Note: I wrote this piece a few days ago and have only now gotten a chance to post it. I’m back in the Delhi area. More updates later.
On Sunday, June 28th, my brother and brother-in-law took me to New Delhi Railway Station to catch the train to Kanpur. The station was as crowded, messy and noisy as I remembered it (a web of intersecting human, machine and animal dramas), except that there were more platforms and many of the trains were blue. The train was nearly two hours late so we stood on the platform in the early morning and talked or simply observed. Kid picking trash up off the railway lines, village woman on the other side leaning her kid over so he could go potty over the tracks. People sitting on their luggage, bored, waiting. A man behind me, asleep on some grimy sheets of cardboard. The day promising to repeat the white-hot temperatures of the past several days. Crows looking ironical.
Then there was the train, and I was seated and we chatted some more in the cool interior, and then my brother and brother-in-law were off. The train started shortly and the rhythm of it was comfortingly familiar. I love traveling by train and by Indian trains in particular.
We went through Delhi, crossed the Yamuna, entered the countryside. The train attendants came by with complementary newspapers in Hindi and English (this was Executive class thanks to my sister who booked my ticket so we had these perks). I had fun reading in Hindi. But the news about the monsoons is bad and the heat wave and power outages have caused riots in various areas of Delhi and elsewhere. I could see some of this in the aridity of the landscape, although it was broken up by sugarcane fields and mango groves, and the occasional canal edged with greenery, where kids and buffaloes splashed. I saw an egret-like bird that looked unfamiliar, which shocked me because even if I don’t remember the names very well I do know my Indian birds. So I have to look up this bird.
It was 516 kms to Kanpur. We stopped at Ghaziabad, Aligarh, Etawah and then Kanpur. It is interesting how train travel shows one the seamy side of a city. You see the ugly underbelly. But some cities are seamy most of the way through. Sadly, Kanpur appears to be one of them. Despite its long history and its importance as an industrial town, it appears run-down. At the station where Anil and Suchitra awaited me, I saw that some of the platforms were eroded, brickwork was falling apart. The station building has an old-world elegance, and looks as though it dates from the Raj, but the place looks neglected. The banyan tree outside the station was magnificent, however, and the cow sitting under it, right next to the car, was enormous and drowsy, and beautiful with her great, curving horns and gorgeous eyes. We drove for about an hour through twisty roads between stands of tall trees, until we finally reached the green oasis of the IIT campus, which is like a different world compared to Kanpur town. The Visitor’s Hostel was a long, low building around a wide, green courtyard with flowers and neatly kept lawns.
I’m settled in a room on the second floor, with the luxury of an AC, 24-hour power supply and 24-hour water. This is a rare thing in India. Like most places I’ve lived in over here, the windows don’t shut properly so the outside creeps in — this morning I was woken by a couple of koels yelling! Melodiously, but still high in the decibel department. I’ve also had to chase out a wasp, and crickets are always getting in. One of them was chirping loudly all morning in the bathroom. Is it any wonder that I woke at 5 am this morning?
There are also mysterious small brown droppings on the bathroom floor, with a white spot at the end. I’m consumed with curiosity as to what animal is responsible for this. I’ll have to keep an eye out.
The bed is nice and hard, just the way I like it, and there is an electric kettle for making tea. The staff is pleasant and obliging and the food in the Mess is pretty decent. There are shops about ten minutes walk away although the heat is such that it only makes sense to go out after 5:30 pm or so.
The First Day of the Workshop
The workshop is pretty intense. There are fifteen students and Anil and Suchitra are present as well. I spent the morning on some creativity exercises and then we continued a discussion Suchitra had started last week on science as a knowledge system and the possibility in SF of critiquing science. We talked about what science is, and whether culture and consensus determine how it is done and presented. I was pleased to see that the students took an active part in the discussion, challenged each other and elucidated their ideas, often disagreeing vehemently with each other. We did more exercises and shared the pieces, some of which were really quite remarkable.
The afternoon session was devoted to critiques. I can see that Anil has really done a good job with teaching peer critiquing because the students tackled it like pros. I was blown away with the level of analysis and the courtesy and the humor with which the critiques were done. These students could have easily rubbed shoulders with folks in a professional writing workshop.
But the most amazing and wonderful thing was that the three stories we critiques were superb. Now the writing samples submitted to the workshop were not particularly polished but they held enough potential that they earned the applicants participation in the workshop. I can see how far these students have come in just two weeks. They are a mixed bag in terms of background: freelance writers, journalists, scientists, college students — but as far as I know none of them have written science fiction before. You couldn’t have told that from the three stories we critiqued. They were all easily outstanding, original, and one of them was a shockingly powerful piece that broke every rule in the book. Talk about transgressive fiction!
Needless to say, Anil and I are really excited about the prospects of Indian SF. Semi-hysterical with joy is more like it. Western writers who write about India (which is fine with me when done well) will soon have company — Indian writers writing about India, and about the rest of the universe too. Anil and I are part of a small handful right now, but our numbers are increasing. And we have so many languages to say what we have to say. Multiple voices in multiple tongues.
The stories I’ve seen so far are contemporary, and Indian, and at the same time go beyond boundaries to the universal. Some of them are a hairs-breadth from publishable quality, while others require more work but not too much. I expect to be influenced by them as much as (or more, perhaps than) I expect to share what I have to give.
We’ve also been talking about SF by Indian writers such as Premendra Mitra (Suchitra worked on this last week). One of the things I’d like to see in future workshops is multiple language tracks and a lot of cross-fertilization, so that the various traditions in Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, English can speak to each other and influence each other.
What else stood out? Well, nearly half the students are women. Also when you look at published SF writers writing in English in India (I don’t know about other Indian languages) I can count more women than men. I think this is really interesting and perhaps a contrast from the situation in the West (but I don’t have statistics). Some of the most kick-ass, courageous SF is written by women. At some point I’m going to talk about Manula Padmanabhan’s new novel, Escape.
Second Day of the Workshop
We are working on Science Fiction as a critique of science and society, with special emphasis on the Environment. The students read Paolo Bacigalupi’s story “The Gambler” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Lots of good discussion including the historical importance of the latter work. Most people really liked “The Gambler” and we talked about why.
After that I did a little presentation piece on global warming, and the urgency of the situation, and the characteristics of a complex system. More writing exercises and discussion on a performance project on the subject. The best part was a passionate discussion among the students on a question I posed: does writing about a complex system (global climate, society etc.) call for experimenting with narrative structure and form? Since in a complex system, small and apparently insignificant factors can produce large changes, should fiction about complex systems retain the traditional linear story arc with only the “important” characters emphasized? If the butterfly effect is true, then can the hero of the story ignore, say, a leaf falling from the tree as he walks by? How would that work or not work in a story? Can such a story have just one hero?
The discussion was the kind every teacher dreams of (or this teacher anyway) — where the students take over the discourse and the instructor can step back and enjoy the burgeoning of ideas and arguments and counter arguments. That was what made my day today.
Well, not entirely. More good stories to critique in the afternoon, then, when I was walking back to my room, there was a male peacock on the lawn, pecking about. And more of those egret-like birds that I saw from the train and could not identify. I hung out with them for a while and they lost their wariness and went about their business once they realized that I was probably eccentric but harmless. There was a hawk of some sort sitting on the water tap in the lawn, apparently meditating on the infinite, but I didn’t disturb it despite my curiosity.
I think I may have identified the critter responsible for the little droppings in the bathroom. When I got back to my room, there was a gecko on the bathroom wall. I love geckos and miss them a lot when I am in the U.S. This was a fat fellow about as long as my hand, very pretty, and probably extremely fond of the crickets that like to hang out in the room. Gave me a look and went up toward an alcove near the ceiling, where he probably lives.