Jasper Utley, former director of the British Council, launched "Tall Tales", his book of short stories
Pic by K. V. Srinivasan
`They're stories for children': Jasper Utley.
"I JUST wrote stories I wanted to write. They are stories to quote a cliché for children of all ages," says David Jasper Utley. And they sure worked. At the book launch of the book, "Tall Tales" not only had the children enthralled, but got their much older guardians chuckling too.
The short stories have all the usual Indian elements: tigers and crocodiles, the British and ghosts, talk of reincarnation and even a Great-grandpa with a hennaed moustache. But they're all set in hard-to-believe and tough-to- dismiss situations. The crocodile almost makes grandpa into lunch, the ghost is a misunderstanding, and the reincarnation, a subtle dig. Great-grandpa recounts the most fascinating adventures of his youth, winking with his `one good eye' and drinking innumerable cups of tea. He even plays cricket with the Viceroy and beats him hollow in a match that Utley promises took place before any other. More precisely, during Utley's tenure as Director of the British Council from 1995-2001 in Chennai, which is when he wrote the book.
And that is how "Tall Tales" was born. The `Great grandfather' is a composite of people the author met in South India. "I actually heard someone say `there are more freedom fighters now than ever before'," says Utley explaining from where he got a lot of the conversations in his book. "I was anxious not to do what many foreigners do, be judgmental about India," says Utley adding that he only wrote about "people and things" he came across.
"The longer you stay here the more you realise how little you know," says Utley. For many foreigners, the overwhelming Indian experience seems to only sort itself out in a book. "Most people who write books about India are educating themselves rather than another person," says Utley. This, however, is not the author's first book. Utley has already written a book on the Rani of Jhansi and many short stories, poems and plays that have been performed in Chennai.
"It's been four years since I left Chennai but it feels like it's still the same; the moment I stepped off the plane I felt at home," says Utley. He even calls the staff at the British Council, `my colleagues' before correcting himself. The BC may not be his office anymore but Utley is still proud of the Cultural Café, which he began.
At the book reading, Utley followed by Karthik Kumar, Tishani Doshi and Freddie Koikaran had the little audience's unfaltering attention with their charming and exaggerated mannerism. It's no surprise then that the author has thought of an audio version of "Tall Tales".
Also on the agenda are two books. The first, a book of short stories, "somewhere between an Evelyn Waugh and a P. G. Wodehouse". The second we will have to wait for. "Well let's not give it all out," says Utley.
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