A writer in residence is a strange beast. When you arrive in a big university, especially one which is known for engineering courses and such, you are stranger than strange. This is how I felt on my first day at NTU. Here I was, a writer trying to make a residence in a country I had not visited for more than twenty years. A writer transported in five and a half hours from noisy, throbbing-with-life Delhi to a jungle — manicured, but a jungle all the same — with the nearest MRT in a place appropriately called Boon Lay.
I began to make friends, slowly, cautiously, with the jungle. Of course this was made easier by the fact that a jungle as tended as NTU would be called a park in India. I fell in love with the way the trees outside my windows rain leaves all day long, like gentle weeping, or blessings. I re-learnt the meaning of “lush”; I admired the way tree trunks, moss and fern live together on such intimate terms. And the ghosts of history – they are there too around the residence where I am a writer in NTU. There’s a lake I can just about see from my window. I have heard that this lake, freshly cleaned and set up for (licensed) fishing, was once the setting for politically committed students to talk, argue and sing late into the night.
Like so many parts of the world, Singapore too is a palimpsest, though a tiny one.
As in all new places, the physical landscape began to give way, over the weeks, to the human one: my students, new friends among the faculty, new friends off campus, writers and those who certainly don’t write or even, perhaps, read. The world outside the campus took shape.
But so did the classroom in the campus. My students: there were just fifteen of them, but as in all good classes, they made a challenging mix. There were several Chinese Singaporeans. The first day, a few told me they speak “Chinese” in addition to English. I coaxed information on Mandarin and a smattering of “grandmother dialects” out of them so they could view their multi-lingual wealth. The Malay students brought their own texture of details about food, strong women, and lingering religious or cultural practices to the writing exercises we did in class. The international exchange students – whether from Korea, Taiwan or Scotland — began to probe, through discussion and writing, their newfound awareness of the homes they had left behind. And as in all vibrant mixes, there was a Punjabi – a Singaporean kudi who had lost little of the admirable Punjabi verve and boldness.
The boys were a little inhibited about all this effeminate “writing the self” at first. The girls got the hang of it more quickly. Both boys and girls had to figure out how to stretch the personal into a bigger, more complex space.
By the time we were done with classes, we had all become friends, or so I would like to think. Maybe we had even hatched a few writerly eggs among us. There may be a new batch of almost-writers conducting experiments with words and ideas in the NTU jungle.