"You will, I am sure, agree with me that … if page 534 finds us only in the second chapter, the length of the first one must have been really intolerable."
Sherlock Holmes in The Valley Of Fear (1888)
For those who came in sideways: this is a continuation of Part 1 (Getting There).
I’ll admit it. The prognosis is not good. If it took me 3,000 words to cover a distance of three days, then obviously, dear reader, you have clambered onto a slow horse. The only consolation I can offer is that you could have been on Tristram Shandy, who took two-and-half volumes to traverse one day of his life.
But this should be brief. I was all set to narrate the events of the three weeks at IIT-K, when the Brain reminded me that I’d issued some promissory notes at the workshop. One of them was that the workshop would be a safe place. A place where any kind of story could be written. Tears, exultation and civilized screaming were permitted, but there would be no fatwas, retaliations, arsenic or pistols at dawn. Most importantly, what happened in Kanpur would stay in Kanpur.
Which puts me in a bind. Whereof I wish to speak, thereof I cannot. Hereof, I’ll have to be sneaky.
A typical day ran from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM, with ninety minutes for lunch (1:00-2:30), and two fifteen minutes breaks. About three hours per day were spent on the critiques, which left about four hours at the instructor’s discretion.
Ah, the critique sessions. For me (and regrettably, for the students too), the critiques were the best part of the day. We tried to do three critiques per day. I preferred to do the critiques in the morning, whereas Vandana and Suchitra reserved them for the afternoons.
The participants were serious about the critiques. For me, it’s what made the workshop a success. Their writing changed. It got more ambitious. Experimental. One writer produced a story that was told in the form of schoolbook exercises. Another reached deep into himself and the myth of Holika, reached for the look in a witch’s eyes as she burns, poor helpless bitch, and produced a postmodern rendering: terrifying, unforgettable and unforgiving. There was a story in which guilt turns memory into music, there was a story about unstable threesomes, one about gigolo robots, there were Stories No One Got, stories with a new interpretation of Sita, clueless lesbians, kings with red horns, shoot-outs with centaurs, stories where old Indian myths were used as stirring spoons rather than spice… with three stories per writer, fifteen writers and three weeks, not to mention the daily reading assignments, we were soon awash in stories.
In the third week (Vandana’s week), two of the students proposed that the authors’ names be withheld from the stories. Naturally, the author had to offer a faux-critique of his/her work. I found the results fascinating. The participants were mostly unable to identify who had written which story. The routine gasps of “You wrote that?” undid a lot of smug categories. People simply wouldn’t stay put in their assigned slots: X-is-good-but. Y-writes-stories-that. Z-has-an-unfortunate-fondness-for.
How does critiquing work when it works? Not sure. The Brain has a quantum-mystical theory, accurate to several decimal points. But it’s a digression, and despite what my friend Tristram Shandy says about digressions (“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine—they are the life, the soul of reading!”), I must resist the impulse and plod on.