There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe

Last night, I started reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country. Thirty pages into the book, I am marveling at the simplicity of his writing, at how matter-of-factly he describes the conflicts between Christianity and the religion of his ancestors, his education, and British colonialism in West Africa. He presents the colonialists in a very positive light, as committed educators rather than as oppressors. The voice is a voice of experience and wisdom, that of an old man calmly reflecting on his life and on the history of his country.
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Creative Writing for Kids

Today was my second time as a creative writing facilitator  with Chillibreeze in Bangalore, at the Doodles and Scribbles Creative Writing Workshop, 2011. The theme of my workshop was using music to stimulate creative writing. The workshop was aimed at children in the 10-15 year age bracket. I selected a variety of musical pieces — Mozart, Vivaldi, Jazz, Hindi film song, and pop — and asked the kids to write in response to the music. What did the music make them feel and see? What words did they associate with each particular piece? Could they craft a story line based on the music and with the help of some topic-prompts? This  idea was totally experimental — I hadn’t tried anything like this before and approached the workshop with some fear and trepidation. What if the workshop totally bombed and no one could think of anything to write after listening to the music? What  if the children just stared at me in confusion? Was the concept too abstract for a 10-year-old to grasp?

My fears flew out of the room as soon as we embarked on the first exercise: listening and responding to “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Most of the participants associated it with bright colors, like orange, gold and green/yellow; with celebration; and with a formal setting, like a ballroom. They all got the basic idea  that music can correspond with moods and emotions, and were able to connect with the emotion behind a piece such as the Four Seasons. I had similar results when I played a Hindi film song (“Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire), Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic,” and “Taare Jameen Par,” from the film of the same name. Some were even creative enough to associate Mozart’s lively piece with a green salad and a Latin Jazz piece with road-side festivals. When asked to create stories, they produced imaginative pieces about Irish castles shrouded in mist, Kings and Queens in royal gardens, imaginary “time shifters,” metaphorical kidnappings, chasing after thieves, stolen birds, talking dolphins, and Tom and Jerry in outer space.

The final activity was a group activity asking the children to listen to Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” and write about a character with superhuman powers who had the power to make the world a better place. They invented imaginary supermen and women such as Captain Triple R, Ecogirl, Dr. Bandage Mesmer, and Plumbogreeno, who is  a plumber with magical powers to to save water, bring dead plants back to life, and end global warming. Their imaginations were on fire as some of them even drew pictures of their invented superhero to illustrate their narratives. This is the part of the workshop I personally liked because it gave them an opportunity to interact with others in their groups and collaborate on a piece of writing. Although the individual writing activity was popular with the kids, there’s nothing like group work to make a room come live with the sounds of many voices in animated conversation with one another. There was a spirit of freedom and abandon in the air that allowed their creative sides untrammeled access to the world of the imagination, all inspired by the sounds of music.

Haruki Murakami/What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I don’t think that reading two Japanese writers (neither of whom I had read earlier) in close succession can be called “bingeing” on Japanese writers, but that’s what I thought I was doing when I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World, Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go as well as Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running within the span of a couple of months. They are both immensely talented writers, but in different ways. Ishiguro is deeply interior, even dark at times, extremely focussed on the streams of consciousness of his characters; Murakami, based on the one work I have read, has a more playful, teasing, light-hearted and comic style.

What does he think about when he runs, or when he thinks about running? In his typical, teasing style, he says: Nothing. Nothing at all.

“I’m often asked what I think about when I run. Usually, the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.

On cold days I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days . . . And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void” (16-17).

So what you get is about 180 pages  about this void in a spartan style that is a cross between Raymond Chandler — who inspired the title of this work — and Ernest Hemingway; Zen-like ruminations on the nothingness of everyday life through the lens of a writer and runner. It’s a book that’s as hard to describe as it is to put down.

It then struck me, the other day, that what this book is about is learning to cultivate a certain “stick-with-it-ness,” a dogged digging in of the heels in the face of faint-heartedness. The doggedness with which Murakami runs and his perseverance with running are the “glue” that keep him grounded and take him forward, past adversity and obstacles. It makes me believe that so much success in life derives from this simple lesson:  DO NOT GIVE UP.

On Exile

From Dubravka Ugresic, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender:

The exile feels that the state of exile has the structure of a dream. All at once, as in a dream, faces appear which he had forgotten, or perhaps had never met, places which he is undoubtedly seeing for the first time, but that he feels he knows from somewhere. The dream is a magnetic field which attracts images from the past, present and future. The exile suddenly sees in reality faces, events and images, drawn by the magnetic field of the dream; suddenly it seems as though his biography was written long before it was to be fulfilled, that his exile is therefore not the result of external circumstances nor his choice, but a jumble of coordinates which fate had long ago sketched out for him . . . (9).

City-Scapes: New Delhi-New York-Bangalore

The title of this post was remotely suggested by the title of Amitava Kumar’s travelogue/lit-crit monograph on Indian writers [note to myself: buy it and read it ASAP], Bombay-London-New York. I say remotely, because, as I have just confessed, I have not read it. I assumed it was another Westernized, postcolonial Indian’s narrative of travel to the West, a topic I had  grown  weary of in the early 2000’s, when Kumar’s book was published, myself having beat a hasty, somewhat ignominious, retreat from New York, decisively bringing to an end — at least for a span of time — my 12-year sojourn in a Western nation.

There is something to be said for not reading books whose titles intrigue you:  this kind of ignorance brings with it a certain bliss, giving free reign to the imagination to invest the title with any association(s) one pleases. And so, thinking about Bombay-London-New York and imbuing it with associations of my own invention, being oblivious of the fact that it was not a travelogue, an autobiographical account of a Westward journey (although it does contain these elements), I was able to think about and cast my own life’s journey till date in a similar manner: except that mine would be called “New Delhi-New York- Bangalore.”

It could also be called “New York-New Delhi-Bangalore,” if I chose to locate the origin of the story of myself in New York, which would not exactly be wrong, I suppose; in fact, it might, surprisingly, actually be right. Because, for quirky and inexplicable reasons, my life did, in a manner of speaking, begin in New York, something unusual for an Indian of my generation. The unusualness is something I have had to live with; at times I have had to explain it in great detail to curious people, and then, having become tired of explaining this odd tie I have always had to New York, I swept it under the carpet and began to tell people, when asked “where I was from,” that I am from Delhi — which is also correct. If I were to say that I was from Bombay, that would also be correct. If I say that I am from Tamil Nadu, that is also correct — depending on what it means to be “from” somewhere.

You see, that is the catch. Where are you from? has never been an easy question for me to answer.

Silence, solitude, and writing

Writing is not a social act. I cannot imagine being able to compose anything while surrounded by people, with the television blaring in the background, or even with the radio on. I can’t imagine sitting down to write as long as other people are in the room with me. To write, you need to be alone in a room of your own. In this respect, writing is a lot like meditation, the difference being that you need to keep your eyes open. But it is an activity that demands the discipline and silence of meditation. Perhaps Cynthia Ozick puts it best when she says:

“Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.” — Cynthia Ozick in “Writers, Visible and Invisible”

Silence is a necessary element of the reflective life. As we try to crowd our days with activities and noise, we are in danger of losing touch with this very essential component of our imaginative and creative life.