2009 Indian SF Workshop At IIT-K: Part 1 (Getting There)

2009 Indian SF Workshop At IIT-K: Part 1 (Getting There)

What a blast! I’ve been around the sun a few times (all right, many times), and there’s always something new and cool in every trip, but this particular chakkar is turning to be really special. A year of firsts for me. I’ll have my first novel out this year. And this is the year we were finally able to hold the first Indian SF Workshop. The first Great Indian SF Workshop That Still Has No Name. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do when I grew up– okay, that’s a lie; I wanted to be a famous theoretical physicist renowned for his humility– but bloody hell, I’m glad things have worked out the way they have. 

I should have blogged about the workshop on a daily basis, but here’s the catch: if you’re blogging, you’re not doing other things, and those three weeks at IIT-Kanpur were filled with doing other things. Vandana Singh put up a couple of lovely pieces on her experiences at the workshop, and that finally shamed me into action. I've followed the historian's policy of making up what s/he cannot remember.

Saturday, June 13, 2009: I’ve parked my corpus at Tej’s Abode, a cool boutique hotel in GK-II’s S-block in Delhi. I’ve been told to say “GK-2” and “S-block.” My elder brother, who’s under the impression I was raised by courteous Swedish yodelers, gave me a lot of unsolicited advice on how to survive in Delhi, including the nugget that I should never, ever, ask to be taken to “Greater Kailash 2”:

“You might as well hand them your wallet.”

I did get ripped off, but it was well within class-warfare limits.

I told Kaushal, the efficient day-manager at Tej’s Abode, that I had a morning train to catch, and that it was a 6:15 AM train, yes, the Lucknow Shatabdi, and that I really had to catch it, because I really had to be in Kanpur for a workshop. So. 6:15. We chatted a bit about phones and hotel bills and wireless codes. I made sure to set the cell phone’s alarm for 4:15 AM. Actually, it’s unnecessary. Once I set an alarm, the Brain always wakes me a few minutes earlier, as if to demonstrate that it could also run a hotel or two. Pretty freaky, this human time-sense thing. Why should wetware have any clue about the number system we use to mark how many times one needle goes around another? Suppose I used a binary clock? Wake me up at 00100.01111, please. I suppose it’d probably piss off the Brain.

Sunday June 14, 2009: Missed the damn train! My bloody fault too. I had woken up at 4:15, was ready by 5:00, waited till 5:15, then headed downstairs. Mahesh, one of the guys who worked there, had been sleeping, but woke up, listened calmly to my panicked shrieks, explained that nobody had told him anything about getting any taxi, took charge of the situation and ran out to hail a cab or a rickshaw or a passing camel.

We got a cab at 5:30 and I hurtled pell-mell to Paharganj station. 6:00
AM! I rushed to the platform, and lo and behold, the Shatabdi had indeed arrived, but the board said it was leaving at 7:00. Oh. Eons of time. I relaxed, got a coffee (lousy), snarfed on Bourbon biscuits, hung around the magazine stands, still relaxed, more coffee (still lousy), watched people, noticed that the reservation lists had come up on the platform and strolled over, totally relaxed, to locate my name and seat assignment. Which wasn’t there. WTF? Relax. The Shatabdi was standing right there on Platform 1. I walked over, began to scan the lists clipboarded on each compartment, and gave up after the third one. I found a Ticket collector: Dekhiye bhai-saab, I am going to Kanpur on the Shatabdi–

"Kanpur?" asked the TC.
“That left at 6:15. Platform 10.”

Obviously, a speculative-fiction enthusiast! Here was the Shatabdi, standing right in front of me, but the guy with a clever tense shift had–

“This is the Amritsar Shatabdi. The Lucknow Shatabdi left at 6:15. You want to go to Amritsar?”

Effing rat monkeys! Apparently, “Shatabadi” is some sort of train caste-name. There’s the classy Rajdhani family, the punctual Shatabadi clan, the giddy Expresses, the trashy Mails…

There was no real need to panic. There are lots of trains to Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh; a lot of Indian politicians come from Uttar Pradesh. I called Suchitra to let her know I’d be late, really late, and she made all the right sympathetic noises, but I got the distinct feeling she was just aching to call me a moron.

IIT-K, Monday, June 15, 2009:

It’s 9:00 AM in the morning. I’m too revved up to have breakfast at the Visitor's Mess, but the Instant Nescafe is another matter. I’d barely downed the first black dose when Suchitra Mathur showed up and whisked me away for the inauguration ceremony. She had the look of someone who’s been moving non-stop for a long, long time. There is an exhaustion point at which the cells go American and start living on deficit, and she was way past the point. Suchitra wore so many hats that even Ravana would have complained of a head-shortage: not only was she scheduled to handle a week of the workshop, she was also responsible for handling the residence arrangements for the students, the class resource arrangements, the guest instructors (Dr. Ashutosh Sharma and Dr. Jayant Narlikar), mess arrangements, certificates, party arrangements, fee collections, taxi reservations, railway station meetups, delays, cancellations, postponements, myriad hissy fits, and now this little business of the inauguration ceremony. 

We walk over; L-shaped paths lead from one set of comfortable rooms to the other. It's a bit like living on Pentomino land. Outside is another Kanpur. Outside is dust-brown, curvilinear, messy. Outside is the cursed earth with its mutants without the Gospel of Euclid. Okay. Not really. IIT-K is India; outside is Bharat. A friend had alerted me to the beautiful opening line of Shrilal Shukla's Raag Darbari

"Shahar ka kinara. Uske baad bharat ka mahasagar"

There's a sense in which this is true. But I've been told outside the campus there are couple of western-style malls, old desi-style bazaars, laid-back dhabas, a Bajaj temple and some British-era churches. I've been urged to visit Bithoor; though I can't place it, the name has some resonance. I know I'll never go to any of these places, but I've been wrong about what I know, so I'm pretty hopeful, all told.

I’m briefly introduced to Dr. Sanjay Dande, the Director of IIT-K, and Dr. Lilavati Krishnan, the current Head of the Humanities & Social Sciences Dept. The room is not overflowing or anything like that, but it’s still people-heavy. Some of them had to be the students, but it’s all a blur. I’m trying to get my thoughts in order– we’d agreed that Suchitra would do the Vote Of Thanks, and I’d handle the Intro. I’m filled with the serene confidence of the recently drowned. That’s a bad sign, according to the guy who’d taught the public-speaking course I’d taken at the Indo-American centre in Mumbai, centuries ago. Confidence means you are CPU-cycling, not really engaging with the audience. I try to get worried, less confident, but truth is, I can’t wait to begin.

Two bloody years of prep. Three, maybe. I don’t remember when the four of us– Jaya Bhattacharji, Suchitra Mathur, Vandana Singh and I– began the discussion about putting a workshop together. I believe the topic first came up in a conversation I had with Vandana. I’d met Vandana at the 2004 WorldCon in Boston. I’d walked in to a panel on Race, or the Other, some such thing, and there was this brown woman talking about the importance of place in stories, about desi SF, about Premendra Mitra, about Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain…. It was wonderful  to hear someone say stuff that normally went on only between my ears. I asked a question to get her attention, and walked up to her after the panel, and we talked for a bit. Later Brett Cox re-introduced us, and I sent her one of my stories, but we were already friends by then. Jaya B got on board a few months later, and after that– well, after that, the conversations stopped being about shoulds and coulds and became about how, when and where.

Flashbacks oversimplify. It’s easy to make it sound as if we were on some sort of heroic quest. If so, it’s a quest with no villains, dozens of heroes, plenty of good grub and lots of item numbers. There ought to be a term for an army that advances by blooming terrain, rather than blighting it. Vivek Balaraman, Shobhana Bhattacharji, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Sanjay Dande, Peter Griffin, Manoj Gupta, K. George, Vipul Gupta, Vatsala Kaul, Shobhit Mahajan, Arvind Mishra, Jayant Narlikar, Manjula Padmanabhan, Anita Roy, Saras Sarasvathy, Ashutosh Sharma, Dr. Srinihari and others too many to mention helped. People made time, offered valuable advice, donated money, cheered, believed, spread the word. People helped. That’s the real reason I am here, sitting on a podium, listening to Dr. Dande.

Dr. Dande is a cool speaker. He gave a tight speech; it was funny as well as sharp. Then Dr. Lilavati spoke about how SF has this odd aspect of being fact-in-the-making, or I may be imagining she spoke about that, because by then, I was very un-relaxed. I could see it would soon be my turn, and I would have to wing it. I still didn’t have a killer opening and this was a First Impression situation and the damn Brain as usual was being too helpful.

“Tell them the Bose story.”
“No, tell them about Asimov and the turtles.”
“Screw Asimov. I’m sick of Asimov. Stick with Bose.”
“But don’t stick your hands in your pockets.”
“Smile. Be natural.”
“The hair-oil guy in the Bose story is Hemendra Mohan. Don’t forget.”

My turn to speak. In retrospect, I know I muffed it. Spoke too fast, then too loud, told the damn Bose and the Hair Oil story, got too encouraged by the tiny laugh, and issued a series of largely false and possibly idiotic claims.

But I enjoyed giving it. God help me, I just love being in front of an audience.

It was about 11:00 by the time we got started. When I entered the room, I found the chairs were neatly arranged to face the blackboard. That wouldn’t do, since this was a writing workshop, not a calculus class. So we rearranged the chairs, brought in a couple of tables, then realized that chairs had Popeye arms so a central table was moot, and basically, there was the usual fussing and rearranging and joking and so on. The shyer ones stand still in such situations, a kind of orientation response. Not this group.

There are two theories of pedagogy. One is the Divide and Rule strategy. The other is the Herbert Simon Principle. The Herbert Simon Principle says that the remarkable thing about teaching is that students will learn even when the teacher cannot, does not, teach.

Yaar, crack a coconut in Simon-bhai’s name. I was going to stand or fall on that principle.

According to the Lesson Plan, I was already late by two hours and ten minutes.

I had prepared an incredibly detailed Lesson Plan that had stage instructions for practically everything, including sips of water. Some of my academia friends had warned me not to over-plan, but I liked the comfort of knowing that even if everything went to hell, at least the trains to hell would be running on time.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves, in anti-clockwise order (the Lesson Plan was very definite on that). In order: Anil, Shish, Kaushik, Pervin, Manish, Amarjeet, Suneetha, Bodhi, Akshat, Sonali, Sumeet, Vaibhav, Himanshu, Rinku, and Radhika. I remember the order because I wrote their names down. Radhika was missing, but Suneetha, her friend and roomie, explained that their trip to IIT-K had been pretty horrendous, and Radhika was still decompressing. Also absent, was Abha; a leg sprain would keep her from joining the group until later in the week.

As I listened to the intros, I privately marvelled at our luck. The group was incredibly varied. Five women, nine men. Six women, counting Abha. The original group had had eight women, but unfortunately– and it’s really unfortunate– two of them– Swapna Kishore and Fehmida Zakeer– had had to drop out at the last minute. Shish at twelve years old (claimed to be eighteen) was the youngest, and a math major at IIT-Kanpur. Bodhi at ninety-five was the oldest, and taught literature at the prestigious Xavier’s St. Stephens College in Delhi. Sonali was from Jharkhand, a state that hadn’t existed when I was her age. Amarjeet had a doctorate in literature. Akshat had worked on the set of Lage Raho Munna Bhai.  And with kids. And had a degree in English literature. Pervin worked in publishing and had just published a book of poems. Suneetha was involved in a major translation project and had just finished a stint at the Sangam Residency (a writer’s retreat in Pondicherry).  Rinku had a doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, taught in Pakistan and edited a book. Himanshu had trained in architecture and now worked as an ad-guy; he’d *resigned* from his job to get the time to attend the workshop. Sumeet was a journalist, now working as a copy-editor. Vaibhav was an engineering student. Manish was a Chem Engg major at IIT-K. Kaushik was in a lit program at IIT-Madras. Radhika (she’d joined us by then), already a published author, lived and worked in London and was attending a Creative Writing program part-time.

I saw Venn diagrams as they spoke. I’d known we had a varied bunch, but this varied? It was a categorical extravaganza. The workshop had four full-time students, two Ph.Ds, five women, nine men, four Bengalis, one Parsi, two Tamilians, one Kashmiri, one Bihari, one Jat, one Oriya, one Malayalee, two Punjabis…. This was India made manifest. The Lesson Plan didn’t allow me to gloat or freak out, so I had to stay calm and pretend this sort of thing happened in every workshop. Bloody hell. Bloody effing hell. Now, if they could write– well, they could write, which was why they were here, but if they would write– then the workshop was all set.

We’d spent a lot of time thinking about how to select students for our writing workshop. The wrong way, I think, is to focus on trying to find the best possible writers. In fact, there’s no such thing as a good writer. There’s good writing, that is, effective writing, and then there’s bad writing, that is, ineffective writing. In fact, there’s no such thing as effective or ineffective writing. There’s just writing that works for some people and writing that doesn’t. In fact, there’s no such thing as writing that appeals to some and not to others. There’s just writing….

Point is, we’d tried not to begin with policy statements on the kind of writers we wanted. We didn’t want a selection system biased against  taking chances. Or to put it another way, against making mistakes. In drug protocols, you want a system that’s biased against making mistakes. You also want it in the justice system, in textbooks and in parachutes. But not in a writing workshop. We wanted a procedure that was biased to pick people willing to take chances with themselves. And maybe a good way to detect that weird wrinkle in people is to keep things low-key and let students self-select themselves into the workshop. The self-selected stakeholder is what makes an enterprise work, at least in its early stages. Hell, they are the enterprise. The writer who’s mainly looking for a resume bump, or needs to be sold on promises of time well-spent, or the one who has no tolerance for failure or has too much to lose will probably not get much out of a writer’s workshop.

As I looked around the room and listened to the introductions, it became clear to me that as far as the selection procedure went, we had found exactly what we’d been looking for. We’d lucked out, of course. We’d been starting out, we didn’t have much money, we’d started pretty late, we didn’t know what not to do, and so we lucked into doing the right thing by accident rather than design. There’s really a lot to be said for incompetence.

Most of the writers insisted, quite apologetically, quite insistently, that they didn’t have much experience writing spec-fic. Or reading it. I remember Himanshu, Bodhi and Shish as the major exceptions. Bodhi had taught SF. Himanshu and Shish had read a lot of SF, written some stories. But quite a few talked of writing spec-fic as if it were a specialized art form, like raising passenger pigeons or something.  So why were they here?

Maybe it’s because there are few good writing workshops in India. In “the” West, artists tend to under-appreciate the size and scope of the Creative-Industrial complex. They take the myriad conferences, workshops, conventions, prizes, associations, book festivals, NSA grants and media tie-ups pretty much for granted. In a sense, there is no such thing as a minority interest. Say you are a western novelist interested in passenger pigeons? Then there are scores of  books on passenger pigeons, passenger pigeon associations, passenger pigeon extinction enactments, specialized grants to study passenger pigeons, passenger pigeon conferences and readers itching to write passenger pigeon fan-fiction. A desi writer has no such Creative-Industrial complex to rely on.

Or maybe it’s because these students have little to lose. Saras Sarasvathy, in her much cited What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial remarks that “effectual reasoning emphasizes affordable loss.” Maybe I’m looking at a bunch of entrepreneurs. I hope so, because the Lesson Plan has a session on the business of SF.

But honestly, I don’t care why they’re here. I didn’t care when I read their applications (though it included a question on the why), and I don’t really care now. In my one-on-one sessions, it’s the one question I had no interest in asking. Gandhi thought he was going to be a lawyer, but lo and behold, he ended up writing one of the greatest spec-fic works ever. Plans change. The students are here, and that’s all that really matters. Anything is possible now. I see the next generation of desi SF writers in this room. I don’t know if they will write yet, but I’m hopeful. They’re bright, they’re motivated and they’ve all just made a difficult personal decision that sets them apart from most of their generation. They’re willing to live with strangers in cramped quarters for three weeks in a hot and humid world for the sake of a fiction they hope to write! These guys are crazy. All workshops should be so lucky in their students. We can begin.

So we begin.

  • Vaibhav

    It was crazy! so engrossing. I laughed on many occasion. really made me nostalgic. Looking forward to the next part .
    P.S. there is a lil factual err , bodhi teaches at St. Stephens not Xavier s.

  • Hey, brilliant write up, Anil! I never got the chance to ask you about your first few days there and now you’ve been spared a looooong telephone conversation! Breathlessly looking forward to part 2!

  • Vaibhav: Thanks for the correction. Okay people:
    Vandana: Thanks. Yes, it was quite a trip.

  • Himanshu Gaur

    Anil, waiting with bated breath for next round. Hurry please (choke!)

  • Amar

    Hi Anil,
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this bit…and your view
    about Gandhi’s autobiography being one of the “greatest
    spec-fic. works” reaffirms Himanshu’s claim that
    everything that we write is SF. And this does read like
    a story, a SF piece! Didn’t know Shish was actually 12,
    though I was aware of Bodhi being 95 (+/- 5).
    Just one more thing. Even though fiction can take liberty with facts,
    still the fictional city
    of Kanpur has no “Bajaj temple”…it has a “Birla temple”, though.
    Like everybody else, am waiting for chapter 2.

  • Amar: Thanks man. And yes, as per Himanshu’s neat definition, it’s indeed SF. The def is worth repeating:

    “Science fiction is any story with aliens in it. In fact, the aliens don’t even need to have an active role. Their presence can be invisible.”

    Ref: Birla temple. Bloody hell, that’s the second major error. Yes of course, Bajaj doesn’t make temples, it makes scooters. Correction noted. Thanks.

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