So the Strand Book Festival is on, and I wanted to give it the once-over. A free weekend, the prospect of doing absolutely nothing the whole of Saturday loomed large. I didn’t seem to know anyone with as much enthu for Strand as me… or did I?
Chapter 1: The Strand DarkHorse-and-WhiteElephant Market
So my EvereadyToChillOut cousin and I found ourselves at Chinnaswamy Stadium wondering which of the three halls to check out first.
Big difference…. all of them were the darned same. For once, I didn’t feel like buying the entire bookstore. And no, that is not a compliment. The quality of books has dipped like crazy in my opinion. It’s full of crazy pseudosecular nonsense, the very titles of which have my blood pressure rising. Kancha Ilaiah has quite a few of his titles for sale. All Brahmin-bashing nonsense that wouldn’t stand scrutiny for a minute. C’mon, his logic is like “Hindus like cows. Hindus don’t like buffaloes. Cows are white. Buffaloes are black. Hence, Hindus are racist. QED”.
Apart from that, I didn’t think much of the quality of the fiction available. Most of it was racy pulp-fic-pop-lit that I really couldn’t justify paying for. There wasn’t much of Indian fiction, and most of the ones that were there were the NRI-rediscovering-roots types.
As for the title here, the prices were, like we say in Tamil, elephant-price-horse-price. The ‘Dark’ for the number of books there that had shot to fame after languishing unread for ages, like Holy Blood Holy Grail and the ‘White’ coz the eye-catching books were all these foot-long books full of awesome hi-res pics of people and places which cost a neat packet to buy, but served little purpose.
“Why do you go one week late? You should go on opening day! No wonder you’re disappointed”, chided my father when I called to ask if he or mum wanted anything. In the end, the only decent thing I found was a Japanese-English-Japanese dictionary my mum wanted. And an ‘Oils for Beginners’ book I found for sis, but in the time she took to make her mind up as to whether she wanted that one or the one on watercolors or the one on sketching, someone else filched it. Funnily, the exact same thing had happened last year. But then I’d returned later and found another copy of the book she wanted. I don’t think that’ll be happening anytime soon with this edition of Strand Book Festival.
I felt really insignificant standing in line to buy ONE slim volume when others were having basketloads of books. It has never happened before that I walk away nearly emptyhanded from a book exhibition… So on an impulse I bought Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, a travelogue about his trips to Sinkiang and Tibet. Let’s see how it reads.
Chapter 2: A lot can happen over… Luchi!!
Cousin and I were rather starved, and had enough time for a small snack. So we hit KC Das. Cousin was rather sick of sweets for some reason, and we decided we’d order savouries. It’s quite a crowded place, where you don’t get a table to yourself. You end up sitting wherever you find a couple of free chairs, and no one minds. We ordered Luchi after deciding Sev would be an overdose of good stuff. At our table were a couple in the last stages of their meal, and they soon left.
While we were wondering if we should order a sweet to go along with this, this lady walked in. I assumed her to be Bong, because of her large, large eyes. Her eyes were rather shifty, and her body tense. Her manner was confused as she asked us if the seat opposite us was taken. We said it was not. She was in the last stages of a phone conversation as she put her bag, couple of magazines and a file folder on the table and proceeded to beckon the waiter.
Just then, a man came to her and said “Magazine”. And I thought her confusion couldn’t get worse. He pointed to the magazines in a cover next to her and said “Pay”. She said “But I paid!” and proceeded to hunt for the bill. This man then reached under her file folder and withdrew a blue glossy magazine. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I got a call and I walked away with it”, she said, more to us than to him.”I was calling a friend, had to meet her, and my cellphone battery was low… my cellphone battery is low…”. I told her it was nothing to worry about and that I walked away with the pen in the NITK library so many times (but mind you, I alwasy returned it when I realized I had it) that the librarian tied a string around it; such things are normal.
“Are you guys from Bangalore itself? God, after a point this city gets so boring!”. She seemed to be talking to herself. “Yeah, it’s rather boring for folks who don’t have a family here”, I said, after ascertaining she was indeed talking to me.”Where do you normally hang around? I live in Lavelle Road and so I hang around here… it’s so boring, nothing new here!”. “Oh, CMH and Indiranagar, South Bangalore…” “Oh yeah, CMH Road… I used to have… I have a friend who lives there, and we used to hang around at the CMH Road Coffee Day…. but that was two years ago. I haven’t met him since TWO YEARS! Oh God, what is happening??”.
“Egad, what’s happening” is what we were wondering too. “You seem rather tense… are you going to write an exam or something?” I offered. “Oh, no, she said, in a confused, distracted voice, “I’m just feeling rather lost. I seem to have lost it in life *nervous giggle*”.
Our orders arrived and we dug in. (On an aside, I now know after that meal why Bongs all eat meat. If you butcher vegetarian preparations like that with only a modicum of seasoning and spice, it is but natural that even Hitler would have taken to eating meat). She enquired whether we were students or professionals. We told her. I have no clue as to what she does, coz that bit was a hazy blur of college names, course names and place names, interspersed with enquiries of other totally unrelated programs. There was something about Mounts, something else about Christ and Josephs, and then something about Coimbatore. And then something about Geneva.
“What are you guys doing here?” she asked. We told her. “Oh, books… somehow I’ve never been able to understand how people can read such big books. You’ve to follow some goddamn long story also along with all those words.. I prefer magazines”. To each his own, but keep away from me with a ten-foot broomstick, girl, was what I wanted to say, but instead I said, “You can read travelogues also.. there’s not much of stories in those.. and short story collections are not so demanding on the attention span”.
“So what did you buy?”. We told her. Considering the amount of comforting she seemed to need, I think I would have told her the secret of the Holy Grail had she cared to ask. “Ohhh we share such common interests. I’ll be going to Geneva soon, so I’m interested in languages too”. Er.. Japanese… European… how common are we really? “So.. which do you recommend? Spanish? Italian? German?”. Instead of shrugging, I went on to elucidate why German was a better option. And I even happened to have a Max Mueller Bhavan handout in my jacket pocket, and handed it to her when she asked about the courses.
“Where are you from?” we asked her when she lapsed into a tense silence. “Coimbatore”, she said. “Ohh Tamizhaa?” we asked, with broad grins. “Yes” she replied and continued in English.
We were done with our meal. We asked for the bill. Oh WTH… they combined our bills!! We told her we needed to split it. She wasn’t done eating yet. She asked me to reach over to her bag, pick out her purse, and take out a Rs. 100 note. We paid our share but were still wondering WHAT was with this girl! Yeah, cousin and I are renowned for our innocent looks, but this really was careless.
After paying our share, we got up to leave. She said, “Stay till I finish, please?”. We obliged. She asked about trekking spots around Bangalore. We mentioned Muthathi. She was done. We got a call asking us where we were. It was time to leave.
We said it was nice meeting someone who was not a software engineer. We wished her luck with Geneva.
Out in the street, we wondered WHAT happened in the past half an hour. We’d never experienced anything like this before. (Oh, there was one incident where an old man suddenly called the same cousin and I when we were on our way home and ordered us to hail him an auto to Kamakhya, and was very very dissed when we hesitantly told him we had an appointment and gave us a dirty look as if we’d betrayed him or something). We didn’t know women naive enough to admit to complete strangers that they’re confused and are distracted or that their cellphone battery is low and they can’t make calls. We’ve never met anyone caught so off-guard. No, not even those middle-aged maamis on the Lalbagh Express who’ll tell you their life story at the drop of a hat and bitch about their mothers-in-law before you can say “maanga uruga” give an impression of this much naivete or helplessness.
It’s rather amazing to meet different sorts of people, and it’s comforting to know that you’re not the naivest person this world has seen… And it sure does feel good to speed up the return of people from extra-tense to normal, especially of people who don’t know you.
Oh, and it sure is nice to talk to strangers every once in a while.