I’ve received a couple of e-mails over the past ten days: am I well? Is everything all right? (These from fellow bloggers whose blogs I frequent). I had to tell them: I was travelling and the net connection was somewhat dodgy. Besides, I was very busy. I often got only about half an hour to check my e-mail and catch up with what was going on at my blog.
To explain: I was at a writer’s conclave. The JSW Group, in partnership with The Hindu, played host to nine writers, including yours truly, for ten days, for a conclave named The Spaces Between Words.
We stayed at JSW’s very own guest house, Hampi House, at Vidyanagar, one of the townships that JSW has built around its steel plant in Karnataka’s Bellary district. Most of our writing was done at the nearby Kaladham, a lovely space just five minutes’ leisurely stroll from Hampi House.
Sathya Saran, who’s commented off and on here on Dustedoff, curated the conclave, and got together a very interesting and diverse mix of writers: diverse not only in what part of India we come from, but what we write: Rochelle D’silva and Siddharth Dasgupta, for instance, are poets; Lalita Iyer writes (among other things) children’s fiction, Ram Ganesh Kamatham is a playwright… and I, of course, am both a blogger as well as a novelist and writer of short stories.
I’ve been at a writers’ residency before, but this one was different, because while we did spend part of our day writing by ourselves, we had a daily routine of consciously getting together and reading from our works. We read each other’s works, too. We acted out parts of Ram’s plays. We read out work in progress (one of the aims of the conclave was to be inspired by our surroundings—especially a memorable trip to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi—and I ended up writing two short stories while at Kaladham).
With those facts out of the way, let me get down to why I found this ten-day trip absolutely memorable.
First of all, the airport. (Who’d have thought an airport would be the first thing one would talk about in a list like this?) Bellary (Vijayanagar) Airport is served by one airline,—actually, one plane that comes once a day from Hyderabad and goes back—Trujet. And it is the most adorable little airport ever. Colourful giant models of fish hang from the ceiling; there are lots of trees and hedges outside, and you walk out to the plane under a colonnade of grey stone pillars covered over with yellow-flowering creepers. And the luggage is transported to and from in a little wagon pulled along by a cheery green tractor.
Basically, I fell in love with the place as soon as I landed. Most of us writers had arrived on the same flight, and we were all greeted with much fanfare at the airport by a JSW reception committee, before being driven to Hampi House—which is next door. Seriously, if we hadn’t had heavy suitcases, we could have easily walked from the airport to Hampi House, and back.
Hampi House and all of Vidyanagar (which, by the way, is named for Vidya, first wife of OP Jindal, the founder of the group) is by far the most aesthetically designed township I’ve ever seen in India. It’s green—so green, we were told, that the temperature here is two degrees lower than that of surrounding areas. There is gorgeous installation art: a gleaming steel bull near some trees, a huge kalash split in half in the middle of a verdant park. Two cyclists, their arms flung out, on a traffic island. There’s a lake with ducks. And there are flowering trees, a blaze of orange and red and white and yellow.
Kaladham (where we worked) was an extension of this beauty, a stunningly put together place that has a conference room, working spaces, a handicrafts shop, and beautiful gardens all around. Just the ambience of the place was enough to inspire me.
Kaladham also has its own tiny museum, which focuses on Hampi, the documentation of its monuments and their restoration. Interestingly, some of this restoration is being done under the aegis of JSW.
… which brings me to JSW itself. JSW (formerly Jindal South West, now only JSW) arrived in this part of India in around 1994, when it set about establishing India’s largest steel plant. In the nearly 25 years since then, they’ve pretty much changed the look of the place (a presentation at Kaladham, showing the land as it was back then, was an eye-opener, and one I could well believe, since as soon as you’re out of JSW township limits, that’s what you see: arid, mostly treeless countryside).
We were taken on a visit to the steel plant, and—I don’t use such phrases freely—it blew my mind.
This plant makes 900 (yes, that’s nine hundred) types of steel. And no, stainless steel, which is characterized by a high chromium content, isn’t one of them. They churn out 12 million tonnes of steel annually, a good bit of it being automotive grade steel. We were shown some parts of the process (all of which, by the way, is computerized, with control rooms overseeing every step). The blast furnace, for example, where the temperature is a whopping 1500°C (we saw a worker here, within a few feet of the furnace, and were told that he was clad in protective clothing made from aluminium—it looked rather like a space suit).
We saw steel being pressed out into long molten strips of bright orange, whizzing rapidly down a conveyor belt, being pelted with showers of water to cool it down. And, at the very end, we saw the steel being rolled into massive coils (and when I say massive, I do mean massive—each coil weighs 35-50 tonnes). This is loaded onto trains that travel on tracks right from inside the plant out into the countryside.
Also very impressive was JSW’s commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). I have worked in the corporate sector for a while, and even otherwise I have an idea of what most corporates think of as their contribution to CSR. Plant a few trees, employ a few people from around the area, do the bare minimum that legislation calls for.
JSW, on the other hand, seems to take CSR very seriously. They’ve adopted villages that they’re working on to transform into ‘model villages’. They have a large hospital that is open to everybody, not just the 21,000 employees of the plant and their families.
They have a training and production centre for textiles, where local women produce jeans (this struck me as odd, until we were told that plant workers wear denim uniforms because they’re the best guard against flying sparks or heat). Interestingly, JSW makes denim not just for themselves but also for other brands. And yes, I must share a bit of trivia: I learnt that all denim starts off black. The many shades of blue and whatever other colours you come across are a result of processing and dyeing.
JSW have a school for the specially abled—children with very low IQs—called Tamanna. And they have created what I would think is India’s premier sports institute, the Inspired Institute of Sports (IIS). This one focuses on combat sports (wrestling, boxing and judo), and will soon be also launching into swimming and athletics.
They scout out promising sportspersons between 12-20 years old and give them intensive training: the athletes live here, eat here, are even educated here. And they go through a rigorous, rigorous regime. There’s India’s largest gym here, and a specialized centre devoted to sports science.
Also, the indoor combat sports hall is the world’s largest: if you remove the curtains that divide it, you can play football in here. The person who was showing us around actually said that they have played football here before it was set up.
Oh, and by the way: we met Geeta Phogat and were completely starstruck. Geeta was sweet enough to let us get a photo taken with her too.
Plus, JSW are committed to promoting the arts. Why else would they pamper out of their wits a bunch of writers? Why else would they take us in, feed us and house us and generally make us feel that working at Kaladham was the only way to get any writing done? Why would they take us all the way to Hampi and do everything from having us garlanded by a temple elephant to taking us on flower-bedecked coracles down the Tungabhadra?
But that is a story for another day, and it will follow next week.