The launch of Shreekumar Varma's Maria's Room was unusually filled with friends, quips and banter
It was unusual, as book launches went. It wasn't just that the hall at Taj Connemara was absolutely packed, with several people standing throughout; or that it went on for longer than most launches, clocking in at a solid hour-and-a-half. It was the air of bonhomie that really set this event apart, that between the author and his co-presenters, and the author and his audience.
The book was Man Asian Literary Prize-longlisted Maria's Room and its author Shreekumar Varma, the well-known Chennai-based novelist, playwright, columnist and teacher. One ought to, perhaps, add the epithet ‘well-loved' to that description, judging by the number of friends and well-wishers who turned out at the launch, hanging on to his every word, and laughing at his every joke with affectionate appreciation.
“See, when you want a good introduction, you ask your best friend to do it,” quipped Shreekumar, taking the stage after the glowing intro by his close friend and columnist Robert Clements, who came down from Mumbai especially for the event. He added warmly: “I just look around, and all I see is friends smiling… I think everybody who creates waits for this moment.”
The Madras Book Club event featured a longer-than-usual — but very effective — reading, with theatre actor Ajit Chitturi and NDTV Hindu features head Anuradha Ananth (both, naturally, friends of the author's) joining Shreekumar in an exploration of the novel. Moody memories of protagonist Raja Prasad's unhappy past and downright spooky interludes from his present, darkly-erotic descriptive passages and stories of long-dead legends from Goa's exotic history — the reading captured the essence of darkly atmospheric Maria's Room.
Afterward, Anuradha described the book as languorous and evocative, creating a sense of disquiet in the reader. “Your play Midnight Hotel featured a ghost as well… Why this preoccupation with the macabre and other-worldly?” she asked during her question-and-answer session with the author. “I missed your sense of humour.”
Shreekumar's answer was simple… Goa made him do it. “When I visited Goa after completing my novel Lament of Mohini, I saw a different Goa, not the sunny place we associate with holidays, but a dark, rainy Goa, with all these old buildings and people steeped in history… that atmosphere got to me,” said the author. “I was actually three chapters along with another book, but this story took hold of me, and almost forced me to write it, like a ghost.”
But Maria's Room took another nine years before it saw the light of day, with the prolific writer coming out with two plays, two children's books, and a couple of anthologies in the meantime.
“My advice to any writer who's waiting for a book to be published, and is frustrated — one way or the other, it will happen. Just keep writing,” said Shreekumar in a heartfelt moment.
Switching back to his typically light-hearted vein, he issued a tongue-in-cheek warning to his audience of friends: “My next novel is set in Chennai, and going to be about very, very familiar people,' he said, adding with a chuckle as a murmur went up in the crowd: “You'll recognise a lot of characters!'
A lively q-and-a session with the crowd followed (with the sometimes strange, sometimes rambling questions saved by the author's sense of humour). And, then the evening ended with impromptu closing remarks by psychiatrist Vijay Nagaswami, a consultant on the book, and — of course — a good friend.