Just a month before I arrived at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the Autumn 2017 Literary Festival had already taken place on the campus. And it goes without saying that the festival’s biggest attraction was Kazuo Ishiguro. On October 5, a few days earlier of the event, the Swedish Academy announced Ishiguro as the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. The local media in Norwich got flooded with the news, running headlines like this: UEA’s Ishiguro wins the Nobel Literature Prize.
However, a slight fear seized the festival committee as well. What if Ishiguro now canceled the event? Or asked for a rescheduling? Well, he didn’t finally. The Remains of the Day author attended the event with his usual calm, with his typical polite and poised manner. During the event, in a question and answer session, the novelist opened up himself to the fans seeking writing advice. He said he “doesn’t know” how he writes his books and boldly admitted: “I don’t think I’m very good at prose, there are people who write better prose than me.”
That was brave, of course. His remark allowed the host, Professor Christopher Bigsby, to ask, “Then what’s the Nobel Prize for?”
‘‘Taken completely by surprise’’ when the Nobel news reached him five days ago, Ishiguro at the UEA event was perhaps echoing The Irish Times: ‘‘Kazuo Ishiguro deserves Nobel Prize but others deserve it more.’’
Later, when I arrived at the UEA as a Charles Pick Fellow in November, I would often be asked by my new writing friends, “Were you here when Ishiguro came? No? You missed a great event, man.’’
The next six months I was to spend at UEA regretting that ‘‘great event.’’ Though, I was thrilled to pieces to have Jon Cook as my mentor. In 1979, Ishiguro entered the University of East Anglia’s MA Creative Writing programme, where Professor Cook happened to teach him.
In his late 60s, Jon Cook still has an athletic body; he is tall and robust and is incredibly active. We used to meet over lunch and talk about my work and writing plan. He is the kind of man who will be always a step ahead to endorse good writing. He would tell me where he can help submit my manuscript once I am done with my novel. And months after when I emailed him the final draft, he read each and every word minutely, underlining scores of sentences with alternative suggestions. Eventually, we formed a long-lasting bond.
Martin Pick, an alumnus of UEA, cofounded the Charles Pick Fellowship in 2001 in memory of his father Charles Pick who died in 2000. Being a distinguished publisher and literary agent, Charles Pick had encouraged budding writers at the beginning of their career with practical supports including financial help.
In 1967, when Martin Pick signed a five-year contract with the Oxford University Press to go and work in India as agraduate trainee, he had no idea that he would spend his own career as a publisher and literary agent. He was based in Bombay, and then Madras. After two years, he was transferred to Karachi. And towards the end of 1970, he moved to East Pakistan to run the Dhaka office for a while. That was when Martin traveled around East Pakistan. He left Dhaka just a few months before the 1971 War started.
Needless to say that Martin had formed a deep attachment to South Asia. He feels he might be ‘British in the skin, but Indian in the heart’. That was the reason he, a few years ago, refocused the Charles Pick Fellowship on writers from South Asian countries.
I happened to be the first Bangladeshi to receive this £10,000 award. During my Fellowship period, though I lived in Norwich, I stayed at Martin’s London house on many occasions. It’s not only me, Martin told me, but previous Charles Pick Fellows also enjoyed his hospitality. I feel fortunate that I was introduced to numerous individuals who Martin thought would be great to know for my writing career.
In the first week of my arrival in Norwich, Martin e-introduced me to Amit Chaudhuri who is an adjunct professor at UEA. Soon I received an email from Professor Chaudhuri asking me to join him and some of his students in the Creative and Critical PhD seminar if I was interested. I happily agreed.
It was a Monday in late November. At 4PM Professor Chaudhuri came cradling his MacBook Pro. He has a full head of hair; the front of it is the color of salt and pepper. He entered the class and introduced me to other students. The session started. During the break, we had a little chat.
Two weeks after I attended another PhD seminar. That was his last class of the semester in 2017. Afterward, we headed to the UEA Students Union café for dinner. We sat at a table with our take away boxes. We spoke in Bangla as we ate our simple meal—brown rice with chicken curry. He asked me about contemporary Bengali literature in Bangladesh. Not much is happening there, I told him. Such a beautiful language…, Amit Chaudhuri sighed, didn’t say more. I felt his frustration. His parents were from Sylhet, Bangladesh. His mother, Bijoya Chaudhuri, a prominent Tagore singer, had written a memoir called Sylhet Konyar Atmakatha.
So music was in his blood. I asked him about his writing routine. The first thing he does in the morning is he practices singing (he is a singer in the North Indian classical tradition). He said he practices over two hours in the morning, and then afterward or later in the day he does his writing.
After dinner, he looked for some salt. He would need that in the morning to gargle. Saltwater gargle is good for a singing voice. The cold December breeze was beating us. He said he couldn’t cope with this English air anymore. Tomorrow he would leave for Kolkata. His wife, who is a visiting Professor at Oxford, was already back in India with his daughter Radha, an undergraduate at University College London, where Amit studied.
We parted. On my way home, walking through the cold, quiet Earlham Park, I felt lonely. I looked up at the sky. The cloud-shrouded heaven was redolent of a poem by Jibanananda Das. A strange darkness has come upon the world…
Rahad Abir is a writer. He is the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. He is working on his debut novel and is currently seeking representation.