Writers’ retreats now offer several luxuries, apart from expert guidance and solitude  

They include Ayurvedic spa treatments, meditation, editing workshops, and plenty of time for long, inspiring strolls

April 22, 2024 12:12 pm | Updated 12:12 pm IST

At Alekhya, participants get to go on walks inside an apple orchard

At Alekhya, participants get to go on walks inside an apple orchard | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

One morning, Malayalam writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai packed a few shirts and mundus and set out on a whim to a lodge to write.

This was in 1956, and Pillai took a bus from his hometown Thakazhi, and then a boat to reach the Boat House Lodge in Kottayam. ‘This father of mine talks of buying a boat and nets…’ read the first line of what would become one of the most successful Malayalam novels of all time: Chemmeen. The novel came together on the eighth day of his stay that can be considered a writers’ retreat, albeit one without any material pleasures. He went, he wrote, he returned.

Today, however, writers’ retreats offer several luxuries: walks amid an apple orchard in the Himalayas, yoga sessions, Ayurvedic spa treatments, gourmet food, workshops with industry experts, and the most important thing: solitude.

Indian Summer House, a boutique resort in Muvattupuzha in Kerala, offers a luxurious retreat for writers from abroad as well as India. “The writing is important,” says Don van de Pol, an Australian national who runs it along with his Indian wife Mini, a lawyer. “But they also get to do canoe river crossing, visit local tea shops, go toddy tapping…” Their upcoming retreat in October will feature journalist, editor and author of two non-fiction books, Caroline van de Pol as the tutor. Caroline, Don’s sister-in-law, is a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught in a university setting. Writers who come with their story ideas or works-in-progress, get to have one-on-one coaching with her. There are workshops every morning, where she will focus on the craft of writing, from character development to voice and dialogue.

Mahima Sood’s family-owned property in the Parvati Valley

Mahima Sood’s family-owned property in the Parvati Valley | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Caroline has attended a number of writing retreats that she says helped her “step outside of my daily routine of parenting, teaching and competing demands for my time.” Her most memorable one was at the Blue Mountains in Australia, called Varuna Writers Centre. “It was such a wonderful experience that I now base the Indian Summer House experience on Varuna with extra treats such as morning yoga and evening walks in the local village,” she adds.

The garden in the two-acre property is a highlight: Don says that it has been developed by a popular landscape designer from Bali. With the river just 100 metres away, one can simply choose to stroll by it and write by the water’s edge.

Writers come with their story ideas or works-in-progress

Writers come with their story ideas or works-in-progress | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Mahima Sood, a Pune-based data scientist, happened to spend a sabbatical from work in her family’s property at the Parvati Valley in the Himalayas. The place, which her grandfather bought in the 1950s, is in the midst of an apple orchard that Mahima’s father runs on the tenets of sustainability. “I was reading by myself one morning under the sun, and realised that I wanted to share the place with others,” says Mahima.

Most retreats have a feedback session in the evenings, with participants sharing their work

Most retreats have a feedback session in the evenings, with participants sharing their work | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Participants go on treks, forest walks, get peer reviews, and most importantly, get to write in cottages with a stunning view of the hills. Alekhya also has one slot for a writer who cannot afford to pay, and is covered by the other participants. Mentors this year are Saloni Mital, managing editor, Penguin Random House India, and Ushinor Majumdar, an investigative journalist who has written two non-fiction books, published by Penguin Random House India.

The cottages, which are absolutely silent, apart from the sound of birds and the whoosh of the wind, can be reached only after a trek of 20 to 30 minutes. Which is perhaps why some writers also choose to stay here for a month or two to work on their books. Several of Alekhya’s participants have gone on to get published; this includes Praveena Shivram, whose debut book Karuppu was published by Zubaan in 2023.

Imagine writing from inside an ancient, sprawling school campus, surrounded by hills. Add to it writing workshops, yoga, meditation, and pranayama sessions, and home-cooked meals: this is what Panchgani writers’ retreat, organised by author, creative writing coach and motivational speaker Shabnam Samuel, is all about.

The retreat at Panchgani, a hill station 250 kilometres from the Mumbai airport, takes place at Sanjeewan Vidyalaya, a school that was established in 1922, located at 4,300 feet, on one of the ranges of the Western Ghats.

At The Write Scene’s retreats, Deeba offers an inspiring setting to write, workshops that teach one the art of writing, and finally, help writers find a publisher 

At The Write Scene’s retreats, Deeba offers an inspiring setting to write, workshops that teach one the art of writing, and finally, help writers find a publisher  | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Shabnam says that the retreat (scheduled from November 3 to 9) comes with structured workshops. These include sessions on poetry, fiction, memoir writing, screenwriting, and self-publishing. “Participants are free to pick workshops they wish to attend,” she says, adding that they start at 8am, before which writers get to try yoga and meditation by qualified trainers. They can walk through the eight-acre campus, and write at nooks of their liking. “At dinner time, we gather to sit and talk about our work and get feedback,” Shabnam adds.

A lot of writers fondly recall the retreats that birthed their books. Says writer Perumal Murugan: “I wrote my novel Madhorubaagan (One Part Woman) at a writers’ residency in Salem that a friend organised,” adding that he wrote Thondra Thunai, a work on his mother, at another retreat in New York. He has been part of writers’ residencies by The Sangam House in Bengaluru and Puducherry, apart from a one-month long one at Toji Culture Centre in Wonju, South Korea.

At Alekhya, the cottages are absolutely silent, apart from the sound of birds and the whoosh of the wind

At Alekhya, the cottages are absolutely silent, apart from the sound of birds and the whoosh of the wind | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Dubai-based The Write Scene, a resource and community for writers by Deeba Salim Irfan, organises writers’ retreats at various destinations across the world. This includes Dubai, Kangra Valley (Himalayas), Kamnik (Slovenia) and Landour (Mussoorie). Deeba, a writer herself — her debut book was Urma — recalls the challenges she faced when she set out to get her first book published. “It took me three years to learn the process,” she recalls.

At her retreats, she offers an inspiring setting, workshops, and finally, helps writers find a publisher. Their upcoming retreat is at the Kangra Valley in November. “We hand-hold participants on things such as how to query a publisher and how to increase one’s chances of getting published,” says Deeba. Among their key sessions, is poetry by a bonfire in which participants recite poems at the end of the day. They do so taking turns under the stars: words pour as the wind blows.  

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