To get to the dance village of Nrityagram from the Bengaluru airport, you have to drive past ostrich and duck farms, a bovine sperm laboratory, and vineyards before finally arriving at the Odissi dance gurukul where students and practitioners of dance retire for up to seven years to hone their craft. For four months every year, the Kula Artists’ Residence in Nrityagram also hosts writers and translators from India and abroad for four weeks each, as part of the Sangam House International Writer’s Residency.
After ten successful years, Sangam House is inexplicably still the only funded residency for writers in India. There are multiple retreats in India which offer valuable workshops by eminent writers and residencies where one can pay for room and board yet none actively sponsor a writer’s stay so they can concentrate on their writing. The other limitation of these retreats is that they usually last one or two weeks.Writers take time away from their day jobs, from their need to make money, and from their domestic responsibilities, to work on their projects. Writing requires time, space and sanity and nowhere in India besides Sangam House funds writers with those resources. It awarded me – a poet without a book to her name – the Bianca Pancoat Patton Fellowship which supports the work of young women writers in India.
As I prepared for my four weeks at the residency, I made lists of books to read, of items to take along to stave off homesickness or boredom (paints, crime novels, string lights, ginger tea bags), of concerns I had with my manuscript, of stationery to carry. Though I had attended workshops and retreats in the past, Sangam House was going to be my first residency. I had applied with my first manuscript of poems whose core had been written, but its strengths still needed to be fleshed out before it went to press in the summer of 2018. All I knew was that I wanted to leave Sangam House with a book I was proud of. Yet I had no idea what to expect.
Dancers, dogs and dragonflies
Imagine a house. One with a garden, two champa trees, a pair of resident ravens, a courtyard which all the rooms open into, an open-air sitting area with a long green communal table, leather sofas and chairs partially occupied by dogs, and no less than five bottles of mosquito repellent strewn around the place. Imagine a stillness lightly punctured by the buzz of dragonflies in the evenings, dance rehearsals in the afternoons, and the clamour of breakfast utensils in the mornings.
I stayed in a corner room called Sri close to the amphitheatre where the Odissi dancers were practising from dawn to dusk ahead of a big performance. I grew so accustomed to the drum beats, clap rhythms, and instructions called out by the dance gurus that I could read, write or sleep through them like they were the comforting sounds of a ceiling fan. I sat in a deck chair and read my carefully curated list of books, which was crucial for the experience.
The perfect reading list
In poetry, I had the company of Dorianne Laux’s What We Carry, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish, and Naomi Shihab Nye’s Selected Poems. Once a week, we read out our work to the rest of the residents, if we wanted. We listened to readings in Dutch, Gujarati, and Nepali, and we heard everything from travelogues to novel excerpts to academic research on dance. One time instead of sharing my own work, I read out poems by Aimee and Dorianne and spoke about how their handling of the themes of family and love moved me.
The novel I read in bed every night was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead because I needed to be alone and apart as I read it. It explored the unanswerable question of why some people are predisposed to feeling lonely. Few writers quiet and ground me the way Robinson does – I needed that clear and sombre frame of mind as I edited my poems.
I read Diane Ackerman’s Dawn Light out in the sunshine. I remember places by the books I have read in them. As I read Ackerman’s lines describing the sun “pouring a thick yellow vitamin into our eyes”, two mating yellow butterflies battled each other downwards into the grass in the garden. My mind both empties out and fills in these moments – the cacophony exits, and the stillness settles in.
Alone in the company of others
During my weeks at Sangam House, I said goodbye to two writers, and welcomed two more. In this way, my cohort of about eight people shuffled, with a core group of us growing close. The languages among us included Urdu, Hindi, Nepali, Gujarati, Dutch and English. Make enough cups of ginger tea together and people are bound to grow on each other.
The image of a writer working in solitude is a popular one, but it takes a very particular sort of person to lock themselves away in a hotel room like Maya Angelou did when she wrote. I am not that sort of person. In the residency, I could lock myself away when I wanted but I could also re-enter the world when I chose. It was a gift to live in a house where people understood when I said I had to excuse myself to write, that I struggled in the morning to edit the ending to a poem, or that I spent the afternoon asleep after a tiring morning of writing.
On Mondays, we cooked and fed ourselves. Sometimes it was spinach pasta, sometimes tomato and ginger soup, sometimes chicken curry and parathas. Sometimes, we stepped out in autos (with our remote location we had to phone for these autos in advance) to the nearest village café in Hesaraghatta where we ate masala dosas and washed them down with filter coffee. I was happiest on these Mondays, chopping and stirring. The local village was surprisingly famous for its mushrooms – button and oyster – that we travelled an extra mile to procure.
If all of this seems frivolous, I want to reinforce it is not. We all needed acts without words in those days of intense writing. For N, who was so accustomed to working daily on her farm, it was walking – every evening she climbed over a gate to walk through open fields and red earth. For me, it was cycling and cooking. For others, it was watching the dancers rehearse and most crucially sitting and doing nothing. Personally, I find writing a fragile process which must be bolstered and protected by other activities.
And finally, the writing
The fragile writing I lugged to Sangam House was my first manuscript of poems, Mudscope, which had been through several iterations already. Armed with a new set of suggestions from my publisher, I set to work on what I hoped would be one of my final drafts. I wrote new poems, tossed aside older, beloved ones because they didn’t feel right for this collection, and tightened others by smoothening line breaks, omitting words which jarred, and asking myself over and over if this is really what I wanted to say.
There’s something utterly fascinating about one’s first collection of poetry. The questions one finds one’s self with demand our utmost, deepest attention – is this the all of it? How can I better celebrate and critique this life? If something sounds hollow, is it because I have not broached its depth yet? If I love this poem, and I know I must give it away, am I hesitating because I love the memory in it or do I love how I felt when I first wrote it? This is the circle I sat in at Sangam House, with my sheaf of poems, asking myself again and again – is it good enough? Does it say something of meaning?
I removed fifteen of my technically strongest poems because I wasn’t satisfied with the answers to these questions. Some didn’t adequately address my privilege, some told a story that wasn’t mine to tell, some simply did not belong thematically in this collection. I sat on that green table, swatted away mosquitoes, and toiled. At the close of my time, I had a new draft of my book to send to my editor.