Simar Preet Kaur’s writing has appeared in a range of publications including Commonwealth Writers, National Geographic Traveler, COLORS and Papercuts. She began as a travel writer and was the editor of in-flight magazine JetWings in Bombay before moving to the mountains. Simar received a Sangam House Fellowship in 2015. In 2016 she was awarded the Charles Wallace Fellowship at University of Stirling, where she continued work on her first book – a fiction set in the Himalayas.
Long before arriving in Stirling I had settled on my guides. Through Robert MacFarlane I discovered Nan Shepherd, and through her I hoped to find all the northern wilderness that makes their Scotland special. The project I intended to work on during the fellowship was immersed in close study of landscape; geography had been a constant preoccupation.
In an unexpected reversal though, it was the countryside that walked indoors. I got to know Orkney Islands inside the Stirling University library, became acquainted with a most remarkable tree in a Cambridge college lawn and – the best surprise – found my imagined Himalayas in a subterranean reading room at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
The welcoming silence of the university campus with its lake and surrounding hills has been a source of inspiration for many writers. But for me the fellowship marked a transition from a Himalayan village to a Western town. It jumbled my adjectives – is ‘quiet’ filled with Indian fairs or Scottish cars? It confused my nouns – could a village remain a village with a Hoover cleaning its homes? In fact, it took a trip south to figure my coordinates. Only when enough Londoners had said “Oh you’re living out there!” did the wonderful realisation of being ‘up north’ feel complete. From then on, it was my wish against my flatmates’; they pined for spring while I hoped for an endless winter.
I believe the Scottish wind and I became good friends. It accompanied me to the library, pushed me up the steps to Pathfoot Building, came with me to buy lemon curd and crumpets from the supermarket, sounded its approval of my conversations about the Highlands with the night porter in Lyon Crescent, and it did all of this in a most playful fashion. Such that during a spell of sleet – as predicted by BBC – it could make each raindrop dance to a different tune. The wind got my project moving despite the vast distance that separated the story from the subject.
What I’ve brought back from Stirling is a fresh perspective afforded by writing about the Himalayas on the other side of the world. Place comparisons are an inevitable cliché for a traveller in a foreign land, but three months are a considerable time to add some depth to observations. The process was made easier by post-lunch coffee breaks with the university’s Literature and Languages department. They are a most jolly crew, and patient too for responding to my never-ending queries on grass and heather and lochs.
The Cairngorms, which I never got around to visiting, will be a reason to return to Scotland, but in the meantime I’ll remember Stirling as a windy home where a story learnt to walk.