Â“Actually, Dilip couldnÂ’t make it, he ate too much paaya last night, and his stomachÂ’s upset.Â” Those were the words preceding my introduction to Shobha DÃ© this past weekend, at a book-launch for a new author from Karachi, someone named Nadya A.R. (like E. E. Cummings, only the other way around), who has written what promises to be yet another opus to my home-town. This one, since Kamila Shamsie seems to have used up all the other referential titles, is entitled Kolachi Dreams. I havenÂ’t read the book just yet, nor have I been able to find myself arsed enough to look up reviews, but IÂ’m working on the premise that more desi writers is a good thing, so IÂ’m hoping itÂ’ll be a good read. IÂ’m a little annoyed by the elements that went into the publication, but weÂ’ll get to that in a second.WhatÂ’s important about this however, other than the fact that IÂ’m about to throw the book across the room at one of the cats IÂ’m babysitting in order to get it off my nice new suits, is that of all the attendees at the launch party, maybe only a dozen (of about seventy or more) knew that there was actually a book being launched. As far as almost everyone else was concerned, the dinner was an excuse to be seen with a Â“celebrity authorÂ”, have their (very recently purchased) copies of her books autographed, and otherwise schmooze mightily. [Amusing side-note: IÂ’m good friends with the managers of a few bookstores here in Karachi, and they were telling me the other day how almost every copy of every Shobha DÃ© book they had was sold out over the weekend that she was in town, with aunty-jis battling each other to the (social) death in order to get their hands on the last copy of Socialite Evenings. Even better was the flustered aunty-ji who, obviously late to the retail party, held up a copy of Stardust, exclaiming in disgust, Â“I canÂ’t find anything written by her in here, what sort of author is she?Â”]
So Shobha DÃ© was nice enough, although slightly exhausted-looking. It seemed to be a let-down for one of the hosts, who commented to someone else within earshot of me: Â“I was rather looking forward to seeing PakistanÂ’s bitchiest man meet IndiaÂ’s cattiest woman, but theyÂ’re both just too civil for this to be any fun.Â” There were entertaining moments as well, not the least of which involved my pretending to have read all of Ms. DÃ©Â’s works. The conversation went something like this:
Flustered Hostess: Â“Oh, meet [Sin], heÂ’s read ALL your books.Â” dragging Sin into the conversation with a vice-like grip on one arm
Shobha: Â“Oh, which did you like the best?Â”
Sin: lying maniacally Â“I couldnÂ’t possibly choose, theyÂ’re all so powerful in their own ways.Â”
Shobha: Â“Really, you think so?Â” preening just a little bit
Sin: improvising madly Â“Absolutely, yes, theyÂ’re soÂ…revealing, yes, they bare the cultural tumults inherent in the sub-continent, and your social insights!Â”
What I wish IÂ’d said was Â“You write soft porn, woman, give it up already!Â”
Anyway, to return to the source of my angst, I was actually rather surprised at how the book launch had been publicised, i.e. as a Shobha DÃ©-related party than an actual book launch. If it hadnÂ’t been for the stack of Kolachi Dreams over by the chicken tikkas, I wouldnÂ’t even have know that DÃ©Â’s presence was meant to be anything other than some sort of vague social coup. I was also surprised at the pricing for the book, which made it fairly expensive to purchase; it cost more than a number of imported English books, and I felt that for a relatively unknown writerÂ’s work to command as much money as it did was rather foolish. Half the reason I try to support local publishers and authors is because I think itÂ’s important to have a home-grown reader base, with literature widely available at cheap prices, so that anyone can get their hands on it. We do have a handful of local publishing houses, but they tend to publish work thatÂ’s either deathly dull (yet another not-so-scathing indictment of corruption in politics, or yet another never-ending book of Indo-Pak history), or of interest to three-and-a-half economic statisticians over at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. And when I see stuff like The Simoquin Prophecies (fiction? SCIENCE-fiction? That doesn’t cost a thousand rupees? Holy crap!) coming out for almost half the price that Kolachi Dreams is listed at, just across the border, I donÂ’t really know what to make of it. Is it that we just donÂ’t have enough good writers? Or is it that our publishing industry is so far gone that itÂ’s hallucinating? IÂ’ve heard arguments that the English-speaking masses are a niche market, but IÂ’ve also heard arguments from people who wouldnÂ’t traditionally fall under Â“English speakerÂ”, that they would buy more local books in English if only they were (a) affordable, and (b) more interesting.
In the meanwhile, I continue to add items to my Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com wishlists, and not-so-subtly remind my friends coming in from the UK and the US to bring me books. Lots and lots of them.