A Venture to India (3)

I go down tiled steps into a room without windows to have breakfast. I sit alone and read. This is when I miss home the most. I remind myself it’s only for a few days.

Mack left for New Zealand today and, although Shiraz has assured me he and Harpreet will look after me I feel as if I am losing a link to home.

I think there is a conference on at the hotel, because every morning the dining room fills with a group of people who appear to know each other. As the week moves on, they become more familiar with one another and the jokes get louder and the seating arrangements change. I wonder what the conference might be because they seem to be practicing listening skills. It could be about anything though, because I cannot understand a word anyone is saying.

This situation does not faze me because it brings back memories of being in school and surrounded by people whose first language was te reo Maori. I wished I could understand Maori back then and now I wish I knew the language being shared by these people whose laughter is loud and body language tells me they are having a good time.

I do feel conspicuous in this environment, the only white face. Their quick glances my way tell me they are assessing me according to the stereotype they carry, which is I think, not very flattering. I recall history where my ancestors would have insisted they spoke English in public and indigenous languages were threatened by extinction. Certainly this was the case for students who went to my school. They were punished for speaking Maori. Now we fill classes after work and during the day to make up for the loss.  

Many are Pakeha who feel a loss because we knew we were denied an important dimension to being New Zealanders. However, the loss is greater for Maori.

In India, people switch in and out of their first language and English with ease. As I travel in the car with Shiraz, Harpreet, Sharif and Sidra, there are many conversations I do not understand. Occasionally they break into English to give me a quick translation then go back to their conversations. It’s natural and I like being reminded that there are many ways to communicate and no one way is the only or right way.

When I am picked up, I discover that the team has been organising tonight’s event. I don’t really appreciate how important this is, but I get a sense by the animated way they talk about it that it is.

But before that we have an appointment at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. I am to speak to English Literature students. For the first time since arriving, I have a prepared speech and when I walk into the room, which is absolutely full with students, standing as well as sitting, I think it is good to be prepared. I estimate there are about 150 students jammed into that tiny room. For some reason my throat completely dries up. I ask for a bottle of water and one is delivered…thank goodness. Words are sticking in my throat. Nerves have got the better of me.

I put the water on the lectern and it spills. I have nowhere to put my notes and I hold on to a microphone. I feel disorganised and embarrassed. I read my notes out and look around. Students are shuffling and shifting about. They are absolutely bored. In the end I toss my notes to one side and I talk, as I have every other time, using the power point slides as my guide.

The shuffling settles and the questions start coming. There is animated discussion and I am able to explain how the Style Guide™ works by pointing to the different quadrants. There are some interesting questions. One I hear often is repeated here and it goes, ‘how can I be sure someone won’t steal my idea?’ There is interest from all the students as I explain that if you give ten students the same topic to write about not one will be the same because we all draw on different experiences and those shape how we use words. I also advise them to use the © on all their work. Another asks if we publish books and what percentage of revenue we take. I explain that we publish a limited number of books and that money must be available for marketing. The present environment is challenging. Every book we produce is competing against the 400,000 titles coming out every year now. At the moment we make no money out of publishing.

Afterwards Shiraz comes up to me and says, ‘forget the notes from now on.’ I agree with him. I feel sick that I almost blew the opportunity by being bound to notes and saying what I thought I should say instead of what came to me naturally. Forget the notes I will. He is right when he says I have all the information inside my head, so why do I need notes?

After speaking, I am invited to meet with the Dean and Head of English Studies. As we talk, I find myself describing my novel Bend with the Wind and explaining that the story takes place on the background of the movement of peaceful resistance in New Zealand. I also mention the links with Parihaka, through an Irish delegation that first visited Parihaka in the late 1890s, then Mahatma Ghandi. They are interested in this and want to know how to get hold of my novel. I explain it is being prepared for publication now. The time feels right.

I could stay in that room and talk literature for the rest of the day. But we have little time so we have to apologise and leave. I hope I will be back.