When Autumn Comes, Can Spring be Far Behind?
The Oceanvale Workshop, Spring 2019
Following closely on the heels of the 2018 Autumn Oceanvale Workshop, was the 2019 Spring Workshop. Interspersing the two, or, rather, part of both the workshops, was a return to the old — but for long, non-existent — Delhi winter, famous for that exhilarating nip in the air. That rare winter was in perfect sync with the air of excitement that gripped students in the English departments across DU: even as timetables were being finalized and DU gearing up for a new semester, right on the first day of the year, day one of the Spring semester, on 1 January 2019, KMC had announced its second inter-college Oceanvale workshop entitled, “Exploring Subjectivity: Mind, Body, Action”.
After the focus on ‘subjectivity’ during the Modern Age, the theme might appear now, a century later, at first glance, to be exhausted and overdetermined, a topic much written and rewritten on. But for those eager to explore its many dimensions — given that its roots go back to the Delphic inscription: “Know thyself”, and can be traced back to Renaissance times a la Pico della Mirandola, among others, and works itself into the present through Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault, among others — there was so much to unpack.
Starting with the pithy concept note and the exhaustive readings listed on the Oceanvale website, and most of them provided in PDF format, there was enough meat on the table. Of great interest and greater excellence were the three essays published on the website, one each written by our three panellists, essays that brilliantly explored varying aspects of subjectivity.
Handpicked by Dr. Sunjay Sharma — the director of the Workshop — the three distinguished panellists, Dr. Baidik Bhattacharya, Professor Udaya Kumar and Professor V. Sanil, came across as some of the best minds in the country, both through their essays that appeared in the readings for the workshop, and their presentations that were to follow. An authority on postcolonial studies, Dr. Baidik Bhattacharya holds a D.Phil. degree from Oxford University, and after having taught at Newcastle University, U.K. (2006-10) and Delhi University (2010-18), currently works at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. Known for his work on James Joyce, Professor Udaya Kumar is also a D.Phil. from Oxford University, and after having taught at Delhi University for a number of years, is now with JNU at the Centre for English Studies. V. Sanil is Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. He has an interesting and rare combination of degrees: in engineering, in philosophy, and a postgraduate diploma in Journalism. He has been a Charles Wallace Fellow at the Philosophy Department of Liverpool University, UK, and Directeur d’études Associés at Maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris.
In eager anticipation of the live presentations that were in store for them by such a brilliant team, Oceanvale alumni and Spring 2019 participants, and the English faculty at KMC, flocked to the academic auditorium on 13th March, the inaugural day of the Spring workshop. What added to the excitement was the eagerly awaited announcement of the 2018 Autumn Oceanvale Award. All guesses were soon put to rest: a jury of three scholars — Dr. N.A. Jacob, Dr. Prasanta Chakravarty, and Dr. Sunjay Sharma — had worked diligently through the winter vacation and adjudged the best papers to be those by Raunak Kumar (Ramjas College) in the undergraduate category, and Anshul Timothy Mukarji (St. Stephen’s College) in the postgraduate category.
In addition to these two papers, which received the Oceanvale award that included a sum of ₹10000 and a certificate, other excellent papers submitted by Anagha Gopal, Karan Kimothi, Mehvish Siddiqui, and Raginee Sarmah were published in the journal Language, Literature, and Interdisciplinary Studies.
Dr. Vibha Singh Chauhan, KMC Principal, in her address reminded us of Ravi’s book, Oceanvale — that has given to the Oceanvale Programme at KMC the name it has today — and of Ravi himself, in whose memory the workshop is held every semester, made possible by his sister’s generous endowment. Dr. Chauhan is confident that Minerva press will soon republish copies of Ravi’s novel. She went on to share some thoughts on the theme of the workshop; she speculated, for instance, on what exigencies of publication do to ‘subjectivity’ and ‘authorship.’
Dr. Sunjay Sharma, whose dedication and tireless efforts through the long winter months had culminated in this day, now took the microphone to reclaim Baidik and Udaya as our very own although they had moved out of Delhi University some years ago. Fondly remembered by students and teachers alike, their contribution to the DU English Department has been immense. Sanil had been one of the resource persons at a DU Refresher course that Sunjay happened to attend. That one hour lecture by Sanil, Sunjay remarked, taught him more about teaching Derrida than interactions with a number of international experts on deconstruction during the four years that Sunjay was at Cornell University.
With such an introduction we could no longer wait for the panellists to speak. Each of the panellists, Professor V. Sanil, Dr. Baidik Bhattacharya, and Professor Udaya Kumar, concentrated on one aspect of the topic: mind, body, and action respectively, although overlaps were inevitable. Sanil was the first to plunge into the intricacies of the subject. Action, choice, is never mindless: it proceeds from premises, he said. A human being raising a hand is not the same as an apple falling from a tree. It is the mind in the former that spells out the difference between the two. Behind happenings are actions, and behind actions is a necessary choice. To illustrate his point, Sanil referred to philosopher and mathematician, Jean Cavailles, who chose to take part in the French Resistance, a decision that first led to his arrest by the Gestapo and, eventually, to his being shot dead. But then Sanil also took us to the phenomenological notion of a pre-reflective familiarity with the world. Besides, he made us consider the constitution of the self through biological power. For instance, it is the immunity mechanism that makes the mother reject the foetus. This raises complex questions related to the self, to the other, and to empathy. In a related vein, he spoke of numerical identity that would reduce a group of people as falling into the same category: as, for instance, those who wear shoes of the same number, but can one ever step into the shoes of another, he added as a rider. He spoke of the irreducible ‘I’, the objectified ‘me’, and the ‘mine’ that possesses. He also made us think about the kind of subjective role that memory and meditation play: memory — genetic and epigenetic — is inherited, but how much of memory, together with meditation, is personal, a turning back to and on oneself? Amongst the several other aspects of the mind-subjectivity connect was the insight he gave us into Foucault’s Hermeneutics of the Subject, where Foucault identifies two important moments in the historiography of ‘subjectivity,’ the Cartesian cogito moment and the Kantian transcendental moment; he also referred to The Order of Things in which Foucault deals with the oscillation between the ‘empirical I’ and the ‘transcendental I,’ what he terms “a strange empirico-transcendental doublet”.
Professor Udaya Kumar, in his thought provoking presentation, drew references from a wide range of literary works to show the very problematic connection between subjectivity and action. He demonstrated the various ways in which an individual may not always be the author of the action he performs. An obvious instance is that of a stage actor — who performs a scripted role, as that of, for example, Ravana — whose trained body knows what to do even as his mind remains blank. Then there is, he went on to say, the travel agent or the insurance agent whose agency is derived from official authority. He also spoke about Samuel Richardson who gave the female subject a voice but did so in order to impart a moral message. Isn’t poetic justice an objective formulation after all, and one to which the subject must submit despite the personal action s/he performs, and further, taking the examples of Richardson’s heroines, Pamela and Clarissa, Udaya questioned the difference in consequences for identical, or nearly identical, action stemming from similar virtue. Drawing upon Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, he also raised the centuries old debate on free will and predestination. Destiny controls human action in an uncanny way, and yet, allows the human subject limited agency. But if untrammelled agency is allowed to an individual, is that interiority to be valorised, he wondered. Certainly not if it manifests in murderous acts such as those Agave and Medea committed. Euripides pushes the limits of purposiveness and this, Udaya said, brings up yet another pertinent question: does not passion — or, for that matter, madness — alter the subject, and isn’t his/her action not under his/her control anymore? Who then is the author of the action? And yet, resistance comes from agency, subversion from fighting forces that thwart subjectivity.
The last of the three daunting presentations was by Dr. Baidik Bhattacharya. He focused on the body vis-a-vis subjectivity, and made most of us see that body studies could be such a layered topic; a field, he informed us, that has been expanding rapidly in recent years. If critical philosophy failed to answer Kant’s seminal question, “What is man?”, anthropology responded by taking up the challenge, he said. Extensive anthropological research could answer questions and verify findings related to the exteriority of the body but drew a blank when it came to dealing with interiority for that could not be verified. He went on to say that Foucault in The Order of Things excavated the origins of man in an attempt to further answer Kant’s question. He identified man in terms of the three ‘l’s’: life, that is, biology; labour, that is, political economy; and, language, that is, philology. Baidik explained that somatic studies broadly divide the body into three categories: the corporeal body, the phenomenological body, and the cultural body. To an extent, body studies challenge Descartes’ theory of mind-body duality. The area dealing with the corporeal body goes into fields such as forensic science that studies crimes and criminals, and medical science that deals with the diseased body. The phenomenological body, Baidik told us, can be experienced through the senses; it does not require representation as a condition of its being. In Lacanian terminology, it is pre-social and pre-symbolic. The cultural body is, in terms of hierarchy and stereotypes, mapped across class, race and gender. Thus, the Hottentots in South Africa were kept in cages like human animals, and Bengali men are considered effeminate, he said. Waves of feminism have also focused on the body, first seeking an identification with men and then insisting on difference. Another point that Baidik made was that Karl Marx in the nineteenth century, exposed labour exploitation to be largely a commodification of the body. In conclusion, Baidik stated that the location of the body — both the body in location and the body as location — is crucial in defining its subjectivity or the lack of its subjectivity.
Student participants had already turned in their first drafts on 11th February, 2019, and gone through the first workshop on 18th February, conducted by Alka Rakesh, Nivedita Basu, Saloni Sharma, Saumya Garima Jaipuriar, and Sunjay Sharma from the KMC English Department.
Now, after listening to the panellists’ discourses, they had a lot to ponder over. But before they revised their papers for presentations, each one of them had the rare opportunity of one-on-one close mentoring sessions with two of our three experts. These sessions began on the afternoon of 13th March and went on throughout the next day.
The students were ready with their presentations on the 15th of March. In an attempt to streamline the schedule, twenty presentations — split into twelve undergraduate and eight postgraduate presentations — took place simultaneously over two days in the seminar room and the academic auditorium respectively. All kinds of ‘subjectivity’ under the sun — and, under the moon and stars, and even of the world beyond — were thrashed out: two papers dealt even with the subjectivity of ghosts and one with that of an alien; subjectivities of men with or without women, and of women valiantly, fiercely fighting against male bestiality in ways that stupefy, and of women braving it out on their own, and gay, lesbian, and queer subjectivity, all of these were explored. Insight into the mind of an alleged criminal, also alleged to be a madwoman, was given by an M.A. student. Varied racial subjectivities — those of South Africans; the Japanese; the Western Christian’s, Italian, English and Irish; the black man’s; as also those of Muslims, Dalits, Jews, Afrikaners, Kashmiris, and Bengalis, whether NRIs or those living in Dacca, Calcutta or Mangrove tide country — were explored. Slaves and slavers, colonial and postcolonial subjects were all put under a critical lens. A solution was sought to the paralyzed, fragmented modernist self. Various depictions of the differently abled individual in art and literature was the subject of enquiry of a postgraduate paper. Dancers and artists, and the manner in which subjectivity and subversion is manifested in art forms was the theme of more than one paper. Last, but not least, was a presentation that sought to deal with the subjectivity of a smoker but instead got entangled in the history of smoking. Quite an exhaustive list, as one can clearly see, but what was amazing was that even such a mind boggling array of topics was not enough to exhaust the topic of ‘subjectivity’.
Professor Sanil articulated what most of us had been silently experiencing: it was a challenge to go through and analyse papers as diverse as these. And yet, mentors and facilitators, and the peer group of students took to the workshop like fish to water. They were in their element. As a student commented, “The workshop was fun and not at all severe as I had expected.” Another student found the “intensity and academic rigour” to be “outstanding”. Saloni Sharma, Assistant Professor at KMC, remarked, “For the first time in years, I actually enjoyed going in to work and getting back exhausted and happy.” Indeed, the workshop was a paradoxical combination of rigour and fun. To put it in the words of Professor Udaya Kumar, “Throughout the workshop, there was an atmosphere of tremendous form and energy, which also retained a special air of lightness, cheerfulness and warmth.”
Even as students were intellectually challenged, and their minds opened to new ideas as well as alternative ways of thinking, they were made to feel at home. The KMC volunteers, as a participant frankly said, took “care of … every need” of ours. Perhaps, the following student response sums it all up beautifully, “I write this with utmost sincerity and a profound feeling of gratitude towards the English Department of Kirori Mal College that facilitated for me not just THE BEST learning experience I have had in the last few years in the form of the “Oceanvale Workshop”, but also opened its arms so wide that it was enough to make me feel more at “home” in just a week, than I have ever felt in a year at the Arts faculty.” For a few lucky students, this was their second Oceanvale stint. As one of them remarked, “The opening day of the Spring edition has already surpassed the high expectations I had after the Autumn sessions.” Like him, most students praised the excellent team of resource persons; as one student put it, they were “the best team of mentors one could think of”; another appreciated the “commitment of the [invited] mentors and the home [KMC] facilitators.” The Oceanvale website was described as “useful”, “great”, “perfect”, “easily accessible”; Sashanka sir’s “motivational emails” were a source of inspiration as were Sunjay sir’s; in the words of one of the participants, “One of the most beautiful and wonderful privileges that we have as Oceanvale scholars is to receive mails from Sunjay Sir.” Our young scholars raved about the food but rued the absence of gulab jamuns (they had been served fresh, hot jalebis this time, unlike Autumn 2018 when gulab jamuns had rounded off some of the lunches). On the downside, participants felt the need of more time for revision before their presentations, wished that interaction between the BA and MA groups had been factored into the schedule, and that there had been uniformity in the time given to each presentation. Other than that, the participants found the workshop “stimulating” and a “wholesome experience” and one to which they wished “to go back and have that experience again and again.” One student, in the column that asked what was “worst” about the workshop, wrote, “absolutely nothing”, and another, had scrawled in large, bold letters: “NO!”
The panellists lavished generous words of praise on the workshop. “The quantity and quality of the work put in by you and your colleagues is frightening!” exclaimed Professor V. Sanil. Calling the workshop, a “rare and valuable achievement”, Professor Udaya Kumar continued, “the credit for this goes entirely to the [Oceanvale] team for conceiving the workshop and carrying it out with such care and thoughtfulness.” Indeed, the team was one of its kind in which each individual was irreplaceable and where the members worked together ungrudgingly, diligently, and in a spirit of camaraderie. Perhaps the source of our confidence came from the assurance that we could always count on the support of our Principal, Dr. Vibha Singh Chauhan. Of course, Dr. Sunjay Sharma was the guiding force behind the workshop, the multitasking he did was remarkable.
And then there was Rudrashish, who was everywhere every time he was needed; Sashanka, who helped Sunjay with the emails, patiently answered the queries of students, and made available to us their scripts.
Amrapali, who doubled as screening committee member and refreshment organizer; Sukanya, who was again, both screening committee member and folder in-charge; Nivedita, Rudrashish, Saloni, Saumya, Sunjay, and Alka, who worked in different capacities, and sometimes in more than one role: some as screening committee members, some as facilitators, and some as mentors.
Our quiet but indispensable and supremely efficient web maintenance team of Shubham Pandey (B.Sc. Hons. Computer Science, IIIrd year) and Abhishek Das (B.A. Hons. Political Science, IIIrd year) merits a truly special mention: they were not students of the English department, but attended to our website and poster designing with a diligence and an enthusiasm that matched those of our own. Sarthak Ahuja and Sachin Verma were our talented photographers who covered the entire event and made it look even better in their pictures.
The list would be incomplete without an appreciative acknowledgment of our ever smiling student volunteers whose cheerful warmth transformed KMC into a home college for the visiting Oceanvale scholars and mentors.
As all good things come to an end, so did the 2019 Spring Oceanvale Workshop with the Valedictory ceremony on the 16th of March. But this end marked a new start for the participants: they could now begin to write their final papers, which would be due for submission on 30th June. They had close to three and a half months at their disposal, or, if we factor in their university exams, at least one and a half clear months with them. As I write this ‘Afterword’ with August 2019 coming to an end, the third edition of the Oceanvale Workshop is underway, and the submissions of 30th June have been read and adjudged. Exciting as the workshop was for participants and mentors, some of the papers were a bit of a disappointment. One member of the Oceanvale award jury was crestfallen at the lack of passionate engagement in some papers, another at the negligence of suggestions imparted during mentoring sessions, and the third, at the scanty textual references and the refusal on the part of some writers to problematize arguments. But yes, there was a definite improvement in the writing skills of the participants, and unlike the solipsistic concern with their own individual papers, as in the first workshop, in this workshop, students keenly engaged in discussions during the presentations of their peer group. Some of the less rigorous papers were offset by others — especially those by Ananta Ahuja, Anoushka Sinha, Nikita Pinto, Siddhant Datta, and Suchandra Bose — that displayed remarkable improvements through the workshop and earned the award jury’s recommendation for publication in the journal Language, Literature, and Interdisciplinary Studies.
As Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Words worth pondering over both in terms of the insight into ‘subjectivity’ — the theme of the 2019 Spring Workshop — they give us, and, the immense possibilities of writing and research they unlock, as boundless as that common human repository of wisdom into which all the individual streams of research and writing pour both their failures and successes.
Thank You, Alka!
The quality of mentors, scholars, and organisation usually determine the outcome of a programme such as the Oceanvale workshop. It is often not easy to persuade some of the most vibrant, engaging, and pedagogically committed professors to mentor an intensive writing workshop—for their schedules are already packed with the work of their own students—but not impossible. One might suffer the odd organisational slip and still make the workshop a worthwhile experience for everyone as long as the organising team facilitates a warm, welcoming, cordial, relaxed learning environment which encourages formal and informal interaction among participants, mentors and scholars alike. The one element that decisively shapes a writing programme, and the one that is the hardest to control, is the quality, enthusiasm, and commitment brought to the workshop by the community of selected scholars.
There could, hence, have only been one person in charge of the screening committee, whose job is to painstakingly sift through all the applications we receive each semester for the Oceanvale workshop: Dr. Alka Rakesh. Committed, caring, courteous, conscientious, cooperative, considerate are some of the first adjectives that spring to mind at the mention of that name. Alka’s presence in steering the screening process is one of the fundamental reasons because of which the Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019 workshops turned out the way they did, for if Alka and her team hadn’t selected the kinds of students they did for the workshop, the best of mentors and organisers would have been left searching for those quality minds for whom the entire programme was conceived, the students who would make the labour of organisation and mentoring worthwhile.
It so happened that Spring 2019 was to be the semester that would mark Alka’s superannuation. Her plan was to begin the semester with a family trip to the Andamans, before settling down to formally assigned work for one last stint. It was at this juncture that I approached her with a request to resume her work as the convener of the screening committee—the timeline of that work schedule clashed with the dates of her prospective family trip—an obligation that she had discharged with such distinction the first time, at the start of the Autumn 2018 workshop, that it had become impossible to think of anyone else in that position. Anyone in Alka’s position would certainly, understandably, and justifiably have excused herself, which, perhaps, explains why no one can be in her position. Here is a line from the mail I wrote to Alka when she apprised me of her plans: “This is a very special semester for you, and I would want it to go exactly as you wish it, in every detail, at least so far as I can help it. So, should you wish to take time off the screening committee, please just drop me a word.” She replied with: “This is my last LTC which we wanted to avail of and I can do so by March end; there are enough free days in between the [Oceanvale workshop] events. Don’t worry one bit, I will not miss either the screening, the workshops or the presentations.” How do you find a substitute for someone like that? Later, her schedule over the semester worked out in such a way that she ended up not going to the Andamans at all, and went instead for a short break to Udaipur. If she wasn’t Alka, I would have considered voicing the compunction I felt, and still do, in the form of an apology.
Exhausting as the screening process can be, that was only the start of Alka’s contributions to the Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019 workshops. She also served as one of the mentors who provided the first round of feedback on their papers to the Oceanvale scholars in the first workshop in Autumn 2018, and then reprised that role in Spring 2019. A conscientious discharge of duties marks a committed pedagogical disposition, in the world of common mortals. Alka’s work ethic belongs to a space inhabited by her alone: during the first set of workshops, in Autumn 2018, one of the students—Richa Das—was unable to meet her in the scheduled slot because she was away for a conference in Shimla. An email from Richa was all it took for Alka to reschedule a session solely for Richa on the first available day after she got back to Delhi. Richa’s gushing response, therefore, is appropriate: “I couldn’t be here on 20 October, but I enjoyed my [rescheduled] session with Dr. Alka very much!”
In the course of the Spring 2019 workshop, Alka got the programme going as convener of the screening committee, and has now brought the workshop to a close with her ‘Afterword,’ another role for which there appears to be no substitute for her, for there is no one, besides her, who has been as completely and as consistently a part of all the major moments of the Oceanvale programme. In addition to mentoring the first workshops in both Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019, her contribution in the same role in the course of the final presentations segment in Spring 2019 was vital to the revisions which the students thereafter put their papers through over the summer. Once the final submissions were in on 30 June, Alka was back to work once again, the trivial matter of a retirement on 31 March 2019 notwithstanding, this time as one of the three members of the Oceanvale award jury, who selected the papers recommended for publication and nominated one paper each from the BA and MA categories for the Oceanvale award.
Those of you who have read her account of the Spring 2019 workshop might, therefore, be surprised to find the name ‘Alka’ make only two perfectly understated appearances in her narrative above, given the volume and magnitude of her contributions to the programme. In selecting the pictures for her ‘Afterword,’ Alka made sure that there was none that featured her. A commentary is superfluous, at best, and irritating, at worst, when someone’s actions articulate the person as accurately as do Alka’s. Her unyielding silence regarding her role in the Spring 2019 workshop has been the cause for the composition of the present lines, and her keeping herself out of the pictures pushed me into an editorial role in which I ended up inserting most of the pictures, and not just hers, into her commemorative narrative. A bunch of apologies on that ground: first, to Alka, for the editorial intrusion, and next to both Nivedita and Sukanya, for their pictures are missing. Neither I, nor Nivedita or Sukanya, or our wonderful photographers Sachin and Sarthak, are to blame for that omission. Both Nivedita and Sukanya, as Alka has noted in her article, contributed wholeheartedly to the Oceanvale programme in multiple roles as screening committee members, mentors, organising committee members, but their preoccupations with other events on the days the pictures were taken explains why their faces went missing from the photographs I received from our student volunteers, many of whom—apologies to you as well, for there was only so much space in a commemorative narrative such as Alka’s for individual pictures—also do not appear in the photographs included on this page.
It is entirely fitting, then, that Alka’s “When Autumn Comes, Can Spring be Far Behind?” should bring the Spring 2019 workshop to a close, for her work has shaped the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Oceanvale programme throughout the two semesters that have marked the existence of the workshop. All I can say are those two words that have become such common courtesy that their speakers and hearers alike barely register them, but these two words, when genuinely meant, have the power to convey the gratitude you feel as no two words can: thank you! Thank you, Alka, for contributing so wholeheartedly in making the Oceanvale programme possible.
Sweat, Toil and Meraki
The Oceanvale Workshop, Autumn 2018
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.