Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

An evening with a writer

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 22, 2012

Courtesy Page World bookstore and the kindness of a senior colleague, I was invited to a meeting with the noted writer Shashi Deshpande. What was scheduled to start at 5:45 PM ended up starting at 6:00PM as Shashi and the on-timers waited for other late-comers to join. Barring a brief interaction with the noted writer U.R.Ananthamurthy, Shashi was the first writer, in flesh and blood, with whom I had an opportunity to interact for a longer period of time. I was definitely a bit excited.

Shashi has a mildly strict school teacher air about her- a teacher with whom one can be open but not take any liberties of cracking an odd joke in the flow of a conversation. A bird of a lady who is unassuming, full of poise, energy and with a voice that is chirpy. One needs to interact with her to get a glimpse of her experience in literature and her life in letters. The topic she chose to dwell during the evening was “On reading”. She began her speech with her own journey as a reader starting at Dharwad where her father was employed. The place, she recalled was starved of good books and libraries and how she kept consuming whatever came across her way and how her real reading began in high school and has been sustained through her life. She confessed that as a reader one should not be afraid to reject any writer who does not align with one’s taste and that literature is becoming a product in the marketplace with the din of advertising shaping, altering and channeling readers’ tastes into a narrow range. The hoopla surrounding the numerous prizes that are awarded every year and the noise emanating out of the run-up to them came under special criticism. There was no element of pontification. She simply said “keep reading what you like and over a period of time good books will naturally gravitate to you”. On e-books her stance was surprisingly neutral: she herself uses an e-reader but does not prefer them over physical books

When the floor opened to questions, I had asked her three questions that I always wanted to ask any Indian writer and here is an approximation of our conversation:

Me: If as Julian Barnes said “Reading is a majority skill and minority art” what do we do to change the order for our children?
Shashi: Reading has always been a minority art and it will remain so. Never force children to read for you will scuttle the chances of them picking up books later on in their lives. Make as many books as possible available to them and hope they will gravitate towards them. Reading should be the primary vehicle through which children should be given the sense of a language

Me: Why does Indian writing in English lack the authenticity of Western writing in English?
Shashi: It is a tricky question. But what do you mean by authenticity?
Me: The experience of a moving quality
Shashi: Then you should read a lot more and have an open mind for there is some extremely authentic Indian writing in English. That said, Indian writing in English is relatively young and you need to give it some more time

It was after asking that I realized that it was a faux-pas of a question. There was an element of chiding in her response – Did I not say there was an air of strict school teacher about her!

Me: What do we do to make the dilapidated library infrastructure of our country more robust?
Shashi: There are no easy answers. This is an institution where Govt. has to play a big role. However, even there I would prefer multiple neighbourhood libraries in place of one large library

By this time, there were enough grunts and head-turnings in the audience that sent a message across that I should not be monopolizing the conversation. And taking the cue I had quickly gone silent. I wanted to ask many more questions but could not. I told myself that the remainder of unasked questions will be aimed at the next writer whom I meet.

Prior to the commencement of the session, I had bought a couple of collections of Shashi’s short stories and for some strange reason could not muster courage to ask her to sign the books.

I left with the unsigned books and the heaviness of a range of feelings which I could not explain to myself

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