Okay, the clichés: from the perspective of a north European, it is hot, it is noisy, it is chaotic, or at least the corners I saw were, and it is peculiarly uplifting.
To be honest I was worried my poetry wouldn’t travel well to India. I thought: this is poetry written in, and for, a miserable cold country, surely it’ll just melt in India and make a terrible mess in my bag. In fact I think it did melt a bit. As in, I’m not sure it had the same consistency read to Indian audiences. I think it seemed peculiarly obsessed with the seizing up of its own culture and I felt perhaps it lacked a kind of gentleness. That was the trouble with India, it made me wonder about my own culture and the whole idea of culture generally.
Let’s talk about elephants. I admit I hugged an elephant’s trunk. I have a photo of it and I look embarrassed which is quite as it should be. I ate curry for breakfast, lunch and supper for eleven days and I didn’t get a bad stomach about which I’m perhaps inordinately proud. The first hotel had a phone next to each lavatory which was presumably provided for the English people unable to rise from a seated position for the duration of their stay but who could at least with the phone order room service of toast and tea.
The audiences were amazing. I was asked to read and then do Q&As for an hour and sometimes an hour and a half or more. On the first occasion my audience was 13-15 year olds. I thought: they’ll be bored in five minutes and won’t have any questions. In fact they were the most extraordinary audience I’d ever read to. First of all they sang a prayer which had the effect of bringing tears to my eyes (I had to concentrate on the sensation of pain I induced by pinching my thigh to stop myself breaking down completely and creating a diplomatic incident), and then they listened, and then they asked the most pertinent and sensitive questions I’ve ever been asked about my poems and the characters in them and the cynicism they sometimes project. It was clear that they had read some of my writing and that they had wondered about it.
Everywhere I went the reactions were pretty much similar and the people, both from the British Council and the students at the colleges and universities I visited were extraordinarily welcoming and generous. I went to Jaipur, Chennai, Pune and Chandigarh. Each place very distinct and amazing in its own way, Jaipur with it’s wonderfully haphazard old city, Chennai with its intoxicating heat, Pune with its comparatively laid back charm, and Chandigarh, one of the most astonishing places I think I’ve ever visited anywhere – a Corbusier designed city through whose grid flows India. They seem so opposed, the European didactic town planning and the clamorous, unrestrained Indian way of life, but they come together (or seemed to in my two day stay) in a way that feels completely harmonious. It was like a kind of enormous Portmeirion (I’ve never been but I’ve watched The Prisoner) built seemingly in a day and set down in that extraordinary location.
My trip was in two parts, the first with my fellow poets Melissa Lee-Houghton and Luke Kennard in Jaipur, and the rest travelling alone through the other three cities. It was lovely to spend time with Melissa and Luke, and it was fabulous also to travel for a while alone. All in all it was a fabulous experience. My thanks to The British Council in India for organising the tour and for being such great hosts.