In the summer and fall of 2014 I was in residence in Shimla, as a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. It was a chance to sit in my study and look out at the outlines of the mountains that seemed to be drifting through clouds, sit in quiet and write a few lines. Then I received an invitation from the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library inviting me to give a talk. It was to be part of a new series ‘Cultures, Traditions and Contemporary Life’ , Public Lecture Series 2015. We decided on the date of December 10 a time when I knew I would be in India, and the title I proposed was ‘Poetry, Migration, Memory’ a reflection on questions close to my heart.
In the early days of December 2015 I was with my mother in Chennai. The terrible floods were upon us, many days without electricity and little food, cut off from the world, the street in front, a torrent of rushing water. We were among the fortunate ones, my mother’s house did not fill with water. One day, my internet opened. It was an apologetic letter from Indira Vancheswer of the Nehru Museum first asking me if I was well and then telling me in a curious twist of words ‘the venue for your lecture’ is ‘no longer available’, and the lecture would be postponed. This struck me as odd to say the least, particularly since a few weeks earlier she had written asking me to save my plane tickets as well as the bill from the India International Centre where I had booked a room for December 9 and 10.
I wrote back asking why this sudden turn had afflicted a long standing invitation. There was no reply. I was left with the pages I had written out for the talk, the plane tickets I had bought and a set of unanswered questions.
Why was I suddenly disinvited? Might it have something to do with the short prose piece I wrote called ‘Silenced Writer’ published in the Indian Writers Forum and then in the Statesman? Or even my new book of poetry Atmospheric. Embroidery? But I quickly realized it was nothing but the height of hubris to imagine that those in power might pay attention to anything I wrote.
A month later, in January 2016, I was at the Hyderabad Literary Festival. It was a joy to meet Nayantara Seghal again. Years earlier she and I, together with Nissim Ezekiel and Firdaus Kanga had travelled around England giving readings. This was in the immediate aftermath of the burning in Bradford of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The tour of Indian Writers organized by the Arts Council of England was meant to serve as a reminder of free expression in a democracy. That was then, in another country. This is now, India.
A week after the festival, Nayantara’s brave words spoken in her utterly clear, resolute voice come back to me ‘Life and literature are not in separate compartments.’ Her words return me to the deeper truths of our acts of writing. What might it mean to write in freedom I ask myself, write without fear, without self-censorship either? And how does the work, so often conceived in solitude, return to the turmoil of the world in which we live and move?
I have no answers but as often in life the questions sustain me.
Meena Alexander is a poet.