Jaipur Diaries- The Old Woman and the Cats
Listening to J.M. Coetzee at the Jaipur Literature Festival
In an article in the Magazine Littéraire, French writer Véronique Ovaldé recounts the fifty hours she spent in the company of Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, who happened to be a friend of her uncle, when she was 12. She watched as the two men drank alcohol in the cafe and argued on the opening lines of novels almost without a break for two days and two nights. She writes- “During that time that I passed terrified and starving, I understood, I think, what literature was [...] (After many years) having forgotten that I had met this man, I had to reactivate my memory, open the drawers of my childhood one by one [...].”
Ovaldé talks about her experience as a precocious reader on meeting “the grandfather and king of Latin America” and the imprint this encounter left on her otherwise unhappy childhood. She remembers, even after so many years, how ‘Gabo’ spoke loudly and that his white clothes were covered with ochre dust. The memory has stood the test of time and has perhaps subconsciously shaped Ovaldé’s reading and writing life. The claim of my assumption is strengthened as she quotes Vladimir Nabokov at the end of the article, “Nothing is lost forever, memory accumulates secret treasures that thrive in the dark and dust.”
On the third day of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival 2011, as I proceeded for lunch, I noticed a large gathering of people waiting impatiently at the venue called the Front Lawns. There was still half an hour for the session Readings from J.M. Coetzee to start, yet the place was so packed that hardly any vacant seat was visible from a distance. I decided to skip lunch and wait with them.
I found a charpai in the front, from where a good view was guaranteed (though comfort had to be compromised). Sitting next to me was a young admirer of Coetzee (pronounced ‘kut-zee-uh’) who had taken the morning train to Jaipur just to listen to him and would take the evening train after the session to return to Delhi. This devotion and keenness wasn’t unlikely considering how reclusive Coetzee is. The Nobel Laureate didn’t even turn up to collect his Booker Prizes (in 1983 for The Life and Times of Michael K and in 1999 for Disgrace).
We basked in the desert sunlight of the afternoon at Diggi Palace as announcements were made for the spectators requesting them to switch off their mobile phones and clear the way for J.M. Coetzee. Accompanied by William Dalrymple and Patrick French (the moderator for the session), Coetzee walked to the stage. His demeanor was calm, his expression unattached and undisturbed by the large crowds surrounding him.
Patrick French welcomed the public to the session and announced that Coetzee was going to read a short story for forty-five minutes. He joked that that very morning he had read in an Indian newspaper (he wouldn’t say which) that he was going to read from Coetzee’s work for forty-five minutes. But then in the same newspaper he read that Junot Díaz was Spain’s leading writer which didn’t turn out to be accurate. The audience laughed and exchanged glances.
Half an hour earlier, French had come to the festival bookstore (where I was volunteering) to borrow a copy of Coetzee’s Youth for the session. He read a passage from the same copy, “Describing the experiences of the young reader, he (Coetzee) writes, ‘He likes Flaubert. Emma Bovary in particular, with her dark eyes, her restless sensuality, her readiness to give herself, has him in her thrall. [...] He is not sure that wanting to meet Emma is a good enough reason for admiring Flaubert. In his sensibility there is still, he suspects, something rotten, something Keatsian.’ ” I feel a certain pride in the fact that I now own the same copy, the one that Patrick French had borrowed, read from in the presence of Coetzee and which, later, the author signed for me. There is a strange fatalistic, romantic and mystical element attached to my ownership.
The podium from which Coetzee was to speak was placed at a position from where I and the girl sitting next to me couldn’t see Coetzee clearly. I signalled Sanjoy Roy, the organiser, and he was kind enough to go to the stage himself and change the podium’s position for us. Coetzee stepped forward and soon there was nothing but his clear and soft voice to be heard. It is a voice you never forget, a voice that haunts you in your dreams, that comes back to you as you comb your hair half-sleepily in the morning, a voice that betrays age and experience, a voice that was soft yet one that separated and distinguished each word sharply like an axe chopping the log of the sentence into small, congruent wordly blocks.
“Festivals like this one provide writers with opportunities to air their opinions on one subject or another. Like most people I have opinions but I confess that I don’t find my opinions particularly interesting.” the voice said. “Therefore, I use this platform to read you a story. The story will take about forty-five minutes to read. So for the next forty-five minutes, we’ll hear one uninterrupted voice- my own.” the voice prophesied. “The story is called The Old Woman and the Cats. It stars two personnages- a middle-aged professor and his aged mother who once upon a time was a well-known novelist.” We listened. No one spoke. No one but Coetzee, the cooing pigeons and the parrots were to be heard. Slowly the sunlight subdued and the afternoon transcended into a mildewy softness, as if trying to imitate Coetzee’s voice. The bright yellow sky was now grey-blue, the colour of Coetzee’s shirt. For a moment, he seemed the priest, one in whose presence no one would dare speak, he being the intermediator between man and God. Coetzee spoke and I tried to embed his words in my memory in a manner such that no passage of time could wither it away. I tried to make a video to be treasured as a souvenir but my hands trembled.
The Old Woman and the Cats is one of the ‘lessons’ in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. The protagonist is an aging novelist (considered to be Coetzee’s alter ego) who lives alone in rural Spain despite her failing health. Her son John has come to visit her and he finds himself repelled by the “strange man in the kitchen” and the many cats his mother feeds and shelters. Coetzee is not only a master story-writer but also a gifted storyteller. He knows when exactly to pause, to give the voice a sudden swish, and how to keep a perfectly straight face as the public laughs at a light moment in the story. In my life, I had never before seen so many people of different nationalities together so silent and miraculously held rapt by a writer of such great literary powers.
To those who feel that I am romanticising my experience, I might as well say that there is no other way I can do justice to it, for few moments in my life of sixteen-and-a-half years have been as ethereal, stimulating and powerful as listening to J.M. Coetzee with a thousand other people.
After reading Ovaldé’s account of the two days she spent in the private company of a literary giant at a tender age, I envisage myself recounting my own experience of this one fine afternoon in Jaipur to perhaps an inquisitive friend or lover after many years. As I read Youth, the voice, my voice, that usually reads the text in my mind, has been replaced with another one. It’s Coetzee that now reads his work to me. He has managed to invade that personal space in a span of three quarters of an hour. As he signed my copy, I said to him, “I hope the experience of listening to you today remains alive in my memory forever”, and I guess it will. Again, in Nabokov’s words, “I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.”
A Stolen Moment- I and Coetzee