It was seven in the evening when I stood up and gathered my things.
“Leaving?” asked Kim, looking up from her computer and over the low partition.
“Yes!” I said triumphantly. “You have a good weekend. What are your plans?”
“I’ll sleep,” said Kim, stretching her lithe body like a cat. “And sleep, and then sleep some more.”
I grinned. “Well, I hope you give your boyfriend some time too.”
She grinned back, her eyes crinkling and making her face even more attractive. “Of course, it’s Valentine’s day on Sunday! I suppose we’ll shrug off our friends and do something romantic… What are your plans? Something edifying, no doubt.”
“Nothing much. I’m going to catch up on sleep, do my laundry – and I’m attending a reading of a new book.”
“I knew it! Which book?”
“Oh, it’s called ‘A Different Shade of Purple’. It’s by a new author – Suryakant Sharma. I don’t think you’ll have heard of him. I actually read his blog, so I’m keen on attending… You wanna join in?”
“Where is it?”
“The Wordscape book store at the City Mall.”
“Oh, no. It’s too far for me to drive on a weekend and it will interfere with my plans of getting all that sleep. You tell me how it was.”
“Well, good night!”
I was vaguely embarrassed at seeming like such a goody two-shoes. “You want to attend the reading because it’ll be fun,” said Miki fiercely. But at the back of my head, Mandakini silently wished I had someone to go to the disc and get drunk with instead.
I got up late on Saturday and settled down with the newspaper and a cup of tea. Later, I turned the TV on and tuned it to a music channel while I did my chores: dusting, doing laundry, making lunch. I felt oddly at peace. The vague ennui of the last few weeks seemed to have gone away. I daydreamed about meeting Suryakant Sharma. I had read his blog for over a year now, and I counted myself a fan. I had been really excited when he had announced his new book and even more so when he had announced the book reading in Delhi. I had tentatively put in a comment on his blog, congratulating him and promising that I would be there. I had checked obsessively for a reply, but there hadn’t been any.
I had never been to a book reading before.
The City Mall was in south Delhi. It would take me about an hour to reach, and I wasn’t sure what the traffic would be like, so I had decided to go early. I dressed with care: my black sweater and my good pair of jeans, chandelier earrings, and my only dressy shoes - a pair of black heels that I had worn to Divya’s wedding. I even put on some eyeliner and lip gloss.
I had the light on to put on my make up, so I didn’t notice that it had grown darker outside. Just as I was swabbing the lip gloss, I heard a peal of thunder.
I ran to the balcony and saw storm clouds had enveloped the sky. I couldn’t see a peek of blue. And while I was standing there the first drops fell. Soon it was a downpour.
I perfected my lip gloss, then sat by the window with a book, hoping that the rain would cease soon and I could still go. There was no way I could take a cycle rickshaw – which was the only transport I could get near my house – in the rain. In fact, it was raining so hard right then it would have been difficult to drive even if I had a car.
The window banged and I got up to shut it. I saw the sky had grown a bit more light – but the sun must have set by now, so it was difficult to tell. The rain had subsided to a drizzle, even though the wind was still strong.
In another few minutes, it was over. The rain must have lasted half an hour. I looked out of my window at the water rolling down the streets, and swapped my high heels for sneakers. I put on my beige waterproof jacket over my sweater, dumped my leather bag and settled for carrying my wallet and keys in the pockets of my jacket. But I was thankful that it was still over an hour to 6, and I should reach well in time.
I hadn’t accounted for the traffic. It was Saturday evening, and the rains had slowed down traffic and seemed to have snuffed out the traffic lights as well. There were puddles and water-logged stretches on the streets, and other vehicles splashed around generously. I was wet from my knees down to my socks. The wind was biting, and I was glad I had my jacket around me.
I got off the rickshaw at the bus stop, and took the first bus going towards my destination. It was crowded and I couldn’t get a seat. I had to settle for being repeatedly shoved aside and my feet stamped over. I was doubly glad I had ditched my heels.
When I reached my stop, I got off the bus and took an autorickshaw. More traffic, and more muddy water splashing into the rickshaw. When I finally reached the mall, it was a quarter past six. I paid the rickshaw-driver, jumped out and ran into Wordscape. It was a large bookstore, and as I entered it seemed just the same as any other day, with a few people milling around the shelves near the door. I could hear a voice amplified by a microphone and made for the direction the sound seemed to come from.
In a corner were some rows of seats. Two people were seated at a long table at the end. One of them was speaking into the microphone. There were copies of ‘A Different Shade of Purple’ on the table.
The front row was empty. In the other six rows, the seats at the corners were taken and I would have to push against knees and legs to get to a seat. So with my drenched sneakers leaving little puddles on the floor and my windswept hair falling over my face, I crept to a seat on the front row.
I looked at the two people in front of me. One was a woman in curly hair – she, obviously, could not be Suryakant Sharma. That left the man who was speaking – I now noticed that he was reading out of the book.
I was so surprised at how he looked that I looked around to make sure there was no one else who could possibly be Suryakant. From his blog, where he reviewed books and movies, and his name, I had created a portrait of a serious-looking, middle-aged -man. What I was looking at was a cute young guy, maybe a couple of years older than me.
Suryakant was alternating between reading out passages from the book and discussing the book with the woman by his side. I tried to stop drooling (metaphorically speaking, of course) and listen to what he was saying. At times shoppers nearby would talk loudly and drown out some of the words, but Suryakant didn’t seem bothered. He spoke well, though he looked a little embarrassed at times. He kept looking up at the audience even when he was reading. And as I was right in front, he looked straight at me more than once. His eyes were dark and piercing; his wavy hair fell over his forehead. I had thought writers were supposed to be nondescript: I would not have passed over this guy in a crowd.
I realised I didn’t much care for book readings. I didn’t want to know about the story before I’d read it. I preferred to enter a book unprejudiced, with few expectations, giving myself up to the author and going where she took me. (Unless of course, I was rereading, in which case I would be walking down familiar paths again and sighing with nostalgia as well as discovering things I hadn’t noticed before.)
Once he was done reading, Suryakant asked if anyone had questions. There were fewer people in the audience than I had expected—maybe twenty in all. A couple of them asked questions, and he answered at length. I tried hard to think of something, so that I could speak, catch his attention… but my mind drew a blank.
The question and answer session over, a few people left, but most of them remained behind and queued up to meet the author. I kept seated—I wanted to be last.
I waited patiently while aunties in shiny sarees and balding uncles talked to Suryakant. There was also one young couple, and a couple of teenage girls. As the line shortened, I went up and grabbed a copy of the book.
When my turn came, he turned to me with a smile and reached out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Miki.” I held out the book first, then realised he had meant to shake hands and quickly withdrew it and offered my hand instead. “Wow, Miki, what a start,” Mandakini sneered in my head.
“Thank you for coming,” Suryakant said warmly, shaking my hand. He took the book from me and opened it on the flyleaf. “How do you spell that? Like the mouse?”
“Umm, no. M-I-K-I. It’s short for Mandakini, actually.” (I hated it when people said that. Really, Suryakant Sharma should be more original than that.)
“I hope you enjoy the book,” he said, as he scribbled out an inscription
“I hope so too. I… I read your blog actually. I’ve commented a couple of times.”
“Oh, yes. I thought your name seemed familiar.” He looked up and smiled as he handed the book back. “Thanks for the comments. It makes the blog seem worthwhile... to know that someone’s really reading and engaging with it.”
“Oh no, sir. I’m a huge fan of your blog.”
He looked embarrassed again. “Thank you.”
I had thought of a question at last. “So, which do you prefer writing? Fiction or non-fiction?”
That question seemed to open a dam. He spoke about fiction and non-fiction, about going from criticising books to writing one that other critics could tear apart. He asked me what I read, and I spoke about my love for fiction, for books that made it seem that happy endings were inevitable.
“But I don’t like books that end with all the loose ends tight up, with all being for the best in all possible worlds,” I said. “That’s too unreal. I prefer ones that offer hope without being melodramatic.”
“I totally agree with you. In fact – that’s what I’ve tried to do with my book. Please read it and let me know if I’ve succeeded.”
“Let me give you my email address.”
“That’s okay. It’s on your blog, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” We seemed to have reached an awkward pause. I realised that a couple of official-looking people were hovering around.
“It was really nice meeting you,” he said. “It’s great to meet someone who reads fiction. I’m afraid I have to leave for a dinner soon…”
“Oh, no problem. Thanks for talking to me.”
“Err, I was wondering… I’m leaving tomorrow afternoon. Would you like to meet up sometime in the morning to err… continue our discussion?”
I blinked. “I’d love that!”
“Give me your number. I’ll call you. Can we meet around ten… or is that too early?”
“Yes. No, that’s perfect, actually.”
“I’ll give you a call first thing in the morning.” He saved my number on his cellphone. I waved bye and walked away. I walked behind some shelves in the bookstore so that I was out of sight, found a low stool to sit on and settled myself to grasp what had just happened.
As I stared at a stack of pink heart-shaped decorations, it struck me.
“It’s Valentine’s day tomorrow! And I have a date with Suryakant Sharma!”