The UEA’s writing workshop with Amit Chaudhuri: “A Portrait”

This image has been used for representational purposes only. Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
02 March, 2016

The University of East Anglia’s (UEA) eight-day writing workshop in India was first held in March 2013, and, since then, has occurred twice a year. There have been workshops in both fiction and non-fiction, and in writing that occupies the boundary between the two. My co-tutors so far have been the novelist Romesh Gunesekera, historian and writer Patrick French, novelist Kirsty Gunn, poet and novelist Jeet Thayil, journalist Ian Jack, and novelist Adam Foulds.

The intent of the workshop was to bring excellent young writers in contact with each other and with well-known and established practitioners so that it could hopefully lead to an opening up of opportunities. This has begun to happen: some of the writers in the first workshops have now signed up with major Indian publishers.

My co-tutors and I have read a lot of outstanding work in the course of the last three years, and this partnership with The Caravan is meant to offer to a wider readership a small fraction of the best output from the workshop.

I’m neither a product of creative writing teaching nor an evangelist for it, and I don’t believe in the usefulness to apprentice writers of writing exercises. And yet I did introduce an exercise in the last two years: of asking writers to respond to, in any way they chose, to a text–an extract from a novel; a story or poem; an essay–from a selection of texts handed out to them.

Sunandini Pande Ray was in the December 2015 workshop.Her story is a response to Susan Sontag’s essay on Walter Benjamin, "Under the Sign of Saturn." This story is a part of a selection from the workshop that will be featured on The Caravan. Read other stories from the selection here, here and here.

The earliest photograph is dated 1926. It is of three children, babies really; all dressed in white tunics, eyes lined with copious kajal, kala tika prominently in place, propped up by bolsters and pillows. The one in the middle is almost languorously sliding into recline, the one on the left has eyes screwed up and wail frozen in place by the shutter but the one on the right is perfectly still and composed. The back of the photograph has just one name – Deep. “It was considered inauspicious to take photos of just one child… the other two were there just to ward off the evil eye.” No one looking at the photograph today knows which of the children is Deep. “It must be the one looking calm; he was always such a quiet person.” “No… the one on the left, the eyes are like his.”

The next one is easier to recognise; he sits between two teenage sisters. The girls are dressed in white saris which are immaculately draped over their hair, bindis carefully dotting their fierce scowls. He is in the middle, dressed neatly in his school uniform looking bored and impatient, ready to run off the instant the ordeal is over. All three sit at a distance from each other; the older, angrier sisters buttressing the younger, favoured son. “Look at the Buas… they look as ferocious as children as they were when they were older… Wasn’t Badi-Bua the one who pushed the servant off the balcony when she got angry? Thank God he was ok… She was such a terror!”

He is smiling in the photograph dated 1945. It is a relaxed smile. He stands with his hands in his pockets, head bent a little downwards; you can see his hair combed back and black rimmed spectacles. The photograph is outdoors with a backdrop of deodar trees. It is almost as if he is caught by surprise, he doesn’t want to smile but he can’t stop himself. He is smiling at the person behind the camera. It is a black and white picture but the moment is suffused with sunlight. “He looks so different... I just can’t imagine him so young… he looks like you when you were in college.”

There are a lot of pictures from 1945-1952. “These must be when he got interested in photography… I think Dadaji had got him a camera from England at that time.” Most photographs are of places. Jog falls, Kashmir, Nainital, Ajanta and Ellora, Calcutta, Bombay; the name and the date carefully stencilled at the back. But there are also photographs of young men. Friends standing with their arms around each other; tall, lanky, bespectacled, smiling at each other and to the camera. In one they stand atop cliffs, in another they pose proudly in front of a car, one photograph has them all standing in the middle of a rushing riverbed laughing as they try to hold their balance. From a distance, all of them look the same.

Then there is the one photograph that they all know well. The boy is gone. He is now dressed as a lawyer; he has a moustache and an air of gravitas that is familiar. He stands rigid and unyielding holding his degree. The spectacles are the same and the hair is combed back. The smile is nowhere to be seen. “Ma told me once that he never wanted to be a lawyer, he wanted to travel, to write and take photographs. But Dadaji threw a fit… said there was no option but to continue the family practice… apparently he was so angry that he almost ran away from home.” “So why didn’t he?” “Those times were different… it’s not like how it is today… besides he still continued to take photos as a hobby… I remember the hours he would spend in the dark room when I was a kid.”

There is a whole stack of wedding photographs, carefully preserved in a disintegrating canvas envelope, dated February 10, 1955. Most of them are of him surrounded by genial relatives. He is looking straight at the camera throughout; detached and silent amidst the cacophony. He wears the wedding mukut and a dhoti and performs the rituals with careful reverence. His face, adorned with the customary tilak, is composed. The smiles are on the faces of everyone else. There is just one photograph where he is alone with the bride; they are both looking in different directions and her ghunghat hides her face. “I used to love looking at their wedding photos when I was a kid… Ma would always come to shoo me away and laugh that I should find something better to do.”

The first photograph with his wife has them standing stiffly side-by-side in front of the Taj Mahal. She wears a printed sari with the pallu dancing in the breeze, sunglasses perched on her nose, beaming at the camera. He smiles hesitantly, standing cautiously next to his new bride, his arms clasped in front of his body as if he doesn’t know where to keep them. There is another photograph from the same day; she is looking intently at the Taj Mahal, absorbed as if she is trying to soak in every marble jali while he is looking at her.

There are many photographs from 1956-65. Bees buzzing around flowers in a carefully manicured garden, a flight of birds over the rooftop, trees soaring over a lake, a cat sleeping in a sunlit window and through everything, a baby growing older. Gurgling into the camera, proudly cradled by the young mother, crawling over the courtyard, clasping a battered toy bunny, wriggling on the father’s knee, cautiously feeding a biscuit to a dog, crying as she is escorted into school, carefully dressed in a smocking frock with her hair in pigtails and glowering at the camera. “Mum... is this you? This is hilarious… you were such a roly-poly baby!”

Tucked away carelessly amongst this pile of family photographs is just one photograph that shows him at work. It is a group of important looking men wearing business suits and ties following a corpulent man in a safari suit, the official garb of that era. All of them shadow the man in the safari suit, heads bowed as if to catch every word being spoken. But he stands apart, looking away from the rest.

The first colour photograph is dated 1980. It shows a wedding. He looks thoughtful as he holds the bride’s hand. His wife standing on the other side beams proudly. The bride, standing in between has her mother’s face but her father’s eyes. She is sombre and looks questioningly at the camera. But in the other wedding pictures, the bride is smiling, encircled by her friends and family – a boisterous crowd. One picture shows the bride and groom laughing together oblivious to anyone else around.

“We went away soon after that to America… they came to visit a few times.” There are some photographs that show them standing uncomfortably before tourist sites – White House, Niagara Falls, Times Square. The years are different but the images are the same; white shiny sports shoes, a baseball cap awkwardly placed on the head, a hand-knitted sweater-vest. In some there is a baby in their arms, in later pictures the children prance around their silver-haired grandparents. There is a single picture of him standing alone on a boat, he is looking away at the horizon and all around him the water sparkles golden and luminescent. The waves look choppy and wind rustles the flags on deck. It is cold because he is bundled up in a thick jacket, gloves and a woollen cap. He stands alone on the deck and he is smiling as he is looking out to sea.

There is one picture that shows the children in India. It is dated 1988 and everyone is in white. He looks dazed with the familiar solemn eyes that seem to be searching for someone. His daughter is holding his arm but whether to give him support or hold herself steady is not clear. Only the children smile and everyone else looks at them with relief. “After Ma went, he just went into a shell… he refused to come to visit anymore, didn’t want us to come unnecessarily. It was like he just shut down within a day.”

The last photograph is dated 1992. It is a formal family portrait. He sits in the middle ensconced by family members. His daughter sits to his left; she has clasped her hand firmly over his. His grandchildren tower over him at the back. Everyone looks older, rounder, wealthier. Everyone is smiling but him. He wears his trademark black-rimmed glasses and his hair is combed back. He is looking straight at the camera but his eyes are vacant. “This was the last time I saw him… he had already started forgetting. At first he would forget a few words or what he wanted to say. Then he started forgetting people and losing track of what day it was. One day when I called him on the phone, he thought I was Badi-bua! The only thing he didn’t forget was my Ma’s name. Even on the last day when I spoke to him he asked me where she was and if she was coming home soon.”

Sunandini Pande Ray Sunandini Pande Ray studied Media and Communications at MICA, India and at the London School of Economics, following which she has been a researcher of human behaviour for close to a decade, in India and the Middle East. She was in the December 2015 workshop.