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Fill a vacuum, give voice to silence
- Buoyed by Book fair crowds

It is not every day that Calcutta comes face to face with a two-time Booker Prize-winner. Writer-activists dealing with issues faced by aboriginal Australians are equally rare visitors.

Peter Carey — who bagged the Booker for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and The True History of the Kelly Gang (2001) — and Kim Scott — author of the award-winning Benang — interacted with readers in the city on Friday. The writers are here as ambassadors of Asialink, an agency promoting cultural ties between Australia and Asia.

They were shocked to see a crowd of book-lovers at the Book Fair, where they had an interactive session with a packed hall. “There were so many readers there. Usually, you think of a book fair as a place for publishers to strike deals,” said Carey, who arrived on Friday for his first trip to India.

Scott, too, was surprised. “Driving through the city, I saw billboards for the World Cup. That was normal. But right next to that was an equally large billboard for the Book Fair… It is very reassuring for writers to see that much interest in books.”

That interest extended to the Oxford Bookstore, where Amit Chaudhuri joined the two for a reading and talk. Though the turnout here was less, thanks to logjam on the streets, the session was as intense, with both animated authors almost acting out their passages of choice.

Though the whirlwind tour — with Calcutta and Delhi being packed into a week — will not allow much time for exploration, the colonial connection forged an immediate bond for the duo. For New Yorker Carey, in town with his son (“suffering from culture shock”), the “seeds” of stories get planted with personal connections.

“I always feel hugely under-prepared when I go on one of these trips,” said Carey, whose Oscar and Lucinda has been adapted into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. “When I go back, I start reading about everything I have seen… Now, everything is new, everything is exciting… But I never lose it, I never forget,” adds the fidgety Carey.

Scott’s bonds with India go deeper. “Midnight’s Children was a huge inspiration for me. The way he (Salman Rushdie) treats history is something I have learnt from him,” admits the man, whose works have been compared to Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh (“How do you pronounce it'”), Vikram Seth and V.S. Naipaul (“Do you consider him Indian'”).

As a man with aboriginal roots, Scott is happy to be amongst “people of colour”. He looks at the white colonising attempts at “removing all evidence of the original inhabitants of the nation” with cynical anger. His writing is, perhaps, an attempt to come to terms with this. “I didn’t understand my own family history. I wanted to fill a vacuum… Give a voice to the silence,” explained the intense Scott, who has also authored poetry and his first novel, True Country.

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