Sweat, Toil and Meraki: The Oceanvale Workshop, Autumn 2018

Alka Rakesh

There was a boy in class. The class of 1994. Ravi was his name. He was a little different from the rest. But in everything else he was like them. Not that everybody saw that. His human right to happiness was curbed by the taboo ridden world he lived in. No one knew that he wouldn’t live much beyond graduation. He died. At an age which is no age to die in. He must have been only twenty. He left behind a novel: Oceanvale. Oceanvale was a dream region into which he could retreat and live without having to explain himself, without having to face daily harassment. More than twenty years after his death, his sister made her way to Kirori Mal College, his college, and walked into the Principal’s room with a proposal to honour the memory of her beloved brother. She made a generous endowment towards an inter-college workshop to be conducted every semester for the next five years in the first phase. The Oceanvale Workshop organized by the English Department in September 2018 was the first edition of that programme. No quid pro quo, the workshop was a passionate endeavour to translate a sister’s desire into reality, and somewhere to tell Ravi that we haven’t forgotten him, that he is still in our midst.

Excellence was what we aimed at. Nothing short of excellence would do. Who else but Dr. Sunjay Sharma, KMC alumnus, Delhi University topper in M.A. and M.Phil., Sage fellow and a Ph.D. from Cornell, an Ivy League university, could be the captain of our ship? The panel of experts comprised three distinguished scholars. Leading the team was Sukanta Chaudhuri, our resident scholar of international repute, Professor Emeritus at Jadavpur University, with a doctorate from Oxford University. The other two resource persons teach at the University of Delhi: Dr. Prasanta Chakravarty is Associate Professor at Delhi University, and has a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo; Dr. N.A. Jacob teaches at Ramjas College, Delhi University, and he studied at Rutgers University from where he earned his doctorate.

Even before the college began its new semester in July, committees were formed and the concept of the Oceanvale programme began to take shape. With the opening of the semester, work on the project commenced in right earnest. The Oceanvale Workshop website was created, resource persons were identified, invitations were sent out to all the fifty two colleges of Delhi University that run an honours course in English, posters were printed, a meticulous time schedule was framed.

A very lucid concept note that explained the theme of the workshop — “The Idea of the Text” — was mailed by Professor Chaudhuri along with a relevant reading list. The idea was to hold a workshop for six days wherein students would have intensive, interactive one-on-one sessions on their papers with the three mentors on our panel and then present their papers before the audience. But before the selected candidates were turned over to the experts, applications had to be thoroughly processed: a screening committee was formed to select twenty undergraduate and ten postgraduate Oceanvale scholars, and this process was completed after a close reading of their abstracts and writing samples. The next step was to hold an orientation programme aimed at acquainting the selected students with the theme of the workshop, research methodology and guidelines on how to go about writing their papers. This was followed by simulation workshops conducted by the Oceanvale Committee, KMC, to closely look at, analyze and discuss their papers with the candidates, and to prepare them for their interaction with the panelists.

The much-awaited Monday of the inaugural session dawned on 24th September, 2018. The Academic Auditorium was packed.

The panel was joyfully welcomed. Dr. Sunjay Sharma, the architect of this project, put the workshop in perspective, delineating its objective, theme and schedule.

It was now the turn of Dr. Vibha Chauhan, our Principal, to address the gathering. Her words of encouragement were followed by a reading of carefully chosen and beautifully rendered passages from Oceanvale, excerpts that gave us an insight into Ravi’s novel.

Next were the presentations by the three experts on our panel. Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri — or simply “Sukanto” to most of us — wove magic in the Academic Auditorium as he discoursed on the fascinating, infinite possibilities that words, signs and codes woven into texts carry. Professor Chaudhuri left us with a lot to ponder over. He brought up F. W. Bateson’s provocative question, “If Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet and Lycidas?” More than in just the printed text, it exists in the writer’s mind or in the reader’s mind, or as Bateson puts it, “in a substratum of articulated sound” which may not, Professor Chaudhuri explained, even be uttered. In his book, The Metaphysics of Text, Professor Chaudhuri explains that behind a “corridor of embodiments: disk behind screen, manuscript behind book” there is “ultimately no physical object, conveying an implicit materiality of sight or sound …. only sign behind sign behind sign ….” (19) as Jacques Derrida’s theory of ‘différance’ or ‘trace’ postulates.

The tone and theme of the workshop having been set by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri, it was for Dr. N.A. Jacob and Dr. Prasanta Chakravarty to keep the momentum going which they did with their brilliant papers that were a demonstration of how texts signify beyond what is apparent, how texts can open up their mysteries to a perceptive reader. Prasanta looked at the book of all books, the Bible, to raise the pertinent question of how can intangibles be translated into a text? If we examine the Bible only to figure out what in it is true or what in it really happened, we run into a cul de sac, he said. It is not verisimilitude but the intangible aspect of the Bible that matters. Just as Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “A Pair of Shoes,” generates endless speculation, so also the Bible can be subjected to multiple interpretations.

Dr. Jacob, in his close reading of William Blake’s, “The Little Black Boy”, revealed the cracks beneath the uniformity of form, and argued how even in Heaven, racism is not transcended. Such truth would scorch us and, therefore, Blake obscures the truth by the use of homogeneous form.

After two days of rigorous workshop sessions, it was the turn of the students to make their presentations. They rose to the occasion. Between the two workshops and the presentations, the very first, half-baked but promising manuscripts of the students had already undergone two revisions. It was heartening to see the shape that their papers had now taken, working as they did within tight deadlines. The papers covered wide-ranging topics: colonialism and slavery; ghazals and their subversion; fourth wave feminism; notions of anachronism; Gothic novels and the unknowable; intertextuality and ‘afterlife’; destabilization of texts through ‘trace’ and ‘différance’, readers’ responses, adaptations into films and translations; the death of the author and, perhaps, of the reader; magic realism.

Texts such as graphic novels, street plays, graffiti and street art found their way into the papers written by the participants, as also various texts drawn from the social media such as hashtags, memes, vines, fan fiction, # MeToo movement, and Raya Sarkar’s ‘List’. Amongst the mainstream authors whose texts were subjected to scrutiny by our bright young scholars were the following: William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson; Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Thomas Mann; Jean Rhys, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino; Indian poets such as Somadeva, Ghalib, Aga Shahid Ali, Arun Kolatkar, Akhil Katyal and Eunice de Souza; Indian playwright Girish Karnad; Indian novelists such as Rabindranath Tagore, Shrilal Shukla, Anita Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri. Of the writers who experiment with new kinds of texts, Alan Moore, Banksy, and of course, fan fiction writers, were taken up.

Such an exhaustive range would leave anyone dazed, but our experts were undaunted. They engaged in stimulating discussions with almost all the scholars at an individual level. In the words of Dr. Prasanta Chakravarty, the workshop was “a week of close literary engagement with a bunch of enthusiastic young minds: excruciating, draining and deeply rewarding. Sunjay Sharma and his colleagues at KM College, D.U., may have initiated something with far reaching consequences. Silently.” Indeed, the workshop is the first of its kind across all the departments of English in DU colleges.

The participants may have belonged to different colleges of DU but they had one thing in common: each and every one of them was passionate about literature. As a student respondent wrote, “I found people who were just as crazy about literature as me”. It is telling that most of the participants have, in the response sheets, expressed a desire to come back to KMC for another Oceanvale Workshop; one student says that s/he will “cherish forever” the memories of the week spent at KMC. Another student responds thus, “September has been a month of joyfully flitting in and out of KMC, and this week especially has been something I will remember for a long time. Thank you – for the workshop, for the many layers of feedback, and for the never-ending warmth”. One student appreciates being treated with respect, and takes delight in being called “a ‘scholar’ for the first time”. Most of the students praise the workshop for having been “a great learning experience”, and for the “enriching discussions” that they engaged in. As a student remarks, “you come with one idea, leave with multiple ideas”. Another participant commented that the workshop was “very warm, engaging, sincere and academically superior to several discussion forum[s] I have encountered so far”, yet another student went to the extent of calling the workshop “unique”. Here is one last quote from one of our bright young scholars, “I am not exaggerating at all when I say I have felt more at home in KMC within this short period of a week than I have felt in my own college or the arts faculty”.

The final papers of the Oceanvale scholars are due on 30th December, and will be evaluated by a jury of three scholars. The best in each of the two categories — undergraduate and postgraduate — will win a prize of Rs.10,000. While two scholars will carry off the prizes, we trust, they, along with all the other participants, would have taken home a lot more, especially the enrichment of the mind engendered through a lively exchange of ideas. We had hoped, therefore, that the workshop would be a collaborative exercise where all the scholars would attend all the presentation sessions, and—if not so eagerly ­—but certainly, eagerly enough, be as involved in the presentations of other students as in their own, and engage in stimulating discussions during the sessions. We look forward to the blossoming of such a spirit in subsequent editions of the workshop.

The man who worked for days, much beyond midnight, to put all this together was Dr. Sunjay Sharma. The work became all the more demanding as the entire schedule had to be pulled back by an entire month. The workshop, originally planned for October, had to be conducted in September because of the prior engagements of one of the panelists. Along with Sunjay, in the core committee were Dr. Vibha Singh, on whose support we could always rely, and Dr. Someshwar Sati, who, among a host of other things, planned the lunch and tea menus that got such rave reviews from our participants.

At every step, other faculty members of the KMC English Department ungrudgingly contributed in making the workshop a success while continuing to meet their scheduled classes. A team of dedicated students unstintingly worked behind the scenes. Sourabh Yadav, a second year English Honours student, designed the Oceanvale logo, the exotic wine and navy coloured posters, created the Workshop website and took care of other technical details.

As Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri puts it, the Workshop was an “inspiring collective example of productive activity”. His letter of appreciation to the KMC English Department says it all:

Let me again congratulate each of you individually, but still more, all of you collectively — what a blessing it is when you have a team of colleagues who sync so well and work so seamlessly together.

In a sense, it was Ravi who brought us together. I do not know how and why Ravi died. I am not sure that I want to know. But one thing I do know — it is not fair that he died when he did, and I do hope that the Oceanvale Workshop will give him an “afterlife”. After all, the nomenclature, “Oceanvale Workshop” beautifully, delicately balances the rigour that research demands with the joy of discovery that the endless, infinite possibilities of a text bestows.