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Haggis, Whiskey and Prose

Notes on the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das, who writes about Indian books and authors.

I get a lot of questions on writing residencies and fellowships in both India and abroad. People seem to think I’ve won a number of them. Not really. On the other hand, I’ve won a few that are eclectic and exclusive. Also, people think--and I swear, I’ve been told--I go to residencies to rollick around in abandon. Not entirely wrong. My folks at home have been only too gracious to let me go rollick because they too believe it is a writer’s privilege. Not quite a bounty hunter, I go for residencies and fellowships only when the Dow or the Sensex falls in my writing life. You guessed it right. We writers, especially poets, are not salaried folks. And by “go to,” I don’t mean as though I cross over from my doorstep to the outside street. There’s a lot of preparation involved, including, alas, huge amounts of writing. Even since I’ve been teaching only now and then, it’s a matter of great happiness that at these literary stints I get to meet with both literary and non-literary people in and outside faculty positions who make the experiences variegated. So I thought for this post I'd not just write about my take on a recent fellowship-cum-residency (2011-12) I’d enjoyed, but also chase co-fellows to see if they still have good things to say. I’m talking about the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative Writing, a much coveted British writing award for emerging Indian writers. The CWIT disburses funds for Indian writers under 45 to be selected and attached with three UK universities: Kent, Stirling and Chichester (see a write-up of the program here).

For those that shoot me questions regarding how and where to obtain the likes of CWIT fellowship, my advice would be to Google. Or just write on and share your writing for feedback in a peer group. In the latter method, one would invariably get to know more writers which in turn, would lead one to discover opportunities and support for writing. But do these fellowships help, really? Just to answer queries directed at me, I followed up with some former CW Fellows to see what they said.

Shreekumar Varma, a 2003-4 fellow, seems quite happy share his CW memories and says the highlight of CW was “definitely the atmosphere for writing.” Atmosphere is the key word here. And I’m going to pun horribly and say this includes the Scottish weather, for both Varma and I were at the University of Stirling, where rain and chill alternated with sunny crisp skies. All this, along with local berry wines or premium whiskey, not to mention the Scottish cheese and the occasional haggis, helps much in writing. That last bit is just my approach, though!

For the 2009-10 fellow K Srilata, an academic and mother of two school-going children, no one at Stirling was aware that she played multiple roles. They knew her only as a “writer from India” who felt “very very cold”! Indeed, most fellows find the UK a little too soggy for their excitement. I remember how Jacqui Harrop, the administrative head at the English Studies department, had warned me right on landing to not catch a chill and stay warm. It was April 1! Dr. Katie Halsey, who had come to fetch me from Edinburgh airport, made sure I was not jolted from the difference in the temperatures. I assured her that April was not the cruelest month for me in Scotland. Later on, even Dr. Angus Vine in the department cautiously asked one day if I had any “winter coat.” I did, I assured him. The truth is, I wasn’t asked to bring it along! Reader, do not be alarmed. I had a leather jacket and another warm one with me. Living in Upstate NY for long years had educated me enough about layering one’s clothes.

One thing that Srilata mentioned rings true with me. “For the first time, I felt as though I was walking on the right side of the road and not against the flow of traffic.” And for a writer working on especially longer narratives like a novel--where it is so easy to lose the thread of words and ideas, so tempting to give up--this is a balm on the troubled head. And indeed, working in a university residency provides one a “nice, structured space out of which you can operate.” Varma says he felt at home. According to him, “the people were there like friends in need. I could refer, attend literary events, go out with some of them for a night of music.” Varma also traveled a great deal during the CW stint and London wasn’t far away for him to visit once in every three months of his stay. In fact, after I returned this June, he and I started sharing notes on our travels in the Highlands. Yes, yes, we spoke about the viaduct and the “Harry Potter” train which was known solely as the Jacobite during Varma’s time. While at Stirling, Varma started a new children’s book which was later shortlisted for the prestigious Crossword book award in India. Just so the fellowship acquires a more wholesome texture, Srilata wished there could be “more structured meetings with other writers” during the CW stint. My feeling was similar. Apart from meeting faculty writers and a few more that were attached to the department of English, it wasn’t always easy to seek out writers on my own. I’m predatory when desperate. So I tried venturing to Glasgow and Edinburgh in search of writers. A bit of extended help from the university can perhaps make the effort easier. “I tend not to establish those sorts of contacts on my own,” says Srilata. Of course, a writer cannot be a door to door salesperson for herself.

Janhavi Acharekar, very much a “Bombay writer” and 2008-9 CW fellow, also thinks it was the people at the host institution who made it so special. “Richard Alford is such a lovely person and so were the staff at the university,” she points out. Then there was the London Book Fair during her fellowship period with India in focus that year. Her book Window Seat had just been published and was out in Indian bookstores. And after months of being on the road in Goa, it was here that Acharekar finished editing her travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa. Varma, Acharekar and I share one sentiment: the fun and insights one enjoys being attached with academia. Professors, too, crack jokes, drink like fish and snap their fingers. This apart from their gripes about grading, obsessive (sometimes, overbearingly adulating) students, and not finding enough time to write their next book. Some of them actually are great cooks, while some others keep fabulous horses and make swell Pimm’s. Yet others keep beautiful homes where they tiptoe around all alone. You never know what surprises you are in for. Get introduced to a heron smack in the middle of the town, or befriend the local cabbie who quotes Robert Burns. Not to mention the delights of old Scottish history strewn everywhere around Stirling and adjoining areas. Note that the real Braveheart battle scene was fought on the Stirling Bridge, not in a field as Mel Gibson would have us believe.

Srilata holds CW to be a direct influence on her work, and a big one. Her debut novel Table for Four (longlisted for the Man Asian literary prize) was published by Penguin, as was her anthology of poems, Arriving Shortly. One of the short stories she wrote at Stirling has been recently accepted by Wasafiri magazine (UK) and the other one has just been published in the well-touted Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana in India. With her second novella shaping up, Srilata’s kitty is full. She quickly adds that one highlight of her residency at Stirling was that she began correspondence with the Scottish writer James Kelman. She had read the latter’s work while in residency. Srilata can’t say she missed much. Did Varma miss something, though? He feels “a class or two for the students would have helped.” But no gripes, really. He is what he is today largely due to CW. “I wish I wasn't too old for another stint at Stirling. Honestly. I wish.” And I knew exactly what he meant.

So that’s it. You get to walk uninterrupted around the shores of the bonny Airthrey Loch. You get to watch the swans waddle on your path and wait for them to pass. Between the long walks and lingering moments and witnessing noisy student parties on the green slopes--no cousin of Nessie resided in the loch’s core, alas!--somewhere, the writing flows. Finally, does a CW fellowship a writer make? No answer to that. But the CW fellowship makes you an evolved reader and a more discerning person, primarily because the ambience permeates your non-writing life as well. Therefore, all you writers gunning for the next CW award, sharpen away your pen!