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Friday, January 30, 2009

'Twas a Saturday...

(Meant to write this a lot earlier, but fest time is always lean for blogging.... anyway, had a whale of a time at the Spring Fest at my college....but the higlight was undoubtedly my creative writing workshop with Jadavpur University professor and author Rimi B. Chatterjee.(see pic above.... Check out her blog here.)

Much of what I've written over the past year and a half has been divided into roughly two parts: this blog here and the stuff I write for the campus mag. Even so, the overwhelming majority of these has been non-fiction, that is if you discount the odd play or two I've written as part of a theatre troupe in college. Therefore, as someone whose first love is, and has always been fiction, I was really looking forward to this session, at the end of which I would, hopefully, gain a new insight into the ebbs and flows of spinning a yarn.....

In the spirit of things, I'll narrate this like an old-fashioned Chandamama story. On the day itself, I reached the huge lecture hall, which, unfortunately, was the appointed venue for our day. I say unfortunately because that hall used to be my one-size-fits-all classroom in my freshman year....and it suffices to say, that room and I have a history.

Apart from about half a dozen people, most not from my college, I saw a bespectacled lady, not quite middle-aged, with cheerfully streaked waves of hair, and a general air of joie de vivre about her. Bingo. Later, during the course of the day, as I would find out, she had an infectious(and very mischievous!) smile..... Our session began with a round of introductions while Ma'am would talk to us about our individual stories, respectively.(Here's mine) I remember Ma'am talking about my story which she said was "Pretty delicately done......especially by someone who's not a practiced writer.. " (If that seems a tad too self-congratulatory, remember....a blog is the ultimate ego exercise!)

At this point, a few shady-looking guys sauntered into the room and sat in one of the back rows. Ma'am requested them to sit at the front as she had apparently caught the Kharagpur cold. At this point, they got up, as if in sync, and said they would be back. That would be the last of them we would see that day. My guess is that they were just plain curious, or plain dumb. Anyway, soon enough, we were all assigned a colour each and asked to write a page about how that colour made us feel. ("Emotional temperature" was how Ma'am put it.) Now, the thing about assigning colours to 20-odd people is, after a point of time, you have to get real inventive real soon. My friend Tiyasa, who's quite a character at the best of times, was assigned "tangerine".
This exercise was simple, yet surprisingly stimulating. (My piece, on "Moss-green" will be put up on this blog real soon.....and I hope to expand it into something more substantial...) I realized that there has to be some method to the madness, when it comes to writing fiction; indeed, seasoned pros, thousand-words-a-day guys like Roth or Coetzee will tell you, the discipline is all in the head. At this point, Ma'am decided she'd had enough of the depressing lecture hall, and in true Tagorean fashion, suggested that we take the session outdoors, on the rather splendid lawn at the Vikramshila complex. We must have been quite a sight to the people who were in the thick of things at the fest, busy with their cheerful revelries, slightly bemused to see such a passive group in an otherwise ebullient atmosphere.....

By lunchtime, we had gone over nearly all the stories.......some were abstract, some were nostalgic, a few had silver donkeys from other galaxies..... the good times were well and truly rollin'!

At this point, I should mention that I'm an avid quizzer, (as can be seen from the previous post) and we, that is me and my teammates have got quite a decent racket going, travelling around the country and winning quizzes. The day before the workshop, we had won both Biz and Cyber Quizzes, events which were our weak spots, traditionally(Entertainment, movies....that's much more down our lane!). Naturally, we were cock-a-hoop about the next quiz, the big one, The Mary Bucknell Trophy, which was the general quiz held at Spring Fest every year. The event had a lot of history behind it, and has been the stage for some legendary battles.

The catch was, it was the same day as my workshop.....

From here on, the serendipitous part of my story begins. My teammates had cleared the prelims without me, albeit not very convincingly. Just as the quiz was about to begin, Ma'am decided it was time for a lunch break! In the distance, I saw Ankit, one of my teammates gesturing wildly towards me, and shouting something unintelligible. I broke into a sprint towards the auditorium where the quiz was about to begin. I think I narrowly escaped knocking down about three people, at least one of whom called me something unprintable. I entered the auditorium, much to the surprise of some of my friends, and skipping three stairs at a time, hopped onto the stage, and into an empty chair.

The rest of the quiz went according to script.......staving off a ferocious challenge from the IIM-C team, we got our hands on the Mary Bucknell trophy at last.... ( the next day, we won the Movie Quiz as well, making it four quizzes out of four at SF-2009, a rare Grand Slam of sorts)
The adrenaline still pumping, I returned to the lawn, where Ma'am and the rest of the people were settling down after their lunch.Ma'am had apparently refused the SF guys' offer of lunch at Kharagpur's best restaraunt, preferring to eat at the hut-like canteen near the lawn, with its quaint fried offerings and its too-sweet tea. Even this, the smallest of gestures seemed to me incredibly charming and down-to-earth.

Next, we were each given a picture which had one or more than one person in it, and we had to pick our person and create a back-story about that particular person. This exercise reminded me of the premise for an anthology published last year, selected by Zadie Smith, called "The Book Of Other People". Anyway, this again proved to be a lot of fun, and not just creating stories, but listening to characters made by the other participants. I got a rather elegant-looking lady in a typical red Bengali sari.....again, who knows, someday she might pop up in one of my stories....
Ma'am said she was in the process of writing the story for a graphic novel called "Kalpa". At this point I told her about my fascination for the genre(see this, this and this) and my admiration for writers like Alan Moore and our very own Sarnath Bannerjee(my starry-eyed expression grew wider when she said she'd met the man himself!), author of the magnificent Corridor and The Barn-Owl's Wondrous Capers. It was amazing to discuss literary or cinematic stuff with her, like Moore's magnum opus From Hell, the noir style of filmmaking...... and loads of other stuff.
The round of build-a-story yielded some pretty wacky tales, with the Chinese whispers style format ensuring that there was never a dull moment.....we would jump from romanticism to science fiction to detective thriller to high fantasy in the blink of an eye!We rounded off the workshop with a unique exercise. We first named six characters/personas, places, props, emotions and locations. Then, Ma'am would roll this huge cardboard die and decide who gets which set of people, locations etc. So while I got something pretty feasible(A tragic a pub, with a lighter!), people did get all sorts of crazy combinations(like a hopeful dog, in a jungle with a handbag!!!). We then wrote a plot or a full-fledged short story based on our respective sets. This one was the most intellectually challenging of them all....I did okay, I guess. (Ma'am said it was "very noir" :) )

When people talk about "a day to remember" and "experience of a lifetime" , it sounds and feels pretty banal and cliched, but I guess spending an entire day at the workshop, with Ma'am, falls firmly into that category. In a place where the average lecture is clinically drained of anything remotely resembling fun......I felt truly rejuvenated last Saturday.

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