Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kalam’s long-time partner, has been working in some mainstream schools, engaging adolescent students in after-school hours discussing notions of ‘Peace’ and exploring possibilities of expressing ‘Peace’ through the arts. Seagull wanted Kalam to do a few workshops with a group of 14-year-olds from one such school in South Calcutta, focusing on story-writing that would lead ultimately to the production of some ‘Stories for Peace’. Kalam does not really work with non-marginalized youth, and it also does not work on themes like ‘Peace’. But I felt that this could be another opportunity for Kalam to test the efficacy of its fiction/non-fiction work-plan.
On April 20, in the air-conditioned Audio-Visual Room of a South Calcutta School run by a Gujarati Trust, I met a group of 7 boys and 16 girls, all terribly well-behaved students of the 8th Standard, for a one-hour workshop on story-writing. I was apprehensive about all the participants being only 13 or 14 years old. We have worked with youth of this age earlier and it has been very challenging, leading Kalam to focus more on youth who are nearing adulthood. However, I was surprised by the maturity of these young teens. The round of introductions was quick and smart. We jumped straight into activities, considering the fact that we had very little time. Once again, I wanted to treat ‘Character’ as the starting point of a story. So, after a quick round of activity where two volunteers from among the group described each other in great detail (designed to develop observation, attention to detail, and expression of detail in words), it was time to hunt for a character to write the story about. So I asked the participants to think of one random person they may have met or observed in the last three months who they thought or (more importantly) felt was interesting. It could not be a person they know well: it had to be someone they are intrigued by, someone they would want to know more about. And since they do not know the person, they would also have to imagine a lot. The participants took about 30 seconds to think of a person they could write on. I asked them to write a ten-line description of the person, mostly a physical one. In ten minutes we had 23 characters described. We only had time to hear a few. The characters chosen were diverse: a mysterious neighbour, a trendy young man with a speech disability, a middle-aged man in a ‘safari suit’, a super-cool guy in red shoes who is also a champion at Table Tennis and has a really progressive model of mobile phone etc. One girl had chosen to describe me the facilitator, and she insisted on reading it out. Gingerly, I agreed. And it turned out to be a rather erotic description, very innocently done for sure, but capable of raising giggles and eyebrows nonetheless! The participants surprised me with the amount of detail they had put into their descriptions. Many had included speech and behaviour patterns as well.
Most of them said that they would like to write a story on the characters they had chosen. Two of the girls said they would choose some other character. I explained how a story progresses only when a conflict is introduced. It required some examples of ‘conflict’ before the group could grasp what I was talking about. I stressed on little conflicts, simple ones, like you would have with your brother about watching TV etc. They had to now imagine (and write) what kind of a simple conflict their characters could go into. This would be their homework till we meet again next month.
For once, the workshop was completely in English. I think, for me, this made things easier and faster. It was evident how different these kids were from most of the youth Kalam works with. Although most of the kids we work with are bright and smart, but being regular school-goers, these kids were completely at home with the idea of expressing themselves through writing. And there was virtually no shyness in communication. I did not have to persuade anybody to share what they have written. I look forward to the next workshop, scheduled for May 11. The challenge in that workshop would be to weed out clichés in the situations that the participants would have imagined for their characters. But the group being exceptionally bright and very receptive to new ideas, it would be a pleasure anyway. I really think that this workshop demonstrated that the approach we are trying to take to the writing of fiction could be an effective one. It is time we introduce this method of story-writing to a regular Kalam group, and evaluate its efficacy.
Posted by Bishan Samaddar