Sangam House is a writers residency program just outside of Pondicherry in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Up to seven writers at a time—from South Asia and the rest of the world—are invited to live together while they grind out their latest work—stories, poetry, scripts, and all those arrangements of words that don’t fit neatly into any of these categories. Follow DW Gibson’s reflections on his experiences_ here.
Community is all the rage. Our networking, political views, practical concerns and random inquires all play out in our online communities. Prior to politics, Barack Obama’s much-analyzed resume was that of a community organizer. The word is the latest love-child of the politically correct gods: in the city of Sao Paulo the word “favela” has fallen out of favor and the areas are now referred to as “comunidades.” Ideas of “community building” and “community engagement” run together in mission statement after mission statement from corporations, schools, non-profit organizations—just about any group explaining itself or espousing good and worthwhile intentions. Set you radar to pick up this word and you’ll fall deaf to the beeping. The word is uttered so many times, in so many contexts, it’s become gibberish repeatedly tripping on our tongues.
At breakfast I asked a few other Sangam House writers what community means. No one hesitated and no one gave the same answer. They said big words: Sharing. Identity. Responsibility. There seems to be a natural overlap between these focal points and none of them mandate—only hint at—sharing physical space. Madhulika Liddle, a novelist from Delhi, appropriately pointed out that there’s an aspect of community which has always existed outside of physical space —an aspect that, for some, supersedes physical space. People who share a religion, for instance, are in a community with those who attend the same church or temple or mosque and these communities extend between individuals around the world who’ve never met but are linked by a certain set of beliefs.
When we tried to specify or apply these broad, rather lofty definitions, we all circled back around to a specific spot on the map: the place we were born, where were raised, our current home. Mind you, for much of human history, these three places all blended together. But then our transportation became more and more sophisticated: wheels, sea vessels, motorized transport, and, eventually, airplanes. At the same time, our communication technology became more and more complex: letters then telegrams then telephones—each leading up to the behemoth that is the Internet. It is a transient, chatterbox of a world we now occupy. Not only do we have the freedom to physically withdraw or shift locations but we can maintain communication while doing so—as long as there’s that all-important wire connecting us to a wireless world.
At Sangam House, most of us spend the majority of our time in our rooms working at our computers. The work is broken into chunks of time that are separated by our gathering at a table outside for three meals a day. Most of the time we’re also joined by some of the Adi Shakti performers. We have a general pattern for how long these communal breaks last: breakfast wraps up by 10AM; lunch generally lasts an hour or so starting around 1PM; and post-dinner sessions can last well into the night. Our conversations run all over the place. Some of the dialog makes us sound like stereotypical writers pontificating about which books are disgraceful or inspired; other conversations make us sound like cultural neophytes, detectives, or gutter-dwelling perverts. (To quote Arvind, Adi Shakti’s resident drummer: “I can’t help it. I’m an innocent with dirty fingers.”) In short we talk about everything and anything and most of the discussions are invigorating: we part ways recharged for the next session in front of the computer.
I wondered what it would be like if these long swirling conversations played out as an ongoing online forum. We could pick seven writers from all around the world who would agree to meet and converse at an appointed hour, every day for, say, a month. The Sangam House virtual round table. How would that be different from the round table that is physically outside my window now? How would it be the same? With the virtual incarnation of this gathering we could all be sitting in the comfort of our homes, drinking from our own mugs, occupying our usual chairs. We could still drink beer or whiskey or mango crush—whatever our preference. Smokers could still be smoking. State-of-the-art videoconferencing could allow us to still see each other’s expressions and gestures. What, if anything, would be missing or different with this approach?
The first obvious difference: time. Seven writers from all around the world meeting over videoconference at an appointed hour would be dealing with very different hours of the day—again supposing we were all fairly evenly spread across the globe. I’d probably have a Makers Mark while my fellow Sangam House writer Ham Seong-ho would probably have hot tea—not because I’m a lush or he’s a prude but because of where we’d be sitting in time. I’d just be going to bed in New York while he’d be waking up in Seoul. I’d carry the weight of whatever had happened that day while Ham Seong-ho would be looking ahead at the day’s schedule laid out before him. Our energy levels would be different, having much less to do with each other, much more to do with the time displayed in the corner of our computer screens.
Weather would also be a factor. At Sangam House we’re all dealing with a rainy morning or a hot afternoon or a chilly night. It’s the same breeze that soothes or distracts each of us. When we wake up and sit at our communal table, the warm sun hits all of us as it rises from behind the Adi Shakti theater. The idea of shared weather extends to a larger sense of shared atmosphere. The humidity brings out the mosquitoes to bite us all (though not with any sense of equanimity—they do have their favorites, as evidenced by my insanely-blotchy ankles); the same shifts in heat and precipitation affect our energy levels and moods. We all react as individuals but we are collectively reacting to the same stimuli. If this stimuli does not come directly from the weather then it comes from some living entity that thrives in this shared space: the bugs, the trees, the frogs, the mongooses, the birds and flowers—all producing sounds and smells and sights that make up our surroundings.
And while heat and rain and even the mongooses can be found in many other parts of the world there are elements of our atmosphere that are unique to this spot on the map. We all witnessed the local celebration of the harvest festival Pongal, which involved things like painting the horns of cows and setting out fiery coconuts for crows to snatch up by the side of the road. (The celebration, which lasted four days, was enjoyed and endured without any booze. The first half was observed by the liquor stores while the second half was observed by the taxi drivers, who were not available to take us to the liquor stores that had re-opened. We were not savvy enough to plan ahead for such convoluted factors and by the time the festival ended we were like six-year-olds clawing at the walls for sugar.) We also experienced what will be the longest solar eclipse of this millennium. It lasted nearly two hours in these southerly reaches of India and cast crescent-shaped shafts of lights through the tangle of branches over our round table.
These shared elements—inspiring us, confounding us, informing us—are omitted by virtual community. These elements put us in sync. We all have our own perspectives and reactions but, over time, sharing physical space becomes the experience of sharing a certain rhythm.
DW Gibson’s work has appeared in several publications including The New York Observer, Tin House, Oxford Magazine, and Atlas.