Write What You Don’t Know: A Writer’s Experience in India

The taxi jolted us headfirst into the bustle of New Delhi, the swell and billow of rainbow-coloured silks, sweet oils cracking through the smoky air and a shimmer of grey heat rising to meet the dusty sun. These were the sorts of things I’d only ever encountered between the comforting fug of book pages and ink. Curries swam in steel bowls. Thin dogs scattered the pavements in little wide-eyed heaps. And above all, the car horns. I quickly learned that there is no place like India for screaming car horns and sputtering tuk tuks, swerving like stampeding herds across the dusty fug of the big city.

India was another world. From what I’d seen in films and read about in books, India had always seemed to me to be dazzling, strange, colossal and terrifying. India was not for ‘safe’ people like me.

And yet, there I was, having just spent the last sleepless hours tugging my rucksack through Heathrow, heart bumping against my ribs as I waited to board the flight to Delhi.

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Taking the title from Glyn Jones’s classic novel The Valley, The City, The Village, the project involved a group of writers from each country visiting India and Wales respectively, focusing on aspects of modern society in locations referenced in the title and engaging with these through writing poetry, prose, blogs and stories. The project was generously funded by a grant from Wales Arts International and British Council’s India Wales Fund. The India Wales Fund is a joint initiative between Wales Arts International and the British Council.

And it’s something I’ll always be grateful for.

I’d always been taught to “write what you know”. It’s advice we’ve been spoon-fed since our English lessons at school, when the teachers would assign us tasks to write about familiar scenes; whether that’s ‘A Day at the Beach’ or ‘The Best Day of My Life’ or ‘The Scariest Thing That Ever Happened to Me’. It had got us all thinking, but not too hard as we scribbled furiously clock of the exam hall. The events had never needed to be outlandish; the words just had to be right. Later, those of us with an interest in the arts were advised the same; stick with what you know best in order to get the highest marks.

And it’s solid advice if you want to create something convincingly and from the heart. But is this advice conducive to creative growth and development?

One thing was for certain: I didn’t know India. And there was a whole lot of writing to be done.

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There were four others travelling with me from Wales, some of whom probably sound familiar: Sophie McKeand, author of Rebel Sun, Sion Tomos Owen, author of Cawl and presenter and creator of Pobl Y Rhondda on S4C, Gary Raymond, author of The Golden Orphans and editor of Wales Arts Review, and Richard Davies, head of Parthian Books. Part of the joy of travelling is getting to really know your fellow travellers; experiencing together the highs and lows of navigating an unfamiliar country with an almost alien culture. Human contact is key to maintaining motivation, encouraging creativity through collaboration, challenging your perspective and allowing you to be at your most vulnerable and self-reflective. Moving out of your comfort zone challenges you to deal with unexpected situations and emotions.

And the power to be vulnerable is such a key thing when it comes to developing creativity. As Sylvia Plath so perfectly expressed it, “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”.

In the Valley, City, Village project, Varanasi was our valley; a far cry from the Welsh hillsides of the valleys we were used to, tinged with smoke and mizzling rain. Here, incense threaded every doorway of our Varanasi guesthouse where artwork sprawled the vibrant walls. At night, tiles cool beneath our feet, we watched the river Ganges slither under the moon. Jetlag brought long hours awake with my notebook, trying to find the words.

And yet, for some reason, they became stuck. I could pluck a line, here and there, and snap it like a fly between my notebook. Yet, frustratingly, my pen nib sat still as a record needle upon the page. Utterly wordless. One particular night, we drank black coffee on a rooftop café and listened to the traffic below; the incessant car horns, the hiss of fried pastries, hollered snatches of Hindi and pale dogs curled in the dirt. To the natives, this was normality. Nothing to see here. Just another day. And yet to us this was dazzlingly new. So why wasn’t I producing at least a poem a day?

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Five in the morning. Make-up-less (for once), bleary-eyed and yawning, I clambered into a rowboat, watching the first curls of smoke roll out across the Ganges. As the sun emerged, bright as a peach from the water, chains of marigolds drifting around us, we glanced from our boats to the early workers, slapping and wringing clothes upon the steps. I put my notebook away.

I let India do the talking.

***

Of course there were low points too. I’m not going to pretend there weren’t; that’s life and it’s never straightforward. But that’s what keeps things interesting and gives you something to laugh (and write) about later. Perhaps the lowest was discovering for ourselves the punctuality of Indian trains (spoiler: there is no punctuality). Every hour, we’d get up and check the board only to see another hour delayed.

This went on for 25 hours. I almost started missing Arriva.

We crunched mindlessly through countless bags of spiced crisps, napped against the concrete, watched the Indian version of X Factor at least four times over and watched Sophie pressing her hands to the muzzles of young cows, making friends of the four-legged variety. As I jotted another few notes into my notebook in between snatches of Duolingo Hindi, Gary pleaded to give up and get a plane and Sion flicked his eyes from sketchpad to people, chuckling to himself as the stress levels around him rose.

Rich, on the other hand, remained blissfully calm.

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25 hours later, we were huddled on bunks, on our way to Kolkata. As the overnight train clicked over the tracks, sliding down past wet paddy fields and hillsides bobbled with thin goats, it quickly became clear that one cannot treat India as simply one country – with its range of wonderful cuisines, impressive array of languages and spectacular landscapes, I found myself waking up in one city and thanking everyone with dhanyavaad, only to step off a train and start having to use shukriyaa. Bengali and Hindi roll like silk on the tongue.

This is the only time in my life I have fallen asleep, fully-dressed, hugging a muddy pair of boots and a packet of salted peanuts.

***

Let me make a confession to you – I don’t like big cities. I’m a typical Swansea girl, raised in a city that barely surpasses being a town, used to long afternoon runs along the bay, relaxed ambles around the Gower coast and am on first-name terms with the checkout staff of the local Sainsbury’s. I get anxious visiting my best friends in London, overwhelmed by the 8 million strangers bustling on and off the tubes, so imagine what it was like to visit Kolkata where everything is not only breakneck speed but everything is so culturally unfamiliar.

Yet there was something that even now calls me back to return. I found myself falling in love with its loud yellow taxis, garish storefronts and rich culture. The whole city throbbed with life.

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Let me make another confession – to this day, the best day of my life was not a friend’s wedding day, or a significant birthday, or even my graduation. It was this one.

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Publication day of my book, And Suddenly You Find Yourself, at Kolkata Literary Festival, with the wonderful people of British Council, Bee Books and Wales’s own Parthian. During this time, we were treated to three full days of back-to-back literary talks, panels, readings and discussions, all set against the backdrop of the world’s largest non-trade book fair.

In preparation, we’d filmed a promotional video for it around various places we’d visited; from dusty streets, to the banks of the Ganges, and the polished hallways of the gorgeous hotels used as venues for after-parties. It was the most nervous I’ve ever been, to read to the biggest audience I’ve ever faced in my life (the festival itself attracts over 2.5 million visitors every year), but it was one of the only times I’ve ever indulged in a happy cry (once we’d finished connecting and clinking drinks with all the other writers and publishers from across the world – a treat after another night spent with my head under the hard hostel pillow, earphones jammed into my skull, trying to drown out the sound of all-night festival drumming, car horns and dripping taps). And that’s saying something. Usually I convey all the emotion of a garden deckchair.

We embarked on tours of the city, drawing inspiration. Women plucked oranges from neat pyramids of fruit, cats ribboned around the feet of fishmongers and businessmen hollered over their spice jars and steaming cupfuls of chai. We huddled, awestruck and pale inside the opulent stone courtyards of babas, saw the great puja idols being constructed in electric colour and delved into the historical and religious background of Hinduism, Buddhism, Parsee, Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Within those hours, we quickly learned that Kolkata and its people are as culturally rich, unique and spiritual as they are charming.

And it was during this time that my notebook began to swell.

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***

Finally, it was time to see another side of India; a less chaotic but no less inspiring experience: The Sunderbans jungle. The ‘Village’ of our three-part tour. We were actually staying in an eco-lodge near a tiger reserve, nestled between the mangroves and the warm, green pools nobody in their right mind would swim in apart from Richard Davies.

We hear the term flung around as an afterthought in song lyrics all the time: ‘deafening silence’. Usually used to describe that stubborn not-talking phase in the run-up to a break-up. But I never really understood it until we wrapped ourselves in blankets at the lodges, with no light to distract us but the tiny stars blistered over the cool Indian sky. No traffic. No snatched outside conversation. Just the slow hiss of leaves in the breeze and the comforting eddy of our own breathing.

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That was what was so pertinent about this part of the trip: the silence. The stopping. The noticing of the little things that otherwise get swept up and washed away in the rush of everyday life. Despite spotting long white crocodiles, dragging their bellies and squatting on the banks of the river; despite the fresh heat of cooked and curried fish from the day’s catch; despite the bright flush of birds and dried tiger tracks, one of my most memorable moments was in fact being crouched in the bathroom with our early-morning daily bucket of hot water, just washing my hair. With the breeze slipping in through the window and bare knees pressed to the wood, there was something special about just appreciating the feel of the warm water tickling my neck and watching the ends of my hair lift, weightless, against the water. After so long jumping strategically in and out of freezing showers and rushing, flustered, between literary events, those moments of being in the now felt precious.

And isn’t that what poetry is all about? Noticing. Feeling. Seizing the now.

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It’s a cliché, isn’t it? “Oh, I’m going to India to find myself.” I didn’t go there for an Eat, Pray, Love experience. And though I didn’t have any moment of epiphany or decision to change myself, the truth is, breaking out of that comfort zone did change me. It changed me to the extent that within a year I found myself unexpectedly single following a broken engagement and my first reaction was not to go to bed, snivel into the cat’s fur with a bottle of wine and watch Bridget Jones every night after work for a week straight (well…okay, I did a little bit). But I managed to pick myself up, instead realising that I was about to leap into the unknown, just as I did arriving at Delhi airport in February last year.

Coming back, I knew I’d return, even if just for short breaks (I love my job too much to leave for any longer!). When I tried again to write about Swansea, I found myself contrasting it with India, the grey BT tower grappling to touch the skies of Kolkata, the Ganges for the iron slug of the Tawe. And so I’ve started saving to go back for a two-week visit, my novella finished, a debut novel almost done, and now ready to start that second collection to give more of a voice to my Indian experience. After a year-and-a-half of writer’s block, it’s time to get productive again.

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If someone offers you the chance to go and have an international experience, just take it with both hands. This could be the start of your best work yet.

It’s just hidden in the unknown, waiting for you to find it.   

   

 

 

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