Monday, March 23, 2015

Face to face with the man behind 'The Frog and the Nightingale'

I've been a writer for over 5 years. I know I'm probably repeating this, but it's just so astonishing that I sometimes can't believe it's been that long. It's been an incredible journey, and there's still so much more to do and learn! I started writing professionally on a whim some three years back when I was approached one day by the directors of an upcoming travel portal to freelance for them. Before that, I'd always pictured myself as a published writer sometime in the future. Signing copies, delivering talks, being appreciated for my works the world over. That has always been the dream. But as I began doing more of freelance work, my blog took a hit. The quality and frequency of posts on my blog began depreciating. Very soon, I had started doubting myself, writing less, thinking but not translating the ideas into good pieces.

In hindsight, I also realise I was reading very few books during that time. I just didn't have the time, what with all the writing work and exams. But that didn't dissuade me from attending social gatherings, especially those related to literature. Along came Penguin Spring Fever - an annual event where writers, journalists, and other famous people come to read from their books, deliver lectures, hold workshops and so on. I was impressed by the line-up of events that particular year. And so I turned up one evening at the open air amphitheatre where Vikram Seth, the man himself, was scheduled to read from his book Beastly Tales. I took along my closest friend who, although not much of a reader himself, was a great supporter of my dreams of being a writer.

By God, was I not completely awed the moment Vikram Seth walked in. The man just doesn't seem to age! With a humble air, he settled on the lone sofa in the middle of the stage. He talked a little about his book, its various editions, and some other stuff that I'm afraid I cannot recall now. It was when he finally flipped open the hardcover edition of Beastly Tales and began reciting a poem from it that I thought I'd died and gone straight to heaven. The man is known the world over for his eloquence. It sure bowled me over! After a couple of poems, he read out his final one - The Frog and the Nightingale. Waves of nostalgia came crashing down on the arid sands of my overworked brain. That was one of the most beautiful poems I had studied in my English class in high school. I still remembered parts of it vividly, but Seth's emphatic voice lent a new depth and charisma to the lines.
"Well I charge a modest fee."
"Oh! " "But it won't hurt, you'll see"
Now the nightingale inspired,
Flushed with confidence, and fired
With both art and adoration,
Sang - and was a huge sensation.
Animals for miles around
Flocked towards the magic sound,
And the frog with great precision
Counted heads and charged admission.
The reading was followed by a round of Q&A. Through his answers to people's questions, Seth gave out a lot about his life, travels, journey as a writer and the ups and downs. For me, his life story was as inspiring as one would say Milkha Singh's or Mary Kom's is. Before that, I had come to love his epic novel A Suitable Boy. But that night, my respect for Vikram Seth, the person, grew manifold as well. As the evening drew to a close, it was announced that he would be signing copies outside. That struck me as lightning; I realised I didn't have a copy of any of his books in my hand. I rushed outside and looked here and there. Yes, there was a counter retailing his books! I made a rush and bought a copy of Two Lives, a biographical novel chronicling the lives of his great aunt and uncle as well as his own life during his years in Europe.

There was a long line of fans waiting outside to get their books signed. I was in a fix. It was 9.30 pm already and my parents were calling to ask why I wasn't home yet. I just couldn't think of leaving without an autograph after coming so close to meeting one of the greatest writers our country has today. So I stood there in the line, fretting, while my friend said he'd do something. And he left. After a couple of minutes though, he came hurrying back and asked me to follow him. I did, only to be told that he had cornered Mr. Seth and had made up some absurd reason as to why he needed to sign my book right away. And then he took me right up to the author and pushed me forward.

I was flummoxed. I was standing right in front of Vikram Seth! He greeted me, and I thrust my book forward along with a card that had my name on it. He started walking towards the table to pick up a pen, but stopped midway and asked me a question instead. "Where do you have to be so urgently that you couldn't wait a little longer?" I had been prepped up beforehand, so I easily blurted out the perfect alibi. He looked at me, and emphasised, "Are you sure, young lady? Look me in the eye and tell me you're speaking the truth." A chill ran down my spine. I was making up lies in the face of one of my favourite authors. Exhilarated, I reassured him that it was true. He smiled, an all-knowing, smug kind of smile. And he proceeded to sign my book and ask me to "run along" so as not to be late.

I thanked him profusely then, and I thank him profusely even now in my heart for being such a great inspiration to me. Meeting him that day, talking to him, no matter for how short a duration, instilled in me the confidence I needed at that point to fuel my dreams. It made me realise how down-to-earth and real some of the best authors are. They're as human as you and I. And yet they've achieved great heights because they worked hard and didn't get discouraged in the face of failure. This little encounter filled me with the hope that someday I shall be on the other side too, signing books and looking people in the eye, seeing through their little lies.

P.S. While writing this post, I realised I did write about this experience earlier too. Check it out here. I promised in that post that I won't tell how I got Vikram Seth to sign my book. Well, 2 years hence,I guess I finally was ready today to tell that story after all.


Sushmita said...

It is always amazing to live your dreams! :)
Nicely expressed :D

Harshal Bhave said...

You write well. It is always lovely to read your posts. Although I don't come regularly to comment. I just had to say these things sometimes. Keep penning.