Frankfurt Book Fair

A book fair is where you go to see a vast array of books in display, and buy books you like. This simplistic picture is what I have in mind when I board the bus to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Little do I know that what awaits me is something very different.

Inside the bus, I open the bag given to all the passengers of this special bus trip. It contains a welcome brochure, some handouts with maps and guidelines, a bookmark and a pocket-sized novella. Just the things a booklover would treasure.


We reach the Messe a little before 10 am, and I decide to go first into hall 4.0, which is about “Fiction, Non-Fiction, Film & TV”.

I walk through the rows of bookstalls containing books in German and come to a section called “Marco Polo – a photographer’s journey”. It is a photo exhibition about a photographer (Michael Yamashita) who took Marco Polo’s route to prove he really went to the places he wrote about, and saw the things he described. I enter the gallery.

The photographs, enlarged to a dimension that make it look like a window into another world, are stunning. The initial photos are taken in Iraq.

Old Basra – traditional architecture crumbling from neglect” reads the caption of a photo showing a facade of a building with carved windows that once must have been beautiful. Does all this still exist, or it has crumbled in the war?

The sequence of photographs takes me through Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and back to Venice through Iran and Turkey. Lands and peoples are brought to life through breathtaking images. I decide to buy the book.

Outside the exhibition I continue walking, looking at stalls that display their wares. The variety is staggering. What if most of the books were in English? Would I have been able to cover even one hall in a whole day?

One stall displays ‘Moleskine‘ notebooks. I have not heard of them, so I enter the stall to take a look. A nice writer’s notebook is worth spending a few Euros on, so I ask for the price. Sorry, not for sale, comes the polite reply. I nod, and leave.

At a corner I see a section containing books and videos by Arte. Some of the documentaries I’ve seen on Arte are collector’s items, and it is nice to note that they package and sell these documentaries.

In another section I find a small book containing a collage of photos, text, sketches and other odds and ends by a little girl who documents her travel from Germany to India. It is titled Reisenotizen, and although the text is in German, it is of a level I can understand with a bit of effort. As I leaf through the pages, I find an image of a bill, pink in color, of Chandigarh chat house on which the scribbled letters say ‘1 tea – Rs 2.50“. Another page has a photograph of a Sardarji sitting next to a German lady – probably the girl’s mother – and the text on that page says something like “Call me grandpa. I like helping tourists and I can show you all around Chandigarh. And it would be nice if you wrote a bit about me.”

Charming little book, but not for sale. I note down the ISBN: 3-86176-018-5.

I walk a little further, and see a small group of people gathered around a machine. A man is giving a demonstration of how it works. The display reads: “Knee Lever Press by R.W.Cope of London. In the 19th century, such presses completely replaced the presses made of wood. This press was built in 1840 and is still in working condition“. The man places a plain chart on an iron base, slides it inside the press and pulls a lever with both hands. He then slides the base back, picks up the paper and displays the printed material to everyone. Applause, all around.


I pick up one of the many printed charts lying on the floor and pay the mentioned price of 1 Euro. In 1840 it would probably have cost a little less.

It is almost time for lunch. I leave hall 4.1 and head towards the meeting point.

After lunch, I enter hall 6.1, which hosts International Publishers. The intention is to find some books in English, so I venture into the French section. Wrong choice, I quickly learn. While the German stalls had one or two books in English, the French show no such consideration. Books, books, everywhere, not a word to read.

I change my strategy – I begin to watch people instead. Each stall has a couple of tables and chairs, and the most of the French are busy talking about business. Some others are involved in serious debates. The French, I’ve heard, take intellectual matters very seriously. Now I see this trait as I walk across stalls with French men and women, involved in passionate verbal exchanges or poring deeply into a book. At one such stall a young lady reading a book suddenly looks down, and seeing that her neckline has dropped lower than her modesty would permit, she pulls up her blouse. Satisfied with this adjustment, she resumes reading.

After the French, I see stalls from the West Indies and suddenly some English titles come into view. One stall contains books on Indo-Trinidad literature, culture and history. I scan for books by V.S.Naipaul, but I then realize that these books are from West Indian publishers so they clearly will not have Naipaul’s books, which were published by someone either in Europe or the US. There is, however, a book about writers with this background – of Indian descent, who migrated to the West Indies – and that has a mention of Naipaul and a few others I have not heard of.

Stalls from African countries come next. The contrast in the quality and size of stalls, and quality of books – in terms of packaging and presentation – between the French section and these African sections is stark. Of course, one knows the difference between the economic status of developed versus third-world countries, but encountering it like this, juxtaposed with each other, serves as a grim reminder of the huge divide between the rich and poor countries.

Some time later, I reach a section that contains an exhibition of books on the human rights movement. Here again there are English titles. A large book with illustrations catches my attention – it is called If the world were a village. I pick it up and sit down on a chair nearby.

The book tries to show different aspects of life from the perspective of the whole world being a small village consisting of 100 people. Each page is devoted to one aspect – for example, distribution based on continents (X people would be from Asia, Y people would be from Europe and so on). I note down one such distribution: in this village of 100 people, there are 42 radios, 24 TVs, 14 telephones and 7 computers. The numbers trigger a chain of thoughts. Isn’t it amusing that a lot of us think the Internet has spread all over the globe? If an entrepreneur would see these numbers, he would probably see a lot of potential for growth: new markets, more customers. And why is the number of telephones so less, in comparison to TVs? Do people prefer entertainment to communication?

One of the pages in the book compares the distribution of wealth, and contains the following text:

The richest 20 people each have more than $9000 a year. The poorest 20 each have less than $1 a day. The other 60 people have something in between.

If one reads carefully, one can notice the clever – and unnecessary – trick used by the author: for the richest, he uses year as the time attribute, but for the poorest he uses day. This makes the divide seem larger than it really is.

Next, I go one floor below into section 6.0, which also hosts International Publishers. To my extreme right are stalls from Japan, and I begin there. The Japanese stalls offer only books in their language, so I fall back to my alternative occupation. The people talking business in these stalls look very serious. The chairs are spaced a little apart from each other, the men sit straight in a stiff position, and only their business suits come in my way of thinking of them as a group of monks, meditating together. The women are extremely attractive; I pretend to be interested in some books on Haiku in one of the stalls.

Japan is followed by China, and here the stalls get bigger and the voices I hear get squeakier. Although I do not understand a word of either language, there is a qualitative difference that I can somehow sense and recognize.

After China there is Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal and then India. Walking through the rows, watching and hearing people from different countries, is like taking a whirlwind cultural tour. I can think of few other places where one can find so much cultural variety in such proximity. Something like this would be an ideal location for an educational tour about people from different countries.

I slow down my pace at the stalls from Indian publishers; I can finally hear some tongues I understand, and read titles I recognize. At one stall a middle-aged Indian lady smiles. I smile back.

“Are you from India” she asks.

“That’s right.” I reply.

“Are you a student?”

“No, I work here.”

“Why don’t you sit down?” she offers.

“That’s okay. I’m just taking a look around.” I reply.

“You must have heard about the magazine The Book Review. It is the earliest magazine of its kind in India and we are now offering subscriptions to people outside India.” She hands over some brochures and a form.

Someone comes to the stall to talk to her on a business related matter, so I start to leave. She asks me to come back after “taking a look around” so that she could give me a copy of the magazine. I thank her and move on.

The books in these Indian stalls remind me of the African stalls, and lead to the inevitable comparison with stalls of more prosperous countries. I also notice that there are very few books in regional languages, or in Hindi. Only one stall is full of books in Bengali. When people try to present books in Japanese, why not Hindi or Malayalam? Probably none of the publishers in these languages saw much opportunity for business here.

At another stall an elderly Sardarji greets me with a “Hello”. I reciprocate his greetings.

“Student?” he asks.

“No, I work here.”

“What work do you do?” he asks.

“I work as a software engineer.” I reply.

“Well, we do not have any software books, but there are plenty of other books that will remind you of India.” he says, with a chuckle.

I laugh, and turn towards some books on display. Some are on travel, some others are on spirituality and self-help. He picks up a book titled How to be more successful and shows it to me saying, “This is a very good book.”

I nod my head, and continue to look around. Then I thank him and leave.

A little ahead at the Indonesian stall, while flipping through a book about Borobodur, I hear a conversation between an Indian gentleman and an Indonesian lady. The Indian is about to publish a travel book on Indonesia, and he wants to know if he can get help with the distribution of the book in that country. The lady asks him to contact another Indonesian publisher in this matter.

In another stall from Italy, I hear two ladies discussing another distribution deal.

“I like the shape of the books.” one lady says, in a British accent. “I think I’ll take these.”

Soon I reach the section with stalls from Baltic countries. In one of the stalls I notice a book with a single word on the cover: Kabir. It can’t be about the Indian poet, I tell myself, picking it up. I am wrong. It is a book of poems by Kabir – the background of first page has some lines in Devanagiri, a script used for Hindi – translated into a script I do not recognize. Through the corner of my eye I sense the lady at the stall looking at me. I look up and meet her eyes; I cannot decipher her expression. I keep the book back and walk away. After a few steps, I turn back and walk up to the lady.

“Excuse me. Which language are these books written in?” I ask.

“Estonian.” She replies. “You were looking at the book by Kabir.” The way she pronounces ‘Kabir’ conveys a sense of respect and admiration.

“That’s right. I’ve read Kabir, and I was surprised to see his work in such a translation.” I say.

“The book is a translation based on the English translation.” She says, reaching for the book in the shelf. She shows me the names of the translators.

“I’ve read Kabir’s poetry a long time back, when I was in school.” I tell her. “Its really interesting to see that his works are translated into different languages.”

I thank her and move ahead towards the stalls from Nordic countries. I expect these to have more books in English, simply because most people in these countries speak English (a trait not shared by other countries in Europe). But I find that the books are again in their regional languages. After walking across two rows, I finally come to a stall where I spot a shelf full of works in English. I pull up a chair near the shelf.

Here, at last, I can do something I am looking forward to since morning: sit with some good English books, read a bit of each and see if they interest me. I spend half an hour at this stall, at the end of which my notebook contains the following list:

* The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)
* The Atom Station (Halldors Laxness)
* LIFE-A User’s manual (Georges Perec)
* The Journals of a White Sea wolf (Marius Wilk)

My watch reads 4:15; it is time to leave. I pick up my bag and start walking towards the exit, taking with me ideas, ISBNs and an eclectic mix of images of a fascinating day at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2003.


Don’t look at the camera

“When I wave my hand you both can start walking. You will walk towards this table, and sit down there – okay ?” Tina asks.

“Okay” my wife replies, while I nod my head.

With lunch trays in our hands we wait for Tina’s signal. She waves and we start walking, looking at each other and pretending to talk. After a few steps we reach the table. We place the trays on the table and sit down.

Tina walks up to us. “That was nice, but we’ll have to do it just one more time – I’m sorry.” She has a half a smile on her face, and the expression seems to convey regret at the same time.

“That’s fine.” I pick up my tray, full of dishes yet to be tasted. As we walk back to our starting position, I notice some faces in the tables around looking at us. Some are mildly curious; others are amused.

Tina waves again, and we repeat our actions right up to the table. This time the crew seems happy.

Guten Appetit! ” says Helmut, the cameraman, with raised eyebrows.

We dig into the dishes.

The shooting is for a documentary about German Green-Card holders working for my company. Apart from us, a couple from Russia and an Australian are the other subjects. The crew has finished with the couple in the morning, and are now attempting to catch a glimpse of us at different times of a typical day at work. It is something unique for us, and we do not mind the takes and retakes.

“Its just the beginning, so you are still quite excited! ” says Petruta, who nominated our names for the documentary.

During lunch I am reminded of a couple of ‘rules’ Helmut had given us earlier in the day. “Don’t look into the camera! ” he had said with a low pitched voice that was almost a whisper. Then after the first shot he had followed it up with “I do not want to shoot your back – never show your back to the camera.”

Helmut takes his job very seriously. While others pick up their trays, he waits for all the lunch related episodes to complete. Tina is more the PR type : her pleasant, courteous mien puts us at ease and makes us relax. Together, they complement each other well.

After lunch, it is time for the interviews. My wife and I sit under a tree while the others set up the shot.

“It feels a bit like movie stars waiting in the shade while the crew sets up the shot.” I say.

“Maybe they should be giving you some drinks also.” says Petruta. We laugh.

Soon the set is ready. Tina comes up and asks “So, who is first ?”

I volunteer, and soon find myself facing Tina with the camera by her side. Markus holds the microphone near my knee, out of the camera’s frame. Tina explains that her questions are not going to be a part of the documentary – only parts of my answers will be taken. She then begins.

“Why did you decide to relocate to Germany ?” she asks, with a smile.

I answer, and she moves on to the next question. That surprises me; I had expected retakes during the interview as well. But the fifteen minute session moves in an impromptu fashion from one question to the next. That suits me very well; shooting retakes of spoken sentences can make it sound artificial.

After me it is my wife’s turn. She takes my seat while I move over under the tree and watch. It turns out to be a revealing ten minutes for me : I cannot remember another occasion where I stood watching, from a distance, my wife talking to another person. The distance makes her seem somehow…..different.

The interviews are followed by a few more shooting sessions – with many retakes – and at the end of it all we think we know a little about what it takes to face the camera. The key element is Helmut’s advice : Don’t look at the camera. Unless you intend to read news on the BBC, of course.

Feeling the heat

In a land where the amount of sunlight one gets each year is strictly rationed, the question of surplus does not arise. This was a fact until two weeks ago. While the European heat wave may be making waves in the news channels across the globe, people in Germany are meeting – and sometimes beating – the heat in their own ways.

Men in our neighborhood can be seen with nothing on but their underwear. Women turn up with short tops and shorter skirts, though not short enough.

At work, queues at coffee machines have migrated to water coolers, and people who normally yearn for sunlight are seen lowering the blinds each morning.

Fields of corn, once green, are now burnt yellow.

The shelves displaying table fans in departmental stores stand empty.

Ice candy vans have sprung up in places occupied earlier by meat vendors or flower vendors.

Minor traffic jams can be seen near schwimbad, the local swimming club.

A colleague asks my wife “Why are you wearing so many clothes ?!” It takes a while for her to understand that there are no indecent intentions behind the question, only an incredulous mind wondering how we survive with so many clothes on at such times.

At the chess club, I see all my opponents sweating; my game has nothing to do with it.

But the prize goes to the owner of our local South Asian grocery store, who has his own elegant theory explaining the situation when we return a packet of rice infested with worms. “It is the heat.” he says, looking at the little white worms so much like rice grains crawling inside the packet. “It is the heat which is turning the rice grains into these worms. The heat, and nothing else.”

Until that moment, I had thought the heat had affected only the Germans.

An interest rekindled

There was a time during school days when chess was a pastime I frequently indulged in. A rivalry that instantly comes to mind is the one I had with Sai, a friend who beat me convincingly most times and yet left me each time with the feeling that the result could have been otherwise; it made me go back and try again and again. After school we went our ways and my active interest in the game dwindled, surfacing now and then during sporadic encounters with classmates or colleagues.

These days it has come into favor again.

It all began a few weeks back when I took part in a fascinating simultaneous event organized by a local club. After that, I joined the local chess club. The club meets on Friday evenings, when most people informally play against each other and some – who have a tournament match on that day – play official games. The five weeks so far have been full of fun and learning. Some of the members have an ELO rating of around 2100, and playing against players of such strength is a humbling experience for hobbyists like me who think of themselves as ‘above-average’ in their own category.

I also recently bought Fritz 8. One way to describe this piece of chess software would be to mention that it has an ELO rating of over 2600 and that it can beat 99.9 % of chess players on this planet. But that would miss the point. Fritz contains an array of features to help players at different levels improve their game, and it is this feature-set – and not the Herculean strength it boasts of – that would prove most useful to players like me intending to improve their skills. I hope to discuss some of these features in this space sometime in the near future.

On the recommendation of a player in the chess club I bought the book ‘Chess Master Vs Chess Amateur‘ by Max Euwe. I’ve read a few chess books in the past, but none of those went to the depth this book delves into while explaining the basics for amateurs. The approach is novel and effective : by highlighting the contrast between the thinking of the Master and Amateur, Euwe presents a path an amateur could take to bridge that gap. There are twenty five games discussed in the book; I’m currently into the fifth game, and I find that the games are presented in increasing order of complexity and amateur skill, so each new games takes longer to complete ( and the variations discussed also increase ).

I intend to start – as soon as I can make time for it – a chess journal : a section where I could discuss happenings in the club, talk a bit about Fritz and also log some of the games I play ( in the club and with Fritz ). Adding some algebraic notation might bring some variety into these pages.

A Package eagerly awaited

Yesterday morning, I was on my way out when I saw a DHL van, yellow in color like the Deutsche Post ones, come up to our house. The driver of the van jumped down with a small package in his hands, and my eyes lit up in expectation. He walked up to me and read out the name on the package : “Frau S, bitte.”

“Ja.” I nodded, “Ich nehme das”.

The package was from, and the date was the 21st of June. I ran inside, tore open the package and lifted out the hard bound copy of book 5 : The Order of the Phoenix. In size, it was comparable to the previous one, probably larger. The print appeared to be smaller, but I wasn’t too sure.

My wife took up the book almost immediately, sat on a single chair for the next 13 hours ( getting up only to prepare and eat lunch in between ) and completed the book before midnight. No, she wouldn’t tell me anything about it – I had forbidden her to do so.

I cannot read a book like that, non stop. I am a slow reader and I like to take it in parts, like small helpings of a tasty halwa I’d want never to finish. So now I can take my own sweet time and read it at my own pace. Since Rowling has taken around 3 years to complete this book, I should be taking at least 3 months to read it, shouldn’t I ?

A festival par excellence

We were in a queue for a while, after which we were let in. We walked through a passage to reach the center of tower No.41, where, through the enveloping darkness, we heard the mellifluous strains of saxophones in the air. A little further, around a pillar that divided the area into two sections at right angles, we saw the source of the enchanting music : four Mexican saxophone players were playing in a corner, watched by people sitting in perpendicular directions. As we took our seats, the piece being played came to an end and the players stood up, bowed. Applause followed, and we joined in.

They sat down immediately, and began their next piece. The ambience, dimly lit, brick walled, and narrow-spaced, seemed perfect for the instruments being played, and we were drawn into a trance by the magic of the pipers. Sitting there, feeling the music seep in, one felt this was how life ought to be – a dreamlike existence filled with music. It was a moment in a million, a moment one would cherish for eternity, a moment, the mere thought of which would be enough to relive its ecstasy.

The saxophone quartet programme was the perfect ending to an amazing Saturday at FIMU, Belfort. This music festival, spanning over three days of a long weekend, is held each year in this quaint little fortress town in France, with groups from all over the world coming to play music of different varieties and styles.

None of the concerts had any entrance fees, and the venue for each concert was either an open stage erected for this festival, or indoors, inside regular or makeshift concert halls, and all of these venues were located within a radius of around 2 to 3 kilometers. Where ever one went, there was music in the air, and with so much choice available there were times when one couldn’t make up one’s mind about which concert to attend. For a lover of music, there was only one word for this setting : paradise.

We were introduced to this festival by Stefan & Uta, who have been participating in this event since the last six years, and this time they suggested that we come along. It turned out to be an unforgettable weekend; we’re already looking forward to FIMU 2004.

Some pictures of our trip have been collected in the photo album FIMU 2003.

To India and Back

We recently returned from India, after a three and half week vacation. It was after two and half years we were setting foot on our ‘motherland’, and on our way in I was assailed by doubts about how my perception of India may have been altered by our stay abroad.

It turned out that India was just as it always had been… like India. Back in the familiar surroundings of Bangalore, one felt there really was no gap at all – it was as if I had always been there. Then, the thought that I had even nurtured the possibility of things being otherwise made me feel foolish.

There were changes, yes, but nothing that was out of India’s character. India was growing, progressing, struggling with issues that come with growth and progress, and finding its own unique ways of resolving these issues.

Among of the different complaints I had heard from expatriates returning to the country for a brief vacation, the ones most frequently encountered were related to traffic and pollution. It appeared to me a case of misplaced comparison – these people were probably comparing the traffic and pollutions levels in India with those in the west and concluding that these had increased to unbearable levels back home ( at least in Bangalore, they said ).


I found that traffic congestion and pollution levels were more or less what they were around 2 and half years back, when I had seen Bangalore last. What was new in Bangalore was an initiative from the Bangalore Development Authority to construct flyovers in select areas – something that should have started a few years earlier, but clearly welcome at least now. These constructions had, in places, made the traffic situation worse, and BDA had erected boards displaying the reassurance “Bear with temporary inconvenience now, and reap permanent benefits later”. ‘Temporary’, of course, conveyed no definite timeframe.

A welcome addition to the city : Baristas. These coffee houses offered a concept common in Europe but unique back home : a cup of coffee for unlimited time at the cafe. The Baristas on St.Marks Road – introduced to us by Ashwin – turned out to be a place frequented by the younger generation of the city : some were chatting away as usual, a couple of girls were playing scrabble, a group of boys and girls were slouched on the sofa – almost on top of each other, it seemed – and treating the place like the drawing room of their house, another girl was writing something into her notebook…. you get the picture. They also served coffee, and the Cappuccino I had was among the better ones I had tasted. Ashwin said he came to the place – which was a 10 min walk from his office and next to his music school where he took Piano lessons – a few times every week, and at times did his music homework, which included composing pieces, sipping a cup of coffee or an ice tea there. I now have a nice story ready for the day Ash becomes a famous composer : “Making music at Baristas” goes the heading. I envy Ashwin and all those who have access to a place like that.

Shopping was fun. Everything was clearly more expensive than it had been back when were there, but we couldn’t help dividing the amount on the tags by a factor of 50 and feeling good about the price in Euros we were shelling down. Clothes and books were our main items, and we picked these in plenty. ( Among the books purchased were a few collections of R.K.Narayan’s works, an anthology of Indian literature edited by Amit Choudhury, a new translation of The Ramayana published by Penguin, the complete set of Tintin comics, “White Mughals” a work on 18th century India by William Darymple and a couple of others I cannot remember offhand. So I now have a handful more of books on the ever-increasing ‘to be read’ list ).

Travel in India was…Oh ! Wife’s calling. Must stop here. Will continue in my next entry….

Pneumonia or … ?

Since the last couple of days I’ve been down with a throat infection and a mild fever. When my sister-in-law heard this from my wife, she asked if there was a chance that it could be SARS. We laughed out loud.

Then today, when I went to the local doctor for a brief consultation, he asked me if I’d visited Hong Kong or China in the recent past. He was doing his job, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking that what we were witnessing was not a rapid spread of pneumonia, but paranoia.

On a more serious note, when I read in the WHO press briefing that the medical facilities in Hong Kong were being pushed to a limit, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if there was such an outbreak in India. Given its high population densities and not so high medical infrastructure base ( the latter in comparison to Hong Kong ), controlling the spread of SARS in India would prove to be much more challenging, and the fatalities could turn out to be much higher than what we are seeing at the present. Efforts in the direction of preventing the virus from entering the country seems to be of paramount importance, but we are seeing very little of that at the moment.

Since the news about SARS is currently being eclipsed by war related broadcasts, public awareness about the seriousness of the disease seems to be lower than what it would have been under normal circumstances. This is probably a blessing for the airline industry, which did not need this outbreak at a time when the war itself is taking a big toll on its revenues.

Middle East month

When I entered the American library in Heidelberg this morning, I saw a stack of books on a stand that had a label stuck on it which read “Topic of the month : War & the Middle East”. This was a new practice – there had not been any ‘topics of the month’ earlier – and it was clearly welcome since it brought under one shelf books relating to a specific theme, but not necessarily pertaining to a specific category in the library. ( I wonder if library search catalogues offer methods to search the title database along such orthogonal directions ).

I recognized a few titles I had seen earlier in the library. Most others were new, and one among these was a book by Bernard Lewis, an author whose books on the Middle East I had come across before. This book was about a change, and looked into what brought about the change. The change the book talked about was the decline of the Islamic empire from the heights it had reached in the medieval ages, from the perspective of the impact western civilizations ( armies, societies and cultures ) had upon the Middle East.

The preface of the book contained the following text :

“This book was already in page proof when the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington took place on September 11 2001. It does not therefore deal with them, nor with their immediate causes and after-effects. It is however related to these attacks, examining not what happened and what followed, but what went before – the longer sequence and larger pattern of events, ideas, and attitudes that preceded and in some measure produced them.”

I picked up the title “What went wrong ( Western impact and Middle Eastern response )”. It now appears on the Currently Reading list.

The Voyeur in me

Some days ago I was lying in bed reading J.K.Rowling’s biography by Sean Smith, while my wife was trying to catch my attention – something that is next to impossible when I have my nose sticking between the pages of an interesting book.

After a few unsuccessful nudges, she exclaimed : “Voyeur !”

“What ?” I didn’t quite understand her.

“I said you’re a Voyeur.”

“What did I do now ?!”

“Well, you don’t pay attention to your wife, and instead involve yourself in the pursuit of knowing the details of another woman’s life.” she replied, plainly.

My initial reaction was laughter. I had never heard anyone equate the pursuit of reading a biography to voyeurism, and it seemed rather amusing to do so. My wife, however, was not amused at all. I kept the book aside, for the time being at least….

Much later, I thought about that seemingly innocuous statement again. There was an interest in knowing the personal details of another person’s life, yes, and I realized that this had always been the case with the people whom I admired. Richard Feynman, J.Krishnamurti, M.K.Gandhi, S.Ramanujam and Garry Kasparov were some people whose biographies ( or autobiographies ) that I could recollect reading. The statement struck home more in the case of J.K.Rowling, since she had resented the large amount of public attention and interest in her personal life that her phenomenal success had generated, and it resulted her in withdrawing into a shell.

It seemed to me that it was debatable whether such an interest in the personal affairs of another human being was tantamount to an intellectual type of voyeurism. One could not, as I did earlier, dismiss it lightly ( it had indirectly lead to the death of Princess Diana ), and one could not take it too seriously either ( there is a lot to be learned from the lives of others ). What was needed was a balance between curiosity and obsession. Easier said than done, clearly.

The book itself turned out to be an engrossing read ( and I could not find anything which the celebrity author would possibly object to ). It is not as authoritative and fascinating as a good biography should be, but it is still the best single source we have yet about J.K.Rowling – I would recommend it to anyone who loves Harry Potter and has some desire to get to know the person behind the creation of the world of Magic and Muggles.