GOWANUS Spring 2001


By Anjana Basu

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There was a fur of grey wool over the marble and brass five-star fittings.
The lobby crawled with it, over the sofas, on the tables. At first that was
the image that struck the eye, until the fur resolved itself into a mass of
men clutching video cameras and microphones. This was Calcutta’s press body.
They were out in full force on a winter afternoon at the Park Hotel, waiting
for Jhumpa Lahiri to materialise from the depths o f the Oriental restaurant
with her Latin American boyfriend in tow. And, for Calcutta, they were
remarkably punctual, hugging the doors, hugging their cameras, exchanging
notes, waiting.

The greyness was remarkable, a kind of determined sobriety. Even the few
women present were dull in dark green and navy blue. In the middle of that
body I stood out like a Christmas tree in red and green and wondered what I
was doing there at all. I was there, I felt, under false pretences, since I had
been invited to drop in by Harper Collins. This entire thing is by
invitation, Renuka Chatterjee had warned me by email, so print this out and
bring it along with you.

No one wanted to see it. I sat at a table and dismally looked at my
reflection in a wall-to-wall mirror. If the purpose of the invitation was so that I could say hello to someone who had been kind to me, but whom I had never met, it seemed like entirely the wrong kind of occasion. She was bound to be up to her ears with celebrityhood. After all, how many chances did one get to meet a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, anyway? If it came to that, what did one
say to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author? Especially one called Jhumpa.
Jhumpa--it was a name straight out of the middle-class Bengali ethos. One
knew a hundred Jhumpas and Tumpas who flashed their pigtails and bare knees in the sun. Their high-pitched voices could be heard chattering through the neighbourhood. None of them were convent girls or even Anglicised--this I
thought with a slight sneer of upper-class snobbery. Jhumpa was the most
common name you could possibly imagine, and how on earth did she possibly
put up with its being mispronounced in America? Jumpa grown up was
crumpled cotton weaves with mismatching blouses and a petticoat sticking out perhaps underneath. Of course, I thought hastily, Jhumpa was also a name with a lot of love in it. Parents called their small darlings Jhumpas.

Not that there was anything remotely Jhumpa-ish about the Jhumpa in question who walked out of the Oriental Restaurant. She was a tall sliver of a woman in a shocking-pink dress and blazer. Her streaked brown hair was wrapped in a single piece around her skull. She looked as remote as a bamboo growing in a hidden grove somewhere. It was the clothes more than anything else. If you had put her in a sari she would have been another of the model-wannabe girls with earnest smiles who hovered around the five-star places in Calcutta. “Who’s that celebrity?” I overheard one bystander ask another, as the cameras flashed.

“Jhumpa Lahiri. She wrote something.” 

Well she wasn’t a filmstar, even though the first overpowering impression was of Catherine Zeta Jones' wedding photographs with Michael Douglas. Youth and maturity. Her fiancée didn’t let her take a step without him and he smiled and nodded as they made their way into the Banquet Hall. That was where the Press looked at me and wondered why I was there. One of the Star News people said, “Are you here to give her a hard time?”

I smiled in embarrassment. “Actually, Harper Collins invited me,” and let the
sentence trail into infinity. She went on to ask the others beside me what
they were going to do. 

“I want to know if she’s even been to Puri and met a tourist guide.”

“I want to know what the title of the story means.”

“Actually, I’ve only read the first story.” 

The hall was air-conditioned and in winter my hands were several degrees colder than the temperature of the room. Renuka Chatterjee came over, was introduced and received an icy handshake while I wondered frantically whether I should refuse to shake hands and/or apologise.

When the conference actually started, the TV cameras were busy blocking
everyone’s view and had to be ordered to get out of the way. Jhumpa sat next
to her fiancée, who smiled determinedly through the whole proceedings. In
fact, he looked far more confident than she did. The girl-woman was by no
means Bengali. She was American in a Bengali skin, despite her saying that she had been familiar with Calcutta since she was two. As far as writing went, shedidn’t favour the Indo-Anglian school, nor was she very familiar with the
work of Indian writers barring Tagore and one other whom her mother had read and translated to her.

She wasn’t even in favour of the internet or epublishing--didn’t have an
internet connection.

On behalf of Harper Collins, the editor Renuka admitted that she had thought Interpreter of Maladies a quiet book and was surprised when it sold 50,000 copies and made a sensation world-wide. A quiet book written by a quiet woman who just happened to be the first person of Indian origin to win the Pulitzer and so share a pedestal with Ernest Hemingway.

The woman doesn’t talk at all, grumbled the press after the strictly doled out
hour was over. I hadn’t said a word myself. A motherly editor of one of
the dailies suggested I go over and see whether I could extract anything
from Jhumpa’s mother. “She’s the one with the big bindi.” Someone else
observed that the Press had been strictly banned from the wedding ceremony
--though the papers had written up the fact that Jhumpa’s uncle was doing her bridal makeup and designing the invitation card. The uncle and parents had sat behind the main table and observed the proceedings. Another Harper Collins person said that Jhumpa had almost cancelled the press conference out of sheer panic.

I pointed out that every writer wasn’t necessarily a performer in a media
circus like the flamboyant  Shobha De or even Arundhuti Ray. What I kept to myself was my theory that books were meant to be read and the person sitting one the podium wasn’t actually the same person between the pages. That magic only got created on flickering computer screens or with pen and paper.

I hung around on the fringes of this chaos eating petit fours and drinking
coffee. Some people thought Alberto, the fiancée, was sweet and very
supportive. Some felt he was too obtrusive. When they had run out of
questions they  asked the couple to coo to each other in Bengal or,
alternately, Spanish. Of course, they had not obliged. My mobile phone rang--
it was my advertising existence reasserting itself. Where are you, are you
coming to work? The celebrity left. So did I.

(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)