I reached the Odd Bird Theatre in Chattarpur, New Delhi at 8 pm to attend a book reading session, something I have never done before. The session was scheduled to start at 8.30pm and as per the information I had gathered earlier, the organizer was supposed to have reserved a seat for me till 20 minutes before the session start time. I had reserved my seat for myself through their website and I was supposed to make the payment at the reception.
As I was waiting in the queue to collect my pass, I realized, that I was at the wrong place for many reasons. Firstly, I was alone and I did not know anybody out there. I went there for experience of attending a book reading at least once. The only person who was a bit familiar to me was Mr. William Dalrymple, the author. To be precise, I follow him on twitter and I have read one of his books and I am planning to read another one. I’ve never met him and neither I was going to meet him at the event which was about to begin.
Secondly, as I veered my eyes through the crowd, the first impression i drew was, ‘this is a social circle of Lutyens’ Delhi’. It was like gate-crashing someone’s party completely unknown. 10-15% of the crowd were foreigners. Most of the men were dressed in casual shirts and trousers. I saw only one person in a blazer, few in Kurtas and one guy in his shorts and slippers. Women were more trendy, designer Sarees, the FabIndia type Kurtas, jumpsuit, short , boots, skirt, and top, knee-length dresses and heels – they were dressed in all kinds.
But I was determined to attend the event so I waited patiently in the queue. They were processing the entries very slowly. There was some confusion. The amount of time they were taking to process one entry, a Golgappe-walla in Delhi would have easily serve 40-50 pieces to his customers. When I reached the counter, a lady told me that they cannot offer me a seat. I protested but she told me that it was based on first cum first serve basis and all the seats were taken already. They weren’t expecting so many guests. Her gesture suggested me to make a quick decision on whether I want to leave or pay her Rs. 500/- and accept to enjoy the one and a half hour show standing. At that moment, the only thing that helped me decide was the active beer bar in front of me. A lady who was standing on to my left holding a glass of wine close to her chest and was hearing the conversation told me something and patted on my shoulder. I don’t remember now what exactly she said to me, but I do remember that I acknowledged her with a smile. I am now assuming she must have told me, “Bravo, you made the right choice”.
I exchanged few more smiles while steering myself through the crowd and reached the bar. I found a menu but the prices of drinks were not mentioned. When I asked, the bar-tender replied with a smile, “aa ahh…200, you can pay 200, 200 will do” and he pointed me to a box covered in gift wrap and with a hole on the top. Beer and wine – a sticker on the box read. I put Rs. 200 into the box and grabbed a glass of beer poured from a Kingfisher pint. It was like I donated Rs. 200/- for a bottle of beer. That much for a pint was no way cheap but then I was not only paying for a drink but also to have a company.
I settled myself in a corner with a full view of the gathering. A while later, the lady from the reception came to me and handed me a pass with a cross mark in it, meaning, you are authorized to attend the session but without a reserved seat. Around quarter to 9 pm, the curtain which was dividing the main theater from the reception-cum-bar area was removed and people with a pass and a reserved seat were the first one to enter.
I decided to stand right at far end keeping the wall as a support to lean back against . Towards my right was a slightly elevated pavilion with three rows of chairs on it providing a better view of the dice. Towards my left was the open area with the bar in my view. Between the dice and myself there were around 10 rows of chairs. A man with a good height took a chair in the row just in front of me blocking a major part of the view of the dice. A girl with a sleeveless white gown with black prints on it came and stand near the man blocking a further view of the dice. When Mr. William Darlymple took the stage, I was actually looking at him through a narrow window partly disturbed by the curly hair of the girl. Due to backlighting, at first I thought they were black but later I have figured out they were partly colored like Jute.
Mr. Darlymple, the only person whom I could recognize without any introduction was the first one to take on the stage. He stood on the left side of the dice holding a pint of beer in his left arm. His reading glasses were placed on his partly bald head and he started reading pages from his book “the Beirut Apocalypse” without them. “This is my only book which is not written about India”, he passed this disclaimer before reading. A team of 3 people started playing jazz. They were wearing Fez hats and were occupying the right side of the dice. The music in the background was adding a climax to Mr. Darlymple’s narration. But at times it was quite loud and I was not able to hear him. While reciting, Mr. Darlymple would give a pause to catch up with the music and at times just to take a sip of his beer. By the time he finished his reading, his bottle was empty and so was my glass. I looked towards the bar and raised my glass in the air. The girl who was at the counter spotted me and she too raised her hand slightly in the air, pointed the fingers towards her neck and moved her hand from left to right and in the reverse direction. The gesture in an aggressive situation usually means, “I will cut your throat”, but in that context, all she was trying to tell me was that they were out of beer. I looked at the guy who served me beer earlier and he created a circle in the air by his hands meaning they would serve it again after a while. We exchanged a smile which was no less than a warm hug as if I knew him for a long time.
A girl read a poem written on Section 377. Someone read a short story written on militancy in J&K. While a lady was reading an Urdu poem I was wondering about the foreigners. The audience came alive when someone recited the “Bring me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini” with an energetic performance. When a lady was narrating a short story where one character was planning to start his career as a bartender, I looked towards the bar on my left. They had removed all the empty bottles by then and there were fresh glasses. After few more readings, the organizer announced a short break and the bar started buzzing again. I saw Mr. Dalrymple near the bar. His reading glasses were still pointing towards the ceiling. He grabbed a pint and walked away. I too reached for a beer and on that occasion, I put a hundred rupee note in the box.
A strong oration of the poem, “The Congo: A study of the Negro Race” brought energy onto the floor. “Mera Kajal” by Sabika Naqvi was the most enthralling performance of the evening. I wish I could have capture it on video.
I left the place as soon as the organizers started their “thank you” note. A BMW two-seater convertible was parked next to my car. Getting in to my car I asked myself whether I would do this again. The answer was ‘Not so sure’. Did I enjoy? Definitely Yes.