The UEA’s writing workshop with Amit Chaudhuri: “The Five Stages of Grief”

This image has been used for representational purposes only. MARCELA MCGREAL / CC BY 2.0
19 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.

Aneesha Bangera's was in the 2015 workshop. Her story, "The Five Stages of Grief," is at once a playful take on the self-help book and a meditation. 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


In the beginning you will sort of pat each other on the back, hug briefly, hastily brush away a stray tear. That first day, you will keep busy and tie yourself up in knots making plans and then changing them – booking tickets, calling friends, sending text messages. There will be moments of blissful forgetfulness when you laugh out loud. Or when someone mentions that time you all went down to the ocean together and lay in hammocks and swam all day and ate crab curry for lunch and for dinner. You will feel a momentary, dizzying lightness. Then you will sense a gap in the room, and you will have to sit down to catch your breath. Because it feels like something has sliced through you and hollowed you out, like a vegetable on a cutting board. After that, each breath will be an effort. You’ll hear the familiar refrains: “He is in a better place now,” and its equally opaque variations. You will skilfully ignore the emptiness of words and navigate past them to pick up a phone that didn’t ring, to make another pot of tea. Soon there will be cups of tea, filled dangerously close to the brim, on every surface of the house until you run out of clean cups and will have to start again. You will skip meals, forget to shower and be hit by a sudden, extreme exhaustion. The fatigue will be a balm, allowing you to slip into a deep, dreamless sleep. You will wake up only once in the night, sweat soaked and out of breath. It will feel like sleepwalking when you rise to turn up the fan, to peep out into the living room where cousins and friends are a tumble of spare mattresses and arms. You’ll slow down at the window, relishing the feel of cool tiles beneath your bare feet, and look up at the sky. You will climb back into bed where your mother sleeps restlessly, her mouth slightly open. This must be what they call bereavement.


Bereave. Bereft. Be-leave. Reft. Left. You will wake up with the words tumbling around on your tongue. The light will hurt your eyes, your breath will be unbearable. But the first thing you’ll do is snap open your laptop, to look up the definition. “But what does it mean?” your insistent 7- year-old niece has asked repeatedly. Everyone has shushed her, gently but firmly told her to finish her idlis quietly. “no longer alive” (synonyms: expired, departed, gone) is not helpful. You will prefer the more poetic “absolutely, completely” (synonyms: totally, utterly, perfectly, entirely). It will make you feel a little better, make you think about lives coming full circle, about nothing being complete until it is over. And so you will philosophize as you remember to water the plants, something that you have otherwise forgotten every single morning. You will find more tea cups on the lower shelves of the side board. They have grown a wrinkly, taut skin across their surfaces. Shrivelled, fossilised versions of what they were yesterday. You will empty these, scrub them clean and fill them up again with freshly brewed tea. Bouquets of flowers will start arriving with cards that say “Condolences” in an elegant, floral print. You wonder who decides the font for death. You will receive texts with the words sympathy, God, father, imagine and blessings in them. You promise to one day write a limerick with those words. You usually enjoy giving yourself creative assignments. Someone had remembered to call the newspaper and now proudly passes around the paper, open to the obituary page with a tiny photograph that won’t ever really be able to tell the entire story.


That afternoon is the funeral. The church, which you only remember having been to once before for an aunt’s second wedding, has peeling yellow walls and a high ceiling. The hearse (an ugly word, an ugly vehicle) will arrive and something inside you will break a little bit. The delicate web of calm you had carefully spun the day before will crumble to dust. The smell of flowers will be overpowering, sickening. You will stand, suddenly giddy, and rush outside to throw up in the bushes. A cousin’s husband will offer you his arm and lead you back inside. You will ask yourself, inappropriately of course, if this is what it would feel like to walk down the aisle. Your grandmother will sit unmoving at the front, the pallu of her beige saree draped over her head. A few stray wisps of silver hair will have come loose. You have never seen her so dull-eyed, so still. You will return to your seat. When the coffin reaches the front of the church, everything the priest says is a distant humming. You will study the way the light falls in through the open arched windows on either side of the pulpit. The shadows of leaves will shift ever so slightly in the whisper of a breeze. You will worry at the whitlows near your thumbs, where the skin is raw and bright. You will wonder about the word whitlow, which you thought was a type of tree when you first heard it. You will watch a fly as it buzzes around your feet, settling briefly on a bare toe before abandoning you for a bit of mud on the carpet. You will briefly feel abandoned. You will feel as though you have abandoned yourself for a time. Now someone is reading a poem you do not know. Despite your literature degrees and the books of poetry that line your shelves and pile up on your bedside table. Everything will feel dreadfully absurd. “What is this theatre,” you will wonder. Everyone will queue up near the coffin; it will feel suddenly like school, like a terrible joke. When it is your turn, your stomach turns to ice, cold as his forehead against your lips. You will walk out without really seeing. At the plot (plot, they call it, like a prime piece of real estate), your mother who you have managed to avoid until now will grab hold of your hand. “The plot thickens,” you will think to yourself. You start to think of other things that thicken: soup, syrup, bodies, friendships. The soil feels thick when you reach for a handful. Your uncle and brother (who has grown a bit thick around the waist) and cousins look stoic as the coffin they carried is lowered into the ground. Your mother, who has been silent, is unable to stifle a loud sob that escapes from the handkerchief she has been pressing to her mouth. Her face is so white. You have never seen her with a handkerchief before.

That Friday, everyone will come over for dinner. It will be a party. There will be his favourite mutton curry with lacy neer dosas and cucumber raita. Everyone will have several glasses of whiskey before eating, so that by the time dinner is served all the aunts and uncles and older cousins will be unable to stop talking, turning their faintest memory into a cherished story you know you will never hear again. They will all be leaving the next morning, to their various homes and neighbourhoods, to wait for the tragedies of their own. Your mother has been hugging you often and suddenly. You find it stifling but you don’t say anything. She keeps disappearing; she will emerge minutes later, red-eyed. You will hold on to a crystal glass, more because the clinking of ice and the feel of the condensation is a kind of comfort, than because you need a drink. You will ask everyone if their drink is all right (you imagine the drinks answering for themselves: “How kind of you to ask,” or, “Disappearing at an alarming rate”, you shake their tremulous voices out of your head); you will refill several glasses. Your limbs begin to thaw. You suddenly feel the loosening of your neck, the ebb of the ache in your back. You remember to breathe again, slow and deep. Like some bizarre lesson, this brings a sense of release, an unburdening. You promise to remind yourself to keep breathing, because sometimes you get distracted. The next morning, the house is quiet.


A month will pass. Summer will begin in earnest, the sun will blaze and the air will turn sticky. You will have recently moved back to your own flat, where you will check that the doors and windows are locked four times every night before going to bed. This is something you never did before and you wonder if this is what growing up means. One night you will wake up, your body wracked with sobs, in an unfamiliar bed. You will feel slightly detached, unable to control the tears. When you see the boy – a neighbour who has been asking you out for months – you remember where you are and you feel a little sorry. He looks terrified. You try to form the words, but end up only crying harder. You are familiar with bad timing, by now. He will gently, tentatively pat your shoulder, reminding you of another presence. Of being put to bed as a child, a steady rhythm tapping out the route to sleep. You will be a real mess by now, nose dripping, eyes swollen, forehead sticky with beads of sweat. The boy will turn up the air conditioning and pass you a box of tissues. “Deep breath,” you tell yourself. You will whimper softly and pretend to fall back to sleep. An hour later, when his breathing is even again, you will quietly creep out of the bedroom. As you tug your jeans on, you will wonder why you fall into sleep and don’t have to climb up to it (it is an uphill task some nights). You will tread softly to the door, and close it quietly behind you before walking down the flight of stairs to your apartment. Once inside, you will check the lock, once, twice, three times. You will climb into bed, inhale deeply and slowly as if preparing to go underwater, and close your eyes. This will happen a few more times, the sudden, unexpected outbursts. In the middle of a play, while riding the metro, and once, while washing dishes. And then one morning you sit in the sunshine of your balcony and phone your mother. You can tell from her voice that she is sitting on her balcony. You end up talking for hours.