I had then been in India for three months; the initial jolt from the foreignness and loitering bovine was long gone, although every now and then, at the sight of a sooty, once-grand temple or a bright sari, the newness would return, mesmerizing. It was the country's gift, the unending surprise. On the side of the road to the metro station, I saw flowers. I didn't mean to buy flowers but in hindsight it seemed a grievous oversight not to get her flowers. I think it was the first bouquet I had bought in my life.
I had been waiting for this day since I found out that it could happen; Anand, a co-resident at Sangam House, was her publisher, and I mentioned that I might be in Delhi on a certain weekend, and it was my birthday, and so on. Packing, I had mindlessly put God of Small Things in my bag, in my mind some vague plans to reread it aboard a crowded train to somewhere (because that was India, right, trains traversing the romantic expanse). But never in my wildest dreams. The date was later pushed back two days, although she said, I was told, "A promise is a promise, I will see Glenn on 9th if I have to." She didn't have to.
As per instructions, I took the metro from GTB Nagar and got off at Jor Bagh, 13 stations away. My attitude about asking for directions borders on allergic but that morning I might have asked at least ten people to direct me to the address I had typed on my phone, in addition to notes: "behind post office" and "opposite big taxi stand." It was a quiet part of the city, the houses big and, in Pinoy parlance, "pang-mayaman." I think I walked for 15, 20 minutes, in circles and unsure ovals, under the 10 o'clock sun, before I found the building.
I rang the bell and a gorgeous grey-haired woman answered the door. "Is this--" I stammered. She pointed up. I was on the wrong floor.
I think I had read The God of Small Things at least twice in the last month, on the train from Bangalore to Hospet, the train from Mangalore to Mysore, the flight from Bangalore to Delhi, like someone preparing for a quiz. She asked me about the residency. I think she asked me about my project, or the Philippines. I think I asked her about their latest book, the trouble that I heard it was giving them. It was all a blur now, to be honest. I was there and I wasn't. Anand came in shortly and told her that all I had wanted was a selfie with her. She laughed. Because, like an idiot, I had wanted my experience in India to be pure and unsullied by documentation, I didn't have a proper camera. She took pity on my Blackberry and handed Anand her iPhone. She then asked me for my email address. I spelled it out. D-I-A-Z. I think I said "zed" for Z, feigning British-ness.
We had Kashmiri for lunch. Lamb, I think, a huge thigh or something. A lot of chutney, of course. Pickles. At one point she tore a piece of chapati with her hand--"You want to share?"--and gave me half. I regret now that I was probably too hungry to put the bread in my bag, for eventual framing and DNA harvesting. We stopped by Anand's office for a bit then she offered to drop me off back at the metro station.
In the backseat of her SUV, caught in midday Delhi traffic, we talked about her latest project. I cracked a joke about Gandhi that made her laugh. I read that you're writing your second novel, I said. She nodded, made an exasperated sound that resembled a tired but amused sigh. Any clue on what's it about? I asked. She laughed, "Nothing like God of Small Things, that I can tell you." Her last 15 or so books, she said, had been nonfiction, but the best part of her life is when she is writing fiction. No need for clunky footnotes and citations, she said. I looked at her; she was reclined in her seat, looking outside, at the still traffic of cars.
I had just wrapped up a three-month writing residency, so I wanted to say, yes, I know what you mean, Arundhati. But how dare I? Instead I told her that my first undergrad paper was on her book, about how it did the whole personal-is-political thing, and here I noticed how my voice for the first time gained conviction, volume. Wow, really? she asked. She looked at me. Remember that passage, I said, about the centuries telescoping into a single moment. When Ammu and Velutha looked at each other for the first time, she said. Yes, that. I've been trying to do the same thing with my own work, I said, and-- A boy, just then, no more than 15 or 16 appeared at her window with an armful of books. Dan Brown, John Grisham, some Chetan Bhagat, and The God of Small Things. Pirated, she sighed, and we laughed.