Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Kodai WorkShop Report (at long last)

It's been well over a week since I got back from my workshop, yet I haven't scraped together the energy to blog about it. Dunno why. It was a very pleasant experience (maybe that's why? It's easier to share rough stuff?) -- mostly because the organizers made me feel so cherished and well-loved that I could pretend for a few days that I really am competent enough to talk to other people about Being An Author.

The trip was composed of two distinct elements/locations: Madurai and Kodaikanal. The organization responsible for planning and setting up the workshop, called SCILET, is based in Madurai. It is part of AMERICAN COLLEGE, an institution which is celebrating its 125th year of existence (it has a charming, old-style campus with red-brick buildings, echoing faintly of the Indo-Saracenic style). SCILET stands for Study Centre for Indian Literature in English and Translation and was begun by two Eng Lit professors at the college, Premila Paul and P. Nair (who will have to excuse me if I've got their names misspelt -- we spent so much of our time together talking and laughing that I never got around to formalities such as written names and addresses). The particular person who got in touch with me and was in some ways the Spiritual Host of the entire trip was Dr Paul Love. I could describe him as an American missionary/academic but that would be a very dull and incomplete description of an unusually warm, generous and friendly presence who was the guiding spirit of the whole experience, Madurai and Kodai combined.

Here's a quick overview of my trip's itinerary: I flew from Madras to Madurai on the 1st of August, spent a night at the North Gate Hotel, gave a talk about Being Me at the SCILET auditorium on Wednesday morning and then in the afternoon of that day was driven up to Kodai in a van, with Paul and two associates, Tom and Debbie, whom I had met just that morning. We got to Kodai by around 6 and I was settled into a comfortable room at the Kodai Club. Thursday, Friday and half of Saturday were given over to the Workshop and on Sunday 6th August, Paul, Debbie and I returned to Madurai, going straight to the airport, whence I caught my flight back to Madras.

It's possible that the most energy I spent was in putting together the slides that I presented at the auditorium in Madurai. I'd never worked in PowerPoint before, though I've often wanted to. My idea was that I'd get a number of my illustrations together and show them in chronological order, while talking about what I was writing at the time I did those drawings. Naturally, it would have been far too organized for me to have done this before I left Delhi, so instead I brought a CD with me which had what I hoped was a fair sampling of my drawings (scanned and rendered as JPEGS), to Madras. I've been attempting over the years to keep some sort of record of my work, so I have bits and pieces already scanned and compiled into folders on my computer. I hadn't really planned on putting them together in PowerPoint, but in Madras, while talking on the phone to the young man at SCILET who would be helping me with the slide presentation, I realized that it could take an awfully long time for him to arrange my input into a coherent slide show and that I could speed things up if I organized them IN ADVANCE.

Well. That took all of one afternoon and half the night just before departure -- do I need to add that I had two computers to work with, one that had a CD burner and the other that had PowerPoint and it was a struggle to get them to cooperate with one another? But eventually I succeeded in squeezing a couple of CDs out of my machine, which would, I hoped do what they were supposed to do. YOu can never really tell with computers: hours of work can still result in stubborn "Please Insert CD in DRIVE E" responses at the receiving end.

So it was a huge relief, when I got to Madurai, to meet the very charming and hugely efficient Lawrence, who smoothly transferred my material to his machine, helped me rearrange the slides so that they were in the correct order for my talk and then walked me through a rehearsal, at the auditorium, so that there would be no surprises the next morning. So yes -- it worked out rather well. I really dislike the idea of just droning on about myself (and have never done it before, so I wasn't even sure what I'd be like) to a captive audience of mostly students and some teachers and interested literary-minded local citizens, so it helped to be able to distract their attention with projected images of my drawings, some of which belonged to the prehistory of my life (i.e., the Years Of Struggle, in Bombay). It was quite amusing even for me to see them blown up large on the screen behind me -- most of my work is small and fussy, so it's always a kick to see it suddenly huge.

The ride up to Kodaikanal should have been a nostalgia-fest, because the last three years of school for me were spent at Presentation Convent, in Kodai -- but I didn't recognize anything much except just a tiny section of the ghat road which looked almost as lushly forested as I remembered it -- that and the threat of feeling car-sick, which I DIDN'T ... but only just. The road is just as hairpin-bended and steep as my tummy remembered it to be. The actual hill-station is now an unsightly jumble of concrete hovels -- buildings which look as if they were made out of plaster of Paris and slapped together in any bit of open space that might afford a few inches of "view". Very sad. I didn't really recognize anything at all -- not even the lake, which was one of the pleasanter Sunday walks we used to be taken on, all those many years ago, at the end of the sixties. Everything is plastered over and built up and anyway, my convent was tucked up at the summit of a hill that was a good half-hours walk away from the lake and from the Club, where I stayed on this visit. Old PCK is now a Tamil Medium school, so there wasn't much point visiting it. And anyway, I'd been quite miserable while I was there -- not exactly happy memories, at the best of times.

The Kodai International School was my host in Kodai and at the Club, when we arrived there, I met Pramod and Sheila Menon who together represented my very warm and genuine Welcome Committee. They took me under their collecting wings and settled me into my room at the club and assured me that I could borrow warm clothes if I needed them ... yes! It was shivery COLD in Kodai -- it's about 7000 ft above sea level -- especially after the muggy heat of Madurai! And at night, one of the Club "boys" actually set up a fire in the fire-place. I went to sleep to the delightful snapping, crackling sounds of Real Fire (as against the hiss of gas) in a Real Fireplace.

The two and half days of the workshop were easy and fun -- that's really all I need to say! Oh, okay, okay ... here's a rough breakdown of what it was like: there were about 40 participants, comprising the seniormost students of the Kodai School and Eng Lit students from American College in Madura, plus a handful of teachers and Paul, Tom and Debbie. Since I was so unskilled in the workshop department -- never having attended one before this, in any capacity -- I chose the path of keeping everyone too busy to notice that I didn't have any tremendous experience or special expertise to share.

So for the first day, I set out two tasks. For the first task, I'd brought along photographs of my artwork (I had them with me, from Delhi), handing out one each to each of the participants, along with a mechanical pencil and a small notebook. I adore mechanical pencils (the kind with a microtip lead) and I believe no-one can have too many small notebooks! So that was my little free gift for the session. I bought the notebooks and pencils in Madras, at Landmark. After everyone had their "kit" I asked each participant to describe the photograph they had got, in whatever way they wished -- my aim here was two-fold: one, I wanted to hear each person's voice, to give me a sense of who was here and what they had to offer and two, to give the participants an immediate sense of involvement and "presence".

The second task had to do with creating a piece of micro-fiction. First I described what I meant by this term (it's something I read about on the web) and then I read out a few examples I got from the web. Then I handed out photocopies of these short pieces -- they are just super-short stories -- but REALLY: 100 words or less -- and set the participants the task of writing their own microfictions. As a way of helping them enter their task, I gave them a theme to focus on -- domestic help -- and asked each participant to stand up and tell the assembled group about the person they might use as the focus of their piece. This was (I think) a little odd an unexpected -- and for that reason, it was really quite interesting. For instance, a couple of the Madurai students said, "My mother"!!

This got us to about an hour after lunch, after which the participants were free to wander about working on their pieces. The next day, we started the session with each participant reading out their respective micro-fictions -- and that was quite interesting too -- after which we moved onto my next project: dramatic monologues. First I described what I meant by a monologue and then I read out one of mine (from the collection called HIDDEN FIRES, pub by Seagull). I think this went down quite well, so immediately after lunch, I asked each participant to discuss possible ideas for their monologues and then, as on the previous day, they had time to themselves in which to write their pieces.

That evening, Friday, I was the guest of a small gathering at the Club, where I read one of my short stories and also another monologue from HF. Paul DID give me, well in advance, a schedule of events, but I had forgotten about this evening. This was probably all for the best, because I didn't have more than a day (after being reminded on Thursday!) to fret over what I'd do/say/read etc. -- I chose "Sharing Air" from the KLEPTOMANIA collection because it's the shortest and I think it went down well. The audience was friendly and engaged, so it was easy to just relax and do my thing. As long as no-one expects me to talk about Literature -- or indeed anything that requires names or dates -- I can manage reasonably well. And dinner was good too, and so was the company.

Saturday morning was the last lap -- the kids read out their monologues, I ended the session with one more reading of "Sharing Air" (since I'd had my rehearsal the night before!) and another monologue and ... then it was a wrap! We all agreed that it had been fun and then straggled off in our separate ways. Paul, Debbie and I had a very pleasant afternoon visiting the beautiful hillside estate and garden belonging to long-time Kodai resident, Pippa Mukherjee (spelling??) and in the evening the three of us (P, D and moi) had dinner with the Menons, at Woodlands.

There are SO many people whom I'd like to single out for special mentions, but I won't, only because it would take far too long. Also, I'm rushing to complete this and post it before I return to Delhicose (to rhyme with Belicose) tomorrow. It is doubt bursting with grammatical inconsistencies and other errors, which I'll only get around to fixing tomorrow night -- so I've got to cut this short RIGHT NOW. The trip down to Madurai on Sunday was pleasant and not in the least tiring, despite a three-hour delay in the arrival of the flight from Bombay, on account of torrential rains there. I got back to Madras by about 5.30 and ... that was that!


The Visitor said...

Hi Alien,
That was a nice read and had me literally with you throughout the journey. I've signed up for an online writing course which has just started.

Amrobilia said...

Wow! Impressaurus! Giganticus! Splendidivoracious! That MUST have been fun! "Being Me"...I wish I was there to share that...wish I was there for the ride up the ghats (never been to Kodai n surely dint kno it was 7000 ft up!)...I think the little 'tasks' you set up for the participants were real cute - not least da pencilisicuses and float-brooks!

Reminded me of the time decades ago when a young friend had invited me to speak to his senior class at Mayo, Ajmer, on a subject of MY choice: my choice - "Being aware!!!

I'm coming to Delirium Sept 9-13 n hope yu'll be there to full me up on ALL! said...

I was also at PCK in the late 60's. Do I know you? I am surprised that after all this time you didn't go up Calvary to see the old school. It might have helped to lay the ghosts. I also hated my time at PCk but oddly time and distance have made the momories good. I went back to Kodai in Oct '06 for the first time since I left in 1969. Yes, the town is horrendous, but there are a lot of good memories there too if you are prepared to look for them.