Caroline Sandon: From Burnt Norton to Bollywood
- Credit: Geraint Lewis
Author Caroline Sandon returns from the Times of Mumbai Literary Festival with memories of something ‘unique and extremely special’
The publication of my novel, Burnt Norton, has led to my attending a large number of literary festivals both to listen and to speak. However, when I went to the Althrop festival in June last year I did not expect to leave with an invitation to Mumbai.
Althrop involved a fantastic lunch. I am not sure that I would have known what to say had I been sitting next to Boris Johnson, whom I had just watched sparring with Charles Spencer in their joint “talk”. However, I was fortunate to be sitting between Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and biographer of Margaret Thatcher, and Suhel Seth, a charming Indian gentleman who looked fabulous in a white brocade coat and silk trousers.
Unbeknownst and, as it turns out more relevantly, to me, Suhel was the patron of the Times of Mumbai Literary Festival. When he asked if I would like to speak at the Festival I assumed that this was polite conversation and that, after that day, I would never hear from him again. But I did…
That evening I received an email with promises of first-class travel and five-star hotels. I was told that the organisers, Bachi Karkaria and Namita Devidayal, agreed with Suhel’s suggestion and hoped that I would consider joining them in December. Needless to say, it did not need much consideration. Shortly afterwards I found myself at the Indian Embassy getting myself a visa and at the GP getting my jabs. Then there was my presentation to write.
On December 3 my husband, Conroy, and I left Heathrow, care of the Literature Festival’s travel partners Turkish Airlines. Unfortunately, the first class element did not extend beyond my ticket. I admit to a certain pang of guilt when I turned left in the plane (for the first and probably only time) while my husband turned right, but this was soon forgotten when I met my travel companion for the next few hours. Mira Jacob had also written her first novel and was coming from the US. We chatted, laughed and according to a well-known literary agent sitting behind us, kept the other passengers awake for the entire flight!
Having never been to India before I did not know what to expect. The explosion of noise (mostly car horns), colour and smell hits you immediately. However, it can’t quite rid you of the astonishing aerial view of the second biggest slum in the world, which sprawls up to the barriers of the airport, to such an extent that the barbed wire boundary fence doubles as a washing line.
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Then started the whirlwind. From the moment the plane touched down the delegates were treated like celebrities. There was a car to take us to the hotel, a reception committee at the hotel and, best of all, I had just taken my first bite of a chocolate in our room when I realised it was a tiny replica of my book. Alas, it is ruined for posterity!
The following morning, Friday, we were taken to the Bollywood Mehboob Film studios, the oldest working film studios in India. Here again we were escorted around the lot, given a great goody bag and looked after by courteous and charming hosts.
What could go wrong? Well, it was at this point that I found that my novel was missing from the bookshop. If I had been concerned that I didn’t deserve the attention I was getting I was now sure that I didn’t. I felt like a fraud. What author travels thousands of miles without a book to sell?
A kind Indian author explained that this was a rite of passage and that I had passed my first test. I am afraid it did little to reassure me. I also thought that the manager of the book shop was slightly mad when he assured me he would have it printed by the following morning. Little did I know. Apparently, just as a fitted suit can be produced overnight, so too can hundreds of copies of my book!
After watching several of the other delegates give their talks we got ready for what turned out to be the first party of many. I found myself talking to Richard Morrais, the author of the One Hundred Foot Journey. It was fascinating to hear about his experience of his book being turned into a film with Helen Mirren and Om Puri.
On Saturday it was time to experience downtown Mumbai. I learned very quickly that traffic lights are meaningless both to pedestrians and cars. The rule is simply to alert everyone to your presence by repeatedly sounding the car horn and, as a pedestrian, not to run because apparently running is more unpredictable than simply walking into the path of a car. Having said that, I did not see a single crash!
The architecture in Mumbai is beautiful. It is staggering, and a little scary, to imagine the construction process not least because a common sight is a construction worker standing on a narrow ledge outside the 10th+ floor of a building without a safety harness. Think House of Commons with a distinctive Indian twist. You have the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Rajabal clock tower, Mumbai University, The Telegraph Office, and, of course, Victoria Station terminus. The station is not for the faint hearted, but neither is Mumbai. The population is enormous as is the gulf between the haves and the have nots (and the myriad gradation in between). It is impossible not to feel guilty about the things we take for granted when confronted with young children living and sleeping on the streets.
Sunday, and my turn to speak.
First, I watched Suhel Seth give a talk on the Indian economy and the state of government. My charming friend from Althrop became India’s answer to Joan Rivers; his jokes were fast, furious and cutting. “Your question is ridiculous and so is your T-shirt,” he told one bemused member of the audience who dared to ask a question. But the Indians seemed to love him, or at least most of them did!
Then came the book to film talk with Om Puri and my new friend Richard, then William Dalrymple, and then of course there was me.
Esther Freud, daughter of Lucien, an actress and author of many acclaimed books, read TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton and then stepped aside for my presentation. My title ‘House as Hero’ accompanied by slides of Norton past and present seemed to interest my audience and they were certainly extremely encouraging. Many questions followed. So many that I forgot to mention that my book was on sale in the bookshop! Can you believe it? All that fuss, all that way and no one except the last few stragglers learnt that Burnt Norton, my Burnt Norton was for sale and I would be signing shortly!
After further talks and further cups of tea we thanked our hostess Bachi Karkaria who put this incredible festival together and went back to our hotel, tired and elated. Conroy had loved the festival as much as I did.
When we packed up and left the following morning we came away with warm memories. We had many new friends from all over the world and we had been in India not just as tourists, but as part of something unique and extremely special.n