|Art: Venantius J Pinto|
30 May 2009
There’s a fable about an old man, a boy and a donkey. Half the onlookers scolded the boy for sitting on the donkey while his dad walked alongside. And when they switched, the other half admonished the father for sitting on the donkey while the little boy walked. And there they went on their weary way, never knowing what was the right thing to do.
That’s more or less how I felt a few weeks ago, when various people said: Great, you’ve arrived – your book’s being published by an actual publisher. But even as I took an immodest bow, others said quite the opposite: Hey, you wrote some story, good for you – now get started on the real work: promoting it. Publishers are like parents, I am told – they can push you out into the world, but then you have to make a mark all on your own.
My publisher is showing every sign of being one of those parents that couldn’t be bothered even with the pushing-out-into-the-world part. It’s as though you are about to have a baby, and have foolishly signed up with a much-talked-about hospital, and only as the date approaches does it dawn on you that this hospital delivers the Ambani, Bachchan and Tata kids – and they agreed to deliver your baby only to give their interns some practice. That is about the time and space you will get from your Snotty Indian Publisher (SIP). You will never meet or be contacted by the top people; the marketing people will rarely reply to mails, and when you are thoroughly dilated and the baby is about to pop out, only then will they tell you all the operating rooms are booked – Go have your baby in the nearby ditch, and don’t make a big noise while you’re doing it. Because Amitabh and Shobaa are having their babies right now, do you mind?
Fired up with the fear that my book, 3 Zakia Mansion (hereinafter referred to, by a fond parent, as 3ZM) would come, be celebrated and bought by near and dear ones – amounting to a total of 120 people – and then gather dust and find its way in big stacks to the raddiwalla, I have started to make some serious stabs at publicity and promotion all on my own. The next time I hear about someone successfully and ruthlessly pushing their own book / child / performing dog / painting / music album, I will definitely not snigger and look superior. Now I know that while they smile and bow and sign autographs and dance to the bank and all, they must have got there only after some rather ignominious and absurd moments on the road to fame.
First, I decide to do some ‘inner work’, to prepare myself. I practise looking at pictures of ethereal Jhumpa and otherworldly Arundhati and not saying to myself – Gosh, no wonder my publisher didn’t ask for my picture for the back of the book. I conjure up the dictums delivered unconvincingly by my mother when I was 15: Beauty is as beauty does.
Inner work shakily in place, this morning I skipped off to a small bookstore in a leafy lane. The big chains my publisher will, I hope, look after, but the small ones I have to work. At this time, though, I didn’t actually have a copy of 3ZM in hand. I walked into the store and felt a waking version of one of those nightmares in which you walk into your classroom wearing just the essentials and the school tie. A nice lady behind the counter looked at me and smiled. Then, I uttered the words: ‘Hi, I’m a writer. My book is coming out soon.’ It’s May, very hot, and the lady might have pushed a chair towards me and poured me a glass of water – or then, maybe all kinds of odd people walk in from the street and make such dubious declarations; they need to be merely calmed, humoured and sent on their way. Which is what she did.
Copies of the book have just arrived. I am in tears at the idea that someone at this hallowed place has actually put my name on an envelope, licked stamps and stuck them on a packet, to send my books to me. I am beside myself with gratitude. In the interim, more people have admonished me to take matters in my own hands, as no bookstore anywhere, it seems, has even heard of the book. Leave alone standing at the door eagerly, waiting for large consignments of 3ZM, bookstore owners are actually urging other books on to my friends. As for 3ZM, informal reports pour in from all over: the bookstores have not heard of it. ‘Sure you’ve written it?’ some friends ask kindly. When they hear my anxious silence, one of them hurriedly adds, ‘I’ll ask for it again and again, so that they’ll remember the name. And when the book is out, I’ll gift a copy of it for everyone’s birthday.’ Ah, where would I be without friends?
I’ve heard from a smart, fearless young couple that I just have to take this show on the road myself. They laughed themselves silly when I told them I’ve been going to bookstores in leafy lanes and introducing myself; and they advise me to get a manager – m-a-n-a-g-e-r, they spell out helpfully. I bargained with them – one last sweet bookstore with which I have a personal connection, and then I’ll do everything that you suggest.
So, I took myself and newborn 3ZM on a trip into the city. I parked and gently unstrapped 3ZM from the car’s baby chair, and stood at the traffic signal, waiting to cross. I fought back the image in my head of myself as a vagrant at the signal waiting with her baby, just hoping to catch the eye of a passerby. This kind of thinking won’t do, man, I admonished myself, and began to stride across the road. I felt some confidence coming on, but the effect was quickly spoiled by a two-wheeler rider trying to run me down. I had come in the way of his red-light jump. I scurried and skittered, dandling newborn on my hip.
All of which brought me rather quickly to the steps of the 30-year-old book shop whose owner I went to college with. He wasn’t in, but that didn’t stop me from plonking 3ZM on a table, where two women assistants were working quietly. ‘Umm’, I started, ‘do you hold book readings here?’ People probably sell dirty pictures and drugs with more panache and confidence. They both looked at me blankly. I swallowed hard. Not only were they not all agog, but I was going to have to repeat my question, and possibly annotate and footnote my query, maybe mime out what a book-reading is.
Before I could do any of that, though, the phone rang in the small shop. The errand boy picked it up, and passed it on to one of the ladies. Interrupted, I took 3ZM protectively off the table, wandered into one of the little aisles, and ended up picking up books by three other writers. This was getting to be quite a promotional visit.
Okay – 3ZM is not so invisible anymore. From Shantiniketan, in West Bengal (how cool is that?), Keya Sarkar and Satish Sethuraman, who own a bookstore, library and lifestyle store, write to me saying they have got a catalogue in which my book features, and that they have ordered copies. 3ZM, like all newborns, needed that little smack on the bottom to start its journey into the real world.
Then my publisher sends me rapid and wonderfully multisyllabic e-mails, getting set to tie down dates for a launch – yes, a real one. With celebs reading from the book and all. And people air-kissing each other, before and after. Never mind that this action has begun in June, when Mumbai is drowning in rain and overflowing sewers. Never mind. Be graceful, be grateful. And also never mind that half the people you asked to be invited don’t get cards till the very end. And also never mind that you have been asked to arrange for a celeb, and your sole celeb pal is trying very hard to not swat you one, because no one has sent her an official invitation. The window of attention that opened briefly and tantalisingly from my publisher is now closed.
So I called, and bleated one more time, ‘What will we serve people at the launch – people are coming to Juhu from as far as Colaba and Powai, can we give them coffee?’ A marketing voice at the other end said, ‘Sorry, Ms Dange, but your book-marketing plan doesn’t have a food-and-beverage component.’ I suddenly found myself casting away my polite, shrinking, first-time-writer manner, and said icily, ‘If you’re not serving anything, I will call the nearby chai shop and get him to send many ‘cutting chais’ – one cup divided among two people. And when Shabana Azmi – the sole celeb pal – has to drink a cutting chai, then you’ll know what is what. Food-and-beverages component, indeed!’
Things have begun to move a bit. My friend Phillip George, from Thiruvananthapuram, has written saying there’s a smart poster of my book cover in a bookstore there. Delighted, I am positively strewing roses from my hat. A niece has also called, thrilled that the book is in her hands. But she also regretfully told me that the fancy newspaper that she works for ‘does not carry reviews of Indian writers’. And this is a paper that has the word India in its masthead. Go figure!
Almost as absurd was the lady in the British Library in Pune, whom I went to see about holding a reading there. ‘Is there a UK connection in the book?’ she asked. When I looked down and mumbled indistinctly, ‘No Miss’ or ‘Sorry teacher’, she told me politely, ‘Then we can’t do anything. There are many bookstores you can approach.’ Later, I remembered that one of the characters in 3ZM travels from Chicago to Mumbai. He must have had a London stopover. So there is in fact a UK connection, after all! Silly me, I should have told her this.
But never mind. Tomorrow, I will set out looking for Friends in High Places in the Media. Some are born pushy, others cultivate pushiness, and some have pushiness thrust upon them, like me.
Meanwhile, one mediaperson has casually asked me: ‘Is your book potentially controversial? Is there some shocking child abuse, or some such stuff? Kuch halla hoga kya’ – will there be a commotion – ‘over this book? Besmirched some historical figures, maybe?’
Okay, so bite me, I want my book to be written about. But hold on a minute, always be careful about what you ask for – you might be blessed with gobbledygook like this (swear I’m not making it up):
Framing characters that have been a quarry of emotional abandonment, Gouri Dange’s maiden venture in fiction writing 3, Zakia Mansion recounts the journey of maturing. Writers can delve out the most unobtrusive of the emotional panoply felt or forgotten, spy the most understated of the peculiar human conditions, and phrase it so incisively as to leave you stunned that they can resonate your inner being like they have been an observer and cohort for life.
To intuit the finer elemental experiences of a marooned mind that has fallen off the sound growth routine, it is given that a perspicacious, objective and thorough insight into the tumultuous scenario is required. But to Dange it comes relatively easy, given her surrogate profession of a family counsellor.
Her advice to aspirants of penmanship is that you should indulge in uninhibited writing and allow yourself to explore, refraining from taking a cavilling view of your writing.
Ironic, because this is the kind of writing I advise people not to indulge in. And here I sit, being written about thus. Anyway, this confirms one theory – that the word vocabulary has a Subcontinental origin: Woh-kya-boli-rey?
The book launch, thanks to Shabana Azmi and a sea of friends and former colleagues who showed up, was a riot. People listened, they asked questions, they bought copies of the book, and they together created a standing-room-only show. Three old biddies, my mother’s best friends, hired a car and tootled down to the venue in driving rain, standing in line to get me to sign their books. Why can’t these women become publishers? But never mind …
Update, January 2011
My second-born, The Counsel of Strangers, like all second children, came out quite without any of the neurotic pregnancy and post-natal care of the first, and is out there doing most competently for itself.
~ Gouri Dange is a writer and counsellor based in Mumbai and Pune.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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