The UEA’s writing workshop with Amit Chaudhuri: “Madhu Limaye Marg”

This image has been used for representational purposes only. Aakash Karkare
07 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.

Eesha Kumar is one of the youngest writers to participate in the workshop. A published poet, she is pursuing a master's degree in literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her story is a response to "Canal Street" by Ian Frazier. 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.

Madhu Limaye Marg is a U-shaped road in Chanakyapuri that connects Vinay Marg to Satya Marg. This is Lutyen’s Delhi, punctuated and anchored by roundabouts, measured by long, straight roads with noble names: Shanti Path, Nyaya Marg, Niti Marg. These roads are mostly lonely. Walking along Vinay Marg, in a large open field to the left you see faceless crowds of boys (never girls) in white sports uniforms, at play. Then there’s an ancient Hanuman Mandir; the saffron-coloured deity is visible even in Nehru Park, on the other side of the road. Some park-goers, especially in the morning, step off the jogging track and lean on the green perimeter fence to offer their respects to the monkey god from across two lanes of moving traffic. Further down Vinay Marg is a cut that leads secretively into the Headquarters of the Delhi Police, and the Civil Services Officers’ Institute, a new building that tries to look imposingly Victorian. In comparison, the middle-aged crowd that frequents the club makes very little effort at looking serious or timeless. Mostly they’re carefree babus with pot-bellies. An HP petrol pump on Vinay Marg is home to a rabid dog, of whom the attendants are fond and defensive. Go further along, and to the left you’ll see a gentle turn onto Madhu Limaye Marg. Deliciously empty, bathed in delicate mists from October to February. In the peak of summer, just before intense heat bursts into monsoon, the amaltas trees let go of their golden leaves and the pavements turn yellow. To your right, long rows of white houses begin. To your left is a small tennis court where people commonly identified as ‘uncles’ swing their rackets, and just outside the tennis court is Yadav Taxi Stand. It’s quite a grand name for the establishment that it is; Mr Yadav just parks his fleet of Indicas under a couple of trees. The pilots of this fleet lounge in a makeshift tin shed. The tin shed is mirrored across the road, where, in a little alley, a small family irons clothes for a living, in a tiny shanty. Taking all of this in, you move on. As long as you aren’t taking this meditative stroll in the middle of the day with the sun overhead, you will encounter ‘aunties’ taking walks on Madhu Limaye Marg. Aunties wear salwar-kameezes with running shoes, their dupattas tied across their bodies like sashes in a beauty pageant. They frown disapprovingly at women who wear shorts, women who wear track pants and ‘expose’ rolls of fat, and the most unforgivable of the species: women who jog. Let us assume you’re walking here in the evening, around sunset. Little children on tricycles will zoom about, as fast as their tricycles will allow them to zoom. Their attendents from the servants’ quarters will look on at them blankly. All the dogs tend to be out at this time, as they are in the morning. They sniff around and leave excrement on the grassy patches along the pavements, looking a lot more embarrassed than their owners. Children from the servants’ quarters play in the middle of the road—football, cricket, a variety of made up games—and why not. Madhu Limaye Marg is, for the most part, deserted. There is a mandir on this road too, and every time I pass by, I am reminded of a classmate I once saw putting a garland on the deity and taking some prasad. I was just happy to see him: four months before our board exams we had all disappeared into little rooms and not heard from each other since. His face was ashen, and his face was crimson, and he looked like he would rather have died than be seen at a temple. He insisted earnestly that his father made him do it. Houses, houses, houses; along you go, and you see more trees, many streetlamps, a lot of signage for an area so sparsely populated. Navyug School to the right, where children chant their morning prayers and sing the national anthem loud enough for the morning walkers on Madhu Limaye Marg to hear them. In election time, this is where the constituency comes to vote: the uncles, the aunties, their children in sneakers, the maids in saris, the maids’ sons in adibas t shirts bought in Sarojini Nagar, the maids’ daughters in shiny, polyester salwar-kurtas, the gardeners in their faded collared shirts worn untucked. Turn into the thicket of houses a little before Satya Marg appears, and you’ll see roads laid out like the threads of a spider’s trap. Tiny, secluded, curving. At the heart of one such cluster of quietness is a Mother Dairy. The vegetables look unappetising; the mosquito-and-fly-killing contraption does not work. Across the dairy is a little makeshift stall where a literate but poor woman sells bread and the newspaper. Just there is a house in which I spent many hours one summer. The little girl who lived there had cerebral palsy, and like many other little girls I knew, she was adorable and volatile. Her brother was a year younger than I was, and to my delight, physically weaker, though taller. With unashamed vigour I arm-wrestled him. Our parents were colleagues; we passed the time. One day, and on just that one day, I met a singularly fascinating person in that house. He was a wanderer and a vagrant, as much as a well-to-do city kid can be a wanderer or a vagrant. I was a nerd, and he wasn’t like me, but he knew his Shakespeare, and his niche television, and his way around edgy art websites and poetry. I didn’t mind him cussing or being irreverent. I never met a person like him and never again will. He was wild and laid back and brilliant. He spoke to me eagerly of the time when he almost kissed a boy. We were all squished together on one mattress, and I was facing, that was so weird...I could feel his breath on my face, he was just—there. His eyes were closed but I wasn’t sure he was sleeping...he never pushed me away. I could have kissed him, he was so close. It was crazy, man. His eyes, wrapped in a haze, seemed to hack at my skin with cleavers. I had no news of him till we were both in college, different colleges in the same university. He was often found passed out on the stairs or at the entrance to his hostel, moaning for his girlfriend or more alcohol. When he could stand upright, he was out of class, and directing and acting in plays no one could understand. I caught sight of him when I visited his college once—it had been six years since I had seen him. I stopped to ask do you remember me? He was high. Soon after I first met him, in the house below the one in which we met, a couple moved in, and their daughter was sent to my school. We were politely parasitic and occasionally dependent on each other, as classmates (but not friends) are, when they live near each other. Neither of us bothered to stay in touch after we graduated from school. One year into college, I found out that her family had been thrown out of the house in a dramatic scene. Her father refused to move out when the time came, the authorities were enraged, angry correspondence ensued. One day people came and began to pick up the things in the house and take them outside. They dumped them on the road—the TV, the cupboards, the refrigerators. Her father was out; her mother cried, give us a day, let me make a few calls, where will we go? Her neighbours went to their windows, some came out of their houses to watch the spectacle: mother, daughter, and son were crying. A truck came to take them away, and the family disappeared. My classmate was a Buddhist. When I think of her, I think of her praying. Her mother had been one of the first people in Delhi to buy the Volkswagen Polo. They got a bright red one, and her mother didn’t believe in changing gears (I once made the life-threatening decision to accept a ride home in that Polo). When I pass by the house now, I miss the flash of red.

Madhu Limaye Marg curves gently past Satya Marg and onto a little road behind it, and across it is a little train bridge. You can make a wish when you drive under. And just there is a long alley in which my father made me practice my driving: making me go all the way till the dead end in reverse and back out again. Repetition after repetition till I was ready to cry. The mysteriously interconnected, narrow alleyways lead back to Satya Marg, where I waited every morning for my school bus. Fine friendships flowered in the sun while we waited for the bus, some that have lasted. The school bus rattled past the roundabouts and by the embassies, along the National Rose Garden that looked to be mostly thorns and grass. It was more or less the same route to the Delhi School of Music, where I had my weekly lessons: Vinay Marg to Satya Marg to Shanti Path to Nyaya Marg. Shanti Path is where a man walks backwards at an astonishing pace on Saturday mornings. (He’s trying to break a Limca world record.) My most recent discovery in this mesh of roads has been a momo shop, in the market where Satya Marg and Vinay Marg meet at right angles. Last year, I made a friend during an overnight bus journey to the heart of Rajasthan. One moment we were strangers, and the next moment we were jabbering incoherently at each other because we had so much to agree about and love together. It was freezing cold; it was unalloyed magic. We had only little spots of time to share. We met maybe thrice before he moved to England. When he returned for a brief holiday, he told me he’d be coming to Satya Marg for lunch—would I like to join him? And then he asked me, where do you live? His parents had fallen in love when they were studying at JNU, and they would come down to Yashwant Place to have momos together. They got a house in Noida after their children were born, but traveled across the state to have momos in Yashwant Place every year, or as often as they could. How amazing is it, I asked, that so many times, in the past so many years, you and I have been within a kilometer of each other, and not had a clue? How amazing is it, he asked, amused, that you’ve lived here all these years and never had these momos?