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Writers Retreat In The Himalayas – A Reminiscence

Himalayan Writing Retreat Pingali Gopal

In ‘Manmadhudu’, a popular Telugu film, the hero travels by car, takes a bullock-cart across unmotorable fields, does a marathon, and finally swims (the last which he is phobic about) to meet his love in a riveting climax. My journey was something similar. Warangal to Hyderabad by road (a four-lane highway always under construction), then to Delhi by air (by Air India where one still gets a breakfast without exchanging the wallet), then moving around in Delhi through smog, then a Shatabdi Express to Kathgodam (a comfortable journey of about six hours), and then a car journey through awesome landscapes to Satkhol village. The 70 kilometers drive up the hills to a village in Nainital district takes about two and a half hours. The final reach to the resort is a small trek. At last!

Himalayan Writing Retreat

The Himalayan Writing Retreat is a wonderful enterprise started by author Chetan Mahajan, who has written a book called ‘The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail’ and is in the process of writing a few others. His wife is a clinical psychologist and is a published author too. Chetan had a successful career as a top executive in the corporate world; and at one point of time, he seriously questioned the city life. His son’s recurrent asthma attacks precipitated the family decision to give everything up and set a new life in Satkhol, nested wonderfully in the Kumaon hills at a height of about 6000 feet above sea level.

Their big and beautiful house has a breath-taking panoramic view of Nanda Devi and other snow-capped Himalayan mountains spanning across India and Nepal. In a brilliant strategic move, the house became a writer’s retreat as the couple decided to make use of their alternate skills in a positive manner. They hold programs lasting two to four days for creative writers, just starting or already on the journey, to sharpen their writing skills. The present program was of three days (plus two days for travel, of course).

Different aspects of creative writing came up for discussion during the three days. The first day was about the structure of a short story and the elements which make for good fiction. Taking a short story by Nadine Gordimer (an African author), as a prototype, the elements of good story telling became clear. On the second day, a few more elements of creative writing like ‘slo-mo’ descriptions of brief moments of time and space became the writing and discussion points. Animation of inanimate objects was also an interesting exercise in writing. Good writing skills certainly do not develop in three days. However, this is a place where the skills sharpen.

Meeting people from all over the country with the same passion for writing and reading was one of the big bonuses at the retreat. I maintained this for a long time, but it became very clear during interactions with the coach and other participants that the basis for good writing is even better reading. It was a joy interacting with people from different professional backgrounds. There are other people in the world too with a criminal appetite for reading; and I was happy to realize that I was not the only insane person (at least my wife thinks so, as she takes my purchased books to the Chartered Accountant for filing returns).

Himalayan Writing Retreat

A writer is a very happy soul till the soul decides to get published. This was the most painful revelation on the third and the final day. It is a dictum that an author performs best when writing for oneself. However, the craving for public attention remains firmly fixed in the human mind. Here, the literary agents and the publishers step in. I learnt how important they are in this highly competitive world of writing and publishing; a world where everyone wants to say something, but no one wants to listen.

Basically, there are two kinds of publishing: self-publishing and traditional. The former is easy, costs money upfront to the author, and the marketing is totally by the author. The latter does not cost money but is a more difficult route. The glory, of course, is higher when a reputed publisher has its logo on the author’s book. However, it is a huge and torturous world of literary agents, publishers, rejections, advertising, marketing, managing huge egos, and handling bruised egos. A certain daunting exercise for the first-timers. Amish Tripathi is an example of multiple rejections who decided to self-publish and then became a legend. Everybody heard his story with rapt attention! There is hope for everyone. Of course, the product should have quality. Many wonderful works perhaps are simply lying unpublished or published privately with limited readership. Hence, after writing a book, the next step needs deep planning and a clinical execution as much as the writing itself. Maybe even more. The innocent child steps into the cruel teenage world.

The three days in the resort itself was pure happiness with the most extraordinary views greeting us every day. The sun was kind to us as the weather remained consistently good. The warmth of the host and the quality of the food provided was of the highest order and made the stay even more enjoyable. There were refreshing treks in the mountains in the afternoons and limitless tea filled our creative energies on a constant basis. A break from the grind, an escape into bliss, which sadly had to end. Fresh air, clear skies, and healthy life are something of an abstract concept in most lives today with increasing urbanization. I knew what I was missing in my life on a clear night when the Milky Way lay majestically before my eyes. No words.

The slightest criticism I could offer is that the course itself could be more intense. The pace of the course was a bit gentle and could have more business. It needed more interactions on few other elements of writing including the use of proper grammar. There are grammar software packages available today, about which there was a discussion, but it would not be a good idea to depend on those to make oneself grammatically correct. One’s grammar should have some principles which should matter in the initial writing itself. I am a little uncomfortable with some of the grammar programs; I tried a few, and they sometimes correct every single line of the lovingly and caringly written prose! Once it cleaned out everything and left me with only three grammatically correct sentences: ‘My name is Gopal’; ‘I stay in Warangal’; and the most profound, ‘Who am I?’ It is not only frustrating but quite depressing too.

Chetan insisted that simple clean sentences and easy words make for good writing essentially; and that was sane advice. Complex words and ornate language are a put-off for most readers today with attention spans of a few milliseconds. But the ambience and the warmth in the resort more than makes up for the little deficiencies. As Chetan says, ‘the Himalayas is my great partner in the course.’ And one must agree.

Chetan Mahajan, the author, coach, and host of the retreat is a dedicated and a hard-working man, and is evolving too, to make this concept a great success. He takes criticism seriously and does everything possible to incorporate the feedback in future writing programs. The retreat is unique in concept; and I would recommend this to any budding writer without hesitation. I was a bit apprehensive initially when I met the other participants. Most of them were entrepreneurs, mostly software and management professionals, and uber-urban in their outlook. As a doctor from a smaller place, I had my fears of interacting with them which I rapidly discovered to be completely ill-founded. They were extremely friendly; and I certainly made a few friendships which I hope to stand the test of time. I had my biases that people from such a category perhaps had a disconnect to the real world. The three days certainly did a lot to wipe out such biases and that was another positive for me personally.

I thank Indic Academy for sponsoring me to this program; I am not sure I would have done this independently. It was a great opportunity for me in my baby steps of writing and fervently hope to do something in the future to justify this scholarship.

Indic Academy had previously announced a registration grant for participating in the Himalayan Writing Retreat. The present author is a recipient of the same and has recollected his experience of the retreat in this piece.


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