Brief notes on returning home from travel and a link to my photo essay at RIC: Journal

Kolkata is not a place that inspires indifference. It has been almost exactly one month since I left it behind, and yet my thoughts and imagination are still occupied by the city, the people I met, and the experiences I had.

Now that I’m home, with the endless winter so very slowly melting away, I am once again confronting that familiar heaviness that weighs me down and reminds me how hollow and lonely life here can be. Perhaps it is this perennial inability to fit in that drives the restless traveller on. I don’t know.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a photo essay, just published at the wonderful RIC:Journal. This is, in words an images, an attempt to hold my first encounter with India close just a little longer.

You can find my piece here. With gratitude to Saudamini Deo.

Ferries, trains and yellow cabs: Navigating Kolkata in good company

I headed to India without any clear expectations about what I might find in Kolkata. The trip seemed to arrive much faster than I could prepare myself. But just as well. I like to approach a place with an open mind, content to inhabit a small corner, tracing and retracing pathways until they become, for the moment, familiar. I anticipated a fair degree of wandering, alone and unguided. However, as fortune would have it, nearly every day I was out with a friend or acquaintance, for a walk, coffee, or a meal. The opportunity to see fragments of the city through the eyes of others—life-time residents and more recent arrivals, regular visitors and newcomers—opened up varied angles and perspectives I would never have glimpsed as a lone, foreign observer.

A kaleidoscopic view of a kaleidoscopic city.

Love it, hate it, or a complicated mix somewhere in between, it is difficult to imagine Kolkata leaving anyone indifferent. I suppose one could sit still or tread carefully from one established tourist venue to another, but quite honestly it is a city that, despite initial appearances, is more welcoming and safer to move through than one might imagine. It invites personal engagement.On my own, walking remained my default mode of locomotion and, over the course of two weeks I came to know a couple of routes well, especially the stretch of Sarat Bose Road, from my home-stay to Minto Park, a diverse, commercial street. The only public transport I would entertain was the Metro, the aged but determined subway line running across the city from north to south. There was a station close by and one morning I squashed myself into a crowded car to travel north to meet a friend outside the Central station. Together we wandered through the book-lined roads and alleys of the College Street area before joining her husband to enjoy cold coffee at the legendary Indian Coffee House which has, over the past seventy-five years, served as an important gathering place for leading intellectual, cultural and political figures.

Kolkata, at least in the older central part of the city, is conspicuous in its absence of a cluster of gleaming high-rises and commercial office towers. It appears to the outsider like an accidental city. Yet it was once the centre of an empire. Scratch the surface and a cosmopolitan quality still lingers. It has a rich artistic and cultural heritage, but the weight of history and ghosts of the past are tangible. The scars of years of decline and neglect mar the surface.

Layers of existence and subsistence share the same spaces in a manner unimaginable in other major cities. Sidewalk vendors and luxury hotels. Modern buildings beside crumbling ruins. It is a place where anyone with a burner and a pot, a few shoemaking tools, or a pair of scissors can set up business. No one is swept off the street, tucked away out of sight. A dynamic urban ecosystem exists here. At once vibrant and decaying, often side by side. As a friend of mine said, there is a place for everyone in Kolkata: “there is food for every budget. There’s space for every fatigued body and there is transport for every pocket.”

My final weekend in the city was spent in the company of this same friend who had come up from Bangalore for a few days. Together we rode ferries, hired tricycle rickshaws, and experienced the prickly hospitality (or hostility) of an assortment of Yellow Cab drivers. We started out on Saturday morning with a ride across the Hooghly River to Howrah where a rickshaw driver carried us up to the railway station. There we bought platform tickets and my friend shared his enthusiasm for train travel. He led me through a third tier A/C car, insisting that I must, at some point, experience India by rail. (I’m not quite yet confident to attempt that on my own, but challenge registered, and accepted.)

We made several more transits across the river on Saturday, with a longer ride between the Dakshineswar Kali temple and Belur Math on Sunday. These passages introduced an entirely different space and pace. The Hooghly is a wide, languid, opaque green waterway. After the sensory crush of the city, time seems suspended, but even here echoes of the past persist. A mix of magic and sadness.

My friend and I covered a lot of ground over two days, in kilometres and in conversation. At his insistence my experience of Kolkata included small pleasures I would not have otherwise entertained—water from unripened coconuts, delicious fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and peanuts and puffed rice served in bags crafted from folded newspaper. And his personal perspective on the intersection of municipal grandeur and deterioration helped me begin to frame what I’d observed during my sojourn. A walk after dark through B. B. D. Bagh (Dalhousie Square), the seat of the provincial government and central business district, was a powerful experience, inspiring and haunting in equal measure.

And what would a trip to Kolkata be, in the end, without cab rides? Yellow cabs, even.

And so I left the city carrying the intensity of the place—its mass of contradictions—as a kind of thickened stew that will take time to sift through and clarify. Calcutta. Kolkata.

I remember jammed roadways. Taxis—yellow, white and, Uber. An endless chorus of bleating car horns. Brightly coloured buses jammed with passengers. Three wheeled auto-rickshaws scooting by. Bicycles and motorcycles, sometimes with a single passenger, but more often couples, even families—father driving, mother behind sitting side saddle in a sari, and a youngster on the handlebars—typically all without helmets. The whimsical magic of the Seagull Books office, the enthusiasm of the students at the school, the ambitious and inspiring Peaceworks project. Ngūgī wa Thiong’o in conversation at the Victoria Memorial, under the open sky, surrounded by that monument to colonial glory. Towering tombs, and stalls overflowing with books. The century-old residence where I stayed and my eager, affable host, Nandu.

Coffee. Conversation. Friends.

Until we meet again.

Sifting through my experiences in Kolkata: Leading a class at the Seagull School of Publishing

I’m home from India and slowly recovering from jet lag and food poisoning. It’s the latter, acquired, most likely, on my last evening, that is really dragging the transition out—blurring the kilometres between there and here. In a strange way, the exhaustion and muscle fatigue feels like a metaphorical and physical rinsing of Kolkata out of my system.

It won’t work. I’ve been infected. By the city—and a country—that I want to return to and explore further.

For the moment though, a little distance is required so I can review, focus, and calibrate the experiences of the past two weeks. Then I can begin to weave it into words. I anticipate essays, interviews, and other projects to emerge in the coming months.  But for now, back to this space, roughghosts, to share a little more of my visit over the next few posts.

I did not travel overseas until I was in my mid-fifties. Not having had the opportunity when I was younger, I think I’d become resigned to the notion that it was something I’d never be able to afford. It is, strangely, loss that has made it possible. I live very modestly, I travel alone, and the internet has opened up a network of people to connect with across the globe. So I never feel lonely when I arrive in a strange place. Perhaps I travel to escape the loneliness of home.

My decision to go to Kolkata was spontaneous. It arose out of a chat with Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, sometime last fall. His enthusiastic response to my idle comment that “someday” I would visit, set my plans in motion. And, while an opportunity to see the store and office and meet the staff was the draw, and Ngūgī wa Thiong’o’s planned appearance in the city determined my timing, I ended up with so much more, not only from the Seagull experience but through my exploration of the city on my own and with friends.Rather than attempting to craft a whirlwind tour through a number of Indian centres, I opted to stay in place for two weeks. Cost and available time were the primary limiting factors, but I tend to prefer to be able to exist in a city for a while if I can, rather than dash through. It was a fortuitous decision. Calcutta is not only extremely affordable, but it takes at least a week to begin to learn how to “see” the city, and that has nothing at all to do with getting around or visiting tourist sites. It was only toward the end of my visit that I was beginning to appreciate how deeply my time in Kolkata stands to inform my understanding of Seagull, not just the publishing venture, but the entire Foundation for the Arts. I still need time to reflect and follow up with further conversations before I’ll be ready to write any major essays.

However, there is more. I headed to India with the idea that I would spend time engaging with my endless memoir project—reading, writing, reflecting. Yet I worried that left alone with my own literary ambitions I might be exposed to myself as a fraud. Despite my successes and accomplishments over the past few years, I still struggle with self-esteem. I feel old. Late. Writers that emerge in mid-life or later are a relative rarity in this world that celebrates the promise of the young—the 30 under 30, 40 under 40—and undervalues the possibility of those of us for whom life and circumstance have delayed entry into the creative literary environment.My anxiety was increased with the prospect of giving a presentation at the Seagull School of Publishing. When, Naveen suggested I could do “a session” with the students, I assumed he meant drop in, talk for twenty minutes or something. No stranger to public speaking, facilitation, or educational settings, I have always talked about subjects with which I had some degree of knowledge—developmental projects, brain injury, even bird feeding—but when Assistant Editor, Sayoni Ghosh, advised me that they wanted me to talk about my career (“career”??) in writing, editing, blogging, and online publishing I was taken aback. And the details? I would be leading a masterclass running from 10:30 to 1:30 with a fifteen-minute break for tea at noon.

Excuse me? What of my so-called career could I stretch into three hours?

Yet, as I started to create an outline for this effort, a strange thing happened. I knew that I had always been a naturally strong writer, something that had served me well in academic, professional, and volunteer settings since college, but I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent to which I’d been writing, editing and designing newsletters, publications, and even detailed annual reports for years—typically without the technical resources that should have been employed in the circumstances. My early efforts at one job were produced on a Smith-Corona typewriter with a simple word processing function that allowed me to print out blocks of text (and several different heads that could be exchanged for varying the font style). These blocks were then cut and carefully taped onto 11×17 inch sheets of coloured paper, photocopied and folded to produce eight-page monthly newsletters that, for the era, looked as good as professionally printed products. I fussed to avoid any telltale shadows, took care not to repeat themes or designs. In a later position, I would eventually move on to Microsoft Publisher, working under-resourced on top of my regular job responsibilities to create promotional, educational, and fundraising documents that my not-for-profit employer refused to invest in adequately. Why? Because I could not abide by the amateurish materials they had relied on before I arrived.

The difference today is that I am finally engaged in projects that are personally and creatively rewarding. I have learned to call myself a writer. Perhaps I will someday believe it.In the meantime, on the morning of February 14th, my date with masterclass destiny arrived. The previous day the students had spent the morning with German translator and musician Wieland Hoban, who has translated a number of works for Seagull, most proudly Correspondence: Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. That afternoon they’d enjoyed the warm wit and wisdom of Kenyan literary giant, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o—a session I’d also been invited to attend.

And then me. No pressure, eh?

Although my carefully created Powerpoint presentation—primarily photographic images and links to websites—baffled me and was abandoned, three hours passed easily with lively discussions of online publishing, blogging, and writing critical reviews. My intention was to promote the idea that in today’s environment, creative engagement is possible, easier and more rewarding than ever, and that it is never too late, even if one’s life or career goes sideways as life and work realities can. To that end I did briefly share my story, my gender-distracted diversions and delays that interfered with my earlier creative writing ambitions for so long. I hoped to help the students to appreciate the truly international nature of a literary community (or circles of communities) that exist and how actively engaging in that world opens opportunities on personal and professional levels no matter “when” or “where” one might be.

In keeping with the spirit at the core of a project like Seagull which started very simply, expanding slowly and organically over time, I also wanted to talk about very small indie publishing efforts. So I told them about my friend John Trefry and Inside the Castle, and how a desire to get his own first book into print has grown into a spirited little publisher, still a singular enterprise out of his own Lawrence, Kansas home, but boasting an impressive roster of authors and published titles. And to illustrate that limited resources should not restrict quality or design, I brought along a copy of Douglas Luman’s The F Text. Much to my surprise and pleasure, one of the students fell in love with it and worried that she wasn’t sure she could obtain a copy. So I gave her mine. And signed it. Which was weird, but cool.

Yesterday the same budding editor contacted me to let me know that she had written about my class for the Students’ blog on the Seagull School webpage! I feel an odd mixture of embarrassment and pride. And relief that my session was of value to the students. I’m also insanely excited that Mihika created a little erasure poem out of an excerpt from my piece, Your Body Will Betray You. What a gift!

Leading a masterclass like this is the last situation I ever expected to find myself in, and I would wager I am the real beneficiary of the opportunity. Gradually I’m learning to believe that others believe that I have something to offer.

One of the many, many precious gifts I am bringing home from Kolkata.