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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Friday, 17 November 2006

Non-fiction: Meeting Vikram Seth at a book signing late last year!



(The bestselling Indian novelist & traveller, Vikram Seth, promoted his eagerly-awaited biography Two Lives, late last year. This is a book-signing and I also attended a reading later that week. I believe Seth was paid one of the largest author advances in England for his work in non-fiction. I recorded this in my journal while in London. Please excuse the big print...my html code for this post is all messed-up.)

by Susan Abraham

The funniest thing, really! Where was the bestselling author, Vikram Seth? Surely, one sensed a rising tide of disappointment.

A cheerful little crowd had gathered at the royal bookshop in Piccadilly, London. We had earlier dutifully purchased a hardback copy of Two Lives his newest biography at £20 each.

But not of course, without the wailing strain of female whispers - in that painful way of an unrehearsed amateur opera - that suddenly accompanied the brisk sharp tinkle of the cash register.

This was to be Seth's newest offering that far from the flamboyant fiction of A Suitable Boy or the genius desperate notes of An Equal Music, talks of the real-life endearing romance between his one-armed Indian uncle (a dentist) and German-Jewish aunt (a Gestapo refugee & escapee) that started during the Second World War and carried on with great intimacy into the twilight of the couple's subsequent marriage years in England.

Recent newspaper interviews carried just that hint of a descriptive sacredness that matched the subtle viewpoints of interested journalists who interviewed Seth - perhaps a child at its mother's feet listening to the gem of a folktale.

So here we all were.

Amongst the bustling store assistants, were people who had come to meet Seth and collect signed copies because they were seriously interested in his work and admirable of his literary genius. One suspected the subtle presence of historians. Still having popped into the store, in between appointments, they were dressed in important business suits.

Mixed together like coloured icing on a bland cake, also lay another group of beautiful Pan-Asian girls who were Britain-born-and-bred: young women who probably used all their beauty vouchers at Boots with gusto; who came armed with secret cameras (in-store photography is rarely encouraged at this bookshop!) and girlish weaponry comprising heavy-duty teasing and a mountain of giggles to rival the Kilamanjaro and afforded only to the happening pop star.

Until now, it had never occured to me to place Vikram Seth in the same category as Coldplay.

But you never know with these things...and especially from a bevy of beauties who look like they could have just stepped out of their teens.

Two elderly turbaned and overweight Sikh men eager to meet Seth were content to hobble about when the store's pretty blonde manager, offered them comfortable chairs to wait.
Suddenly, they were resurrected into life. They pretended to be in Amritsar and chatted loudly in Punjabi. One then turned around and shouted for cair, a strong, milky tea brew.
Rupa Bajwa's excellent Sari Shop novel immediately came to mind.

"Did they have a copy of Two Lives opened to the right page so Seth could sign their names," the kind lady-in-charge wanted to know.

Oops! They had not thought it necessary to buy a book.

This comical and slightly haphazard episode was enough to set about a few ruffles and throw the groupies in front of me into a new set of readymade giggles. Did they have their books ready at all by any chance, the kind lady-in-charge now demanded to know politely, if not a little sternly.

There was finally some scuffling about as to who would buy the book, request autographs and keep watch over developments etc. Only half-convinced, the manager shook her head in defeat and left the scene.

A far greater problem lay at hand. Where was Vikram?

The author had been due at the store 15 minutes ago. Of course, the sudden victory parade for the English cricket team who had won the Ashes the day before and the ensuing party crowd in Trafalgar Square, had resulted in several roads in central London being closed.

"He must have got caught in the traffic jam, poor thing. I'm sure he'll be along, one lady staff told another. "Don't worry, don't worry," consoled someone else, patting her on the back.

A-few-of-the-ladies-in-charge, stood outside the shop searching fervently in all directions. Heads bobbed and moved up and down and roundabout. The ladies in question suddenly looked like worried mums, waiting to welcome lost sons back from the war.

Oh...perhaps it wasn't the watching out for a whistling train but with all the feverish excitement of a coming Christmas, it looked like they could have been watchful instead for the sounds of carollers.

The groupies, businessmen, students, store assistants and a few curious customers all joined the silent search straining their necks out of this little shop as far as it would go.

Had the stylish bookshop turned into a search party?

A sea of bored faces from the tortoise-crawling double-decker and open-top sightseeing buses outside, now now peered back at us with renewed interest.

There were slight grins. Upstairs grins and downstairs frowns. What was going on down there? The bottom line ended up plainly that we glared up at them while they stared back down at us.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the unassuming Seth appeared quietly enough that no one saw him at first.

He padded into the shop with such soft footsteps, it could have been a leopard on the prowl or the silence of a ghost. I was the first to shout out his name; Vikram. He looked up surprised, glanced at me as to why I had called his name, - what had happened...was something wrong... - then proceeded to smile out of courtesy.

Was it a Bollywood moment where eyes met to a happily-ever-after destiny with windblown saris and snowy dhotis? Not on your life, I'm afraid. A wisp of a comedy-of-errors preceded over the classic crush.

There were stars in my eyes and question marks in his.

Vikram proceeded to look all around with puzzlement while people in turn having begun to recognise him, were at first startled and then finally, heaved long sighs of relief.

Like guests being treated to an extraordinary scene at a dinner party, all of us became momentarily transfixed as if the reel in real life had been pressed to 'pause'. "I'm so sorry, so sorry everybody. I tell you it's the London traffic jams. Horrendous! Simply horrendous!"

As Seth who has since moved his home from London to Wiltshire, belted out his apologetic lines with passion and relish, he fished out a hanky and started vigorously mopping his brow, while walking to his place at the table to settle himself down to the necessary book signing.

Could the word HORRENDOUS TO RHYME WITH MONSTERS have been the magic word that melted 20 women's hearts all at once... In this case, yes, yes and infactuation won the day.

Seth's late presence instantly forgiven by every woman in the shop, itself became suddenly thrilling in a way that cannot be rationally explained.

He was not very tall, slim and simply dressed with a perfect office etiquette. Shirt neatly tucked into trousers and all that. He walked fast and and you would think he was always in a hurry. But he held charm and charisma with a voice just as loud as Zadie Smith's and that was enough to set the lot of our hearts on fire.

The groupies looked at me for big-sister comfort Some help I was. I stared hopelessly back at them and we all together dissolved into an uncontrollable burst of giggles.

It didn't help that the baby-faced Seth knew how to turn on the charm with great style.

"Now, right..." he announced with a smile . Having drawn himself to an immediate composure, he swiftly proceeded to have witty conversations with the English ladies. There were humorous remarks about it being the 13th of September and he kept teasing a lady if she really wanted such a date in her book.

She looked delighted at the attention.

"Shall I, should I... do you want?...no, yes..perhaps...are you sure, very sure?...ok then, how about it..." Truly, I tell you, she was smitten.I think he also mentioned that both his parents were born on the 13th of ...was it August?

But Seth really came into his own with the large group of giggling girls in front of me. I don't know what they talked about. They laughed, smiled, tossed their hair about like sexy models, seduced with dazzling lipstick smiles, so smoothly snatched out of toothpaste ads and surrounded him like what they were...true fans!

I got the impression Seth loved every moment of it.Suddenly there were flashlights. In this case however, the forbidden photography was tolerated. One of the girls had stationed herself in a secret corner and accompanied by a tight grin from her braces, was happily snapping photographs.

Shall I say what we talked about?

I can't remember...I'm too dazed! We talked about quite a few things of the present and of the ordinary and of all subjects cricket...the jam, the Ashes, cricket, India, party, Trafalgar Square...etc...etc.... and I sensed Seth's keen interest in the sport. Then we talked about how I had enjoyed reading Two Lives.

Suddenly, Seth said I was making him all sweaty. "Susan, you're making me all sweaty now," he said, fishing out his hanky once more and making a show of wiping his brow.

I had done nothing. Stunned, I stopped talking ! I remember an immigration officer in Heathrow once, who when he saw my occupation, asked me if I wrote 'steamy stuff'. It came from his apt skill with body language.

Seth commands beautiful handwriting by the way and this was evident from the tender scrawl of my name while asking me a few more questions of this and that. It is extremely neat, cursive and curly, splayed out long and confident.

As beautiful as the pictures in his own book, as beautiful as what shall I say, his art... or perhaps as in my case, I would prefer to settle for the beauty of his own free spirit.

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