I just returned to my hotel room after a breakfast conversation with Akhil Sharma, an author whose stories I had read in the New Yorker, and whose novels I read up on before I interviewed him on a panel at The Times of India Literary Carnival, which ended last night. If there has been one treasure I have found at The Times of India Literary Carnival in these past three days, it has been Akhil, who lives in the United States, but whom I met for the first time here, two days ago, in Mumbai.
So, in the middle of our conversation on slavery, classism, and the women, men, and politics of India, imagine my overwhelming rush of emotions when he said to me, with the frank and quiet honesty only introverts are capable of: "In my younger years, I didn't feel as much gratitude as I feel at this point of my life. And I want you to know that I feel grateful to have met you."
I am terrible at networking. So, I forgot to go meet that high-end publisher that I should have talked to. I forgot to follow up on that interview a journalist wanted to do with me. I totally forgot to talk to award winning authors about how much I admire their work. I forgot to get a photograph with Eve Ensler.
Because, like Akhil Sharma, as I grow older, I gravitate toward moments of gratitude, toward unplanned meetings with people who make me richer, toward undocumented celebrations of the unnoticed kind. Needless to say, none of these made the papers in all the coverage of this literary festival.
Yes, Sharma was a find. At a particular moment on the panel on which I was interviewing him, tears welled up in my eyes as he described an experience with a woman in an elevator, who called upon him for a kindness he felt too busy to give, but in asking, set him free into a bigger world. Yes, that's how I feel about writing about the human condition. He said it better. He said it for me. As I turned back to the audience, my sister caught my teary eye and quickly shook her head. I blinked my eyes and hid the tears. Moderators don't cry.
Other moments -
- After a panel on which I spoke on marriage, a woman came up to me and said that I had made things clearer for her. She could barely speak English but both of us knew we had a shared clarity. She didn't seem to have the money to buy my book, but she wanted me to sign a piece of paper she held out to me. My first ever 'autograph.' For all the best reasons.
- Eve Ensler. Her keynote speech had me fighting for breath and breathing easier at the same time.
- My sister Chandni Jha, one of the kindest human beings I know, did this - A teenaged boy had come to listen to the panel I was moderating. He said he was so taken by my work on that panel that he skipped his original plan and instead followed me to the next panel I was speaking on. He, too, couldn't afford to buy my book. Chandni went out, bought it for him, had me sign it, and gave it to the startled young man. He beamed.
- Movie and theater actor Dalip Tahil bought 'Foreign' and had me sign it. I then changed his festival itinerary and took him to listen to my new favorite author, Akhil Sharma, whom he instantly loved and whose words gave us food for thought and led us to lunch at Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, where this intelligent, creative man regaled me with stories of Bollywood acting versus theater acting in London, while I held forth on finding great joy in literary fiction but the greatest joys in Bollywood films and their villains of pure, uncomplicated evil. Only in Bombay.
- Bachi Karkaria. My dear friend from long ago, a pioneering journalist and the Director of The Times of India Literary Carnival, a remarkable woman who enjoys such fame but is one of the most 'present' human beings I know.
- Jeet Thayil, Booker Prize nominee, winner of the DSC Prize and others, and a poet I had a crush on when I was all of 21 years old, telling me he loved 'Foreign.' I thanked him for putting my book on the shortlist for The 2013 Shakti Bhatt First Book Award. He thanked me for writing it.
- Meeting the young woman who was brave enough to file a case against journalist Tarun Tejpal for raping her. Meeting her and seeing her smiling and walking about like the world was a good place. Quietly thanking her so, so hard in my head.
- Xenia and Shannon. Two young people who have worked with such dedication behind the scenes at this festival, quietly, with sincere and ready smiles. Ah. They still make kids like these. India will do just fine.