A Unique Writer’s Retreat

In the mountains of Kumaon   (HWR – Himalayan Writing Retreat)  at Sona Pani  

Some days are like that, they just take off on a positive note. 29th March was one of those days, when the heart soared, and one just knew that it was going to be a fine, strong day. “Taking off for Sona Pani” I announced – there was a sweet ring to it. The journey from Kathgodam up the hills, and then some down, and then up again had me reeling. The air got fresher as we sailed from hill to hill. I blessed my driver Shafik, for being the quiet sort, as I truly needed the silence outside of me to still the raging insides . The sunny mountains, the unadulterated air and then arriving at the Himalayan resort run by a most adorable couple Ashish and Deepa, was smooth enough. I was mistakenly dropped off by the kitchen entrance, and was quite charmed by the rather unconventional entry door. The aromas pushed their way into my nostrils and I suddenly found myself in an area thronged by folk that were chitter-chattering away. It was like a scene out of a Bengali movie- no one bothered with me, and I took it all in. Then Ashish, the host, found me, and I was asked to join in for lunch. Alas, I had already stopped by a café recommended by our mentor Chetan Mahajan, called I ❤ café. I regretted having stuffed my face with penne pasta. Anyway, i was shown my large new chamber, after i was made to descend to it. I was hungry for aloneness and views of the faraway mountains, lush trees and rhododendrons met my vision. I was elated. Alone, for the very first time, in a resort that sang to me, and a room that was all mine to litter, and a balcony with two chairs, both mine to choose from, and nothing more than undulating forests all around. Bliss.

The next twenty-four hours were just as expected- very quiet, very musical, as I could hear but birdsongs tearing through the air around, readings, writings and an exciting evening. I went up for tea at about six thirty and found the *‘jatra’ had assembled in the dining room. They were about to begin a thing called BED, a spoof on Ted Talks. BED stood for Beyond Entertainment and Design. Every person in that room had to speak for five minutes on what kept them awake at night. I didn’t feel up to it, because I slept well, and there was very little that kept me awake I believed. Yet when I was asked to, it seemed I needed at least twenty minutes to toss it all out there. There was stuff that could well keep me awake at night, and should, yet I played a trick with myself; I’d become an expert at pushing it all down, into myself, so deep, so damn deep that I magically made it all disappear. That evening, it came up from Nowhere one would say. That Nowhere place was a real place, and with very real needs. I was forced to address those needs, and I slept a little badly that night. I suppose being alone in a forestry resort can be a bit daunting for a city girl like me, who was habituated to people around most of the time. The pleasure of being alone, well, it took on an altered colour at night, and wasn’t as attractive as by day. I was engulfed by city fears, those that frighten little children: what if there’s a monster hiding in the bush? What if ghosts of the past lurk and lie low by day, and come out at night to frighten lone women at night, especially those from the city who should know better than to travel alone? What if there’s a leopard just waiting for fresh city meat? What if…..so I kept a lamp on all night.

Haunted till I passed out, exhausted by the mind’s running.

Morning broke at five am, and I switched off the lamp I had left burning. I was alive and uneaten. That was good. It was also my birthday, and I felt a bit younger, as is my wont, every year on 3oth march. I had survived another year, unharmed mostly. I can’t seem to accept that I might actually be ageing. So I don’t.

Breakfast was ceremonial with much on offer. I pigged out. I re-met all the beautiful people of the previous evening, who were immersed, as it appeared to me, in the previous nights banter. I went for a long walk thereafter, and photographed all that I observed. The air around seemed to be awash with magic. I was bewitched.

Later I spent the day reading and writing in my room, then in the balcony, then back in my room, then back in the other chair in my balcony. The network was pretty shaky, yet people I care for, were able to reach me and wish me; my family and friends wanted me to have a happy day, and I assured them that I couldn’t be any happier, and I’d die if I were. They seem convinced that I was quite okay out there somewhere. The book I read had me in its grips, and I forgot to grab lunch. Then at thirty past two my tummy growled. I rushed up and partook of the most delectable fare. Ashish and Deepa sure know how to pamper their guests.

Evening set in and my writing partners materialised, and so did I, and we acquainted ourselves with each other very formally, to start with. I could already sense that this HWR was going to be fun, despite the apparent air of correctness. If you ask me what I sensed, I would not know how to quite explain it, call it sixth sense. They all seemed well read, well spoken and good-looking as well. I secretly hoped we turned out to be friends, not just co-writers in that moment – wayfarers, drifting from one wonderful event to another. Well, what did I know! I smiled way too much after a couple of red wines (glasses). Then I was laughing, and everyone else seemed to be laughing along. The rightness had all but dissipated. All was good.

The workshop, the following morning, began with a short, guided meditation conducted by the very soft-spoken psychologist, Vandita Dubey, who co-hosted this eventful day that was about to unfurl upon us. She guided our consciousness from top to toe with her mellifluous tones, and we were smitten. The weather was unbelievably pleasant and in keeping with the rhythm we desired. It was nigh impossible to then do a writing exercise, yet we achieved the impossible, and each of us wrote of ourselves. We had to bring out the character of a personality, using any means. We wrote, and wrote. We shared, we smiled and we peeked a little into each other’s worlds, rife with imagination we learnt. Thereafter we moved to our writing quarters, downhill, in one of the many rooms that the Himalayan Resort generously threw open.

Chetan gave us all handouts with the program of the two days in print, sprinkled with humour and superb quotes, one among them being : “Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s”…my favourite. He then handheld us through the day, telling us about some of the more basic errors writers make. He showed us some short videos of interviews with well-known writers, who spoke lucidly about how less is more, and how we often use simple words unconsciously and repeatedly. We all were rather taken aback at the list of words that Chetan kindly shared with us, since we were all party to over-usage of many a terminology that should be banished as soon as it appeared in our minds. We did laugh over it, even as we were sensitized to this aspect of writing, imperative to help improve, vital to bettering the quality of our creative insights. He shared with us some software links that would be helpful in being able to bring into focus these very pitfalls- such as Scrivener and Hemingway- using one of his own writings to showcase their capabilities. We were duly impressed and quickly aspired to acquiring them all, adding to our own little collection of writing tools. I have none so far, and the green and red lines that MS Word throws up are already a bane in my writer’s existence. I wonder, I wonder.

We were made to undertake another writing exercise using our sensory perceptions, and then reading them out loud. It was exceedingly interesting to note how each of us brought a different light to the table, how each of us carried our distinct sensibilities and personalities into our written expressions. Nothing new, one might say, yet in a small gathering of aspiring writers, as we began to see each other in the light of our writings, a sense of intimacy grew. It was as if the small group that we were, were sharing secrets with one another, shutting out the rest of the world. It worked to our advantage, because as the day wore on, our expressions got stronger and more open. Every exercise became a means of self-expression, a surrender to the task at hand, which were no more than ten – twenty minutes at the most. We were seven in number, including Chetan himself. We all surprised ourselves by what we could achieve, by all that could be possibly expressed under directives that were explicit. When asked to be someone else- we were innovative, we were creative and we were humorous, above all.

On the second day of the workshop, we began again with a meditative exercise, guided by Vandita again, who asked us to become the mountain- to reach high above us, to rise up to kiss the skies, even as we held fast onto the earth which held us in its bosom. It was a delightful fifteen minutes, and kick started the day, energizing us.

We were then asked to create an ambience- make the place the hero of the piece to be written. Again, we rode the waves of creativity- again we emerged with some superb pieces, and as we read them out loud, we applauded each one on its unique qualities. We could all write, that had become increasingly clearer with every new essay.

We later discussed the publishing business, and the whys and wherefores of it all, since Chetan is a published author. His ‘Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail’ is a Penguin book. He made known the pitfalls of bad editing, especially by publishers. He handed us a ‘take home’ task, which was to edit either a piece that we had written during the workshop, or an earlier one. That was exciting, because editing is among the most vital components of good writing. Everyone may know it, but not everyone is capable of good editing. That apart, during the two and a half days of the workshop, we learnt to be present, to gather ourselves in order to write within a given mandate, to expel our inhibitions and to just let flow. It was all made possible, as we rolled from one level of comfort to the next.

The environment was a massive aid, and a compelling partner in our endeavour to learn and grow, given the motive that had led us all to this Himalayan resort. The ambience was nurturing, and Chetan fostered this core purpose in so many ways, chief among them being non-judgmental mentoring. At the very close of this wonderful chapter of HWR, he helped us voice and formulate clear goals for our writing career, and beseeched us to put them down, more for ourselves than for anyone else.

May we follow our hearts along with our goals, irrevocably. Amen.

This post of mine is dedicated to –

  1. Renu, the young charming poet; engaging prose-writer, gifted with funny bones and an effortless eloquence;
  2. Charu , our shy yet fluent blogger-to-be, vocal yet discreet, surprised continually by her own talents.
  3. Sapna, our petite blogger par excellence, mystic poetic demeanour, a woman of many merits and a distinct flavourful voice.
  4. Vikram, the discerning naval flyer, with a warm and pleasant exterior, and a soft, emotional palate of creative ideas.
  5. Vandita, the lady with the dulcet tones, she lulled and carried us to a place of peace          and quiet, an excellent guide and partner. Writes well too, with accompanying hedgings .
  6. Kamalini (why the hell not me?), driven to impatience of a creative sort, hungry to experience whatever is out there to be experienced, verbose.
  7. Chetan, the mentor par excellence, with a booming personality, candid and open, but reticent to critique harshly, could condense methodically, a lot of takeaways in a mere 2.5 days. Has an eye and a ear for the odd and infrequent.

To look at more pictures on the HWR Page, this is the link : www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/#gallery