The second mentor who I lost this year was Ms. Meenakshi Mukherjee, eminent literary critic and a towering personality in her area of work. I met her first when I was planning my book launch in 2007. Lakshmi of Akshara Book Stores suggested that maybe Ms. Meenakshi Mukherjee would introduce the book. I had never heard of her before (embarrassing!) but quickly learned about her and my jaw dropped. Why, I thought, would someone like her want to introduce a book of a nobody like me?
Ms. Mukherjee declined anyway for other more valid reasons. She told Lakshmi that she does not know anything about cricket and did not feel qualified to speak on the subject, though her husband, Mr. Sujit Mukherjee was a die hard cricket buff, a first class cricketer, commentator and author of several cricket books. But she promised Lakshmi that she would attend the book launch. I was not sure if she would.
Mr. Shankar Melkote, who I depended on to guide me through the process which he did with all enthusiasm and wholehearted support, in his well drawn up plan asked me to gift a copy of the book to her and I was so glad he pointed it out. I gifted a copy to her during my brief address just as I gifted a copy to Bro. Joseph and Bro. George (my teachers from All Saints) and Baig saab (my coach from school and the best cricket coach in the world - technically). Mrs. Mukherjee was all grace as she accepted the gift in the midst of the melee with all my family and friends pitching in and supporting me and making sure it all went off well.
Two days later I checked my mail - the new gmail id I had created for the book - and almost did not notice a mail in spam. I flicked my fingers on the spam button and suddenly noticed that there was a mail from Ms. Meenakshi Mukherjee lying there. My heart skipped a beat and I retrieved it and opened it. I will paste the entire transcript here, she wrote:
"Dear Harimohan, I have been reading your book and am enjoying it thoroughly. It is a novel difficult to put down and the short chapters with dates work very well.
Your gift was most unexpected and therefore much valued. I was touched by your mention of my husband and his cricket books. If you have not read them I would be happy to present one of them to you. May I ? Sincerely, Meenakshi Mukherjee"
My heart started singing and I was in cloud nine. I could not wait to write back and well I drafted and redrafted a mail several times before I sent it to her. I called her that very week and fixed up a meeting.
It was a wonderful thing, meeting her. She was nothing like a critic. I expected someone who would give me a headmistress syndrome, looking at me critically, making me feel inadequate, posing questions that made me say the wrong things, something like film critic I guess, or at least someone who spoke high brow and the queen's English and someone who'd correct my pronunciation or language or my ignorance at all those words they use - post colonial, neo classical whatever whatever etc.
Nothing of that sort. She spoke with no accent, spoke disarmingly simply with the curiosity of a school girl (some mannerisms actually reminded you of a school girl such as the way she flicked her neck aside at some times), spoke of things I could relate to and could contribute in. So clear and to the point, and with such interest and enthusiasm. She asked me about how I wrote the book, how I got published and how she liked it. We have too many sad stories in Indian fiction she said, I liked the happy, hopeful factor in your book. It's fun, it’s a different point of view and energetic. In fact, she said, I carried your book to a panel discussion with publishers in Delhi and told them that these kinds of books were coming out these days, from new authors who we never heard of before. I felt a knot in my throat. This sounded too good to be true.
She asked me about how I planned to sell the book since I was an MBA. I told her my plans, the publishing set up, the marketing drawbacks in the publishing set up and how I hoped to overcome them. We had a long discussion on the marketing side and she said she was interested in knowing what I was doing. It was a very nice, empowering and growth-oriented discussion. She gifted me two books written by her late husband - "Autobiography of an unknown Indian cricketer" and "Playing for India", both of which I read and enjoyed immensely.
I kept meeting her at book launches. Once I visited her again not too long ago at her house, with the express intent of learning the art of literary criticism. We spent time together and this time it was easier. I told her the concept of my book 'The Tryst'. She liked the idea, and told me some stories she knew that related to that story, asked me certain questions and probed enough to know the story at a deeper level (thankfully she was satisfied when I gave her the framework of the novel). 'I will read it when it gets published, but it looks interesting,' she said. 'Everyone seems to have a story like that hidden somewhere in their minds.'
I told her that my movie rights for 'The Men Within' were sold and she was very happy. She wanted to know about Ram's production house, Art Beat Capital, and how Ashta Chamma did. She said she'd watch it and I promised her a DVD the next time. She also recollected being on the same panel as Mohan Krishna Indraganti on some movie discussions. We talked movies for a while after that.
I offered to drive her anywhere, if she felt the need to, just so I could spend time talking to her and she smiled and said we could visit Akshara one of these days. I said we could visit the other glitzy book stores as well. We ate brownies, I got her to sign most reluctantly on my book - why should I sign in your book, you wrote it - I said there were few people whose signature means much and she was one and she finally did. I had an elaborate date planned out almost; yes a date because talking to her was like that, simple, flowing, adding value and always drawing the best out of me. That, I noticed is the hallmark of the truly great, they let you be, and by being themselves, let the best part of you reflect back to them. So I could talk at length of my plans, ideas and concepts with the same passion as I would have with some friend of mine, like say, Koni, who might not know the first thing about literature at all. Now when I have more concrete plans (workshops and value addition to the youth in some many areas including writing) I miss her wisdom because she would have enjoyed being involved in something like that.
She had a book launch as well in Delhi and was on the way to the launch when she suffered a massive cardiac arrest at the airport and passed away. I was shocked naturally when I heard, there was no indication. But then, I am not complaining, I learnt much in whatever time I spent with her and I know, like Rajan Bala she would be around, guiding me, adding to my little knowledge from wherever she is.
And I will set this marketing business in publishing right and share with you maam. Loved the brownies, the two cups of coffee we had and those two wonderful mornings I spent with you.