We have a (what can I say…?) a complicated relationship. There’s a lot of love between Chennai and I, but it’s a little like an arranged marriage. Coming back here from Kochi (via Vellore) was almost a little bit slightly like coming home, somewhat. Especially Mylapore. Nageswara Rao Park, my regular restaurant haunts, the bustle and honking, the streetside stalls, the local Temple… Familiarity breeds affection. Which is reciprocal. But not always.
I have learnt a lot in the process of this week (well, I feel I’ve been taught a lot – who knows if I’ve learnt anything!). One small example – I’d been invited to give a talk at Anna University about how to teach creative writing. Me being stuck inside my own experience, I suggested the ideal number for facilitating creativity is around ten, twelve at most. When it came to question time, someone said their classes are usually around 50 or 60, so did I have any suggestions as to how they could incorporate creativity and participation under such conditions? Ummmm….. Sometimes while here I have felt so very very Australian, sheltered…
Speaking of Vellore, I wish I could show you a few photos of this intriguing, bustling, paradox of a town. Essentially, it’s really a small city, centered around trading and industry, but dominated by two buildings – the Christian Medical College Hospital (CMC) and the Vellore Fort. The CMC isn’t monumental or extravagant visually, but it’s renowned as being one of Tamil Nadu’s best hospitals, if not India’s. And there are also many signs around the town which commemorating how CMC donated the funds for this or that piece of infrastructure. Where government fails or is slow, business or community steps in. The CMC is also absolutely surrounded by rickshaw drivers and people sitting on the footpath in various states of illness and misfortune begging.
The Vellore Fort is another thing altogether – a mediaeval fortress with its own moat (now plied by paddleboats!), inside is a still-functioning 14th-century Hindu temple, a mosque, a church, two museums, and various government offices. In a way, the architecture provides a physical narrative of India’s succession of colonial and internal empires.
Why no photos? My camera broke down! But I did find a fantastic shop in Chennai called Camera Service Point. It’s currently at 1st floor, Bata Building, 829 Mount Road (Anna Salai), but the building will be demolished some time in the next year or two, so maybe call them on 93800 62185 first, to check. A huge thanks to the man who opened up my Sony and made it work again, with not a single photo lost. Is it hyperbole to say that in India everything can be fixed? Yes, probably, but still, I was impressed and grateful.
In the last week, I’ve given 4 poetry readings, 1 lecture and 1 workshop, as well as sitting in the audience for 4 other readings, a poetry slam, and a carnatic music concert. I am sated and exhausted. Huge thanks go to the organisers and volunteers behind Poetry with Prakriti. Like most poetry festivals, it runs on a shoestring, attracts passionate audiences (not always big numbers, but insightful and engaged), and provides a smorgasbord of words and performances. Many readings were at local universities and colleges. Thanks go too to the many students who listened, thought, and asked some fantastic questions.
I found Ranjit Hoskote’s translations of Lal Ded refreshing and intriguing, full of air and insight, especialy in the light of his accompanying discussion of this fascinating woman (14th century Shaivite mystic and Sufi saint from Kashmir, whose legacy now seems to be much contested between communities who wish to claim her exclusively as their own). Kazim Ali’s poems were a potent blend of disorientation and revelation, both ecstatic and casual (at the risk of misquoting him, I loved the line “you unpacked all my shirts of silence”). Wonderful too to meet Dutch poet Maria Van Daalen, whose metaphysical and subtly emotional poems were to be savoured. I also was lucky enough to hear a few poems from Carrie Rudzinski (USA), Giuseppe Conte (Italy), Salah Stetie (France/Lebanon), Anand Krishnan, P Sivakami, Kavitha Muralidharan & Alok Bhalla. I would have liked to have heard more, but I was either reading my own poems, in transit, or recuperating!
Of course, ironically, while this post is “welcome back…”, I’m typing it while I’m about to leave. I have a mountain of affection and admiration for the people of Chennai. But I am so looking forward to being home, with the love of my life…