The news of the Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee being awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award brought back some memories.
In December 2009, Chai, Chai had just been published and I was in the middle of promoting the book in various cities. I had already done Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune, while Delhi -- the final city on my itinerary -- remained to be covered. As for Calcutta, I was still in two minds whether to have a reading there -- one reason being I was yet to find a local celebrity who could read from the book.
Books launches can be a pain for a first-time writer. If the book happens to be doing well, the bookstore will gladly give you space for the launch, while the publisher will pay for the cookies and the coffee and make sure that a few dozen copies are available at the store during the function, but the onus of finding a celebrity to launch the book or read from it lies squarely on the author. Things change when the writer becomes a celebrity, but there could be several long years standing in between the first book and that book.
I had a tough time finding celebrities in cities alien to me. For Mumbai, a friend had suggested the name of a particular theatre actor, known for his powerful personality and voice. "If I put in a word, he will definitely do it for you. Consider it done, brother!" my friend assured me. I jumped with joy: the theatre actor, who played a key role in a path-breaking TV serial in the late eighties, was my hero once upon a time. Every boy in my class idolised him, and now the same man was going to read from my book -- unbelievable!
I dialled the number of my idol and had a brief chat with him. He was extremely warm and courteous. He said he liked the idea of Chai, Chai and asked me to courier a copy, which I promptly did. Ten days later, he called. "Bishwanath, I would like to do it for you," he said very politely, "but you know, I get paid for lending my voice. Usually it is Rs. 50,000 for 30 seconds. I hope you understand."
I instantly lost interest in him and wanted him to hang up so that I could make calls to arrange for another celebrity. But he wouldn't let go of the phone: he spoke to me for 45 minutes, lamenting how theatre artists of today are not as dedicated and well-read as those from his generation. Forty-five minutes! -- he had wasted voice-time worth Rs. 45 lakh on me. And yet he did not want to spend 10 minutes reading from my book.
Eventually, it all worked out well. But as far as Calcutta was concerned, I still couldn't think of a celebrity.
"Why don't we try for Soumitra Chatterjee?" my wife asked.
"Why should he bother reading from my book? He is too big," I protested.
"What's the harm in trying," the wife, always optimistic, retorted. She went on to assign a friend to speak to Mr. Chatterjee and work on him into agreeing to read from the book. The friend called back, ecstatic, saying that Mr. Chatterjee was open to the idea but did not want to commit without having a word with the author.
I became very nervous. Soumitra Chatterjee, a household name in Bengal and the favourite actor of Satyajit Ray -- why should he bother reading from the debut book of a writer he does not even know remotely? The very thought of sitting next to him embarrassed me deeply and I abandoned the idea, much to the irritation of my wife and her friend.
"Let's try other options," I told her. On the advice of my own friends in Calcutta, I sent text messages to Moon Moon Sen, who never replied, and to singer-director-actor Anjan Dutt, who instantly called back asking, "Why do you want to speak to me?"
Now I am a huge fan of Anjan Dutt: he is a nostalgia specialist whose songs have made me understand Bengalis better, and nothing could have worked better for Chai, Chai in Calcutta than him reading out passages from it. But he seemed too busy to commit on the date I had in mind. Each time I called him, he would say he was trying his best to be free on that day. After four or five calls to him I gave up the idea of going to Calcutta.
"Not all is lost," the wife said, "You can still call Soumitra Chatterjee."
I finally listened to her and called Soumitra Chatterjee's mobile number. The conversation went exactly like this:
"Am I speaking to Mr. Chatterjee?"
"Good morning, sir. I am so-and-so who has written a book called Chai, Chai. I am launching the book in Calcutta on such-and-such date, and I would like you to read from it."
"OK, fine," he tamely agreed. "You mark the passages you want me to read."
I was surprised as well as thrilled -- more surprised than thrilled. I mean, how can Soumitra Chatterjee agree so readily?
"Are you sure, sir?" I asked. "I was hoping that you read the book and choose the passages yourself. Can I please send the book to you?"
"OK, send it," he replied lifelessly.
"Great, sir. Can I have your postal address, please?"
"OK, fine. Note it down then. But did you by any chance want to speak to Soumitra Chatterjee?"
"I am not Soumitra Chatterjee. I am his son Saugato Chatterjee."
"I am so sorry, sir, I am really sorry. I actually meant to speak to your father."
The voice on the other end fell silent. I could sense the hurt. The awkwardness made it easier for me to hang up.
Two days later, I spoke to the legend himself. This time, it was a lively voice that greeted me, and he did not ask me to mark passages but instead asked to be excused -- that's what you expect of a real celebrity.
"I am so sorry, I am going to be in Nagpur on that day," the Soumitra Chatterjee told me.
"But I would still like you to read the book. Can I please send it to you?"
"By all means," the legend replied. "Here's my address, note it down."
To tell you the truth, I don't quite remember whether I actually sent a copy of Chai, Chai to Soumitra Chatterjee. But I distinctly remember telling myself, "Fuck it, enough of launches. Now get down to working on your next book." And so I opened a fresh word document and wrote the first few paras of Tamarind City.