Food for Thought
You know the old expression - "You never know what you really think of something until you've tried it"? I was recently reminded of the truth of this a startling number of times within a 24-hour period, when I realised that there were some things I would have been distinctly better off not trying (not least, a time-bound journey by road to an unfamiliar destination in a foreign country, when I can't even drive!). And to someone who generally likes to think that she knows what she's doing, the information was not altogether welcome.
But let me back up little so that this makes more sense - the idea behind it all was to go on a road trip to Birmingham, in the UK. Why Birmingham, you ask? Well, it's a long story, but fortunately for you, we have no time for that today, so here's the concise version.
Although I have been writing newspaper articles and columns for over a decade now, it's only in the last few years that I started to write short stories. In the pursuit of fiction-writing, I also joined a writers group - Writer's Block - that meets regularly to critique each other's work. Occasionally, we work on submissions for various writing contests, bullying and cajoling (and where necessary, emotionally blackmailing) each other into getting our work ready in time. My trip to Birmingham came out of one of those instances.
A few months previously, several members of the group had submitted pieces of writing to a flash fiction contest. The term "flash fiction" is generally used to refer to a story of no more than 1000 words - and sometimes, considerably less. In this particular instance, the theme of the contest was "Journeys", whether of the heart, mind or body; and the word limit was a mind-boggling 250 words.
For anyone who thinks that it's easier to write 250 words - or for that matter 1000 words - rather than writing for a longer word limit such as 5000, let me tell you that the truth is very much to the contrary! Just try telling a coherent anecdote in a couple of paragraphs and you will see what I mean. After all, if it were that easy to communicate a message coherently and briefly, surely our national trait of holding forth for hours on end when faced with a captive audience would be a thing of the past. Or maybe any opportunity to make a speech simply brings out the sadistic streak in most Bangalis!
Anyway, one criterion for submissions to the Journeys competition was that they had to have some link to South Asia. The contest was jointly organised by the British Council and a British-Asian cultural organisation called Sampad. To general celebrations, the winners list featured a number of contributions from members of Writer's Block which were to be included in the "Journeys" publication, slated for launch as part of the Birmingham Literary Festival in October 2010. Since two of our number - myself, and my friend Sadaf - were going to be in Britain at that time for other reasons, we decided to make an appearance at the launch and meet some of the other contributors to this collection of (very) short fiction.
My first mistake was in thinking that it would be fun to drive from London to Birmingham instead of taking the train. A friend agreed to drive and I was designated the navigator. All went well until we reached the outskirts of Birmingham city. Highways in Britain can be confusing, with any number of exits from the motorway - and invariably the sign that indicates which direction in which to turn makes its appearance just before you have to take the actual turning itself! To make matters worse, there are a remarkable number of very tall cargo-bearing vehicles out there, which can obscure those crucial signs precisely when you need to see them in order to make your turning in time.
Anyway, as we entered Birmingham proper, we found that the directions provided by Google Earth failed to match any of the landmarks we could spot. By that time I was already feeling slightly disoriented from motion sickness, but that was nothing in comparison to the confusion that was to come.
A frantic call to the hotel where we had booked our overnight stay in search of directions, resulted in a completely pointless discussion with somebody who had such a bizarre (presumably local) accent that I wouldn't have been able to understand what he was saying even if he had been able to provide me with the necessary directions. But as it happened, this well-meaning moron had no idea of how I could get from the outskirts of the city to the centrally located hotel. And he took the better part of an excruciatingly long, mostly incomprehensible 15 minutes to actually tell me that!
Finally locating the rather attractive hotel premises, we rushed in only to be informed that - despite our online booking - the computer indicated that there was no parking space booked for the car we had rented. Even more worryingly, the computer system crashed at the moment when the receptionist informed us that they had no record of our booking. Luckily, as we were about to head out in search of a nearby car park to leave the car while we sorted out the booking issue, we discovered that we were in fact at the wrong hotel! It seems that Holiday Inn is now such a successful chain that they have not one but two hotels in Birmingham city centre.
After sorting out the confusion about accommodation, there was time for a quick rest at the (correct) Holiday Inn, before we met up with Sadaf and her family and headed to the venue for the launch event. Since the organisers weren't altogether organised when we arrived, it gave the participants a chance to mill around and get to know each other. In the process, I met one young Bangladeshi-British woman, Shagorika, who was accompanied by a gang of supportive friends and her extremely proud mother.
To tell the truth, I was struck by the diversity of the individuals who had penned the winning entries for the "Journeys" anthology. There were people of all ages present at the launch - the youngest contributor was 13, the oldest was a man in his 60s. There were people from different ethnicities, representing countries as diverse as Britain, Kenya, Bangladesh and Singapore. The common thread lay in writing about a journey that involved the subcontinent or its people in some way.
(…to be continued)