A shorter version of this post was originally published here at The Guardian
So a few days ago Salman Rushdie actually walked up to me and said “Let me sign this book for you !”
To be fair, a few minutes earlier my friend Garima and I had shown up uninvited, outside his office, just as he was leaving. After he politely requested us to visit him the following week, we found ourselves waiting with Mr.Rushdie besides the elevator, which needless to say, was in itself quite a surreal experience. We obliquely tried to look busy, babbling all kinds of nonsense among ourselves, just so that we wouldn’t look stupid in front of him.
This is when he saw me holding a copy of his book Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights and was thoughtful enough to walk over with a pen in his hand, to sign it. “That’s a very unusual way to spell Zeynab !”, he commented with an immediate familiarity to my name as I spelled it out for him, before moving on to sign Garima’s copy of Midnight’s Children. To state the obvious we were floored not only by this gesture but also his humility in reaching out to two ostensible graduate students, who had just mustered enough courage to walk up to him moments earlier.
We had chanced upon the idea of visiting Mr. Rushdie quite accidentally, when one fine day Professor Suketu Mehta casually mentioned in class how Mr. Rushdie had complained to him once that no one bothered to visit him during his office hours. Following Professor Mehta’s encouragement to ‘just walk up to him’, also being edged on by the fact that the possibility of ever being able to speak face-to-face with Mr. Rushdie in his office in the future was almost next to none, we then came up with a plan for this seemingly absurd and unreal meeting. It would be an understatement to say that it was the most unplanned ‘plan’ ever made. Apart from having a vague recollection of Professor Mehta mentioning the office hours as being between 4-6 pm on Tuesdays, we had no way to confirm if he would be in his office or even available to meet that day and we had no clue where his office even was. Most importantly, we had absolutely no idea what we were going to say to him!
The look of disbelief on the poor 6th floor office assistant’s was priceless. “We are here to see a Professor but we don’t know where his office is and we are not exactly sure what his office hours are. Can you let us know if he is here now ?”… “Is he expecting you ?”…. “No”… Did you email him? “…. ” No” …”Does he know you?”…”No”…” What’s his name?”….”Salman Rushdie”. And of course, on cue, the entire 6th floor office staff turned to stare at us unbelievingly. “Is this for real?”, we hear some one mutter under their breath. Others simply gave us looks which bordered between amusement and sympathy. We had just done the unthinkable, it seems. Of course, no one just shows up asking to meet Salman Rushdie.
As the assistant , who clearly did not seem to know what to do with us at this point, tried to weigh her possibilities, it seemed quite imminent that we were likely to be turned away. “Actually Professor Suketu Mehta told us to visit him and he mentioned that Mr. Rushdie is accessible to all students during his office hours on Tuesdays after 4”, I suddenly decided to offer by way of explanation to add some credibility to our suspiciously unusual inquiry and to somehow get out of this exceedingly uncomfortable situation. “Oh, in that case you guys can go in now. His room number is 222”. And so it happened.