One night in the middle of the lockdown in April, I got locked out of my bedroom in Wales. I had just completed a month’s stay in a cottage on the University of Wales campus in Lampeter. I had pulled the door too hard when leaving and the automatic lock clicked shut. I had not lived in the house long enough to grow into it.
I didn’t know how tightly the windows had to be pulled down to make the house airtight; how the radiator worked; and the exact quantum of force to apply on the door to achieve the “Goldilocks zone” where the latch bolt sits on the strike plate but doesn’t slip into its slot. It was 6 degrees Celsius, and the only room that had a heater was the bedroom.
I was by myself in an empty corridor of a secluded cottage, shivering in my pyjamas, in a nearly empty university campus in a foreign country. I felt abandoned.
I was in Lampeter on a three-month residency under the Charles Wallace India Trust Creative Writing and Translation Fellowship. When I received my acceptance letter in October 2019, no one knew that a virus originating in China would take over the world and cause a global shutdown. For me, this meant that my original plan to arrive in London in early March, participate in a book reading at the London Book Fair and then take a train to Wales was irrevocably altered, since the reading was cancelled.
I would be in London for two days – but I would have nothing to do. I loitered about, took the underground, met a couple of friends, and went to the Brompton cemetery to see Peter Rabbit’s grave.
On 12 March, I took a train to Aberystwyth, where I was received by my hosts Elin and Alexandra, before being driven down to Lampeter to meet some of my professors. My home during the fellowship was a small white cottage next to a little stream. The people who lived in this cottage before me had tried to make it their own. The remnants of their ownership, however, remained.
There were marks on the wall that were probably bits of rusted wallpaper. The furniture was new but was placed in front of older furniture, as if hiding a secret. The bedroom almirah stood in front of a wall closet. The bathroom closet had a door I was scared of opening the first month. Only when I gained more confidence did I open it. There were a few towels and, for some odd reason, a television.
But it was the safety pin that changed everything.
I found the safety pin on the floor under the laundry closet. It was one of those large diaper pins. Did a baby live in this house? Small details now began to make sense. The bedroom curtains had a plastic daffodil. A star-shaped blue adhesive hook was stuck on the door I had mistakenly slammed shut. Above it were the words, “All of the world’s substance / all because of love”. Above it was a smiley.
There was a small rock on the bedroom floor, painted with blue seas and a sailboat with red and blue sails. But more than anything else, it was the safety pin that made me believe that I could make the old cottage my own for a while. In a curious way, it was also my one tangible connection to home.
The night I left Delhi for the UK, my friend Dilip and I went around Zakir Nagar looking for a pin to remove the SIM card from my phone. It was almost midnight, and the mobile stores were closed. The only shops open were sweet shops, juice stands and roadside eateries selling tumblers of warm milk boiled with sugar, almonds and pistachios. We asked some men buying late night desserts if anyone had a pin. Unsurprisingly, no one did.
When I got a new SIM card at Heathrow, the young woman at the counter taped my Indian SIM to the back of my phone. I eventually used the diaper pin I found under the laundry closet to remove the SIM card and insert my Indian one. Suddenly my phone was flooded with messages. Most of them were spam but there was one message that said, “How are you?”
For most of 2019, I lived on the third floor of a building in Zakir Nagar. From my balcony, I could see three butchers’ shops, two grocery stores and several restaurants. All I had to do was walk down the flight of stairs to meet my grocer, the butcher, a tea-seller, a hairdresser, and the shopkeeper who sold me my drinking water.
Next to our building was a garment factory, three floors of sweaty men and sewing machines. The whirring started early in the morning and continued till late into the night. I had lived in that room through the Delhi elections, a dark winter, and the anti-CAA protests.
Lampeter, on the other hand, is a tiny university town. There are as many people here as in one Zakir Nagar lane.
So when I was transported from the crowded galis to an almost empty campus, where the few remaining students disappeared behind their masks and jackets, I felt incredibly alone. The campus is ridiculously beautiful. Behind the university is a rolling meadow, dotted with sheep by day, and glistening with rain at night. The grass is almost always glazed with sleet in the mornings.
But I missed the bustle of Delhi: the constant tramping of feet in the streets, the honking of cars and the shrill peals of bicycle bells, the cries of roadside hawkers, and the azaan from 10 mosques all at once. Between six in the morning and midnight, Zakir Nagar constantly screamed at you every day, as if it were reminding you that you were still very much alive.
But these comfortingly familiar sounds were 7,000 kilometres away from where I stood now: locked out of my room, freezing in my pyjamas.
I remembered that I was, mercifully, carrying my phone. I searched the posters on the wall for information, found the porter’s number, and called him. He said he was on his rounds and would arrive at the cottage as soon as he was done.
The thing about frustration is that regrets become even more pressing than they already are. A small inconvenience assumes the weight of the world. I sat down on the stairs outside my room, and suddenly grew furious I hadn’t postponed the fellowship. I had undermined the virus, had not given it the respect it deserved, and had thought I could defy it for three months.
Instead, the virus had now taken things personally. I had the option of deferring my visit by a few months. I could have waited for the situation to turn normal but no, I decided to fly out of my country in the middle of a global mess and be stranded in a country I knew almost nothing about. I was also upset because I had cooked my first turkey leg that day, cooked it for two hours, waited by the stove while it cooked, and it had turned out completely inedible.
My mind travelled further back: to the summer of 2019, when I was on the run.
The police had filed criminal cases against a group of poets and activists, including me, for writing, translating and promoting Miyah poetry. Miyah poetry is a collective term for poems written by young poets from the Bengali-Muslim community of Assam. When the poems started appearing on social media in April 2016, they focused on what it meant to be a Miyah – street slang for the community.
Like many ethnic slurs, the original meaning of the word Miyah (gentleman) was corrupted with connotations of barbarism and non-belongingness. Reclaiming the word and divesting it of its negative connotations was one of the projects of early Miyah poetry. By 2017 there were more than 20 Miyah poets and we had enough poems for a book.
I had taken up the responsibility of translating them into English, and when they were ready to be published as an anthology, I realised they were not enough. We decided to put off the anthology for a while.
The response to Miyah poetry was scattered right from the beginning. There was some academic interest, some praise and some disagreement. A few older poets from within the community thought there was no need to bring a word as distasteful as Miyah in the public domain. Some critics found the language of the poems crude and stilted, while others thought that Miyah poetry’s references to the history of violence in Assam were unwarranted. The majority of the poetry-reading, social-media-aware public in Assam had no clue that Miyah poetry even existed.
The problems started in June 2019.A discussion on Miyah poetry on social media turned messy and spilled over into the papers. It began with the social media equivalent of literary criticism and alarmism. A Facebook group decided they had issues with two lines in poems by two different poets. Soon questions began to be raised about the purpose of Miyah poetry and before we could mount a proper defence, we were at the centre of the most unimaginative conspiracy theory: that Miyah poets were apparently trying to disturb the peace in Assam and derail the ongoing NRC process through their poetry.
Within days it was the subject of fierce debate and was on every regional news channel. Our amusement turned to horror as senior public intellectuals, whose time was definitely worth something, jumped on the bandwagon. All of this was happening as Assam was struggling though one of the worst floods in recent memory. It took even less time for the farce to morph into something uglier: a police case.
On 10 July 2019, the first police case was filed against ten people. Some were Miyah poets, while two were activists who had spoken in favour of the poets and published their poems, and the last person named in the list was a completely clueless journalist. We went into hiding immediately. I remember walking out of my rented house in Guwahati and going to a friend’s place where a fellow poet and co-accused was already hiding.
We turned off our phones, removed the battery and SIM card, and remained indoors for the next two days while our lawyer applied for bail. Once the bail application was filed, we left Guwahati and spent the next 13 days at the home of a wonderful couple until we were granted bail. All this while our phones remained battery-less and SIM-less, and we stayed indoors. The Covid lockdown now brought back memories that were still very fresh.
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the porter, who explained kindly that my room had a self-locking door. He rummaged through his bunch of keys, found one for my bedroom and in ten minutes, I was enveloped in warmth and the reassurance that things do get better.
A little more than an hour had passed between being locked out and the porter coming to my rescue. But it felt much longer. Before he wished me goodnight, the gentleman said that I needed to ensure I didn’t slam the door shut.
In May, when the weather improved, Cari, my local contact in Lampeter, brought me some baked goods as gifts. On the last day of Ramzan, she brought me a dressed crab, a gift from Elin. That night, I heard fireworks. There were probably only a handful of Muslim families in Lampeter.
Two of them, Sylhetis from Bangladesh, ran Indian restaurants that had exactly the same menu and taste in music. They must have burst crackers to celebrate the sighting of the crescent moon of Eid-ul-Fitr. The next day, I cooked pulao and curried crab, the most unconventional lunch for a most unconventional Eid.
As the weather began to turn, dandelions began to bloom. When I first came to Wales, daffodils were everywhere. They were all over the campus, on the roadside, in front of homes. Then, they died, only to replaced by daisies and then by dandelions.
As the weeks passed, the temperature rose. The bush outside my window bloomed purple flowers. I didn’t know its name. Nor did I know what the bush that grew next to the stream was called, or the black bird with a yellow beak. But I was happy at my ignorance, and would have gladly left Wales without knowing the names of flowers and birds that were making my stay a cheerful one despite a global pandemic, except that when I sent my mother photos, she was curious.
So I sent Cari the pictures and asked her the names. She wrote back with names that sounded familiar. The bush outside my window was a rhododendron. The bush by the stream was a holly, and the large tree with dark red leaves was a copper beech. I knew them from the booksI had read – rhododendrons from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and holly because Harry Potter’s wand was made from it. In a roundabout way, Wales was becoming familiar. The black bird with a yellow beak was a disappointment, though, since it was simply called a blackbird.
In the more-than-two-months since I was locked out of my room, I have begun to try and understand my new home a little better. I have named the doorstopper Peter Pator after the rock Christ built his church on, and found a round stone to use as a mortar. I have gone out cycling more often, mostly looking for a flat stone, a pestle to pair with my mortar. The search has, so far, proved futile, but on one ride I saw a barn filled with hay.
Another day, I saw a hedgehog rescue centre. On alternate days, I briefly chat with the butcher and the clerk at the Sainsbury’s counter. Most of our conversations are about the weather and where we had seen each other the previous day. The longest conversation I had was with the owner of an organic vegetable shop, whoseniece is also stuck in Swanseainside her university campus, because of the lockdown.
My project under the fellowship focuses on Miyah poetry and its translation. In normal circumstances, the fellowship combines a writing project with public readings and academic workshops and seminars. Previous Fellows took the opportunity to travel around Wales, study at the National Library in Aberystwyth, learn Welsh and meet poets, writers and artists in Wales.
The special circumstances of my stay meant that my travel plans were foiled and so, in the solitude of my cottage, I read translated Welsh poetry, watch a little television, read new Miyah poems, prepare online lectures, and cook.
Had it been any other year, I would have met reputed local writer and academic Ned Thomas and gone for monthly poetry reading sessions organised by the poet Dominic Williams at the local pub in Swansea. Instead, I now sit in the comfort of my little bedroom and have long conversations with them online. We talk about the politics of language in Assam and Wales, Welsh missionaries in the Khasi Hills, the social role of poetry, and the striking similarities between Indian myths and The Mabinogion, the oldest collection of prose stories in Britain.
Readings, workshops and seminars have all shifted online. The silver lining here is that now the audience has expanded vastly to include people from all over the world. It is odd speaking to a screen shared by 50 people, almost all of whom have their audio muted and video turned off, but given the circumstances, there is not much I can do.
Except, maybe, compile that anthology which should have been done long ago.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.