On Friday 12th, we travelled from Chandigarh to Delhi. We’d flown from Delhi to Chandigarh, but now we took the train back. We’d seen nothing of the Indian countryside from the plane due to fog, until we landed in Punjab, green and growing, everywhere. We arrived in modern Chandigarh.
Chandigarh, incidentally, is very modern and very beautiful. Because we’d seen nothing of the city, our British Council hosts, Bipin and Christina, told our driver to take us the long way to the station, only ensuring we arrived in time for our train. Chandigarh is so open, so spacious and so incredibly rich in public parks and nature reserves that we felt like we were in a city and not in a city simultaneously. I’m very glad we got to glimpse it.
Then we got to the station and waited for our train. The trains that pulled in were huge! You could feel the weight of them, the heft of them. Truly, these were trans-subcontinental trains. We boarded ours, and shared our carriage with families, business-people, students, more. As we pulled out, darkness fell, and so we didn’t get to see anything of the Indian countryside by train either! But what an enjoyable journey. We were in standard class. In standard class, two young men, who seemed to tend our carriage only, served us first with vegetarian sandwiches and salad. Next came a rich dhal and with it a paneer marsala, chapatis and rice. Next came fantastic samosas, soft, spicy potato-filled, with peas, chickpeas and almonds and peanuts added for texture. Then came tea, and I finished with a wonderful Indian sweetie but Gluten free and milk free Sooz had to be sweet-free too. Because I know how empathic she is, I enjoyed mine as ostentatiously as possible, rolling my eyes, humming and gasping with pleasure, so that she could at least share the experience with me. Aren’t I kind?
Now contrast all this with catering on an English train – microwaved ham ‘n cheese baguette, completed with painted on griddle marks, which you have to pay for on top of your ticket fare. We’ve got a lot to learn from India.
We smelt Delhi long before we got there, a thick smell of coal smoke, the street cooking of the poor. I lived in Yorkshire for seven years; I find the smell of coal comforting. I know it’s hell for the environment, but for me, emotionally, that smell means cosiness. And then we were back in the madness, the buzz of Delhi and, once we’d found our car, were stuck in a traffic jam before we’d even left the station carpark.
Next morning, horribly early, we left. In 22 hours, door to door, we would be home. What, I wondered, would home feel like?
So, I taught the last of five workshops, one each in Kolkata, Delhi, and two in Chandigarh. These are the kind of workshops I would love to do more often with teachers in UK. Essentially, it puts staff in touch with their memory, their imagination and with the natural storyteller in all of them. It is so rewarding to teach.
Children always sound excited when I tell them there are going to be no written notes. Grown-ups sound alarmed. I have to explain that, when you say “I’m writing it down so I can remember,” in fact, you are writing it down so you can forget. And of course staff were much more able to remember things than they thought and, at the end, were all confident they could replicate the workshop I taught them with their pupils, and were excited to do so.
So I taught them a Memory Technique from Ancient Rome (Cicero, if you’re interested in provenance) and then used that to get them to memorise a content-free story structure. Then, in just over five minutes (I kid you not) staff, in groups, were able to create new stories, each different from those of other groups, which are guaranteed to hang together and maintain listener attention because they are based on the same Story Structure as Star Wars (the first ever and the most recent) and, for that matter, the Ramayana. Having used this structure to devise the story we were then able to spend the rest of the workshop exploring the language used to develop the story and the voice used to deliver the story. All staff said they were amazed by the way that a little limitation of choice actually liberates, rather than kills, imagination, and agreed that nothing kills inventiveness more than absolute freedom of choice. A strange paradox, but something I’ve found again and again.
Best of all, I got to hear them tell stories! It never ceases to give me joy. I can remember, when I was 11ish, some friends and I were all discussing telepathy, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could put thoughts inside someone else’s head? I now know we can – use language to name things, describe things, narrate things, and a whole world can burst into life inside somebody else’s head. You put it there.
Here are some pictures of the lovely people I worked with in Chandigarh…..
Apparently, in Chandigarh, I’m only an hour & a half from the Himalayas. You’d never guess. The land around is flat, fertile farmland. The city itself, in architecture, layout and outlook is resolutely modern. Our hotel has abstract paintings all along the hall.
All the buildings I’ve seen are white (or mostly white) and block shaped. There is a mall in Chandigarh where, just as in the UK, young people mill around, shop for high street brands, pop into coffee bars, burger bars, whisky bars & beer bars. So, is this modern, modish manner of living the realisation of Le Corbusier’s Modernist manifesto?
Not quite. A house may well be “a machine for living in” but it’s a machine inhabited by defiantly organic entities – people. Wherever there is life there is warmth, and dirt, and humour, and these elements can be found in Chandigarh as much as anywhere else. Sleek cars slip down streets and then a tractor comes grunting after, dragging what could be half a farm behind it. More sleek cars, and then these:
The Mall, which could’ve been replicated from any other mall anywhere, has this intriguing sign at the entrance:
We don’t have a sign like that outside malls in London! Arguably though, with some justification, we might…
On Thursday I went to a school in a satellite town of Chandigarh. The driving was smooth, over excellent new roads. Then, again, we encountered more defiantly organic life. First, making its presence felt surprisingly within the air-conditioned capsule of our cab, there was, strong and sudden, the soft smell of coal smoke, and lots of it. People aren’t meant to cook on coal but here in the Punjab, in Delhi, in Kolkata, if they are poor, what else can they do? Seconds later we saw, sprawling, the shantytown settlement; MDF and wooden walls, salvaged roofs, doors hanging open. No clear, clean Modernist lines here. Suddenly cyclists as numerous as a flock of geese took possession of this major road. They were workers, commuting. More than that, they were a community working, as used to be the case in the UK. These bicycles weren’t flashy mountain bikes like the ones you see in London, festooned with cogs and gears and levers and dials, and neither were they new. They were old-fashioned vicar bikes, no gears, heavy frames. Perfect affordable transport. Faster than walking, cheaper than driving, never needs feeding. I was looking simultaneously, at the 2010’s & the 1930’s. I doubted that the children of these people would be the children I was just about to tell stories to.
Years back, in the 1920s, in England, a young woman called Annie used to cycle to work in the cotton mills north of Manchester, part of a community of working people. As they cycled the women would chat and smile. Little time for that later. Annie hadn’t had much education. She could read, but never fluently. She was clever though and, having deft fingers and small hands, had the job of tying on the threads when the cotton broke. You could lose a hand doing that. Annie didn’t – too quick, and lucky.
Later, in the 1930s, Annie rode one of these, a classic English bike still manufactured in India and, as you can see, proudly on sale in Chandigarh today.
All of five feet tall, she once rode her Enfield motorbike round a bend in a country road and slap bang into the front of an oncoming lorry. The bike was a wreck. She went through the windscreen and doctors had to pick the broken glass out of her eyes. By the late 1930’s she was living in Worcestershire in a home not unlike the ones we’d just flashed by. Her home was actually a disused cobbler’s workshop with wooden planking for walls, with a corrugated iron roof, no electricity or telephone, no plumbing or running water. Scarcely educated herself, she brought up two children there, both of who went to University. She had four grandchildren, all of whom went to University, one to Cambridge and two to Oxford. One of her grandchildren lost his sight in his twenties and became a storyteller and now contemplates people who are living now just like his own beloved grandmother did then.
Open boulevards, clear vistas, clean, straight avenues, clean lines on white modernist buildings. Designed, not evolved. In Kolkata we were met by white-kurtured concierge, black boots, red turban. In Delhi we were greeted at the hotel by a man in a red turban, but in a black Kurta and with a fabulous curling moustache. At Chandigarh, the concierge looks ultra-modern in what appears to be a combat shirt and baseball cap. The courtesy, the warmth, is the same. In the hotel lobby we hear not the twang and gulp of sitar and tabla but the soapy ooze of soul-jazz. No more the cortical whorls and grooves of Kolkata, it’s hive-like streets, with buildings and businesses packed tight and uneven as boxes in a cupboard, neither the palatial government buildings, majestic parks, pillared colonnades of New Delhi, but pale, rectilinear blocks, spaciously and evenly distributed. Le Corbusier, who planned the layout and much of the architecture of Chandigarh, famously stated that houses we’re “machines for living in”. So, what does it feel like to live in a machine? I’ll get back to you.