In early September 2017 I received a seriously exciting email: an invitation to be a keynote speaker at a Research Gathering of the Venus International Foundation (http://www.venusinfo.org), a charitable organisation based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, that aims to further research and international collaborations. India had always been top of my travel list – so I jumped at the opportunity and happily accepted the invitation. As the event was to take place on 11th November, and so mid-semester, I couldn’t stay away for too long – and planned a madcap three-day trip to Chennai, four taking in travel. On 9th November I set off on the long flight which took me to Chennai – via Dubai – where I arrived early on 10th November. Stepping out of the airport was already quite an experience – the heat, the humidity, the traffic, the hussle and bussle all hit me. But I was met by the lovely Mrs Geetha who was to be my guide and companion for the next three days. She took me back to the hotel and was clearly surprised when I refused the offer of having a rest. I wanted to get out and about and see something of Chennai before the research meet the following day. So Geetha spent the day exploring Chennai with me – visiting temples, exploring market stalls, and wandering along the beach. We also, obviously, stopped for some delicious food. It was an incredible day with so many new impressions.
The following day was then quite different: it was the Research Meet and consequently things were much more formal. I was asked to deliver the formal ‘Presidential Address’ to open the Event – which I did, talking briefly about the importance of research and international collaborations. After that, there was a robing ceremony during which I was wrapped in a gorgeous orange shawl – everyone who knows me will know just how much I love orange, so I was very pleased with that. After that, the other two keynote speakers and myself had to light the sacred flame and the event was formally underway. For the rest of the day there were more talks – among them my longer keynote speech – and award ceremonies. Now – imagine the Oscars. It was bit like that. I received a number of awards myself but was then also asked, as Guest of Honour, to help hand out the awards for the other winners. And so I spent several hours that afternoon standing on stage, handing out awards, shaking hands, and smiling. A lot. It was quite a surreal experience – and certainly very different from research events I had been to before. But it was great fun – I met so many new and lovely people from all sorts of different disciplines: scientists, humanities scholars, researchers working in technology. What an exciting day.
I could have done with some time to relax the following day – but as it was my last day in India I opted to do some more sightseeing. The lovely Mrs Geeth took myself and my fellow keynote speaker, Dr Emily Bethell from Liverpool, to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mahabalipuram (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/249), known for its temples and monuments dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries! What an incredible site! Temples on the beach! Temples carved into and built onto rocks. Monkeys running around everywhere. Plus the smell of delicious Indian food being fried up at market stalls dotted around. Geetha was the perfect guide, explaining a lot, showing us the best vantage points for photos, getting us to try different foods.
The day was over far too quickly – and with it my visit to India. And although it was a whistle-stop tour, and I spent a good week afterwards combatting jetlag, it made me realise what a great job I have. This invitation allowed me to travel somewhere I had wanted to go to for so many years, to meet a lot of new people from several different countries, and to talk about my work. The lovely people at the Venus Foundation have kept in touch with me since – and that is what trips such as this one are all about: to forge those new contacts, to maintain them, and to think about how we can combine our work and collaborate in the future. A lot of people might think that the literary scholar is a lonely figure working away in their study all the time – but it’s also all about meeting people, about networking, about disseminating our research and about making new links, both nationally and internationally, that allow us to extend our own research networks further in the future.