So whatever did happen to Bidisha, the beautifully belligerent, fiercely intelligent, mono-monikered teenage author who burst brashly on to the literary scene with Seahorses, the novel she'd written at the age of just 16? I first encountered her at a dinner to celebrate the publication of her second novel, Too Fast to Live in 2000. What looked like a skin-tight, patterned sleeve was actually a huge tattoo. She was cool and funny with an edgy wit, but she also seemed a touch brittle and ill-at-ease.
It's been a long time since a Bidisha book appeared, though she's carved out a niche as a radio arts pundit. But sometimes the publishing world seems to operate according to the laws of cosmic ordering. After not thinking about her for a few years, I suddenly wondered where on earth she'd got to; and within days Venetian Masters had dropped on to my desk. Not just an excellent new book by Bidisha, but also a meditation on that most haunting and evocative of places, La Serenissima: Venice.
Like everybody who writes about the city, she talks about uncovering the "real" Venice, but at least she has a better claim than most. She had the best entrée possible into secretive Venetian society: an imposing Grand Canal address and a friendship with a member of a venerable, old-money family. Though she later moved out of their grand palazzo, she carried on socialising with and observing Venetians and provides a fascinating glimpse into a largely hidden world.
But first, back to that publication dinner. She reveals that 2000 was her annus horribilis, and that she had lost all faith in the book she was promoting. "Too Fast to Live was the worst year of my life," she says frankly. It was also the year she got tattooed: "a dark, bad, deeply regretted prison-style tattoo that covers the whole of my left shoulder and arm" that prevented her from sunbathing, as she ruefully explains in Venetian Masters.
"It's such a violent book," she says now of Too Fast to Live. "Because I'm so aggressive, I have this tendency to wind up on the dark side. As my mum always says, I can go right down into the basement! And then I take out my shovel and dig and dig..."
Stuck in a creative impasse, she met "Stefania" (not her real name, for reasons which become obvious) while studying for a Masters degree in London. The blonde Venetian was a fish out of water, and the pair became fast friends as Bidisha helped her explore and enjoy the city. Struggling to write a follow-up novel, she eventually succumbed to Stefania's urgings and visited Venice, staying at the family's luxurious palazzo opposite San Eustachio on the Grand Canal. Utterly smitten, and realising Venice would make the perfect, quiet place to live while polishing her third novel, she returned, rented a flat and set to work. But nothing turned out exactly as she expected. For a start, Venetian Masters is not that novel. Also, Stefania's grand and gracious mother and father, initially so welcoming, gradually turned against her in the funniest and most excruciating scenes in the book.
"Venetian Masters was absolutely accidental. It was sod's law that it was the diary I wrote effortlessly that turned into the book." It was, she says, "a beautiful lesson to learn". I ask whether any of the Venetians she exposes so forensically in the text knew she was writing it. "Yes, my friends knew I was writing a diary every day because I asked them a few things. I don't think the parental duo knew and I hope they don't find out... I'm hoping their arrogance is such that they wouldn't even deign to read a book by me. And it hasn't come out in Italian."
Early on in the book, Bidisha is introduced to an important concept in Venetian manners. Stefania and her mother Lucrezia invite her to supper and encourage her "about six times" to finish off the last spoonfuls of the delicious pasta. Eventually she does, whereupon "Lucrezia looks at me pointedly, blinks once, picks up the bowl that the pasta was in, stares glumly inside it and starts scraping it with one tine of her fork... Irritated and embarrassed, I realise I've done the wrong thing and insist that she takes half of what I've got." Twice Lucrezia refuses but accepts at the third time of asking. This lightly comic scene is repeated with variations throughout the book. Bidisha suddenly realises that the friend who always turns down the offer of coffee is simply waiting to be pressed until she accepts. Eventually, she reaches a state of terrified paralysis, unable to understand these complex, and in any case constantly shifting social conventions.
"It was painful – those final days when I was staying with Stefania's parents and Lucrezia would ask a very simple question: would you like some wine? Half an hour later I was still slowly decoding every nuance of her voice. Is it good to have the wine or is it bad? If I have the wine, do I have to pay for it, or is it that they're making a gesture to me to welcome me into the family? Or is it that they don't want me to have the wine? And when I complimented the food, Lucrezia would scowl, because that wasn't my place. It meant I was treating her like the cook."
Bidisha eventually left Venice under the stormcloud of their disapproval, but what, I ask, had she actually done wrong?
She heaves a sigh at the pettiness of it all. "I think they thought when I went back to stay at the apartment, I should pay rent. The joke is that whenever I tried to pay rent, because they were so unable to talk about money, they waved me away even though it was perfectly obvious that that was what they wanted. That's what makes them so much like characters in a Henry James novel. Surely it wasn't just about the money? But the pain was worth it because of the comic aspects. When you write about something, you redeem it. It wasn't funny at the time. I remember ringing my mum and saying, 'Lucrezia is downstairs being really strange, and I can feel the hate vibes emanating up!' But then when I wrote about it, I thought, come on, this is hilarious! It was such an insight into a particular kind of rich family that exists all over the world. Rich families are the same in India, I know that."
But if the heights of society proved a disillusionment, street life was little better. A fanatical runner, Bidisha regularly pounded the pavements, an unfamiliar sight to the "don't stress, never break a sweat" Venetians. "Oh my God, I got sexually harassed six or seven times a day. The sexual harassment, and the racial harassment that I witnessed, were endemic. It happened to me because I was small and alone and young, but that doesn't excuse the absolutely compulsive nature of it, to the point where it was as though the sexual harassers had an illness. It was hideous and there was nothing admiring about it. We're not talking about Italian chivalry or gallantry. It comes from hatred."
With her lightly coloured skin, couldn't she pass as Italian, I ask. Bidisha grins. "In summer I could pass, but not in winter. After about 16 October they all magically turn milky-pale again, and I stuck out."
Slowly, she learnt the basic rules of life in Venice. Don't wear ethnic clothing, and never wear black. Make sure everything matches. Always dress up – "You have to dress well, or believe me you will get mistreated in shops. Especially if you're a dirty foreigner like me." Wear subtle colours: she describes the classic Venetian garb as "20 different shades of toffee in linen and silk". A blob of pizza on her shirt could make horrified Venetians part around her like the Red Sea.
"Tourists eat a plate of pasta with tomato sauce and some clams – Venetians would blanch at that. Venetian food is so dainty and pure," she says, describing the light-as-air pasta. In the book, everyone seems to stop for little cakes, alcoholic drinks and scoops of ice cream all day, and yet they don't suffer from any of the bingeing and obesity problems of Britain.
"I was shocked by the smallness of the cakes," she confesses, "because I have a vast appetite and one of the rules of Venice is that you don't buy two, you buy one, because you are a dainty young lady, and you hold it daintily, between two fingers. You have to wrap this little wisp of tissue around it and dab your mouth, and that's supposed to be enough. All while being watched by the staff, by the way. Then you quickly sip down a little coffee and you flee. If you're clumsy, like me..."
She was hampered at the beginning by having very little knowledge of Italian. In the book she describes buying a piece of venison described as cuore, which she took to mean cured. "I still feel bad about eating Bambi's heart." But gradually it all began to make sense. The news vendor in the square below her window, who began his constant prattle before she even awoke, was "like a GCSE learn-verbs-while-you-sleep tape". Finally, the glorious day dawned when she could even evade the legendary Venice tourist tax: the café she'd been patronising for months cut a few euros off her bill.
For all the grief and aggro, though, Venice changed her and she still misses it. "I came back different and a lot more able to let things ride. It was down to being forced into a slower pace of life. It's not that I went with great expectations and was disappointed, it's just that the picture I had was made more complex. Today was so sunny and so cold that it reminded me of Venice and I got a pang. That crispness and brightness that makes you want to just sit outside and drink coffee. It sounds shallow, but actually it's the way to live and calm your own mind. OK, if you've done it for 60 years, you've probably wasted your life... but in Venice I realised that I was so focused on my career that I had hung myself with my own rope."
Venetian Masters: Under the skin of the city of love, By Bidisha (Summersdale £7.99)
'...It's a local boy of about 10, stocky and alone... he's bending over a Romanian beggar woman who's huddled on the ground. She's about 70... His feet are close to her face... His mouth is slack with hatred. "Go away. Can't you hear me? Get lost. Go somewhere else. Get out."
I am nauseated, not only by him, his curled fist and obvious desire to strike her, but also his fearlessness and my fear.'