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Calm Before the Storm

Posted on 11/06/2013
By Commonwealth Foundation

Farah Ghuznavi Visiting Writers Calm
In 2012, when Sambha Lamarr decided to organise her first literary festival in Shillong, set amidst the lushly forested hills and scenic gorges of Meghalaya in north-eastern India, she was sure of only one thing: it was going to be called the CALM Fest. “Everyone said that I was crazy, that this wasn’t a word that people wanted to associate with a cultural event. But I decided I would worry about what the acronym meant later, I just knew it was the vibe I wanted for the festival – one of peace and relaxation,” she said. And eventually, Sambha found a way to work out the acronym as well, with CALM showcasing the ‘creative arts, literature and music’.
As a panellist at the 2013 CALM Fest, I soon found that this was one event which really lived up to its billing. Very different from the buzz surrounding most lit fests, the gathering felt more like an intimate dinner party attended by a group of friends. The conversations – both on and off stage – were relaxed and accessible, even though the topics under discussion were often complex and intensely felt. And while I hadn’t known many of the participants when I arrived in Shillong, I left the pretty little town with some promising new friendships tucked away in the corners of my suitcase.
There was much to enjoy at the festival: book launches by local writers, as well as by big-name authors; stimulating conversations between creative minds; debates and discussions on everything from writing and publishing (as you would expect), to social issues like mental health services and the quality of life in retirement homes (topics you are less likely to encounter at the average lit fest); and a series of workshops on poetry, creative writing and photography for those who were interested in developing their skills. Fortunately, the lack of parallel sessions made it possible to enjoy everything that the festival had to offer without having to sacrifice some events in order to attend others.

Photo Credit: Deepanjana Pal

With most of the action taking place during the afternoon and evening hours, the organisers offered us sightseeing visits to nearby Cherrapunjee – famous for the world’s highest annual rainfall levels, as well as its stunning views of Meghalaya’s green-clad vistas and plunging waterfalls – and the Sacred Forest, which you had to enter with a native guide and where you were encouraged to take nothing in with you and to bring nothing out of the forest. The serenity and stillness of the forest fit well with the theme of the festival.
The panel discussions though, were invariably lively. Novelist and publisher David Davidar raised a fundamental question about why writers do what they do, saying, “It’s amazing how many people want to write novels. After all, if you think about it, writing is manual labour. You have to put down one word and then the next and so on. And then to write a novel of about 80,000 words, you have to write about five times that much. That’s about 400,000 words.”
His calculations – and the questions that they raised about the sanity of those bent on writing a novel – reminded me of the uncomfortable findings of a recent study by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. It found that creativity is often linked to mental illness (notably anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder), with writers being particularly susceptible. There are of course some well-known cases of comedians who suffer from depression – though there is something decidedly counter intuitive about that.
As it happened, mental illness itself was a major topic of discussion at CALM 2013, especially during the launch of Jerry Pinto’s award-winning book “Em and the Big Hoom” (shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize). The novel is loosely based on the family’s experience of living with Jerry’s mother Em, who had bipolar disorder, and the role played by his father – nicknamed “the Big Hoom” – in managing to hold things together. It’s a searing, tender, deeply moving work, and the panel discussion on mental health challenges was painfully moving too.
Among other things, Jerry spoke of why he had left out much of his childhood from the book; how the twin pressures of wanting to speak out angrily on behalf of his mother – and feeling that the expectations of his own masculinity required him to protect her – collided with his fear that people would dismiss his youthful efforts by saying “mad mother, mad son”. In the book, he also mentions how much he wanted to visit the “tower”, where Em was kept a distant prisoner of her troubled mind, recognising even then that he only ever wanted to be a visitor, not a resident.
Dr. Sandy Syiem, a psychiatrist who runs an remarkable, patient-centred mental health facility in Shillong and is a passionate advocate for the rights of the mentally ill, was also a member of the panel. He shared the alarming statistic that 90% of psychiatric patients in India do not have access to the treatment that they need. The discussion that followed was thought-provoking, and elements of it will haunt me for some time to come.
Jerry spoke of how on one occasion, when he tried to help an elderly, mentally ill woman whom he and his friend encountered on a train, no hospital would take her in because he couldn’t provide them with her name. While they were running from one hospital to another, Em called Jerry to find out why he wasn’t home yet. When he explained what he was doing, his mother responded, “What, one mad old woman in your life isn’t enough for you?!” In the end, it was the nuns at Mother Teresa’s hospice ‘Asha Daan’, who not only took the old woman in, but thanked Jerry for giving them a chance to serve.
Many panel discussions yielded nuggets of wisdom worth treasuring, as well as some practical advice that I shall probably revisit from time to time. Like the confessions of novelist Stephen Alter, who spoke of his dismay at hearing from a publisher that he had to remove certain sections from his manuscript before the book would be accepted for publication. Rather sneakily, Steve edited out the offending sections, and subsequently re-inserted the individual fragments throughout the manuscript. With some trepidation, he then enquired if the “edited” manuscript was acceptable. To his amazement, the publisher informed him that it was now perfect! So, as he pointed out, one strategy for writers reluctant to accept over-enthusiastic edits, is to be “creative” in their use of cut-and-paste options…
Photo Credit: Deepanjana Pal

On one of my own panels, somewhat dogmatically titled “Publish or Perish”, I took what might be the less popular view that it’s really not that simple. Of course anyone who is writing and putting work out there wants people to read it and enjoy it. But I suspect that many of us would continue to write even if no one was reading it – however sad we might be about the lack of interest. I am quite frank about the fact that for me writing is essentially a compulsion. There are times when I feel haunted by the stories of people, real or imaginary, which take up residence in my head. Putting them down on paper is for me a way of setting them aside and moving on, in the hope that releasing them into the world will also effectively release them out of my head. Because honestly, the alternative just doesn’t bear thinking about!
After a three-day festival that reflected all the enjoyment, passion and intensity of its various sessions, the CALM Fest ended on a tempestuous note. The kalbaishakhi (spring storm) sprang up out of nowhere, bringing with it dark clouds and a breeze that whipped the tropical vegetation into a memorable display of sound and fury. One of the writers, Indrajit Hazra, described the storm-clouded sky with an image of “black horses hurtling across a furious sky-river.” The sudden, operatic display ended as abruptly as it had begun – such seasonal storms are often characterised by their brevity. A fresh, chill breeze followed, blowing away the clouds and bringing a sense of lightness in the surprisingly serene wake of the tempest. All in all, we agreed, it was an appropriate conclusion to a literary festival held in Meghalaya, which means the “abode of the clouds”.