Many authors have given me a renewed feeling of interconnection to the world and a deeper connection to my own self through their books – most of these were either fiction or poetry, two were novels in verse. Two English writers stand out among these, whose books lit up my path like no else did, bringing me life-affirming insights for which I will be forever grateful. One is the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler for his semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh. The other is William Fiennes, with his memoirs The Snow Geese and The Music Room.
I first heard Fiennes speak on a sunny winter morning in Jaipur in 2011 and read The Snow Geese soon afterwards.
The Snow Geese is a writer’s meditation on the self while adapting to and recovering from a difficult life situation. As a young man on the threshold of life, Fiennes was hospitalised with a debilitating illness that confined him to his parents’ house for a long convalescence. He writes with candour about his illness: in the ‘chaotic, turbulent and fearsome’ atmosphere of the hospital, he longs to return to the refuge of home which was his ‘safe place’ and ‘everything (he) knew and understood’. However, when he returns home, he finds it ‘more prison than sanctuary’, haunted by the past of his former self. For a while he tries to distract himself with the familiar sights and sounds, musing on what home and family meant to him; for example, watching the swifts flying overhead in the evenings, he thinks how these were the descendants of the swifts his father watched as a boy from the same house. His recovery commences when he reads a book called The Snow Goose followed by books on bird migration and tries to learn the names of birds from his father, sparking a quest to follow the snow geese on their spring flight to the breeding grounds of the Arctic tundra.
From there the book takes the reader through Austin, Sand Lake, Riding Mountain, Churchill and the Foxe Peninsula to a rather unsentimental (no spoilers here) conclusion of the quest for snow geese and a reconnection to home when he returns. ‘We tend towards home’, he says in one of the most striking passages of the book, for birds migrate in response to the tilt of the earth, moving ‘between winter and breeding grounds’.
The prose is consistently poetic, almost lyrical. Fiennes manoeuvres the English language like a musical instrument in the hands of a master presenting a concerto. The cinematic descriptions of each place on his itinerary as he follows the birds transport the reader into the scene so deeply that this book could have been a novel. The people he meets on the way come alive through a series of images all the more memorable for their simplicity, such as when he receives a hawk’s feather from Eleanor, has a poignant conversation with Marshall on the train to Hudson Bay, shoots potatoes with Sam in Churchill and meets Ruth in whose house at Goose Creek he stays looking after her pets. A subtle spiritual undertone is woven through the narrative like a silver thread, such as when he recollects his father’s joy in watching swifts, his mother’s painting of a heron, and Odysseus’s longing for ‘Sunny Ithaca’ – ‘I know no sweeter sight than a man’s own native country’. Home is touched upon as an analogy for God and faith which afford ‘all the protection, comfort, steadiness and sense of belonging that home implies’.
This is one of those books which shift the mind to a serene, meditative state, as I found when I first read it in 2011. At the time, I was working in a city where my parents had chosen to move to, a place that drained me of the feeling of home that I once had in Chennai. I was depressed by the draconian control of my parents who restricted me from travelling, driving my own car, even taking a walk to the next bus stop unless they accompanied me. It was around the time that I also read The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler and I was astonished to read how a clergyman in Victorian England and his wife tormented their son seeking to control his soul in almost the same manner as a civil engineer and his schoolteacher wife broke their daughter’s spirit in South India in the twenty first century.
I wrote much of this into my first novel The Reengineers and in 2013, left my parents’ house – a place I could never call home given the emotional, mental and physical abuse I had to endure as they sought to control my life. I returned to Chennai and later moved to the UK in a quest to heal myself through the study and practice of literature, and books like The Snow Geese helped restore my connection to my own self. Even though I moved on from my birth family, I have forgiven them and choose to keep good memories of times in Chennai, remembering my father as a man with a scholarly face who held my five year old hand and pointed out the migrating Siberian cranes as we went on a morning walk, taught me yoga and meditation and gave me a lifelong love of the classical arts. My mother I remember as the cheerful lady who taught me to recite Shakespeare when I was seven and gave me an enduring love of the English language.
Through his portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional family in Victorian England, Samuel Butler showed me that a child hurt and broken by their parents could heal and rebuild their life in a healthy manner. This novel brought home the vagaries of human nature that is common across continents, ages and cultures.
Fiennes’s reflections on the meaning of home and family in The Snow Geese and more intimately in The Music Room showed me that a textbook definition of home and family as a sanctuary still existed in the world. This is one of the books which became home to me during my journey, and now I continue to find the feeling of home in each new novel that I write.
Fiennes is the co-founder of First Story, a charity that provides creative writing coaching to children from underprivileged schools across the UK, where I did my master’s internship. I had initially wanted to intern with a top five publisher but working with First Story turned out to be a far more fulfilling experience as I saw at first hand what is perhaps one of the best uses of creative writing, to build the future of a nation.
The students who take First Story’s creative writing classes show a remarkable increase in their grades at school and find greater opportunities for University education. Many successful young writers have emerged from its programmes. But First Story’s greatest achievement is perhaps how they help young people to find their individual voices by expressing themselves through creative writing. I could relate deeply to this for though I come from a fairly privileged background, the experience of being traumatised by my birth family had silenced my voice so much that I had to teach myself to speak again through writing.
Fiennes talks about the importance of finding one’s voice here:
I wrote about my experience with First Story here: https://indumuralidharan.com/2018/06/21/the-gift-of-voice-first-story/
Inspired by First Story, I wanted to do something similar in Chennai with a couple of friends, but with time constraints had to be content with donating little free libraries to underprivileged schools. More about that here
I am sure I am only one of many people who have been touched by the work of this wonderful agency and moved to emulate it.
Fiennes has been called one of the finest nature writers and memoirists in the world today. He stands out among writers, illuminating the world through the gift of his creative writing and multiplying this gift manifold by helping the next generation of his country find their voices, enlightening a society and inspiring people around the world.
You can read more about First Story here: https://firststory.org.uk/