I am writing this to you from Himachal Pradesh, where the rain was so heavy the last two days, the highways are blocked by landslides, and even though the electricity came back for a brief, glittering moment about thirty minutes ago, it's gone again, and we can talk until my phone hotspot finally exhausts itself, until my laptop begins to blink pink warnings at me. I came to talk about writing to a writer's retreat called Alekhya in Parvati Valley, their third retreat of the year. Winter is coming to the hills, and soon, all the green I'm looking at, each time I look up from my laptop, will be covered by snow, and the thirty to forty minute uphill walk to get to the orchard, inaccessible by car, will also be inaccessible by foot to all but the most hardy mountain travelers.
Okay, my phone is blinking at me--already!--and I'm going to shelf this, writing in the pale twilight, the light from the screen the only visible thing in this dark room, until the power is restored again.
Three days later
Back on the plains, I am listening to classical music this Friday afternoon, and have an Olga cat on my desk, purring as she washes herself. Apart from a lingering tiredness in my bones from the bus journey, I'm mostly recovered, and have come back with 1500 words and a document full of ideas for my new-new novel. (As opposed to my NEW novel, which will be out at the end of the year and is called The One Who Had Two Lives, and is about Amba from the Mahabharata, her sad story and then the twist of fate that turns her into Shikhandini.) I honestly didn't think I'd do more at a writing retreat than do my workshop, talk to people about their writing and read a lot of mystery novels, but it turns out when you are talking about books and writing all day--organically, nothing forced, but that was obviously everyone's shared interest, so conversation turned to writing and reading more often than not--you are far more motivated to do some of your own writing than you normally would be.
Plus it was so pretty, all the mountains and the mist, and we took along some whiskey. I have never been a whiskey drinker, but I somehow got fixed on an image of myself writing with a whiskey and water next to me. Sometimes the images in my head are so strong, they make me do things, but not in the spooky way that sentence made it sound like. I'm talking more like--I'll be thinking of cooking in my Instant Pot for example, and I'll have such a strong idea of myself doing this really easy recipe which tastes really good, so I go online and get myself the Instant Pot cookbook by this lady. Similarly, I saw myself wrapped up in a shawl, on a balcony with a desk overlooking the mountains and a glass of whiskey next to me. (Plus a pen and paper, because no doubt I got this image from some old movie about a writer, but we'll ignore that.) Turns out, every single other Indian I know (and the ones I don't) is correct! Whiskey is delicious!
This week in long bus journeys: Ugh, though. The worst part about going to the hills is all the effort involved. I mean, people keep saying, "Go to the hills! It's a quick getaway!" but it's only quick if you're going somewhere easily accessible by train or plane or just a few hours by bus. Unfortunately, anywhere worth going for remote rural beauty in this country requires a certain amount of hardship training before you get there. It has to be hard, right, or everyone would be there and it would be just as ugly as Bhunter, this little town we caught our bus from which has got to be the most unattractive place I've ever seen in the hills. On the other hand, Manali and Dharamshala are pretty far away and they've become quite seedy too. So has Kasol, which we were quite close to, and which I had heard described as charming and hip. I guess it was still quite hip, because I did sit on a stool in a tiny hole in the wall coffee shop which STILL had all sorts of beans and grinds and an espresso machine, despite the fact that the place was just two low tables and the kind of stool you'd normally put in your bathroom so granny doesn't slip and break her hip while she's bathing.
But the buses. I chose to take a Volvo instead of a car because it's more comfortable, which is... true? But when whatever vehicle goes round those bends, your ass keeps slipping out of your chair and you spend almost the entire night, in an uncomfortable state of having to adjust yourself each time you're just about falling asleep so you don't land on the floor. Which means you crick your legs up in an effort to stay in one position, but that means your legs are all stiff and sore by the time it's twelve or thirteen hours later when you're finally ejected in Delhi. I don't know a solution to this problem unless it's adding seat belts to all the seats and not just a few of them.
On the other other hand, the plus side to a bus, as opposed to a car, is that you can read without getting sick, which I did.
This fortnight in stuff I wrote:
Excerpt: Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell, Simon & Schuster, Rs 599. It was everything my romantic soul desired: a sprawling epic, a feisty heroine, lots of men kissing and making dramatic speeches. Often when I miss deadlines, I swoosh my hair around and declare, "After all, tomorrow is another day."
Excerpt: I’m at Naad, a new wellness centre just outside of Sonepat. Sonepat is not a lovely town, in fact, it is almost defiantly ugly—buildings with no particular design aesthetic, fields that are either dry or boggy, but Naad makes up for this with high walls edged with bamboo trees. There’s piped muzak in all the corridors, aromatherapy burners on the floor, potted plants in niches. It’s a small property—compact and broad-shouldered like a wrestler, three floors, only 39 rooms. I am the only guest this weekend, and it is raining.
Excerpt: A look at the days of the week in the Hindu calendar reveal that they are exact correspondents to the Roman one. Sunday is Ravivar, the god of the sun, Monday is Somvar for the moon, Tuesday is Mangalvar for Mars, Wednesday is Budhvar for Mercury, Thursday, like I already said, is Guruvar for Jupiter, Friday is Sukravar for Venus and Saturday is Shanivar for Saturn. This is a relatively new way of looking at the calendar — new for Hinduism, ie — dating back to about the 4th or 5th century, when a king called Rudraman I, asked for a Greek text on horoscopes to be translated into Sanskrit. This book, called the Yavanajataka (“Yavana” is “Greek,” “jataka” is “nativity”) is what led to Hinduism's days of the week, and a text modern-day Indians use to this day.
This week in stuff I read on the internet:
Comforting to know that my love for spicy food makes me a sort of rebel. (Only sort of, I too was raised on spicy food ever since I was a child.)
Excerpt: Nevertheless, Rozin saw that some people, even in Mexico, ate more chili pepper than others. And outside of traditional chili pepper-eating cultures, it is common to see people learn to love spicy food on their own. To explain this phenomenon Rozin came up with a theory he called “benign masochism.” A certain type of person, he theorized, was lured to the burn—the same kind of person, he suggested, who might be drawn to other “sensation-seeking” activities.
Dog cloning is a real thing now, but you'll never get exactly the same pet. (So why bother?)
Excerpt: Why, I ask him, do so many people want to clone their dogs? “The main reason,” he replies, “is that their beloved companion dogs are like family members, and they would like to have as close to a continuation of that companionship as possible.” He makes clear, though, that customers do not get an exact replica of their dog. Clones often look like the original dog, and share some traits, but they don’t have the original dog’s memories, and their upbringing is inevitably different. “Cloned puppies are like identical twins born at a later date,” Hwang tells me. “A twin out of time.”
And, speaking of science, this story on a facial transplant done on a 21-year-old woman is incredible. (The last line in the excerpt below really got to me.)
Excerpt: We are members of an exclusive group: animals that recognize their own faces in a mirror. Besides us, great apes, Asian elephants, Eurasian magpies, and bottlenose dolphins are the only other animals known to recognize themselves. Dolphins as young as seven months will pose, twirl, and put their eye right up against the mirror to stare at their faces. Only humans are known to express dismay when looking at their reflections.
Nilanjana on Naipaul. I'd heard this story before, but never in this detail, only him being really cross with a woman, never any more context. The more I read about him, the more I realise what truly fucked up men we hoist on our shoulders and declaim as artists.
Excerpt: That day at the festival, V S Naipaul got into an argument with Vera Hildebrand, a scholar and the wife of the American ambassador to India. The argument was over whether Islamic immigrants in Denmark should be permitted to wear their veils. It flamed outward; Naipaul called her a “foolish and illiterate” woman, and she remarked that we all knew from his books that he had a low opinion of women. This was reported as gossip.
While we're on it, here's something about Lolita that will make you think again about why you love the book.
Excerpt: I always forget how direct the novel is about the crimes at its center. All of that ugliness was hidden, we tell ourselves each time we close its pages, covered in Nabokov’s exquisite language. But then, at some remove of years, we pick up the book once again and discover what frauds we’ve been. Here is Humbert Humbert telling himself, and us, what he’s done: “This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning.” And here she is, in the passenger seat of his car, “complaining of pains,” he tells us. She “said she could not sit, said I had torn something inside of her.”
What's the point of writing if you aren't going to succeed?
Excerpt: Let’s face it, writers are, in general, a neurotic, insecure, self-flagellating lot — often shy and withdrawn and introverted by nature. For many, that’s what drew them to writing in the first place. That’s certainly true with me. So being pressured to perform and be charming and sell myself is absolutely terrifying. Over time, I’ve learned to be a good performer, but I am still filled with dread each time I have to do anything in public. It doesn’t matter that most of the time when I give a reading, there’s hardly anyone in the audience.
Can't WAIT to visit Rakhigarhi and check out the Harappan digs there.
Excerpt: Once the caveats are accounted for, we are left with the complex and fascinating map of a Harappan civilisation—an empire seemingly without kings and armies, a political federation forged across a vast territory of 2 million sq km that achieved a rare unity in terms of planning and coordinated activity for the general weal. A thought world where social stratification did not entail poverty, whose urban systems negated the very ground of caste—and whose gender relations would be a fascinating area of study, judging by the way female bones were buried differently.
And finally--a critique of Queer Eye (which, as you know, I love) which goes beyond the regular TV recaps.
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Excerpt: One curious repeating bridge of the show’s format is that there’s almost always a woman the hapless straight-dude subjects have to shape up for: a female friend, a potential love interest, a parent or another family member who is involved in this man’s life whose approval of the transformation must be courted and won. Sometimes it’ll be the wife, but most often these men are single. This canny reversal of cultural power is cathartic to watch if you’re a woman who dates men: here are men gleefully doing for one another what some women and girls have spent our lives being pressured or cajoled into doing for them. Here, at last, are a corps of men going through the rigors of top-to-bottom self-invention for our approval. We still have to do it for them, of course, and we don’t get a fanfare and a free kitchen remodel out of it, but hey, every little bit helps.