My marvellous muskrats,
Hello from Bangkok! I’ve been here for a little over two weeks now, and it already feels comfortable and settled in. The city that is. My mind, having now had more idle time than it has all year (low grade stress about this visa situation has made me not want to be alone with my thoughts for longer than the five minutes it takes between putting my book down and falling asleep), is running at a mile a minute and events and thoughts I’d completely forgotten about are resurfacing at the oddest moments. Luckily I’m still speaking to my therapist twice a week so we go through what it all means while I’m also all, “Oh, I have nothing to say to you this time” which is what I say every time and then wind up blabbing for the whole fifty minutes anyway.
In all this, I also just had a birthday. I’m a birthday party person—or so I thought. Every year I do something large and fun for my birthday, and it always brought me great pleasure to look around the room at that magic hour when everyone’s arrived and no one’s left yet and see people talking to each other, and think, “I did all this!” It was a ritual, it got me ready for the rest of December’s festivities, and I always loved it. But I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve left that ritual behind. Last year, of course, we were in Berlin, having just moved in. Our cat was very sick (RIP Bruno) and we had no friends (in town, anyway). I could’ve probably mustered a few from language class and whatnot, but I didn’t feel like it, so it wound up being a quiet birthday, just me and K all day and in the evening, a visiting friend joined us for pizza and a walk around the wintery streets, ending with gluhwein at a cozy bar. I thought it was quieter than I would’ve liked for my fortieth, but that I’d make up for it this year with a big party for forty one which would also be my anniversary with the city in a sense. But here’s the thing I’ve since realised: we left Delhi on December 7th for absolutely no reason. My birthday is December 13th. There was no deadline, nothing pushing us to go a week before rather than wait till the 14th, for example. I could have had my big birthday party, it just seemed like I chose not to? This year as well, we left Delhi on the 28th of November, which okay, we got two weeks more in Bangkok which we wanted, but I could have still had a party right before we left. Again with the choosing not to. It’s been very puzzling for me. Have I outgrown birthday parties? Surely not.
Finally, I came to the conclusion that maybe this past year, birthday to birthday, what I’ve wanted most from the day itself is a no stress, zero expectation kind of day. I think it’s because this year has been on in a way that I haven’t had in years, I am exhausted and feeling every single one of my forty one years on this planet. I didn’t really feel like putting together a party (sorry friends! I will have parties again soon!) and calling people and buying booze and figuring out food and so on. I just wanted to relax.
This wasn’t as zen as it sounds now. Right up until my birthday I had pangs of FOMO, missing parties and people coming together for me, for me, but I don’t know, as the years went by, it seemed like having a party was the only way to celebrate a birthday and I think I wanted a change. I wanted to wake up in a new country and have a strange and wonderful new experience, and indulge myself in many small ways and take stock, as I always do, of the year gone by and figure out what I want to do with my next.
Here’s what we did for my birthday instead: K booked us a lovely room in a fancy hotel. (Back story: our Airbnb is cute, but a) on the outskirts of Bangkok and b) not even remotely fancy, it’s sort of squatty to tell the truth. We like it because there’s not much to do except walk outside and get food which keeps us distraction free, we’re both writing books so a zero distraction life helps. There’s a pool downstairs where we go for morning swims, and a sky train station a ten minute walk away which connects us to the rest of the city but mostly, we’re here, being quiet and writing, and working through occasional patches of boredom by either leaning into it or taking the train somewhere fun with laptops and working outside. But not very birthday-y.) Also, I wanted a hotel because I wanted all the fun stuff hotels offer: maid services and lavish breakfasts and huge bathrooms and all of it. Airbnbs are how we normally travel because they wind up cheaper, but hotels are just so luxurious. We went out on day one, just to the electronics mall (where K made me hide so he could buy my presents: a gorgeous ergonomic mouse to fix some elbow trouble I’ve been having and a set of replacement keyboard stickers because my laptop is second hand and Danish so all the keys were weird, I could never find what I wanted.) (My other presents were a pair of Adidas Stan Smith sneakers that I picked out and to which I added rainbow laces for a little personal touch and this cotton blue and grey Japanese inspired top with a hood which also I selected and which he hid to give to me on my birthday.) (My mum, dad, and aunt sent me money which I will use—partly, because this city is cheap and I love a bargain—on a few clothes from the massive fashion mall I plan to go to this weekend) and then to a bar, but it was a long walk and I was glad to get back to the hotel and relax. All of my actual birthday we spent in the hotel, my birthday present hotel, only venturing out for lunch to a small but popular som tam place down the road. We got massages and napped and then in the evening went to Moon Bar, also down the road, which is this sky bar on the 61st floor of a hotel. I’ve always wanted to go to a sky bar, and K’s always said they were kind of poncy, which ok, I can see that, but since it was a special occasion, we had a lovely time drinking very pricey cocktails and chatting to two Thais who sweetly sent cake to our table. After a few drinks, we wandered off to a small French bar where we had a nightcap and dinner and then ended my birthday at a nice, civilised 11.30 so everyone could be asleep by 12.30. Perfect.
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I guess maybe it was the Grand Birthday Reflection Time or whatever, but this time in Delhi, I began thinking about something no one really warned us about getting older.
I started thinking about all those friends I used to have, used to love in fact. Colleagues I sat up late at night with, or housemates, people whose lives you knew so well. Or even just friends-because-you’re-friends, how some people keep vanishing from your life.
I even have theories about this now! In one sense, it’s people in their mid-to-late thirties getting married, having children and all of that. So already the Venn diagram of your lives have very little reason to intersect.
Then there’s geography, you may really like some people, but when they move away, your friendship is over, as simple as that. Sure, you can try and stay and touch, but eh, it’s probably never going to happen. The most you can look forward to is a fun evening when one of you is in the other’s city, but what usually happens is that their big life things happen to them somewhere else and yours too, so you sort of… forget they exist. These are not the long distance friends, of those I have several, people who you like just as much as when you first met, whose spare rooms in you stay in, who check in every now and then, whose lives you are invested in and so on. Those are not friendships bound by geography, but some are.
And then—and this one you have to be Super Mature about—there’s needs. Sometimes what you need from a person is not the same as what they need from you. When this happens, often either of you move away to different people, who can give them/you what you need at that moment. Often one of you will do this before the other, which makes for a very puzzling and depressing time because you’ll keep scrambling to keep up the friendship but it’s just not working the way it used to. Maybe your bestie suddenly got very into fitness and now she has all these friends from the gym who seem to get her more than you did. Or you had a baby and you like hanging out with other parents, they know what you need from them, you don’t have to keep apologising for it! Or he doesn’t want to party all the time any more and you still do. There are so many ways this can happen, and remember, unless there’s an actual literal betrayal, the love you have for each other still exists at some level, so go off, do your own thing. Sometimes the friendship returns after a break, which yay! Best case scenario! And sometimes that’s it, it’s done. You both had a nice time.
Obviously it’s hard. We wouldn’t be human if these things weren’t soul destroying when they were actually happening. But then you get to take all your little thoughts on friendship and sort them out and be like that one Bible verse which got turned into a song.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Some notes on craft
“Some notes on craft” says the little note I left to myself in this newsletter, which I suppose means I wanted to talk to you about writing my book which is the Biggest Event in my life right now.
It’s a crime novel as some of you know. I finished the first draft in 2019, sat on it for a bit, and then 2020 happened and I wrote my bad-marriage claustrophobia lockdown novel (Soft Animal, out in March) and then I started to move to Berlin and I thought, well, may as well look at this crime novel again, and I did and it was awful so I decided to rewrite it. (Okay not awful, I’m being hyperbolic, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.) See, the best part of any book is right before you begin to write it, it’s this glorious thing in your head, a masterpiece, the best thing you’ve ever written, the best thing anyone’s ever written. And then you begin the process of moving it from your brain to the page, and that ephemeral beautiful fever dream of a book just pops like a bubble. It’s never exactly as you picture it, and new writers, beware, it’s so easy to give up at this point, but I always tell myself that the day I write a perfect book, no mistakes, nothing I wish was slightly different, is the day I will retire. You’ve got to settle for I did the best work I could. Writing is a lot of settling.
With all the homelessness of this year, I never actually got into my book for a concerted period of time. I kept having new ideas which I added but this time in Bangkok is the first time in ages I’ve had proper time to spend with my fiction. My writing muscles are a bit rusty (not completely in disuse thanks to this newsletter) but it’s coming together. What I realised was that I had these two threads of story running through the book. One was the conventional murder mystery-suspect-detective police procedural, and the other was a rambling narrative which looped through the book, sometimes having nothing to do with the murder at all, just stories about Delhi and Delhi people. I picked the ramble. The long way round. The novel has already swelled by 20,000 words and I’m only halfway through. I started jokingly calling it my magnum opus, but sometimes I look at it and maybe it is?
Luckily, because I already had a first draft, I know who did it and I know why. I’m just taking my time getting there. Literary murder mysteries have always been my thing, where you get into the psychology of people not just the thrill of the puzzle. I love writing about people, so I’m having a good time with this one.
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on those novels that just describe actions with nothing else behind them.
on competing with other authors and the signing line.
So over Harry and Meghan so this review of their new Netflix doc made me laugh.
A fab article by Ellen Barry in NYT about a man who couldn’t stop lying.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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