May 25, 2020
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Then, Now, Thereafter

The road to the Jaipur litfest is lined with dog-ears and missed pages

Then, Now, Thereafter
Illustration by Sorit
Then, Now, Thereafter

New Delhi railway station’s platform no. 2, where the Ajmer Shatabdi is just sliding in, looks more like the India International Centre lobby this morning. Bemused coolies are getting used to a lot of ‘excuse mes’, ‘beg your pardons’ than the usual cries of ‘abe, teri maa ki’. The fumes of Paco Rabanne and Dior battle with the natural 6 am aromas rising from the tracks. But after a lot of ‘after yous’, a polite but firm rhubarb breaks out at seat number 38 as to who the window belongs to. A few heated words fly around, but nothing even remotely veering towards ‘abe...’. The lady next to me is absorbed in her Kindle, reading This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. The gentleman is hidden in the pages of Guardian Review. Diagonally across, the girl is oblivious to the service guy’s query of ‘veg or non-veg’ as she turns the pages of a thick book (that for some reason is wrapped in brown paper) which could be the collected essays of Edmund Burke (or it could well be the complete works of E.L. James, though it’s still very early in the morning).

A swish couple gets in at Gurgaon: she in a slick trenchcoat, he in a fawn sports jacket, she hesitant to hang her Longchamp bag on the rusty hook near her seat, he rinsing the railway cutlery with mineral water. Some new writing sensation pair, she a chicklit diva, he a self-help guru? Or hotshot literary agents? Or new kids on the e-publishing block? But they start talking about the new stamp duty norms in Sector 108. They are not going to Jaipur, as I had mistakenly assumed everyone on the train to be, but to Ajmer, to tie a thread at the dargah, praying that a new make-or-break property deal goes through. On the seat behind them, another couple has set up a small office on the breakfast trays: a laptop, an iPad, three smartphones, chargers, adapters, wires, batteries, headphones. These have to be hotshot literary agents. ‘Do you think they will fall for it?’... ‘It’s tough, there are already too many Germans in the education sector’... ‘I told you we should have started something more focused like autism or even Alzheimer’s.’

As the train races through dew-drenched mustard fields, after all those veg and non-veg breakfast packets have been cleared, its rhythmic sway and rocking brings in a heavy somnolence. Snoring is a great leveller. You may have been reading Mephistopheles or Manohar Kahaniyan, you may be a poet or poseur, you may have eaten cutlets or caviar, when a train sways and rocks, we all breathe the same.

In Halcyonia They say that when you are on your deathbed, waiting to figure out what happens next, all the people you have loved—or hated—flash by in your mind’s eye. Diggi Palace gives you that out-of-body experience. The girl who spurned you 20 years ago (now standing in front of you with two strapping lads, Armaan and Ishaan), the girl who spurned you 18 years ago (there before you, her hair brushing the white giant with deep blue eyes standing next to her as she laughs that old laugh; yes, Dolly, you have done well), the girl who spurned you 15 years ago. This could take a while.... Moving on from the personal to the professional, there is the boss who sacked you 15 years ago (recall how he frothed at the mouth as he was screaming at you; it appears that this tick has carried on to the present as there are still froth stains at the corner of his mouth), the kid who you had called for three rounds of interviews and didn’t hire (all grown-up and burly now), your drinking buddy Chintu (what’s he doing here? In the old days nobody asked Chintu what he had read last, but when) from those carefree days, whose evening company your liver simply could not take anymore. Trouble is: all these people from the past don’t just flash by, as they are supposed to on your deathbed, but keep circling you for five whole days. And so, the froth-stained boss materialises next to you while you are sipping a Diggipuri chai. And as you try to slink away from behind the shrub you bump straight into the then new recruit. Or as you are engrossed in a session on Sex and Sensibilities, there’s Dolly in the front seat all cuddled up with the Daniel Craig double. To soothe your jangling nerves, you rush to the bar at the Green Garden Cafe and, who do you see on the first stool? Yes, Chintu. All bloodshot eyes and throbbing liver spots. Literature is said to help you quell your inner ghosts, JLF brings them back to life.

A Thirst Unslaked Why did all this name-calling, stone-pelting, FIR-lodging transpire at the JLF? Why was everyone on edge? Because two days of the five were dry. The strain had started to show when Random House cancelled its cocktail party (the invite boldly embossed with the Glenlivet logo) on Friday owing to Id. And Saturday being Republic Day, not even a drop of the golden liquid. Next year, there ought to be peace and calm, as the organisers have wisely rescheduled the event to 16-20 January.

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