I arrive in Delhi
I stagger through customs at 10 pm. A 14-hour flight, another 1.5 hours at the carousel awaiting my bag, and there is no sign of my driver. A minder from my publishing house rings to tell me the driver had a “flat tire” – an Indian euphemism, I suspect – but he would be there shortly.
“Not to worry,” I am told.
Of course. My urbane editor at HarperCollins India, Saugata Mukherjee, sent The Hundred-Foot Journey to the printer just 26 days before I actually landed in Delhi, not a lot of lead-time to produce the book and get it into bookstores before my tour. Also unnerving: my repeated requests for an itinerary, outlining precisely what my schedule would be while I was in India, only produced the vaguest of responses.
So entirely in the dark when I arrive. And worrying a great deal
At Delhi’s airport, however, my cell phone suddenly fills with text messages outlining my schedule for the next two days. The marketing team at HarperCollins India is still hard at work at this late hour. It’s an Indian version of “just-in-time” delivery.
Everything is going to be last minute. But it will get done. Relax.
The driver arrives. He greets me with that sweet Indian smile and bobbing head. Impossible to remain pissed off. I follow him as he plows through the crowds thronging the airport outside, three young men fighting to carry my bag a few steps. I am enveloped in that instantly recognizable smell of the developing world – a steam-filled night fecund with diesel, raw sewage, and rotting vegetation.
In the driver’s minivan and we’re off. The streets are filled with cars and rickshaws going in the wrong direction down the one-way streets, vague figures moving in smog eerily lit by the sulfuric orbs of the street lamps. Ratty-haired children on the roadside are settling in for the night under a tarp.
We’re shopping for gas, apparently, but each gas station we pull into is crowded and the driver pulls out again. Third one is to his liking, and he leaves the engine and air conditioning running as he fills the van with gas. I work my Blackberry.
In Defence Colony, a smart residential section of Delhi, the driver can’t find the hotel and asks five different people for directions. Each sends us, with much sincerity and gesticulating through the window, in entirely opposite directions.
It’s midnight. I stagger into the hotel. The room is comfortable and the air conditioning works. A quick shower, bed. I start to read but the lights and air conditioning immediately conk out. I am in a blackout. So is the entire neighborhood.
No doubt about it. My Indian adventure. It has begun.
I am interviewed
I’m on the 1st floor verandah of the Ahuja Residency guesthouse in Defence Colony, a wealthy neighborhood of Delhi. The terrace breakfast table is littered with half-eaten brown toast, jam jars, a pot of tea. Rotating blades overhead try to fan relief into the 95-degree heat. My blue Oxford shirt is already dark with sweat. It’s 10AM.
My first interviewer of the day is 25 minutes late. His photographer has taken a shot of me leaning over the balustrade. I smile. Awkward silence. We wait.
Kishore Singh of the Business Standard finally arrives. He opens his briefcase and discovers he has no pad on which to take notes. Nor does he have a tape recorder. I offer to get him paper but he starts writing on the back of what looks like a bill. He quickly and pointedly tells me what’s wrong with my novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey.
I smile but am silently thinking, “This is going to be a disaster.”
(When the article comes out two days later, Singh has not only recounted our conversation with great accuracy, but he did so with considerable wit and panache. Note to self: interviews make you paranoid.)
That night, after five interviews in a row, I walk to the Defence Colony market for dinner. Stray dogs roam the streets listlessly or lay in the dirt, trying to stay cool. Dust, diesel and frangipani fill the nighttime air, as motorized rickshaws roar past me, leaving blue waves of exhaust trailing in their wake.
At Moets, a local restaurant, I eat a red chicken curry and stir-fried cauliflower. My head quickly beads up with sweat. I order a Kingfisher beer.
The young women next to me have hair elegantly flipped, just so.
The young men roar into their mobile phones.
My official debut. Next Day.
I am so nervous I could throw up.
I walk the short distance to the Vadehra Art Gallery Book Store.
On the way, I notice an elderly man ironing clothes under a banyan tree; the middle class residents of the neighborhood are dropping off their laundry. The old fellow turns to a fire and shovels red-hot coals into his cast iron instrument and then wordlessly resumes his pressing on the clapboard table.
My parents had just such an iron when I was growing up in Switzerland in the 1960s, but they exhibited the folksy antique near our fireplace. The old man is pressing clothes with 300 year-old technology.
Instantly, fast-forwarded into the 21st century.
Parul Vadehra warmly greets me in her contemporary art gallery’s bookstore, where hefty books on everything from Gaudi to Choudhury line the store slowly filling with Delhi’s intellectuals. The bookstore could be in Paris, London or New York. I am touched to see P.M.Sukumar, the CEO of my publishing house, HarperCollins Publishers India, and his entire staff out in force to support me. Even my copy editor has been corralled to take a seat alongside the elegant Lipika Bhushan, HCI’s marketing manager.
The evening’s moderator is Alka Pande, a leading curator of contemporary art, and she asks me to read from my book. It is the first time I have read publicly from my book and I feel utterly exposed. My voice is shaking so much I can barely get the words out. I ask the audience for forgiveness.
Pande quickly and professionally leads me into the discussion, astutely steering me towards one of the book’s underlying theme: destiny. The subject seems to resonate with the audience and I relax. Next time I read, my voice does not shake as much.
But still not a good reading. I must improve.
On to Mumbai
The taxi my HarperCollins minder orders to take me to the airport at 5AM never shows up, so the hostel’s bleary-eyed manservant, sleeping on the living room floor in a lungi (a wrap worn by working-class Indian men,) must leap to my rescue and call a cab.
I roar away from Delhi in a Sikh’s tinny van. A head-bobbing Lord Ganesh is attached to the taxi’s dashboard and smiling broadly under a string of blinking, multi-colored lights. I respectfully nod back.
Certainly can use the protection. On the discount airline down to Mumbai, a uniformed stewardess gives us the safety rundown. Anyone sitting in rows 1 to 10, she says, will find a life vest under their seat. Anyone in rows 11 and back must clutch their seat cushion as the plane goes down.
I am sitting in 11c.
I find my inner ham.
The Oxford Bookstore in Mumbai is one of city’s top bookstores, complete with “Cha Bar” and children’s corner. A small dais with microphones has been set up, surrounded by a few dozen plastic white chairs. The store manager has me signing books.
It’s October, the tail of the rainy season, and a torrential downpour is sending sheets of water down the shop front window. It’s nearly show time, Friday evening, and few have arrived to hear me read on the Mumbai leg of my book tour.
I recall what my friend, the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, told me shortly before I flew off to India. Book tours for a new writer, he said, are generally soul-destroying events – small audiences, lots of indifference. The real purpose of these first book tours is relationship building. I cling to his words.
A tall gentleman with a white beard and twinkle in his eye wanders into the store. Tom Alter has been asked by HarperCollins India to be the master of ceremonies at my Mumbai book launch. He wants a blueberry muffin and tea.
Alter is an American who was born to missionaries in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas in 1950. He went to Yale before he became a top actor in Hindi films. Known as the “blue-eyed Saheb with the impeccable Hindi and Urdu,” this Bollywood thespian also writes books and speaks beautifully with a lilting, Anglo-Indian accent.
He mesmerizes me, as we chat amicably, like old friends, and something tells me I should be interviewing Alter, rather than he, me.
When Alter gets the show started only three quarters of the seats are filled. He cajoles the audience to buy the book, claiming I had “perfectly captured the old Bombay” of his childhood. And when he asks me to read, I am inspired by his presence and confidence-building remarks to “act” out the voices of my book.
The audience wants to know why I wrote a book about an Indian chef. For a while I riff on my friendship with the producer, Ismail Merchant, a great cook and a great filmmaker, and how he was the inspiration behind The Hundred-Foot Journey. My tale ends abruptly, however, with Ismail’s untimely death before my novel was finished. The bookstore audience seems rather satisfied by this brutish ending.
Scraping of chairs. Alter must leave as his new film is getting shown at a Korean film festival, and he has to dash to the airport. But we part firm friends, like we had known each other for years.
Back at my tired hotel, the Ambassador, the nasty rugs smell and my room is wet with mildew. But I am high. Nothing is bothering me, not even the crashing stock markets and talking heads shrieking from the television. I call my wife and tell her, after the disaster of Delhi, I read well. With an Indian accent.
“You’re kidding,” she says. “Tell me you didn’t.”
Down in Kerala.
Because I rose at 3 AM to catch the plane from Mumbai down to Kerala’s Taj Green Cove, the Southern India resort hosting the Kovalam Literary Festival, I desperately need to take a nap before the festival officially opens. But HarperCollins India has just emailed me the first reviews of The Hundred-Foot Journey, and they are glowing. Now I am too wired to sleep.
A bath. That will calm me down. I draw the water, start climbing into the tub. A four-inch long poisonous-looking centipede suddenly shoots out of the tap. In a blink I am out of that water and on the far side of the bathroom suite.
The Kovalam Literary Festival, a three-day affair, is equally green and high-strung. But the entrepreneurial force behind the festival, Penguin author and India Today journalist, Binoo John, has still landed some of India’s biggest literary fish: Gulzar, the great and charming Urdu poet, and Shashi Tharoor, the former United Nations diplomat and columnist who can verbally produce exquisitely-crafted paragraphs on the spot, like instant poems.
Among these intellectual heavyweights, Binoo John has sprinkled some of India’s youngest and most beautiful literary talent: Meenakshi Reddy, a cheeky and endearing young woman with a nose-ring and hot-selling Bridget Jones-type novel, and the coolly elegant Tishani Doshi, a poetess from Chennai about to come out with her first novel.
There, too, Professor Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih, a hugely talented folklorist and poet just discovered by Penguin India, next to top-notch sport writers, historical novelists, and memoirists. (I want to read the The Music Room, by Navita Devidayal, after we have breakfast together. Charming; and she wrote her book while living in the suburbs of Atlanta.)
I am not the only Westerner at this literary festival. Britain’s lively chronicler of Indian history, William Dalrymple, is there, constantly running off for a massage down in the spa. So is Patrick French, a literary-look-alike of Harry Potter. The talented fellow has just secured his reputation as perhaps the finest biographer of his generation with a major work on V.S. Naipaul. Can’t wait to read it. When it’s out in paperback. Rather hefty tome.
Scribblers are, of course, most interested in themselves, and when I am sure no one is looking, I scour the festival’s schedule for my slot.
I have the graveyard shift, the penultimate reading on the very last day.
When I emerge from my room, however, into the fading Kerala light and the surrounding banana-bush, I am filled by the beauty of the resort, perched as it is in a lush hillside, looking down at the Arabian Sea. I head down the stone paths. A tree frog croaks fatly in the gloaming.
Elegant dinner tables are set up along the breezy beach, flapping white table cloths under the hard-leaning palm trees, and the Taj Green Cove’s staff have laid out a sumptuous feast: spicy-grilled prawns, lamb gohst, grilled pineapple.
I find myself next to Mike Bryan – the chief executive of Penguin India and the festival’s primary sponsor – and his wife, Heather Adams, a non-fiction editor. Totally enamored by these English ex-pats in India – their wit, their smarts, their obvious decency. We raise glasses. By the end of evening, I have a buzz on and am swapping V.S. Naipaul stories with Patrick French.
Life is good. I am with my tribe.
India’s literary giants and Morais (seated, blue shirt and black glasses) posing at the Kovalam Literary Festival at the Taj Green Cove in Kerala.
Photo credit: Sarang Sena
Headache. Next morning.
The chain-smoking Senior Editor of NDTV, Sunil Sethi, is bossing me about.
Sit here. Speak this way. Don’t look at the camera.
Sethi, pacing back and forth and chain smoking, hosts a popular TV show called “Just Books,” and, lucky for me, he was also an old friend of Ismail Merchant. So we instantly bond, swapping Ismail war-stories and roaring with laughter, and this morning Sethi is exuberantly informing his NDTV audience that the joy of literary festivals is “finding new talent.”
That apparently would be me. At age 48.
My publisher at HarperCollins India, V. K. Karthika, takes to the festival’s stage. I do not know her, not really, even though she is the first publisher to back my talents as a fiction writer. But I catch a glimpse of the woman, when her voice breaks slightly, as she informs the room she really couldn’t care less about signing the Indian rights to the next Made-In-London-Or-New-York author like Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth. Karthika would really much rather take lots of small and different bets on talent springing up from the ground.
Classy. And in that moment I understand both Karthika’s entrepreneurial grit and the steady rise of India in this world, for Forbes has taught me that business success is directly and proportionally linked to the tolerance for risk. (Two weeks later Karthika’s bet on little-known Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger paid off with a Man Booker Prize.)
I mount the stage, read from The Hundred-Foot Journey, accents and all, my voice parched and cracking, before this august crowd. I do the best I can, so feel pretty good, but it’s been a long day for everyone and the questions dry up before my allotted time is over. So I slip from the stage, allowing the white-haired Gulzar to take center stage and close the festival.
This is what the audience has been waiting for, and the sighs from the audience, as Gulzar reads, are spontaneous and unaffected. As the great, aged poet of India reads a love poem to his wife, called “Old Woman,” he ends with this line: “One day, one of us, he says, ‘Will have to leave the other/At the funeral pyre/And return home.””
I immediately go call my wife.
Downstairs in the Taj Green Cove lobby, at the bookstall set up for the festival, I discover, much to my astonishment, The Hundred-Foot Journey sold out minutes after my reading – the only book to do so. A sales rep from rival Penguin India tells me he had to sell his personal copy of 100 Foot on to the distinguished newspaper editor and sports writer, Suresh Menon, and his lovely wife, the sculptor, Dimpy. The couple wouldn’t leave without a copy of the book.
Forgive the crowing. But that’s about as sweet as it gets.
I return to Mumbai
I am back in Mumbai, but this time I am staying at the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. The book tour is over and I am mono-focused on my Forbes work. I have lunch with the soft-spoken billionaire, Adi Godrej, who owns 3000 acres of Mumbai. Adi’s impeccably mannered butler, in black Nehru jacket, serves us a potage and a sprouting lentil salad.
After lunch, the car takes me to Mumbai’s Filmistan Studios, a rutted lane behind a gate. A friend has made some calls to get me on to a set. The Bollywood studios are crumbling warehouse edifices that, by Western standards, look like a half step up from a slum dwelling. Young men and women with earpieces, elderly office boys carrying trays of tea back and forth, carpenters constructing the next shot – they crawl like ants through the narrow passageways in a haze of feverish and dusty activity.
But inside the crumbing building, past the thrum of paparazzi hoping to glimpse a Bollywood starlet, a different world exists. This is the no-nonsense domain of Bollywood director David Dhawan – his large bulk and dark expression suggesting an Indian version of a pissed-off Harvey Weinstein – and on this particular day he is shooting a dance scene with 110 glitter-clad hunks and starlets. The film: “Do Knot Disturb.”
“Now boys and girls, listen. No circle. Just follow the actors.”
It’s New Year’s eve, 2009, apparently, and the film set’s dance floor, at the assistant director’s order, erupts with the manic energy of ten-score stoked-up Michael Jacksons at a rave. There’s jiggling, rapping, thrusting – 110 nubile hotties going nuts in body-fitting costumes of azure, crimson, gold, pink, yellow, mauve, and mustard.
We’re talking toe-tapping fun.
In the Taj Mahal hotel’s Sea Lounge the following day – overlooking Mumbai’s harbor, the Koli fishermen’s colorful boats bobbing in the bay, the Gateway of India – I am introduced to Queenie. She is a former Miss India, a stunning if controversial socialite who has her own jewelry line and writes a spicy fashion column in the Mumbai Mirror. That night our host, a carpet mogul, sneers about America’s overreaction to 9/11, and Queenie, quick as lightning, responds that the desire for revenge is universal and hard to contain after a traumatic event.
She quietly recounts how – after Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards – her Sikh father sent Queenie and her sister into hiding as the furious mob roamed the streets of Delhi seeking revenge. We fall silent as the socialite describes the turbans rolling through the streets, the woman in the refugee camp crying out for blood after her innocent husband and sons were slaughtered by Gandhi’s outraged followers.
(A few weeks later the Taj was attacked by Islamic terrorists – in the very Sea Lounge we met – and, as Queenie suggested, Indians again came face-to-face with that ageless human instinct for bloody revenge.)
It’s time to move on, back to my American reality. But not before Forbes’ Bureau Chief in Mumbai, the fantastic Naazneen Karmali, brings me together with her cousin, Javed Gaya, an Oxford-educated corporate attorney at the top of his field. The oval-faced Javed, with his Oxford stutter, is right out of a movie; a gourmet, he also moonlights as a food critic for DNA, one of India’s leading newspapers.
We’re in a bustling commercial quarter of Mumbai, lunching at Oh! Calcutta, a Bengali restaurant. I am a culinary fake, always pretending I know much more than I actually do, but Javed is the real thing and he wittily discusses the subtle differences between Goa’s Hindu and Christian cooking, impressing upon me that Bengalis are India’s most sensitive and refined chefs.
A few sips of raw mango juice and croquettes made from crushed banana flowers are whisked to the table. A river fish, called hilsa, is marinated then lightly smoked, leaving a slightly caramelized fish-taste on the roof of my mouth. Pressed crab and prawn paste is poached in a banana leaf pouch. Even the puffball of bread is exotically stuffed with mashed peas and served alongside a delicious railway-mutton curry.
My eyes are half-closed with contentment when I hear Javed announce, if I return to Mumbai, he will cook a fantastic dinner in my honor.
So my fate is sealed. I must come back.