Today is the last day of the writing workshop. I feel a sense of a loss I can’t define. Amit Chaudhuri and Ian Jack shared in degrees measured and unmeasured parts of themselves with us writers published and unpublished. We were workshopped like metal or pieces of wood using words of praise, words of censure, erudite criticisms in colorful ink. Two groups created through an alphabetical coincidence (Our parents were solely responsible for this). “Why were we here? Why did we come?” Words used to discuss and analyze, “The austere is beautiful, restrain admirable, writing is thinking…”
The roads are filling up with water inch by inch. With one hand I have held a paper and pen, with the other I have held on to this family of five. Some said, “I like what you say.” Some said, “I do not like it.” Some said, “You should have used this word.” Some said, “You should have packed and unpacked.” I wrote these down on a piece of paper and this morning I made a paper boat. I set it floating down a rain clogged road. I have spoken of anger, I have spoken of race, I have spoken of being a woman in my own ways. I have said what I have, I hope, with candor and grace. Off to the world now to do our work, I carry some words, I carry some people and some of both I must leave behind.
I stepped out of the hotel yesterday morning and for a long time sat under a balcony watching the rain pour down ceaselessly. The effect was like buckets being emptied in endless succession. I remember fifteen years ago in Bangalore, pushing my scooter through water that was waist deep. I lost my shoes, the scooter had to be repaired. I remember the hot bath when I came home, the pleasure in washing the mud off my body.
The rain waters on the roads in Kolkata did not reach waist level though some people did have to wade through waters half way up to their knees. A baby was washed away while their family slept on a narrow platform on a slighter higher level. Taxis refused to bring my colleagues doing the UEA writing workshop and one girl wrote of wanting to cry on the side of the road as she could find no transport. Another girl doing the workshop could not meet her husband who had flown in specially for their wedding anniversary.
What is it that has changed in India? People speak of modernity, it is a word thrown around in conversations; women smoking in groups, torn jeans, swanky malls, high-rises, swimming pools, conversations in English. The news about the baby who died that night had a small mention among all the other reports. Where is the modernity I ask when a sleeping baby can float away in the night and no one gives voice to the loss of his parents- these pavement dwellers in the city of joy?
I love to smell in books. I imagine myself addicted to the smell like a glue sniffer. It goes to my head, makes me heady and giddy with the possibilities. I am in the British Council Library in Kolkata. It has been a while that I have visited a library. I am an Amazon book buyer and in fits of anxiety about the future of book stores, a spontaneous book store visitor.
Getting into this library was going through airport security-almost. We were separated from our bags and our phones. Some of my friends even had their bags confiscated. I was lucky to have entered along with Ian Jack, the moderator of this evening’s author conversation at the British Council library along with Amit Chaudhuri so I got to keep my bag with me.
I walked through the rows of books and calmed myself. It always upsets me to see how global suspicion has seeped even into the rows of bookshelves. The smell of the books comforted me and I walked by them gently touching them with my finger tips. The last frontier of sensuality in a mechanical world.
(Above: Amit Chaudhuri and Ian Jack in conversation at the British Council Library, Kolkata.)
When I can, I try not to breathe in Kolkata too deeply. I am susceptible to asthma. So it was with some apprehension but with an equal amount of expectation that I joined Amit Chaudhuri, Ian Jack and students of the UEA writing workshop for a walk around the neighborhoods of South Kolkata.
Amit or Amit da as I call him is spear heading a campaign to save the architecture of the city from developers and builders who are changing the once eclectic skyline of the city to one jagged with sky scrappers.
These houses of the Bengali middle class are defined not only by the curious time under the British when they were built but by quirky details such as verandahs surrounding upper levels and grates and grills with designs. I know not much about architecture but beauty even in shabbiness I see, recognize and admire.
Residents standing on their balconies glared at us and we stared back. I ventured to smile but no one returned the smile to me.We stood under awnings when the skies opened up. Rain-I love rain. I love the softening of the earth, I love the hope it brings. We walked into by lanes empty mostly of traffic, houses past and present jostling for space-an intimacy that characterizes the heart of this city. Men playing cards on the side walk, an old man bathing under a water pump. The heart of Kolkata beats here openly- not yet dug up and replaced by new structures that are almost ugly in their undisguised utilitarian pretexts of modernity.
If you are interested in signing the campaign to save the architecture of Kolkata sign the petition here- Petition