Suketu Mehta was the first famous Indian writer I saw after moving to New York. I was at a monthly South Asian party called Basement Bhangra when I noticed a man dressed older than everyone else walk in. “Aren’t you reading that guy’s book,” my friend asked. I squinted and indeed, it was Mehta, yet to achieve the fame that would accrue as his book went out into the world. In the hope that if I congratulated him I would bank some karma with the cosmos that would subsequently be returned when my novel was published, I went up to him. After thanking me, he took me around the corner into the VIP area and said: “Meet Salman Rushdie.”
Fiction, if it is to be taken seriously, must avoid cliché, but life, needing no validation from critics or readers, often takes clichéd turns, and so it was that in the summer of 2004 I arrived in New York, neither the first nor the last writer to disembark in that city with the completed manuscript of a novel and the notion that simply moving to the centre of the publishing world would somehow transmute me into that which I wanted more than anything to be: a published novelist.
Rushdie nodded a greeting and said: “Meet Padma.” Wow. Padma. “Hi, Padma,” I said, and waited, but neither the famous novelist nor his supermodel partner volunteered any small talk so I edged away, back to the somewhat more forthcoming Mehta. I told him I had a manuscript but no agent, no publisher. He nodded sympathetically but said nothing. I began a practised rant about how the hegemony of university creative writing programmes was impoverishing the world of American letters. He frowned. “You know I went to Iowa, right?” I back-pedalled all the way to the dance floor.
Lackadaisically moving to the music, I was wondering if I could convert Rushdie’s presence into the beginnings of a rise to literary stardom when suddenly Padma Lakshmi appeared on the dance floor. “Hey, Padma,” some voice that appeared to emerge from me said, “You want to dance?” The guy dancing with the most gorgeous woman in the club is the second-most looked at person, so for the benefit of the audience I reached as far in as I could and brought out the best bhangra steps that I could summon from the deep repertoire that lives in each cell of each one of us who has grown up in Delhi. For five minutes all eyes were on me, except for the ones that were on her.
Just as I was beginning to understand that the most glamorous encounter of my once-engineering-student-soon-to-be- engineering-professor life had ended, I saw that Rushdie had joined Padma on the floor and was wrapped tightly around her. Padma disentangled one arm and beckoned me. I half-walked half-ran over to where they stood. Realising that I was the person who had been lighting up the dance floor with his wife, Rushdie stepped back graciously. The music too loud, the writer celebrated for linguistic inventiveness had to rely on hand signals. He gestured at me, then pointed with the same hand at Padma’s waist, the same shapely waist that had been in his grasp a moment earlier. Having realised that neither befriending a world-renowned author, nor dancing with his famous wife, would take me down any road I wanted to go, I smiled at him, tapped his shoulder in a friendly way and stepped away.
In the time I lived in New York, Jhumpa Lahiri pushed a stroller past me on the street, Pankaj Mishra got into the same subway car as me, another Indian writer (let’s leave this one nameless) read my writing and told me that it was “possible to take me seriously as a writer”, but that he couldn’t put me in touch with his agent. Finally, a few days before I left the city as unpublished as before, Mehta walked by my stoop at night with an ice-cream cone in hand. Suketu Mehta was the last famous Indian writer I saw before leaving from New York.