The problem with following a book launch across cities is, often enough, the overwhelming sense of deja vu it ushers in. You get the same author, of course, and audiences that may or may not be enthusiastic.
Luckily for Vikram Seth, who brought his latest work Two Lives to Mumbai last night, Aamir Khan decided to drop in.
It all began predictably enough. Seth -- in a white shirt and sleeveless vest -- entered the Taj Lands End ballroom, at the north Mumbai suburb of Bandra, to the popping of flashbulbs. He was introduced, the book was launched, press photographers were given a minute to go berserk, and silence descended. Seth made himself comfortable with a glass of white wine in an overstuffed armchair.
And then, a mobile phone trilled.
"Please switch off your mobile phones," said Seth, voicing the same command he had already given in Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata over the past five days. After a minute's silence, the book reading began. As Seth read the line, ' the doorbell rang', another phone went off, as if on cue.
"If you even suspect you have a mobile phone," the author said, not as amused as the rest, "switch it off now." He checked his phone too ("just so I don't embarrass myself"), before continuing.
For the few who have yet to read a synopsis, Two Lives, part-memoir and part-biography, is about Seth's great-uncle Shanti and great-aunt Henny. Shanti, a dentist, lost an arm at Monte Cassino having volunteered for the Medical Corps in World War II, but continued to practise until his retirement. Henny was a German Jew who escaped Berlin in 1939 before her mother and sister were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt. When a 17-year-old Seth left India for boarding school at Tonbridge, he went to live with them in Hendon, north London. Decades later, prompted by his mother, he decided to tell the world their stories. He spent six years reconstructing their remarkable marriage with the help of letters, memories and interviews conducted with his uncle before the latter's death a few years ago.
Back to the book reading. Much as he had in three cities already, Seth interspersed paragraphs from the book with amusingly-recounted anecdotes about why his uncle opted for dentistry ("there was no dentist in the family"), how he found his aunt Henny's letters ("my father came across an old trunk filled with her documents") and how his studies of German, albeit forced, eventually brought him closer to his aunt ("she stopped calling me her husband's nephew").
While this went on, Aamir Khan quietly strolled in and stood at the back. Photographers panicked. Attention shifted from Seth to Khan as mini armies of cameramen stampeded across the room, settling their lenses a few inches from Khan's nose.
In a master stroke, Seth, sensing that the attention of the audience was wavering, began demonstrating how his uncle practiced tooth extractions with one arm and asked for a volunteer.
"Would you step up, sir?" he asked Khan, who complied. "Open your mouth," said the author.
Aamir, the gentleman, did. Women in the audience promptly gasped. Camera-cellphones popped out. For the next 45 seconds, only flashbulbs reigned.
When Aamir stepped down, leaving Seth in charge once more, the floor was thrown open to questions. None were forthcoming for the first minute. "What an incurious lot," Seth muttered, leading to the raising of a few hands.
The queries were interesting, ranging from a comparison in the book between a predator fish and Germany's new Chancellor in 1934 ("I don't usually make such fanciful analogies") to what Seth's most enjoyable writing experience had been ("Writing isn't always enjoyable, but The Golden Gate was thrilling.")
Some wanted to know why he had spent six years working on Two Lives ("I'm a slow writer and I respect trees"), others questioned his ability to detach himself from the writing process considering the protagonists were his relatives ("With family, detachment is more difficult"), and still others were curious about whether his aunt would have wanted him to tell her story ("My uncle thought I should. He gave me permission").
Calm, composed, and entertaining, Seth took on all questions carefully and very seriously. The intensity with which he handled the discussion won over his audience. "Two Lives is not like a tortoise, with a smooth shell," he said, ending the session. "It is more like a porcupine or hedgehog, with spines going out in all directions. But the hedgehog is its own being and hopes to be accepted as such, as I hope you will accept this book too."
What came across, eventually, was his courage as an author, taking up not just the lives of two perfectly ordinary people, but also Germany's much-covered history of the Holocaust, yet making it all seem new.
Reading over, the book signing began. Interestingly -- but not surprisingly -- there were two queues, one moving towards Seth, the other towards Aamir. New editions, first editions, bookmarks, other books -- Seth signed them all, standing for over an hour, patiently sharing a few words with everyone. Some bought him gifts, others offered pieces of their own writing. He accepted it all graciously.
"You look tired," I told him. "I am," he laughed, "but it's perfectly okay."
At the end of the evening, he met up with an uncomplaining Aamir, who confessed to Seth that he was embarrassed at disturbing his reading. They left together.
The willingness to engage with an audience -- it's usually what distinguishes a brave author from merely a good one.