In 2002, Bombay was firmly Mumbai and while the LouisVuitton bearers browsed at Oxford Bookstore, the real book lovers still went to Strand. Jagat, the shop assistant and the man who took my order, had called me that morning with the news that my books were ready to go. I hopped into a taxi and went straight there. It was a Wednesday afternoon, I wasn’t expecting a crowd. “Hi, hi,” I called out as I walked in. Strand is a small store, everyone knows everyone. Jagat ran upstairs to get my books and as a force of habit, like reading the newspaper back to front, I walked away from the tiny central display area to the narrow aisle that runs around the small store.
“Madam, madam,” Jagat called when he was back, “here’s the lot. I’m surprised you didn’t ask for Maximum City. It’s a new book, very good,” he said.
“Everyone’s reading it Jagat,” I said wearily, “you and I know that if everyone’s reading a book it means that the hype is good and the book is bad, don’t we.”
I tucked a covered copy of the book I was carrying in my bag, firmly under, like a secret stash of narcotics. I didn’t want to be caught with it.
“That’s true,” Jagat laughed, “that’s why I haven’t read it yet.”
I shook my head and went back to the shelves. A quick scan before paying, just in case something else caught my eye. I had Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story in my hand. I had read it a long time ago. Should I buy a copy for myself, I wondered. I opened it to a random page and read a couple of pages. I decided to add it to my pile. I walked along, nose buried in the book, bag weighing down on one shoulder and the cell phone vibrating relentlessly inside. When it stopped, I looked up.
I needed to take a minute off my busy Bombay life and there was no place better to do it than the back aisle of Strand. Books were heaped everywhere, you knocked them down by just walking past them. Even my slim frame was too big in that world. “I sort of heard what you were saying and wanted to ask you where you got that principle from? The one that suggests if everyone’s reading a book it’s all shit and no substance,” asked the guy. He was sitting on the floor at the corner. He had a mop of dark, curly hair. And an expression of intense curiosity. I would perhaps not have looked at him twice had I run into him on the streets. But here, he seemed a creature born to Strand. The tumbled piles of books could well have been his limbs. He looked wise, yet not wizened.
“Oh, it’s just something I know,” I said. “It’s like a Hrithik Roshan movie or the short kurti or the cosmopolitan cocktail. You know it’s wrong because too many people think it’s right.”
“B-But, I think everyone’s reading Maximum City because it’s a realistic and exhaustive portrayal of this city that you have to live in to love. I don’t think it’s fair to compare it to Hrithik Roshan or a cocktail,” he said.
I nodded. I wanted to get away from this man. Suddenly the aisle seemed too dark, Strand too small and I was seized with claustrophobia and the notion that the books would fall off the shelves and bury me under them. I was stepping past him on as much a trot as I could manage in a space that is three square inches when he snapped, “I think you should read the book before you proclaim it bad. It’s the least you can do,” he said shaking with anger.
Is he mad? I wondered. “I am the author,” he said quietly. I looked at him, astonished. He was the author. This man, this surprisingly attractive, mad genius was the author of the book that everyone was reading.
I gulped. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Can I buy you a coffee so I can apologise properly? It would be an honour. Please.” I was talking to a real author. A real author.
“Ok,” he shrugged. I quickly paid for my books and walked out into a muggy Wednesday afternoon with Suketu Mehta, looking for a place for coffee. Strangely, we found it a short taxi ride away at The Oberoi. Suketu, or Sunny as he had asked me to call him, was hilarious company. He talked to me about the Mumbai I hadn’t seen, the Bombay that he had seen and yet not written about. Outside Strand, Sunny seemed to expand. He was much taller than I thought. And broader. And so muscular. His chest was a wild expanse; a ranch of a human anatomy. He ordered coffee – Irish and it sounded so lovely coming from him that I ordered one too.
When the third person had interrupted our chat to ask for an autograph, Sunny asked me if I wanted to go upstairs to his room so we could chat without “fan annoyance”. I nodded my head.
In the elevator, he took my hand in his. I wished my palms were not so clammy. I hoped he wouldn’t see how nervous I was. “I-I’m married,” I stuttered.
He tipped my chin up, blew me a kiss, winked and said, “Don’t worry darling; so am I.”
Excerpted with permission from Would You Like Some Bread With That Book: And Other Instances Of Literary Love, Veena Venugopal, Yoda Press.
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