For the past few weeks, I’ve been travelling on what may be called, with some trepidation, a book tour. So far I’ve been in six cities and on two continents, away from India. If you asked me the time of day I could not say, except in a six-hour ballpark judging by whether it’s light or dark outside. If you asked me to summarize the argument of my book, I could probably recite a paragraph in my sleep, which is just as well, since I have by now perfected the art of sleeping with my eyes wide open. In one hotel room I brushed my teeth with mosquito-repellent. At a colleague's house I stirred salt into my tea.
You cannot pay me to sleep on a sofa-cum-bed or an air-mattress, because I would rather take the bare floor any time. I own an umbrella in every city where I’ve spent more than a week. I cannot recall any longer the era when, as a graduate student, I took a keen interest in the relative merits of different hotel shampoos, and have cut my hair short to dispense with the problem of careful hair-dressing altogether. A friend, who is a bona fide World Famous Author, sent me an email from China the other day: “I can train you,” he offered, “to write and think while traveling.” Those would-be lessons I await eagerly, as I traverse the bewildering limbo-land of the book tour.
The jet-lagged, surreal, hoarse-voiced blur of lectures given, questions answered, hands shaken, dinners eaten and books signed one might have foreseen. Luckily for me, I’ve spent my whole life observing the literary adventures and social shenanigans first of my father and now also of my husband, writers both. But what no one told me — and this goes to show you that gender bias is alive and well in the arts and in academia — is that a book tour is at least 80 per cent harder for women than it is for men.
At the root of this fact (which ought to have been obvious, even to a novice like me) is the question of What to Wear. A new jacket will instantaneously solve the problem for a man. For us ladies, alas, a new piece of clothing is but the beginning of a potentially unending list of sub-problems: how to secure and pack matching shoes, bag, jewellery, and, in colder climes, a properly coordinated coat. If you are tall, high heels are out, which poses the additional challenge of finding a pair of comfortable and water-proof yet stylish flats in a neutral colour — be warned, my looming, loping sisters, that no such thing exists.
And if you’re an Indian woman, heaven help you with that age-old conundrum: to sari or not to sari? All manner of factors have a bearing on this crucial decision, from the weather that you cannot control, to the cultural message that you can (supposedly); from the formality of the event, to the number of irritable left-wing intellectuals likely to be present in the audience. I have to confess that every other obstacle to a successful book tour fades before the repeatedly posed enigma of the meaning of the sari.
Admittedly some of the anxiety is self-inflicted. I don’t want to be a victim of homogenizing globalization which takes away our sartorial distinctiveness — on the other hand, I bristle if anyone even dreams of regarding me with Orientalist approval (which happens all the time, needless to say — it’s an existential hazard of being South Asian and female, as Gayatri Spivak pointed out). “An ethnic touch is okay,” says a feminist friend, “but you don’t have to go the whole hog either.” Translated, that means a Kashmiri shawl is fine, but a Kanjeevaram sari is avoidable. It doesn’t help, by the way, that every third person I meet comes up to me to say: “You look just like Indira Gandhi!” Yes, perhaps I do, thanks — Indira Gandhi on stilts, and before her famous white wave, and mind you I’m completely against authoritarianism. I blame my parents for this unhappy accident as regards my appearance. Kindly address your remarks in their direction.
At the research institute I’m attached to in Delhi, all my colleagues travel frequently to lecture, teach and visit archives; the director is often away in connection with work. With the dark humour of the road-weary scholar, he describes his travels as “missions” (with a nod to the Buddhist embassies of the emperor, Ashoka, whom he happens to be writing about these days); he refers to his talks and seminars as “shows” (he has friends in Bollywood, I’m told). I ran into him in Italy recently.
“Where’s your next show?” he asked me one afternoon, on board a particularly choppy Venetian water-taxi packed with a number of sleep-deprived colleagues, high-strung Italian and nervous Indian professors, trying their best to stand steady and dignified without so much as an inch of hand-rail for support. After a misguided moment of feeling offended (who am I — Priyanka Chopra?), I realized that as usual, he was right. “Chicago,” I answered, recovering my composure. “It’s the alma mater, I’m excited to go back.”
Right you are, Boss. Why not think of ourselves as though we were movie-stars, athletes or singers, off on some incredibly glamorous, attractively advertised, lucratively ticketed victory-tour around the world? If you have the right frame of mind, it helps mitigate the pain and hardship of eye-popping hours spent in sombre libraries, the complete absence from all our endeavours of money that might be considered a decent wage, the vertebrae crushed from hunching over computer keyboards for years on end, the near-death of enthusiasm and spontaneity in our temperament, the long days wasted on thankless students, the slow estrangement from family, and the perennial alienation from friends — in short, all of the things we suffer in order to write our blessed books.
I’ve corrected my attitude. The show is on the road, folks. Come help me pretend for a few minutes that ideas matter in the world, and that it was a good decision to spend five irretrievable years of my fleeting youth writing the tome in question, for no payment at all.
Since I don’t write fiction or non-fiction, I don’t consider myself a Real Writer — in our home, that title is reserved for my talented spouse. So naturally I wasn’t expecting to have a book tour in the first place. Turns out I’m not the only one sceptical about this exercise. Former classmates from university who have continued to have properly academic careers question me closely, barely able to conceal what is partly suspicion and partly disdain. “A book tour? Really? Did your publisher set it up for you?” I try to explain the haphazard conjunction of randomly-received invitations, conferences, and so help me, the possibly genuine interest in my work expressed by people I don’t already know, at institutions I did not myself ever either study in or teach at.
The rolling eyes; the polite coughs; the silences that are five seconds too long: I’ve seen it all now. Low blows come thick and fast —“It’s the recession — publishing houses are hard-hit and university presses, they’re practically kaput!” Even lower: “So now scholars have to participate in these marketing strategies”. Ye of little faith. This wasn’t supposed to happen — but here it is. And I’m trying my best to cope with it as gracefully as I am able, given that I’m hardly the world’s most patient, organized or calm person.
The moral of the story, my colleagues (especially fellow-philologists), is that if you find yourself in the middle of a book tour, stop whining and deal with it. The truth is that no matter how learned you are in your subject, the demand to perform your erudition, in public, in real-time, can be terrifying and draining — or funny and exhilarating.
Because I’ve found that sometimes, in a hall full of strangers, in an unfamiliar city, after too few hours of sleep, in front of a microphone that invariably acts up and yet another plastic water-bottle one worries about not recycling, talking about the book yet again or reading out a section of it that one could not bear to look at for one more minute, suddenly the entire scene disappears...
All that is solid melts away and the original thought, the long-lost problem that one had set out to solve, the question with which one began the process of writing, comes back in its full complexity, its depth and resonance, like the glorious heart of an extended piece of music. Author, audience, home, airport, university, television studio, royalties, prizes, agent, editor, publisher, colleagues, students, everything gives way, and there they are: pure and polished, the ideas and arguments, the issues that got sorted and the mysteries that remain. In the very centre of the noise and annoyance, one becomes riveted again — by the narrative, the history, the analysis, the figures that did, after all, make this whole thing come to pass.
Such is the power and the beauty of the word, which justifies itself in a way that is, ultimately, incommunicable.