Shakuntala was not joking. Sabbah resented how little joking there seemed to be in publishing.
Fuelled by panic and the chance to redeem herself, Sabbah dashed off a proposal. A month later she was in business again. Which is to say that she had a year, a little potli of money and leave from her teaching job to write her first novel. When the shouting stopped, she found herself in terror. The research itself was fairly tough. And then there was the writing. Had she been insane to agree to do it in a year? When she couldn’t even get short stories straight, what kind of effort would it take to finish a novel? What kind of publisher made it so easy for any moron to get published? The bad kind. Terrible people who didn’t care about books.
Gritting her teeth she wrote to libraries around the country requesting permission to work in their archives. For her first stint of research she went to Mumbai.
There was a certain glamour in being in Mumbai as a writer and not as a reader. On a day filled with breeze, sunshine and Gothic architecture could you be unhappy?
Every day she took the fast train to town from her friend’s flat in Andheri and found a new place to eat breakfast. Then she strolled to the Asiatic Society library, ridiculously replete with the luxury of being a writer. How wonderful, how illicit to sit somewhere and scratch one’s itches.
In this new upbeat mood, it was unfortunate that Jamuna, the central character of her book, was already annoying. In the evenings, when Sabbah tried her hand at some writing, she found her heroine passive-aggressive and dull. Part of this was circumstantial. Sabbah did not believe in historically inaccurate emancipation for characters in historical novels. She could not make Jamuna hate her family’s slave-trading business to fit a more modern, more liberal narrative. In the one para she had got in the short story, Jamuna fell in love with a Tamilian clerk and ventured across the subcontinent to live in a temple town where no one spoke her language. And that had pretty much tapped her supply of courage. So why write about Jamuna? And if she didn’t care about Jamuna’s feelings, who would?
In her second week at the library, she was choked. Somewhere in this building, she had been told, is an actual manuscript of The Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri had not sat around in the 1300s writing coy shit. Somewhere near here Arun Kolatkar had written Jejuri and the Kala Ghoda poems. Somewhere near here Kolatkar had died. Where in her writing was the blood, the grime, the puking on the streets and the deep stuff? She had agreed too fast to the publisher’s offer and now her name would be mud.
She slid off to an Irani restaurant to eat berry pulao. She grinned weakly when the owner reprimanded her for eating too slowly. “You are slower than a snail, young lady,” complained the octogenarian bending over her table. “Daddy!” yelled his middle-aged son from behind the cat on his cash counter. Mommy, thought Sabbah.
She went back to the Asiatic Library and would perhaps have got some work done if she had not accidentally stumbled on a collection of well-preserved posters advertising Victorian freak shows. Always a sucker for lowbrow Victoriana, she fell straight in.
Most of her subsequent weeks in Mumbai was wasted in getting better acquainted with the febrile enterprise of PT Barnum, the American showman who prided himself on freak shows for the entire Victorian family. She spent hours staring at the posters, enjoying their typography and their unselfconscious invitation to people to come and stare.
And that is how Jamuna suffered her early demise.
“But who is there that abstains from reading that which is printed in abuse of himself?”
Phineas Finn, Anthony Trollope
Back in Bangalore, she was aware that her year was slipping away without any significant work. Bored already with Jamuna’s frequently bathing in-laws and the unrelieved cruelty of her slave-trading family, Sabbah fantasised about writing a Victorian murder mystery instead.
“I would be Sarah Waters but with fewer lesbians, Anne Perry with less stiff upper lip, AS Byatt but not so annoying,” she rhapsodised to her friend Menaka.
“But you’ve never even been to England.”
“What about HRF Keating?” argued Sabbah.
There was, of course, no rejoinder to this. If HRF Keating could write nine of his twenty-four Inspector Ghote stories, all set in a living and breathing Mumbai, before ever setting foot in India and without the benefit of the Internet, then anyone could write anything.
At this point, she found to her excruciating embarrassment that How To Eat in Madurai, Maami began doing reasonably well. She saw a few copies with a pavement hawker. A well-known journalist mentioned it in passing on an odds-and-ends culture show on TV. A publisher (not her own) called her one of the few Indian writers worth reading.
A designer pal then had the happy idea of promoting How To Eat in Madurai, Maami and the forthcoming novel by creating a website with the genealogy of the Madurai family. “The soaring saga of one Madurai family who acquires a Gujarati bride in the 18th century,” Sabbah read on her website. She knew that no soaring saga was in her. How had she got herself into this? And why were people saying nice things about her stories? Whatever happened to taste?
The designer, who was trying to become a social media consultant, threw in a Twitter account. Shakuntala thought she could use Twitter to post notes, one-liners and anecdotes as she researched the book. “It could be good build-up for the novel,” she reasoned. “All the movie stars are doing it. You know, fun stuff from the sets, their diets, costumes, dance sequences.”
Sabbah should have pointed out that anything she found interesting would hopefully go into the book. Instead, she fell upon Twitter.
“At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning had written to her novelist pal Mary Russel Mitford. But that was only because Liz and Mary did not have Twitter, thought Sabbah.
To begin with, she posted charming little one-liners about her research on How To Eat in Madurai, Maami. Three days later, someone replied to a tweet. Sabbah stared it for a long while and then read it again. She was hooked. This person from Lucknow had actually read her book. After having resisted blogging for a whole decade, she was sucked in by a 48-character message from a person in a gorilla mask.
Who was this person? Why did he or she like her book? What else did he or she read? Sabbah spent a few hours wandering the net, always returning to the comment. “@MaduraiMaami Enjoyed your short stories. Thanks”
The next morning she jumped up and logged into Twitter. There were no new interactions. By evening there were a couple of retweets. She couldn’t stop grinning. Over the next week many more appeared.
All the tweets were not milk and honey. There was a man from Madurai who stormed at her for the one paragraph of sex in one of the ten stories. Sabbah tried to laugh it off but was uncomfortably aware again that someone, someone who was not her friend, had read her book and judged her life and character by it.
Over the next few weeks, the half-hearted conversations turned into an unexpectedly angry one. Someone from Ahmedabad announced that she had a history of anti-Gujarati sentiment. As proof he offered this: “See her name on top of this petition. bit.ly/ch/1652d”
Followed by: “See the kind off pseudo-sickular anti-national things Indian English writers do. All for publicity”
Sabbah saw that @S_Vohra had indeed found an old anti-Narendra Modi petition she had signed online right after the Gujarat riots.
Then, a week later, @S_Vohra tweeted a link to his long, befuddling analysis of the jacket design of How To Eat in Madurai, Maami. If you stood upside down and squinted at the cover, it looked like Om with devil’s horns. The minority was always trying to provoke.
She was tempted to defend herself but the online conversation caught fire and didn’t need her intervention at all. The liberals had found her on Twitter. Only occasionally would her haters or defenders remember that the stories had anything to do with their bitter rants.
Three days later the thread ran out. But a new one began criticising her writing abilities and her understanding of the world. She went from anxious to depressed.
SirPachkao tweeted: “I googled you and saw some of your old photos. So, dear, what’s the truth? Publishers photoshop your ugly face?” He continued, “Or did you get some big-ass plastic surgery. Because that picture on the bookjacket (which I still want a refund for btw) ain’t you.”
She went determinedly to bed. Half an hour later she got out of bed and went looking for a copy of her book and turned to her photograph. It was certainly flattering. A little too flattering? She squinted at it. Was that really her?
It wasn’t her.
Her nondescript face varied widely in photographs but this jaw was someone else’s. But how could that be? It did look different in this light. She went into the bathroom, switched on two sets of lights and examined her jaw again. Outrage bloomed. Had they really photoshopped her for the book jacket?
She flew out of the bathroom in horror and jumped into bed and moaned aloud. She jumped out of bed and hopped around. And moaned louder. She would have yelled if she thought her poor neighbours would not wake up and call her.
She went to sleep. Woke at 1 am and looked at her laptop sleeping quietly in the corner of the bed. She burrowed her way through the bed-cover and picked it up. Go to sleep, she told herself. But she had to see if there were any new tweets.
SirPachkao: “Your writing is terrible, dear, and no one would buy your book. I still want my money back.”
And later: “I don’t mind too much though because the bookshops have stopped stocking your sucky book.”
V_Krishna: “Your writing sheer verbal diarhia as your head is empty.”
SirPachkao making friends and influencing people: “@MaduraiMaami @v_krishna don’t be fooled. This book is part of a deliberate campaign to denigrate Hinduism.”
And from there it went rather downhill. SirPachkao had an elaborate explanation for why he thought all her Hindu characters were slave-traders and evil. It was because she was funded by foreign NGOs and the ISI to hurt the sentiments of Hindus.
At some point the fight shifted to her Facebook author page.
V_Krishna: “This iz kalyug. However it’s not going to last long. The end of creation iz not very far. With militant Islam surging chaos is take over our whole world. Ending to the world iz predicted in scriptures. End will be preceded by appearance of the Bhagwan in his final avatar…Kalki Avatar. What must happen will happen. As they say, nobody can stop an idea the time for which has come!”
SirPachkao, of course, had jumped in there too: “But we must stop Sabbah’s kind of writing. Anti-Brahminism prospers in anti-Hindu circles. It is welcome among Marxists, missionaries, Muslims, terrorists and Christian-backed Dalit movements of different shades and hues. When these people attack Brahmins, their target is actually Hinduism.”
Arjun Parameswaran: “You guys are unbelievable idiots. Can’t believe the crap you are writing. Don’t like the book, don’t buy it. And Kalki is with Anurag.”
Rohit Pandey: “Dalits will be given every opportunity to rise but a Brahmin will be given every opportunity to fall. Met many Dalits in the workplace. Most of them are revengeful. Worst charecteristics any human can have is in them.”
As a writer, Sabbah thought, she was committed to the notion that evil exists in the world. But even she was not ready for the evil she was discovering on the net.
Next week, Menaka quoted Kurt Vonnegut at her: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is like a person who has put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”
“But that’s not the problem here. They are calling me a hot fudge sundae.”
“I thought they were calling you a slut.”
“That was last week. This week is the languid, sophisticated heckler week. They’re calling me stupid.”
Menaka laughed and changed the subject. Sabbah, who worried that she was a bore, was happy to go along. But when she got home she saw that SirPachkao, the leader of the headless horsemen, had made fresh sorties.
She thought it was wrong to block trolls just because she did not agree with them, but after two weeks of these comments and an intern from a Chennai tabloid calling her about the “brewing controversy around her book,” any sense of moderation left her. She was ready to block and tackle all around. She deliberately avoided logging in for three days. Soon, she told herself, she would be away in the hills at a literary festival. Some respite.
But the night before she was due to leave for Mcleodganj, she caved and logged in. It was unfortunate that right then her aunt in Chennai finally reached her dying to talk about the article in the tabloid. Sabbah was freshly irritated and the ganas were waiting with buckets of shit.
SirPachkao: “Come out, come out. Didn’t you feminists burn your bras to meet us at the same level? Why are you hiding now?”
V_Krishna: “Maybe she iz feeling shy like girlz from my village.”
SirPachkao: “If you had got married and had a few children then you wouldn’t have all these problems.”
SirPachkao: “I see from yr FB account that yr younger cousins are also unmarried. Planning to make them Madrasi lesbos like you?”
Later on, Sabbah would wonder why that particular permutation of the classroom taunt had been the one to make her break her self-imposed silence. Or perhaps it was the horrific realisation SirPachkao might be her Facebook ‘friend’ using an alias. Before she could think, she typed:
“@SirPachkao It’s that kind of thinking that ensures dirty cowbelt north Indians like you don’t have any women to marry.”
“@SirPachkao After killing them you have to go everywhere else in India and buy women to cook and clean and bear your ugly children.”
Oh god, what a fucking mistake.
But it was too late. It took her a minute to regret her rage and delete her two tweets. By then she had been retweeted thrice and Pachkao had responded. A smug little comment: “@MaduraiMaami Well, well, there goes the pseudo-sickular…. Who is the liberal now?”
Dammit, dammit! The moral high ground had been well and truly lost. At least no one could see her comment now. Without thinking too much she blocked @SirPachkao. It stared at her freedom-of-speech loving face.
Sockpuppet: “Hey why’re u so down on the guy? He’s been making interesting points. You’re being really f-ed up about it, blocking him. Pardon my French.”
Sabbah looked narrowly at this comment. How did he know I blocked SirPachkao? Who said, “Pardon my French”? Sure, this country’s Anglophone landscape was filled with archaisms, but “Pardon my French”! Who said that? She suspected This Guy was also That Guy. This seemed like a fake identity that SirPachkao had made to support himself. Or maybe there really were people who supported Pachkao. Of course there were people who supported Pachkao. The world was full of crazies.
Someone called Kakakakiran was helpfully RTing her original tweets over and over again.
Sockpuppet: “Bro, I can’t believe she said that. @MaduraiMaami, what the f is your problem?”
Kakakakiran: “All these Arundhati Roy wannabes are all bitches.”
Vir_Bir_Batra: “Fuck you, deleting the tweet after saying what you want. At least we North Indians are brave. We protect you from pakistani, you madrasis.”
S_Vohra: “All this time I was telling you she is anti-Gujarat and you never listened. Serves you right.”
Arjunnotthewarrior: “@MaduraiMaami what did you say to make all the trolls wake up?”
SirPachkao: “@Arjunnotthewarrior She called me a dirty, unwashed cowbelt North Indian.”
Arjunnotthewarrior: “No way, @MaduraiMaami is this true?”
SirPachkao: “All true and now hiding behind the block, yeah lady?”
Arjunnotthewarrior: “@MaduraiMaami This is really shocking.”
Vinu298: “@Arjunnotthewarrior What’s so shocking? North indians are useless. All the forex earnings in this country because of south india. BPOs, KPOs and IT.”
Sakshilove: “Completely uncalled for @MaduraiMaami. Bad enough people like Thackeray are saying it but educated people like you? Please apologise.”
Maami thought she should, but she was damned if she was going to.
Minnisha_Arora: “Sabbah, I can’t believe you are such a bigot. Your true colours are showing now.”
Minnisha_Arora: “Can’t believe you’ve been hiding your ill-informed prejudices all this while. I can’t believe you ever broke bread in my house.”
Who the hell was Minnisha Arora? The name vaguely rang a bell.
Sakshilove: “She was in your house? I think we should boycott her and her book. I always knew it was a weak book.”
She closed the window, switched off the computer and tried to sleep. She had two hours before her cab would arrive for the airport.
On the road she was ill with anxiety and lack of sleep. She had packed three books for the trip but couldn’t concentrate on any. After checking in, as if she couldn’t help herself, she downloaded Twitter on her phone. There were 18 new tweets mentioning her. She couldn’t bear to read them. She couldn’t bear to sit in the plane and not know what was being said. By the time the call to the gate came, she’d deleted the app from her phone. She had stopped after reading the first tweet. Something about five ways to lose that stubborn belly fat.
How much would it cost to rent an elephant for the day?
No, back in Delhi. It would be the most ironic experience to Instagram.
Bryan’s friend can arrange it. Just ask.
The art dealer guy? Really?
I think the operative word is dealer.
Aah, I see.
Sabbah added goras to the list of people she hated. She also added people whose English was gora-like. All her life she’d adored complex sentences in English. Now she’d settle for grunts without irony or allusion, anything but this feathery chatter.
No one-book-old writer should go to literary festivals, Sabbah thought. There were next to no readers here. She was not expecting to see fans. But there were no readers. She’d been excited when she first heard about the festival — for the first time in her life she’d be surrounded by her own kind. But the Twitter episode was making her so anxious she couldn’t enjoy anything. And two days in she could see that she may not have liked the event under any circumstances.
By lunchtime on the third day she understood. She’d confused writers with book lovers. Where the book lover wanted you to please, please read this new book, this old favourite, (“You’ll love it, it would be a favour to me”), writers were shit scared and Scrooge-like. She told herself not to be a naïf. Nothing more annoying than an overage ingénue.
The lit fest was not in Mcleodganj but a couple of kilometres uphill in a smaller village. The events were all scheduled in and around a hotel set well back on a wide, green cliff. Stalls selling books and souvenirs were set up around the lawns, without obscuring the view in any manner. People drifted in and out of the hotel coffee shop and the panel discussions. It should have been an omen to her that not one of the hundreds of people in expensive winter clothing were at the edge of the cliff gawking at the Dhauladars. In the taxi driving down she’d been distracted by the autumn colours of everyone’s clothes as they floated like butterflies with wineglasses.
Today on the third day she got herself some coffee and stood with a vacant half-smile, ready to convert to a full one for any comers. Her stomach still threatened to heave every time she thought about what was going on her Twitter stream. She had switched off her phone after she saw missed calls from The Times of India. She imagined her parents’ home being attacked in Bangalore by some Hindutva gang. But for now she’d pretend that she was just another writer on a junket.
Shakuntala came over in a russet silk outfit and introduced her to a middle-aged woman, a writer from Chennai, who was now teaching in the American midwest. The woman was polite, though not warm. Since she had three fairly successful books out in the world, Sabbah listened to everything she said attentively.
The writer said, “I must admit I’m quite excited about this new book. It will be the first time a hijra is the central character of a novel.”
Oh, said Sabbah, riding up gaily in her clown-car, “Oh, there’ve been two books like that already. That man from Kerala and that new British novel…” She had blurted out everything short of the ISBN numbers of the two books before she noticed that the writer was not too pleased to not be the ‘first’ she’d imagined. She left with a hint of flounce to her firan.
Sabbah was mortified. Standing there, letting conversations wash over her head, she felt like crying.
“Why can’t Indians write about anything other than themselves? Why can’t they write about being a Chinese empress or something?”
“It’s easy enough for Willie. He probably hops into his car and is driven to the Archives. They’ll open everything, including the loo door, for him. While we have to fight through red tape and hope for a sniff at some good material.”
“David Lodge really was right. It’s exactly like in Small World. The academic circuit and the literary circuit. It’s just the same. The rich writers get more residencies, more festival invitations, offers to teach, offers to speak.”
“If he were dead he’d make such a good book. Sherlock Holmes pastiche writer, former CIA guerilla, now living in exile. Is it true that he’s here? It’d be fantastic to meet him.”
“He’s a very good person, an excellent writer, but he’ll never finish that novel. It’s been six years since he got the advance. Now he doesn’t even answer the phone if he sees it’s a Delhi number.”
“Of course the meltdown is going to happen any minute now. These advances are completely unrealistic.”
“What advances? Nobody gets advances any more. The meltdown has happened. You just missed it living in Amsterdam.”
“What the fuck is an impresario anyway?”
One writer holding a pre-lunch glass of wine as big as his head informed Sabbah, “I am unfashionably erudite.” Sabbah guffawed. When she looked at the writer’s broad, sullen face, she realised that he’d meant it. She stuttered wildly and ran away looking for human beings. But they were all, in her Hindi teacher’s words, namoonas. Each and every one.
Then, around lunchtime, she had a long, calming conversation with a tall woman holding the hand of a sulking five-year-old girl. They discussed the weather, shopping in Mcleodganj, the view, treks, the Dalai Lama, until Sabbah caught the woman looking across the lawn angrily at a tall, neat man a few metres away.
“That’s my husband. He’s a writer too.” His was a book that Sabbah had liked. But she sensed that to praise the book would be to end this pleasant conversation. She bent down to talk to the now quiet child. When she looked up again, the woman’s anger had faded into resignation.
Later, alone again with her thoughts about the hundreds of incoherent messages probably flaming her Twitter timeline right now, she walked determinedly out of the hall and hailed the only taxi in sight.
As she left she saw the newest star of the non-fiction scene screaming into his phone. His eyes were bulging. “Fuck off, fuck off, I’ll never review a book for you again, you bitch.” She hurried past him thankful that her youthful enthusiasm for drama in public seemed to have faded. Was that what she’d looked like as a teenager crying in STD booths and autos?
Five minutes later she was hurtling at high speed down Tipa Road back to Mcleodganj. Speeding on mountain curves was good in the movies and in life. All along she caught glimpses of grinning pedestrians saluting her foolhardy taxi driver. But why couldn’t she feel better? She got up on her knees on the taxi seat and dangled her upper body out of the window. The driver, intent on his satanic race downhill, barely spared her a glance. Only iron determination stopped her from leaping out of the window entirely. She needed bodily mortification or elevation of some sort to wake her from this fugue.
But was it a fugue, really? Was it boredom and impatience with these unimpressive specimens of humanity? Or was it just the fear that soon she’d be shamed and exposed as a fraud?
Too insecure to pursue that thought any further she was glad to find herself in Mcleodganj, a town that had always made her happy as base camp on trekking expeditions. She got out of the taxi and began walking up Temple Street, Mcleodganj’s main road. No more than four people could walk side by side on this road. Sabbah knew she should keep her eyes open to see the underbelly of tourism, but it was difficult to think dark thoughts with the scene currently unfolding before her.
The fat jewellery-seller’s lhasa apso had liberated itself. As she watched, people up and down the street dropped what they were doing and chased the puppy. Up the road, behind a man in the cowboy hat, two monks, one blind, one sighted, examined a length of meat and bargained with the butcher whose shop was, literally, a large cupboard set on a stone wall. Far away from writers, the world functioned steadily and happily.
About to burst into sentimental tears, Sabbah escaped into a café. Oogo’s was orange on the outside. It had six orange tables and was as neat and as pretty as the inside of a music box. After all these years of visiting Mcleodganj, Sabbah felt no need to look at the menu in any establishment. All of them had the same fare. She ordered ginger lemon tea, two plates of dimsums, a frittata and two kinds of cake.
Two hours later she was in deep food coma. She walked to her hotel at the slowest pace possible. Climbing the stairs was absolute agony with the world swinging blackly around her. A waiter she passed looked at her in scorn. Richard Gere probably had never come back to the hotel sloshing with food. She missed the Rs 500/night backpacker favourites with their draughty rooms and warm hosts.
In her room she fell asleep in a second. When she woke up it was dark outside. She felt hollow, as if she would echo if someone shouted into her mouth. She felt ill, all thoughts paling from the overwhelming presence of her body.
The phone rang and it was Shakuntala wondering where she was. She took a taxi back to the festival and steeled herself to behave more maturely.
“Is it an Animal? Is it Human? Is it an Extraordinary Freak of Nature? Or is it a legitimate member of Nature’s Work?”
-The Illustrated London News, 29 August, 1846
The crowds were just thickening when she arrived. She settled down in a corner with an ample shawl, an equally ample Hilary Mantel and the determination to grin and bear it. In a few minutes Shakuntala came over and introduced her young son Rishi, who had recently joined her business. Rishi was hatta-katta, had spiky hair and the most extraordinarily white face. It was not the kind of fairness that everyone in India aspired to, this bloodless pallor. She smiled and made polite noises. Shakuntala’s efficient genteelness intimidated her. But Shakuntala asked for no explanations for her disappearance and left to speak to someone else in a few minutes.
To her surprise, cold-faced young Rishi did not disappear immediately after introductions. He sat down beside her, began chatting and she willed herself to not feel grateful.
Before joining his mother’s business Rishi had worked in the country’s biggest PR firm, the one that took care of Bollywood’s brightest. Rishi’s stories were therefore predictably full of adultery, cupidity and sleaze. But his stories were told with such disinterest that he seemed more ruthless than the most determined iconoclast, the most poisonous gossip-monger. She had to ask him to stop the endless supply, laughing to hide her dismay. Rishi looked at her as if he was not fooled, his serial-killer eyes at half-mast.
Rishi’s friends came over as well. They were all young men and women with clear skin and perfect grooming. She thought with secret shame that in school this would have been the cool group that she could never have been a part of. With her mind running on these Gossip Girl lines it didn’t surprise her when she was offered hash brownies (“Retro cool,” a girl smirked).
“I love you, Alice B Toklas,” Sabbah thought to herself and accepted one, feeling sad that sober or stoned she would not tell this group about the Toklas cookbook.
Two hours and four joints “straight from Parvati Valley” later, she could only hope that no one, absolutely no one would speak directly to her. The end of sentences that she heard made no sense because she had forgotten their beginning. Her mind was in a thirty second loop. Panic. What’s happening to me? Oh yes, the weed. Ah, it’ll end in a while. Panic. What’s happening to me? Oh yes, the weed. Ah, it’ll end in a while. Panic. What’s happening to me? Oh yes, the weed. Ah, it’ll end in a while.
Some time later — it was difficult to estimate how much later — it seemed the party had truly begun. The level of noise and laughter and movement had increased in the lawns. She sat absolutely still looking only at people who came into her line of vision. And in her line of vision were people from exotic climes.
Moving wraith-like across the lawn were two thirteen-year-olds, easily the youngest writers there. Rumour had it that only one of the twins had written the Wakawaka Asura trilogy, but their astonishing success had them tied together at their coltish knees.
“They are huge in Europe. Also in Japan,” Rishi announced. “The Japanese love identical twins and freaky shit.”
The world-renowned conjoined Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, thought Sabbah, who had a sudden photographic recollection of the Piccadilly Hall poster that featured the twins in tailcoats shooting, rowing, fishing and riding horse carriages with the faux-aristocratic hauteur of all Victorian freaks.
Near the wine bar was a Hottentot Venus in a green shimmering sari, laughing sexily or frowning sexily at a dozen satellites. “Like a wild beast, she was ordered to move backwards and forwards, and come out and go into her cage, more like a bear in a chain than a human being,” quoted Sabbah to whomsoever it may concern. Hot and taut, she giggled.
The young Pakistani writer Zulekha too had her own immodest orbit. She was pale-skinned with huge dark circles under her eyes. It was implied in gesture and soft voice that she had suffered as much as her memoirs said. She had fought and now she was free. From the zenana that oppressed her, of course. Sabbah looked at her silky pants, her Jimmy Choos and Cossack-style hat and thought: “Circassian beauty, stolen from her home by white-slavers for an evil Turk who wanted an addition to his harem. She escaped with her life to tell her tale.” Zulekha, Zana Zanobia, Zoë Meleke, Zula, Zalumma Agra, Zoberdie Luti. Bring them all on, the dancing girls, giants, dwarfs, Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, fat ladies, living skeletons, wild men, noble savages.
The next one who appeared could have qualified as a giant but what he was, Sabbah knew instantly, was the Wild Man of Borneo. A fourth-generation Indian in Indonesia, he was somehow also the local go-to on all matters weighty in Indian culture. The press loved him because during his twice-yearly appearances in India he was guaranteed to say something inappropriate and delicious. She remembered how awed she was at nineteen when she’d first heard him speak, and tried to remember how it had felt.
Someone was talking to her. She looked owl-eyed at a young editor she had been introduced to on the first day of the festival.
“So man, everyone is buzzing about your Twitter war. Let’s hope the newspapers don’t see that latest tweet. It was all over the place before you deleted it. By the way Minnisha is saying she’ll never talk to you again.” She smiled at Sabbah, who could barely form a sentence in her defence. Even stoned she knew she would never be able to defend herself for what she had said. And who was Minnisha?
And just like that, she was gone.
Sabbah knew then that she was the freak show. She was the smallest person in the world. She wanted to shrink further and disappear.
Somehow she manoeuvred herself away from Rishi and friends, out of the hotel to the taxi stand. For the second time that day she was in a taxi rattling down Tipa Road, but nothing could make her feel better now. The taxi scraped the last few yards before hitting the centre of town. She could not bear to go back to the hotel so she hopped off on Temple Street again. On an impulse she went to one of the grocery stores that had posters for movie screenings. The shopkeeper, who was arranging cabbages in a basket, told her that yes, I Know What You Did Last Summer was due to start in a few minutes. He pocketed her Rs 40, moved aside two baskets of potatoes, unlatched a trapdoor in the floor and ushered her down a metal staircase into a basement.
It was exactly what a movie hall ought to be but in miniature. There was the slight slope down to the screen and rows of cushioned seats. It could have seated 40 people but there were only ten right now. They all looked like how she felt — cold but pleased.
The Mcleodganj movie halls had catholic tastes, Sabbah knew, since they primarily played DVDs the backpackers left behind. But this particular movie experience seemed like a hallucination. A few minutes into the slasher movie, something happened and they were swung into Vera Chytilova’s Daisies instead. As Chytilova’s girls ate and laughed and cheated fat businessmen and collapsed onto banquet tables, Sabbah revived.
At 1 am she and the other patrons of the veggie shop cinema came up the metal staircase. She blinked into the light, not quite sober but relatively calm.
Walking slowly back to the hotel she bumped into Rishi, whose well-fed vampire’s face lit up at the sight of her.
“Hey, do you still want to go to Billing? The others ditched.”
She dimly recalled conversation about Bir and Billing, two villages a few hours from Mcleodganj. For two months of the year, September and October, hang gliders from all over the world gravitated to these villages. Rishi and friends wanted to drive later that night to Billing and watch the early morning flights.
Her mood was sweetened by the anticipation of trotting out the bigot’s defence: I have many (insert community) friends. Now she too could say that she had a north Indian friend. But was Rishi really her friend? Perhaps she was too boring and too old to be his friend. She looked at him and brightened a bit. What did it matter? Tomorrow the trishuls may arrive.
There were few things that made her feel as glamorous as driving in the night. Expeditions in the night were affairs of urgency and pleasure. The very first time she was out at night was when, as a seven-year-old visiting an aunt’s house outside Mangalore, she accompanied the teenage boys of the household to hunt frogs around the paddy fields. Wet, muddy and scared, she had never had as good a time as she had had then. Later, in an orchard closer home, the boys had cut the legs off and fried them precariously on a stolen pan. She had eaten the crunchy legs, looked at the slivers of sky between the trees and felt very worldly.
She looked at Rishi and wondered what kind of memories he had.
“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word/Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird,” sang Rishi under his breath. Her skin prickled as she looked sideways at him. Maybe Rishi was a serial killer. Maybe he would hit out with his left hand mid-syllable, knock her out, open her door, push her off the side of the mountain and continue on his way singing about the diamond ring and billy goat Mama was gonna buy.
She looked out at the mountains, trembling slightly. In a while Rishi broke the silence and began telling her stories. These stories were not gossip. They were stories about work. Stratagems, heroes, ambitions, late nights. “I like my job,” he said with an ease that startled her.
Words had distinct history for Sabbah. The true meaning of some words only emerged after many years of knowing them. ‘Irresistible’ was once a favourite Robert Palmer video with a mass of identical women.
Right now the word meant Rishi. Slack-jawed in repose, with clothes that fit too well and perfect hair, Rishi should have continued to spook her. Instead, she had to stop herself from grinning at him like a lunatic.
Do indeterminate north Indians have angst? What do they worry about? Who was this Rishi that he could befriend someone as uncool as her, and for no reason? How could she possibly waste her short life with self doubt? She only had to make sure that she was never again in a room with more than two writers.
Utterly relaxed, she fell asleep.
Sabbah woke up in a village. She was rarely pleased by this and resented sticking out like a sore thumb. But Bir was silent at dawn as they drove towards Billing.
They passed a temple and then a tree with a broad red ribbon tied to its top. Rishi gestured towards the temple.
“That’s the Thermal Devi temple.”
“Billing is famous for its fantastic thermals. Hot air rising that helps the gliders. Best in the world. When you jump off Billing you get the best thermals over the temple. The red ribbon is so that gliders can see the spot from the sky.”
She grinned a bit, cheered already by the prospect of more eccentricity.
And suddenly there they were in Billing, a small meadow, a few kilometres high in the sky, now covered with giant butterflies in various stages of furling and unfurling. Men in goggles –- she could not see any women –- were walking around in shiny lycra outfits and boots. She could hear half a dozen languages around her, and in every language thick excitement.
Rishi, of course, knew people. He waved to someone who showed them the best place to watch. This someone indicated to her that she ought to be jumping, not watching. But she was not listening (human beings were leaping off high mountains). Could you ever get used to that? She imagined sticking her toes out, arching her body and leaping into the sky. Perhaps Icarus was not as stupid as she’d imagined him when she was a moralising ten-year-old.
After an hour of watching she turned around looking for Rishi and was as startled as she was by the hang gliders.
When had she started reading? She couldn’t remember. She read in film festivals and at parties. She read in moving vehicles and in the shower with one hand sticking out holding the book dry. Why did she read? She didn’t remember.
Now this child was reading on the roof of the world when everyone around him was playing with their magnificent flying machines. In the morning he looked less smooth than last night, but just as slack-jawed. He was staring almost cross-eyed at a book. His mug of coffee grew cold as he read. He read slowly. He turned pages with a finger the size of a little cucumber. She could not take her eyes away.
As she watched her breathing slowed. The mountains disappeared around her. The world narrowed and focused on his slow reading. The way it used to when nothing in the world could get between her and a book.
What was he reading? She was afraid to find out. But it didn’t matter. This morning it was possible that she would die oxygen-starved as she surreptitiously watched his Neanderthal brow frowning at a book. After an eternity, he picked up his coffee and the book jacket swung into view. Room With A View. Who’d have guessed? Rishi continued to read.
Twenty minutes later she was still standing, disoriented, when Rishi was joined by three of his friends, all roughly in the same mould. Noisily they sank their heavy bodies and bags around him.
“What you reading?”
“Some shit,” replied Rishi, carefully marking his page with a folded corner before putting it away.