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Screen Images, Film Stars And Oysters On The Half-shell. Is It Any Wonder That At Today's Book Launches, You Could Miss The Author For The Party? Nilanjana S. Roy Reports   |   Published 27.06.04, 12:00 AM

There were no belly dancers, but that’s all that was missing. Nandita Das and Hari Kunzru had read from Transmission, Kunzru’s second novel after The Impressionist. Sarai’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta had led Kunzru into a discussion that touched upon globalisation, borders and Third versus First World disconnects.

But when the assembled audience washed up on the shores of the Char Bagh, we had stepped through the looking glass. There was an outsize screen on which Vivek Oberoi demonstrated the art of the pelvic thrust in glorious technicolour. There was funky lighting. The kebabs had names (chicken satay was reborn as Satay pe Satta, and paneer donned a new identity as Transmission tikka). There was a DJ, mixing Bollywood beats to lounge music and Buddha Bar remixes. “I hope,” said a nervous stalwart whose Leftist leanings were attested to by a sternly khadi kurta, “that they aren’t going to ask us to dance”.

The usual book launch crowd would be, in Page 3 terms, somewhere down near Page 33. We don’t wear little black dresses. We don’t do designer (or if we do, we do it very stealthily). We don’t exchange mwah-mwah kisses (though we’re beginning to). We don’t hang out at lounge bars much; we weren’t invited to Lakshmi Mittal’s big bash.

Most of all, we don’t dance. Instead, like avenging barbarian hordes crashing a sophisticated, decadent Roman banquet, we head for the food and drink in a meaningful manner, and discuss globalisation in a firm sort of way.

I’d thought the New Book Launch was dead; last year, Penguin announced it wasn’t going to throw any more parties, no doubt comparing the vast quantities of alcohol consumed with the mingy column inches and even more niggardly sales figures these Events with a capital E translated into. “It’s not our do,” said a Penguinwallah hastily when cornered. “The British Council’s throwing it.”

But then even before Transmission tried to take the humble book launches places it had never been, there were signs that the New Book Launch wouldn’t die easily. The oysters served on the half-shell at cartoonist Ravi Shankar’s launch when his first novel came out may have been a dim memory, but some publishers ensured that the show went on.

So Roli Books threw a sitdown dinner some months ago to publicise a book on the royals of India, where so many of the subjects (interesting question; can you call a maharajah a subject?) were present that the unwary said their khamaganis automatically to everyone, including the waiters. Their launch for Meghnad Desai’s book turned into a quasi-engagement party for Lord M and his bride-to-be, Kishwar Ahluwahlia, one of Roli’s editors. HarperCollins saw in Admiral Nanda’s memoirs at Claridges, where the great man’s image was projected on twin screens as coloured fountains played, and I counted more Armani suits on the lawns than you’d find in Milan.

Indian authors are more mellow than their global counterparts, unfortunately for gossip columnists, so there are very few Irvine Welsh moments. Irvine Welsh is the Scottish writer who specialises in one-word titles (Trainspotting, Filth and Porno) and whose trademark is the very large bottle of whisky that he carries up to the podium and empties during his readings. Nor do Indian authors enliven poetry readings — known in the trade as Death by Meter But It Could Be Verse — in the manner Norman Mailer once did, when he objected to the poet’s rendering so very greatly that he hung the poor man out of a window and roared verses at him until Mailer and the poet were both exhausted.

The old-fashioned book launch still remains the preserve of four kinds of people: publishing insiders, journos, the author’s biradari and that elusive beast, the Genuine Reader. The book launch reinvented is an aspirant on the social ladder. It tries to offer old-world intellectual rewards alongside wine and kebabs, with a faint sense that it might bridge the gap between party line intellectual and the party animal. But the book launch, even when it’s the kind where Amitabh Bachchan shows up or even when it’s graced by the presence of Sir Vidia Naipaul (currently the celeb guest of choice in Delhi) is an impostor.

It’s the place you drop in at before you head off to the real parties. It doesn’t have the good wine an otherwise dull embassy do can offer; it doesn’t have the coke-sniffing, meth and Ecstasy-using USP of the fashion frat’s wild parties; it doesn’t have the social cachet of the truly fashionable bashes, the kind that would die rather than be featured on Page 3.

What the book launch promises is cheap thrills. The wine may be the same old plonk; the litchee juice may have emerged out of the bottom of rusted fruit-cocktail tins; the finger food might have that familiar, warmed-over look; and the celebrities in attendance might be Page 3 Lite. But it’s all for free, as a gatecrasher at Hari Kunzru’s launch said to his friend. “Pata nahi yeh Kunjur kaun hai but hey, these are good kebabs.”

Two years ago, at the Edinburgh festival, I’d sat in a tent yawning from the relative earliness of the hour, waiting for Colm Toibin to read. Those of us from India were getting used to the idea of paying for our entertainment; though we were there as a delegation, we cheerfully shelled out our precious pounds for readings that we didn’t have passes for and for the coffee and snacks on offer.

A few days before the Transmission launch, though, Colm Toibin’s The Master, a fictionalised account of some years in Henry James’ life, had just come out. I opened the book to the page where a crushed Henry James faces the failure of his play, Guy Domville; the exact passage I’d heard Colm read from two years back, when The Master was just a work in progress.

As I read, I could hear Toibin in my head, with the pauses and the richness and the emphases, just as clearly as I had heard him when I’d sat there in Charlotte Square Gardens, with my paid-for pass and my paid-for Danish and my paid-for coffee at that no-frills, no-brass band reading. It was the perfect moment for any committed reader. Sometimes the best things in life don’t come for free.

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