Annie Zaidi (2005-06)
Time at Stirling
There are some things I will never forget about Stirling. My first sight of daffodils, for instance. The poem ‘Daffodils’ was on our school syllabus and I simply did not get the fuss. But as soon as I arrived, I found Angela Smith bringing in a bunch of cut daffodils, arranging them in a vase in the apartment. Under the forever shifting greys of the spring sky, the ever-present risk of rain, the intense yellow of daffodils began to make sense. I finally do get the fuss!
The campus ducks were another source of joy. The students continually overfed them, as did I. We discreetly vied for their attention and I remain curious about their cookie-fattened fates.
I came to Stirling in 2006, a young journalist relieved at the hesitant acceptance of her fledgling poems in an anthology of new writing in India, and thrilled to be ‘writer in residence’ somewhere. I had intended to work on a first novel and once I got to Stirling, I took my writerly self very seriously for nearly four weeks. I wrote at least six hours a day.
When I couldn’t think of what to do with the story, I would start writing poems instead. I must have written at least four or five quite decent poems over those two months. When I did not feel like writing poems, I would write a diary. Being naturally reserved and socially diffident at the time, I did not know what to do except write and take short walks around the campus for the first few weeks. Eventually, I did see parts of Stirling, including the campus, Wallace monument (the Mel Gibson-modelled statue is a story I continue to dine off), and Glasgow.
But despite my reluctance to get out of the campus, those weeks was an incredibly enriching cultural experience. I don’t even have to open my Stirling diary to recall that one of the most rousing contemporary dance performances I have ever seen was on the campus. The first time I sat in on a ‘lively’ academic conversation about pop culture imagery was at the English department. I am not a literature post-graduate and had never participated in ‘university life’. Presentations of papers on specific aspects of literature, intense yet civilized debates about art – this was new to me. It was energizing and soothing to be a guest in an environment where the meanings and intent of words mattered.
At the end of about ten weeks, I thought I had a first draft of a novel. Back home, I decided I had no such thing. In fact, I decided that the whole book was a false start and that I did not want to write a novel at this stage. I extracted two chapters I really liked and used them as inter-linked short stories in a book ‘The Good Indian Girl’, which I later co-wrote with Smriti Ravindra.
What I did have were the new poems. Poems which had come out of me being in a new place, needing to look at myself and explain myself in new ways. Poems that I began to read out in public. I think an important writing lesson I learnt after those eleven weeks in Stirling was to keep writing what I can write. Whatever my inner self is leaning towards, to allow it.
I try to write in as many ways as I can. I like testing myself against genre and form. That’s how I continue to write and grow. And I think being at Stirling was an important first step in this process. Journaling, for instance, has become a habit since 2006 and I have learnt to enjoy it for its own sake – a space that encourages the dropping of artifice and pretensions to craft, and yet capture the beauty and bewilderment of the moment.
Let me end then with a paragraph from my Stirling diary:
“In Delhi winters, at six, the sun has set. The sky is a confirmed shade of grey, fast turning to black. Within half an hour, it’s night. A noisy, bus-filled, horn-filled, smoky black. But decidedly black.
Last night, I was surprised by another thing here. There was light until eight. Even at nine, it was still evening. A blue, blue light. A deep blue that was short of midnight and nowhere near royal. A blue that I’ve not seen as ink or even in illustrated fairy-tale books. But there was a familiarity to it. I couldn’t describe that blue but if you’ve ever used water colours, there’s a shade called ‘Prussian Blue’ in the big boxes. Prussian comes close. I like to use it to describe the sky of last night though it means nothing. What does Prussian Blue mean? Prussia was a kingdom. To one side of Russia. Maybe the soldiers wore it. Maybe the king wore it… who knows? I think of it as a bottle in my watercolour box. I think of it as the sky at nine in the night, in Stirling.”
Creative writing extracts
So often, this sort of thing will happen.
A man will meet a woman and find his voice
is deeper than a well in the sort of village the
Central Ground Water Board has notified ‘dark’, where
you aren’t allowed to dig tube-wells any more, and you need
to be registered with the district authorities
to get a new hand-pump outside the kitchen, and where
you itch all over, after a bath.
Or, a woman will meet a man and will find that her eyes
are flood-prone: low-lying swamps, the sort into which
the rubbish of decades of suburban non-planning has been tossed,
making them look hard when actually, you could just sink
into them. Especially when it rains.
Often, a man will meet a woman and find that his gut
is a sort of womb: a space in which something grows
from seed to obsession, where his roots curl into the certainty of failure.
An instinctive sort of space that swells and contracts and
even bursts. Like a second, misplaced heart.
Or, a woman will meet a man and will find
her arms are collapsible, like a set of folding chairs
creaking in the sort of balcony that gets swept once
a week by a servant who has turned into a domestic cry
for help: a servant with fifty layers of lard dimpling
her elbows and a lumpy belly, who stares off into space
leaving the chairs out in the rain, rusting.
Often, a man will meet a woman and find
a mountain on his back: a dusty hump at the base of his neck,
floating low like brown fog, and things are uphill
or downhill from here on. But there is no stopping
from here on.
Or, a woman will meet a man and find the distance from
highway to home triples overnight, and that some nights
are three times as long as others: when bad news
has crawled back all the way from the city center, riding
between sheets of the morning paper, which arrived two hours after
he left the house, six rotis wrapped in the torn aanchal of her oldest saree.
The sort of night that cannot bear to end.
So often, this sort of thing happens, that a man and a woman find
a word buried behind the balls of their eyes, and they dig all around.
They will speak of fish, the price of things, the temperature outside.
They will bite into the word held as a cube of ice in their throats.
They have seen mountains fold up in despair, but they swear
they will beat another year out of this one: hauling home a cutting wind
or boiling river, or a flower. They will kidnap oasis noons to string a sagging cot.
They will not say it, but they will sit, dumb, defiant of what may come.
A Flesh Poem About War
After they put us on a high flame
and left us to cook on their new law
of deserting forests, our practised enemy
riffled through the contents of our heart.
They wanted our stash of weapons,
our snake stones, and evidence of black
magic. It was war, although their prissy law
squirms at calling things by name. Enemies
are called rebels; rebels are bleeding hearts
who read too much; infrastructure is a weapon
they can deploy against the charms of black
bodied machine guns; sex is a flame
fanned by legs; breasts are the real enemy.
We were hobbled by laughter. Our heart
convulsed to think of soft flesh as weapons
in the mouths of newborns, as if their black
toothless mouths could hold a flame
to flesh. Flesh gives life - this is the law
of breasts and legs and eyes and heart.
But what did we know? Their first weapon
is the eye. It falls on rivers, pierces black
rock for atomic secrets that can set aflame
the whole world. We did not know laws
of alchemy could make mineral into enemy
wealth and that wealth is a basilisk weapon.
After they motored down to cast black
eyes of iron upon our red earth, flames
shot up from mud walls. Ever since, no law
of the forest will hold. Tiger lick their enemies.
Hyenas sharpen their nails on our hearts.
We stand with the crop all night, blackly
imploring the sky to pour. We stand like flames,
all tongue, swearing upon the gods that the laws
of tree and river are on our side. Our enemy
comes. We can hear them. Their rocky hearts
are knocking, clicking like triggered weapons.
Sky, take our black magic tongue. Hold our flaming
heart, forest. The laws of hunger will decide this war.
Quick! The enemy comes, weapons cradled to his breast.
Missing Person Report
When you went missing, Nilofer, we didn't think we had anything to do with it.
We thought of accident, rape, bodies in dumpers. We visited Deonar, Nilofer,
to describe hair parted down the middle and flesh of eighteen, twenty, just in case
chunks of flesh was all they could find. We thought next of men, of boys.
Each unaccounted smile we remembered in your eyes, we caught it on the street
and roughed it up. We did a count of heads that had turned. We printed posters, Nilofer,
with your name and face and all our phone numbers and then we chased that trail
of paper across six suburbs to say, again, in two new languages, that we were still fretting
over a girl who would not return. Then we thought you would just come back like a mewling kitten
in the monsoon. And then we were suddenly tight on cash and anyway, we had other things to do.
You stayed missing. We thought if you cared enough to return, you would. And you should. After all
we did for you... and then we began to think about what we did to you when you went missing, Nilofer.