Giving and taking with love

Janice Pariat | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

Small wonders | Evening walks through the country side offer something to appreciate   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

At a writing residency in the South Korean countryside, nourished and cherished by generous hosts, the recurring emotion a writer feels is that of gratitude

All of September this year I was hidden away at a writing residency in South Korea. The residency is offered to alumni of Sangam House (an international writers’ residency programme in India), in collaboration with the India-Korea Centre (INKO), Arts Council of Korea, and TOJI Cultural Institute in Wonju where I was resident. I didn’t quite know what to expect: Would I settle in? Would I be able to write? I arrived there excited but with some trepidation, and found soon enough that I needn’t have worried. The institute is located in the countryside, surrounded by undulating farmland — ripening fields of grain, rows of leafy spinach, tall chilli plants, waving corn — all hemmed by the Seom river, and in the distance, the hills of Gangwon-do. It shone with quiet creative energy. There were about a dozen of us and while we ate our (delicious) meals together at the common dining room, played ping pong, and occasionally embarked on communal walks, we also kept to ourselves, working away in our rooms or in the library. It didn’t take long for me to feel I was at some place truly special. That this act of caring for artists, of feeding them daily, and giving them rooms to live in, freed of all “responsibility” apart from creating art, was an act of immense generosity. Chatting over a meal, one of the other writers and I agreed that this made us feel nourished, and cherished, that the work we were doing was valued, and it made us feel incredibly grateful.

I’ve been thinking about gratitude lately, largely because I’m working on a novel that draws for one of its narratives on indigenous ways of being and living in the world. As part of research, I’ve been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s astounding Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, a collection of reflective essays that urges us to acknowledge the gifts and lessons offered to us by the natural world. She speaks of how many native peoples across the world, despite myriad cultural differences, have this in common — being rooted by “cultures of gratitude”. What does this mean exactly? Simply this: That we do not take for granted those that sustain us. Indigenous communities seem to have this quality ingrained within their daily acts. Kimmerer speaks of how her father, a member of the Native-American Potawatomi community, would pour some of the morning’s first brewed coffee into the earth, muttering a note of thanks: “Here’s to the gods of Tahawaus”. My mother, part-Jaintia, back in Shillong, tells me she remembers placing aside rice and gravy cooked on wood fires in thanks for Mei Remew, Mother Earth. It is sadly not something we still do, and this perhaps is indicative of a larger malady of indifference and entitlement we all seem to suffer from. Also, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, says Kimmerer, in a consumerist society, it is a revolutionary idea, because it reminds you that in that thanking, you have everything you need.

Back at Wonju, we, a group of writers, visit the city residence of South Korean writer Pak Kyongni, the late patron founder of the TOJI Cultural Institute. She is most famous for her 16-volume story Toji (The Land), an epic saga that follows a cast of characters through the turbulence of South Korean history in the 19th and 20th century. In a video presentation screened for us, she says she set up the institute so that artists could have complete freedom to work. In the last years of her life, Pak Kyongni lived on her own (and her many cats!) in a house neighbouring the institute; she tended a vegetable garden and cooked for the young writers in residence there until, in 2008, she passed away. I’m not the only one moved by her story, but I return to my room feeling ever more thankful to her, and feel that it is wonderful how her spirit lives on.

Perhaps it had something to do with being out in the countryside. Every day, on my evening walks, I’d find something to appreciate. The flurry of cosmos blossoms, the ripening peaches, red chillies drying out in the sun, the swoop of birds above my head, a uselessly friendly guard dog, a miniature succulent garden growing on a wall, the discovery of a new path, even one that turned out to be a hiking trail through a national park, the rain, the sun sliding behind the hills, the persistent sound of insects. One evening, I took a new path up the hill behind the institute, and on my way down, I passed a little old lady, sitting outside her house, munching a cob of corn. I smiled at her and she beckoned me over, and handed me a spare cob, yellow, warm, delicious. We shared a small conversation, even though she knew no English and I, not a word of Korean. But the language of gifts, I realise, requires no words. It is a blessing — simple, unblemished — given with unprompted generosity, received with immense gratitude, and we must work to keep this circle turning, giving and taking with love.

Janice Pariat   -  BUSINESS LINE



Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on October 18, 2019
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