Monday, May 09, 2005

Meeting Mike Marqusee

It was in 1997, if I am not terribly wrong, that Tao Rodriguez – sitting about five feet away from me – was hollering: “He wants to know what you think of Dylan” into grand-uncle Pete Seeger’s ears. Old Pete, quite deaf, was in Calcutta; probably the only place outside his garage where he is allowed to sing, and get a full house. This was at a little gathering sometime before the actual concert, and I had exploited all my contacts (pop’s a journo, see) to get there and having reached even before the organisers had, I’d got a front seat. Anyway, the wizened old man, blue eyes still a’ twinkle, looked skywards for a second, turned towards me (yes, he did), and said, “Oh, but he hasn’t written one good poem in the last twenty years”. Yes, that’s what he said. He did. He smiled at me, and went on to give a lengthy discourse on Woody Guthrie instead.

Anyway, that was then. I was still in college, and Pete Seeger ruled. Dylan did too. But Seeger ruled a better kingdom. So if Seeger said Dylan hadn’t written anything good in twenty years, it became my opinion. But Dylan in the sixties! Heck, he couldn’t sing, but he wrote mean poetry, wrote what I liked, and played a mean harmonica.

And then there’s Mike Marqusee. I’d read something by him in Sportstar ages ago, but not much else. Jabberwock started me off with War Minus The Shooting, and I was bought. Since then, I’ve read Redemption Song, Anyone but England and Slow Turn. All outstanding. But most importantly, I was on emailing terms with the man. It started when I took a chance (while at tehelka) and shot off a mail to him during the Mike Denness controversy in 2001, “would you mind answering a few questions, I can’t think of anyone better than you when it comes to a problem of racism in cricket”. “Yes I will, just send me the questions,” Mike replied. I did. About 12 questions, to be honest. He replied. It was published under the head of “The entire history of cricket has been shaped by empire and racism”. I wrote to him again, “stay in touch”, he’d said. He replied. I kept writing. He kept replying. Never once short. Never once impatient. Never once patronising. And then we broke off.

Till I got the Oxford invite the other day saying that our man will be in town to launch his two-year-old book Chimes of Freedom: Bob Dylan and the Sixties. Good enough. I had to be there. But how? I cover it, of course. Lucky break. Lakme India Fashion Week is on, so no one from the arts and entertainment department is free. Or so I assume, not once checking if someone is free. Why bother?

And I meet him. I meet him before the actual launch starts, and I take him aside, introduce myself. He remembers. Well, he remembers the interview in any case. So can I have a one-on-one please? Of course. And thus takes place the three most memorable minutes of my professional career.

You go through Marqusee’s bibliography, and you find six books: Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the spirit of the sixties, War Minus the Shooting: A Journey Through South Asia during Cricket’s World Cup, Anyone but England: Cricket and the National Malaise, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party, Slow Turn, and now Chimes of Freedom.

At first glance, it suggests varied interests, or, as Jabs writes, no consistency of subject. Which is probably wrong, because if there’s anything that’s so remarkable about Marqusee’s published books, it’s the single-minded devotion to his pet subjects: empire, racism, capitalism, protest, socialism, multi-culturism, etc? These are not just subjects that interest him. These are all related subjects, brought together by centuries of the rich vs poor, big vs small, powerful vs powerless divide. Issues Marqusee has been addressing as a political activist for many, many years as well, as an American who has denounced his country and is living in England.

Coming back to the occasion: Following the launch itself was a rather irritating discussion between Marqusee and Indian political activism’s Thomson and Thompson, Achin Vanaik and Praful Bidwai. Why was it irritating? Because while Marqusee himself missed not a cue, held his own right through, brought all topics around to Dylan by some brilliant articulating, Vanaik and Bidwai spoilt it all by being pompous and self-important, while at all times exposing the complete and utter muddle in their brains by framing 15 minute questions after a great deal of absolutely unnecessary pontificating. Uhh, why do we need to listen to 60-year-old Indians talking about Dylan anyway, even if they are from the 60s and once smoked grass to The times they are a’ changing?

Marqusee then bought me all over again, by going through so many phases of Dylan’s poetry, reciting – almost singing – lines from between and down the years, talking about the man Dylan was and the man Dylan wasn’t. And making Dylan out to be so much more a human being than those who revere him so believe. I revere him too, but only as a poet. A poet who, like Amitabh Bachchan, became a grotesque caricature of himself after living through his Angry Young Man years. The times they did a’ change, but Dylan stayed stuck in the image that had been cultivated so carefully for him by the spirit of the age.

And thus ended the evening.

PS: Bought the book too, but haven’t managed to read it yet.