The thing about writing is, you have to be alone while doing it. Of course, you needn't be sequestered in a quiet hillside resort with nothing to distract you save for a view of the himals, but you need to be by yourself. More or less. You might be on a packed bus when a poem strikes, but you must turn away from your chatty seatmate in order to jot it down before it is lost, forever, to the rush of time.
This January, nine writers started off on Nepal's first ever residential writing retreat at the High View Resort in Dhulikhel, where they have nothing to distract them save for a view of the himals. They are acting as guinea pigs, in a way, testing out Martin Chautari's hypothesis that residential retreats such as this-lasting four to six weeks-will significantly enrich the writing of manuscripts in Nepal.
All indications are positive so far. When I went to visit the writers (to make sure that they weren't cursing Martin Chautari for marooning them in a place where there was nothing to do but write), I found them lounging in the sun with books, sitting at computers, stooped over notebooks, scribbling to their heart's content, or staring into space in anticipation of inspiration. They were doing exactly what the organisers envisioned them doing. And they were enjoying it.
Crisped by the winter sun, writer Khagendra Sangraula bragged of having finished a play, and having started a new book that began as a novel, but turned into non-fiction. Writer Bhuvan Dhungana was hammering a recalcitrant novel into shape, and putting together a collection of short stories. Language activist Bhupadhwaj Thomros Rai was finishing up a Kulung dictionary, and starting to transcribe interviews of members of the Kulung Rai community. Critic Ramesh Bhattarai had put Greece behind him, and was moving onto other countries in his tome on European literature. Engineer Yogesh Raj had launched on a meditative, introspective work that left everyone reeling with its philosophical scope. Journalist Sangeeta Lama was seeking the proper narrative structure for a book on the first all-Nepali women's ascent of Everest. Linguist Amrit Yonzon was busy compiling Tamang-language writings from the 1950's onward. Writer Krishna Raj Chaudhary (whose pen name is Sarvahari) was working on a novel set in Dang, among the bonded labourers of the far-west. And Jovan Ilic, originally from Yugoslavia but presently hailing from Hetauda, was working on a novel on identity issues in Yugoslavia and Nepal. He was also wondering, secretly, how to survive the monotony of two meals of daal-bhaat a day.
The writers converge four times a day-for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and for tea, but other than this, they are left on their own. Some take morning walks, others sleep in; some work in the sun, others huddle indoors, under blankets; some steal over to Dhulikhel bazaar to buy local liquor, others observe strict abstinence on the matter of alcohol. There is plenty of time to play, if they wish, but most of the time they write, and when they are sick of that, they read. During mealtimes they consult each other about problems in their work, and swap suggestions, examples, anecdotes, and jokes.
When I was there I asked the group: did they think that this kind of residential retreat was helpful? (This is, after all, the first such retreat in Nepal: perhaps everyone was dying to get done with it already). But there were nods all around. "As soon as I saw the announcement, I wanted to go," Ramesh Bhattarai said. The last time he'd had so much uninterrupted time to work was when he spent time in jail as a democracy activist, he said. "There was the same set schedule, the same focused atmosphere, and all the meals were taken care of." I took this as a positive comment about the retreat, which is how he meant it, he assured me.
I left the retreat site pleased for the organisers' sake-and also pleased that the Japan Foundation Asia Center had agreed to fund the program. There are several organisations in Nepal that hand out cash fellowships to writers and journalists; but writing isn't just about money (or being able to afford the time to write), it's also about having the right kind of environment for in-depth research, sustained reflection, and an exploration of craft or technique. Many writers who have taken cash fellowships have been too strapped by our society's habitual turmoil and hectic social commitments to get any writing done; some have had to return the money, while others have defaulted on work. Particularly when launching on a book-length work, it is crucial to have long stretches of time to work. A husband demanding his dinner, or a ringing telephone, wailing baby, intrusive relative (the list can go on and on) can put a swift end to any chance of completing a manuscript.
It is interesting to note that the idea of residential retreats has been in the air, these past few years. Every now and then, one hears that government funds have been allocated to such centres, or are going to be allocated soon. There is talk of a retreat site for writers and artists in Banepa, or in Pokhara, or on remote hills. Kathmandu's mayor Keshav Sthapit has apparently been championing such ideas for years. This is all very good to hear. May all such projects flourish. And may many funders-including Nepali businesses-shower their resources on such efforts. The creative life of all Nepal will benefit from such small, good things.