Writing Away in GOD’s own Country
For most people, flying 2600 miles just to sit comfortably and “write” for five days may not seem like a great idea for a holiday. But my recent stay at the Indian Summer House Writers’ Retreat in Kerala was one of my most gratifying and restorative trips.
As with most of the flights to India, mine landed at Cochin airport past midnight so by the time we arrived at the gates of Indian Summer House it was mostly draped in darkness. Even then I felt a rush of excitement as I sensed I was somewhere special. I was shown to “Krishna”, one of the smaller of the four villas, and yet the suite was enormous.
The bedroom felt contemporary, bright, airy and minimalistic in design with all the modern amenities from a luxurious bed to free wifi and three-point plugs. Essentials were juxtaposed with local art from neighboring craftsmen and artists, from watercolors to sculptures, hand-crafted furniture, and lighting. My bathroom, as generous in size as the room itself, featured its own private garden with an outdoor shower, which was glorious.
There was no mistaking where I was when I woke up the next morning to the familiar sounds of the gentle low of a neighbor’s cow, the constant hum from insects and birds and the momentous honk from the occasional truck. And what a breathtaking view to wake up to I thought then as I looked at the exquisite garden which I discovered was once a banana and coconut plantation. Each of the four rooms faced the central garden and had easy access to the pool and communal dining area. Leafing through a brochure about the villa, it turned out that the property and gardens were designed by Made Wijaya, a renowned landscape artist to the rich and famous, whose work includes David Bowie’s estate in Mustique. Less Bowie and more Balinese, the gardens here are rich with a variety of plants and trees, set amid lotus ponds, hand-carved stone masonry, timber beams, and radiating rafters.
I met our tutor for the week, Caroline van de Pol, and the rest of the guests on the Verandah just before the morning yoga class on our first day there. There is nothing quite like a few sun salutations to break the ice with a group of reserved writers so that by the time we sat down for breakfast we were already friends. Caroline went through the itinerary for the week, making sure we were allocated enough time for workshops, sightseeing, swimming, meals and most importantly, the ayurvedic spa treatments. Writing would fill the gaps in between and we reconvened for our first session in the salon just before lunch.
Each of us shared our writing aspirations that day, talking about where we were in our writing journeys. Some of us were writing memoirs about troubled childhoods, some on the theme of migration and displacement. I had not written before but I have a box full of ideas that I was looking forward to opening. But the box had to wait till after lunch, which comprised of a delicious prawn curry that I still dream about. All the meals are included at Indian Summer House and the chef there is a talented chap called Rajesh. We discussed the menu for the week with him and made plans to visit the local market to choose the ingredients for our meals.
Over the course of the week, we visited a local restaurant, had breakfast with rickshaw drivers, met a school principal, took a very scary local bus ride, a not so scary boat ride and also had tea with Mohanan at his traditional tea shop in the vibrant and colorful town of Muvattupuzha. But my favorite thing to do there was just a few steps away from the property. A daily walk in the countryside across a luscious path of tapioca, rubber and banana plantations. It’s easy to see why they call Kerala “God’s Own Country” with its layered landscape of natural beauty, beaches and blissful backwaters.
And just like that, we found ourselves in a routine for the week comprising of yoga, long walks, and workshops on character, plot, time and place. Communal meals were a daily treat where we discussed our writing blocks and shared our thoughts on books that we love. In the afternoons we would break away and seek out the perfect spot to write. We were spoiled for choice between the coconut lounge, the poolside and the daybeds at the salon. I found myself most inspired while spending time in the garden, listening to the sound of singing bulbuls and scuttling squirrels. Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
Experiencing a few days at this gorgeous retreat and soaking in the sights, sounds, and colors of this palm-fringed South Indian state created life long memories for me. By Saturday, the week which started with awkward introductions ended with emotional goodbyes. Not only have I benefited from a flood of advice, insights, meaningful conversations, and a notebook full of ideas, I most importantly got to make time to rest, recharge, think and write.