This continues my attempt to write an autobiography in 4 blog posts
1 Childhood, boarding school, a novice at Mother Teresa’s Convent
Like many young Indians, I desperately wanted to leave India for wider, more adventurous and exciting horizons. When praying about where—the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or England, I heard an inner voice—which I was somehow certain was God’s, though it was the first time I had heard it–say quite clearly “Just apply to Oxford.” So, I did, no contingency plans, and scrambled together scholarships from the university—the Radhakrishnan fellowship for Indians to study at Oxford and the Eckersley Trust fellowships for students of English at Oxford. I believe that Oxford is part of my destiny and God’s plan for me—though I still don’t know why!!
I earned have a BA and an MA in English from Somerville College, Oxford. My years in Oxford were intense and formative. I read a lot, learnt a lot, made mistakes, made life-long friends. I had been accepted for a Ph.D in English at Oxford, but didn’t get a First. I spent another formative year in Oxford after my degree, reading, and trying to write, and applying to America.
The nuns of the Sacred Heart in North Oxford had opened up their old novitiate to Christian (or barely Christian, as I was then) students, and living there was an intensely formative experience. In a place like Oxford, where many people are formidably clever, you learn as much from your fellow students and reading as from classes—and so I did!
I then moved to America to do a funded Masters in Creative Writing from Ohio State University. Didn’t care much for Columbus, but learned loads from the writing programme, especially from the Director, David Citino, who wasn’t then (though he bloomed later) a hugely talented poet, but one who had a formidable work ethic, the writers’ greatest asset. He woke at 4 a.m. and wrote, producing a prodigious output, but risking his health, and driving himself to an early grave.
And yeah, at the end of my degree, my faith which over those years at university moved from an activated-only-in-crisis SOS mode, to dormancy to near-death now revived. I recommitted myself to following Christ. That sounds grand, doesn’t it?–but becoming a Christian for me has never been the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, all in a summer’s afternoon, but the way an acorn becomes an oak. Very slowly.
I moved on to do a Ph.D in Creative Writing at SUNY-Binghamton, with permission to hand in a volume of poetry for my Ph.D as I did for my masters. I enjoyed the classes, but I was teaching two sections of undergraduate classes for tuition and $620 a month. No kidding! And all I wanted to do was read and write.
And so rather sooner than we had planned, after a four week engagement, I married to clever sweet Roy, who is also rather saintly (well, most of the time!)
Having earned a Ph.D in Maths from Johns Hopkins, he was then doing a post-doc in Computer Science at Cornell. He had a sweet fellowship, good anywhere, so once my Ph.D in Binghamton no longer tied him down, we moved to Stanford, Palo Alto, California, where he continued his post-doc in Computer Science. And I stayed home and read and wrote.
Then we moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1990. I was a fish out of water there, and hated it.
A year later, Roy won another post-doctoral fellowship to the University of Minnesota. I agreed to follow him. I basically felt any city would be better than Williamsburg, which offered no stimulation, no interesting writers, barely any cultural life.
And Minnesota was another of those incredibly fertile, blessed periods in my life. I was reading all the time, my head was buzzing with ideas.
I had been writing poetry during that first year of marriage, and had pretty much written out all my ideas. (Wow, can’t imagine that happening with blogging or prose.) Around Jan 1991, I started reading women’s memoirs, Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard, “Frost in May” Mary MacCarthy and a spring opened up within me, as I saw the deep buried world of childhood again, and saw the magic and poetry in it.
And as luck or providence had it, the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, had the largest concentration of memoirists and creative non-fiction writers in the US. I took an excellent, seminal creatively mind-expanding class in Creative Non-fiction from Charlie Sugnet. The work I did in his class during that term won a Memoir award of $6000 from the Minnesota State Arts Board. I also won an award from the Jerome Foundation which paid for a research trip to India. And an award from the Loft Writing Centre which linked me with a mentor. I took courses with Phillip Lopate, David Mura, and one on one with Carol Bly one on one, over several months.
It was one of those periods when most things I touched and tried turned to gold. Cash grants, essay prizes, fellowships to writers’ conferences, a job teaching creative nonfiction at the Loft. I found a great writers’ group, who became my friends, loved church. And just before we left Minneapols, I went to a writers’ conference at Squaw Valley where I found a very well-known editor and agent Ted Solataroff and Ginger Barber interested in my manuscript.
I was so desperate not to return to Williamsburg that I persuaded Roy to buy a house in Minneapolis, figuring that if we had bought a house, God wouldn’t have the heart to move us. Yeah, sure. He’s not a tame lion. He’s wild and unpredictable. You can’t really control or manipulate him. All you can do is bow the knee.
We worshipped in John Piper’s church when then had a sign painted on its walls, Hope in God. “Yeah, hope in God that you’ll be able to stay in Minnesota,” I said to my soul. God smiled and replied, “No, no, Anita, hope in God because God is good.” But I did not hear him.
And then every job Roy applied to in industry, in academia turned him down—except for the professorship in William and Mary, which remained open.
And so to Williamsburg, we returned, mourning, mourning, mourning.
And stayed there for twelve years!
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Next post–Williamsburg: A Desert Experience