UNearthing creativity

This week I was invited to be the judge at a creative writing contest, doubtless based on my credentials built over the last one-and-a-half decades as a dad. The thing is the school which had organised this competition is where my daughter is studying. Otherwise I have less chance of being at a creative writing event than Maria Sharapova heading the Russian chapter of Sachin’s Fan Club.

But, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I should also point out that the school authorities had a really good reason to call me (rather than any other writer) to be the judge of the writing contest: I was free on the day of competition.

I suspect this is how the conversation must have panned out before they zeroed in on me:

Volunteer 1: Jeez, time is running out. We haven’t fixed the judge for the creative writing contest.

Volunteer 2: How about Jeyamohan, he seems to be the big cheese in writing in these parts?

Volunteer 3: Have you read him?

Volunteer 2: How is that relevant here?

Volunteer 3: Well, if you had you would not have suggested his name. He writes in Tamil and our competition is in English. Anyway, the real ground to not consider his name is: He wrote the dialogues for Kadal. It took me nearly three-quarters of the film to realise that they were all along talking in Tamil.

Volunteer 4: OK, shall we call Chetan Bhagat? He is popular, writes in English and his books are actually read?

Volunteer 2: Dude, hope you remember this is going to be a small inter-school competition in one tiny corner of Chennai and Chetan Bhagat is way too big for this. But, of course, we can go out and publicize the event with the tagline: Finally, Chetan Bhagat and creative writing in the same hall.

The exchanges must have continued in this vein and all choices, more eminently qualified than me, would have had to be dropped for reasons other than ability, and eventually the sole choice left before them was probably just me, who had to be picked for reasons, well, other than ability only.

Any more attempts at self-deprecating jokes will be actually deprecating of the good souls who had called me to judge the contest, but the fact of the matter is that the young participants, mostly from 11th and 12th standards, had good writing skills the kind of which — I speak this with the conviction of an insider — journalism in India rarely attracts. Indian journalism is at a stage where it will deem itself to be extremely lucky if it manages to find people who can write leave letters without mistake.

Apart from the writing contest, there were plenty of other events at the two-day cultural extravaganza which attracted a huge variety of students, which for me, a guy from the 80s, was surprising. Because back in our days, schools picked students to compete in extra-curricular events based on — not for nothing the 80s are deemed a golden era — how good they were in their curricular activities. If you were a top-ranker, the teachers reasoned, it was only logical that you were good at debates, quizzes, writing and — why not? — music.

But, in general, inter-school competitions were few and far between then, and so the highlight on the cultural calendar of the school had to be the annual day celebration which held a special attraction for students because the day after it was usually declared as holiday. Otherwise, annual day functions were hotchpotch, tacky stuff (dance events choreographed by geography teacher) exactly the kind that HR department guys are organising these days.

Our generation may have missed out on competitions, but we had — drum roll — ‘the UN exams’. Nobody, and I include the people who conducted it, had any earthly idea as to why this exam was needed at all. We didn’t learn anything from it. (Half the guys forwarding stupid emails announcing UNESCO heritage status to famous Indian structures like Parangimalai Jothy had probably taken the UN exam at some point of time). But almost every year we wrote this exam that tested us on every aspect of the United Nations, and for our efforts we were handed an important certificate, which even today stands us in good stead by occupying space in our certificate folder. OK, we also use it for fanning ourselves during power cuts.

I don’t know whether the UN exam is still around. If it isn’t, it has to be revived. For, it was fun (here I am using the word fun as any activity other than watching Humshakals). Also, at a personal level, I once wrote a three-page note on UNHRC without even knowing what that acronym stood for.

That is how creative writers were unearthed in our times.