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A New Year – Anil Senior THE WORKSHOP

You’ve stumbled upon one of those free online workshops that announce themselves, every now and then, via dubious newsletters that go straight to spam.

Somehow this one – an hour-long “freewheeling chat” on creative writing sponsored by Feminescence Media – did not. You’re curious as to what kind of people will attend, and imagine lovesick college girls who compose clunky poetry, perhaps a nostalgic grandma or two with a literary tribute to seasons of mangoes and monsoon. The workshop is scheduled to begin in twenty minutes and you figure, why not, what do you have to lose? It is a Sunday evening – a time when a quiet, inexplicable panic visits, when your middle-aged memory dredges up past loves and long-buried humiliations, when your mother calls from Delhi to update you on the four-year-long saga that is the Family Home Renovation Project. (Last week the SpaceWood kitchen sink was delivered sans faucet; yesterday, the contractor acted up by avoiding your sister’s phone calls). Still, your mother is always kind. She senses your undiagnosed anxiety and doesn’t ask about the progress of your novel unless you bring up the subject first.

And so at sharp five pm, as dark sheets of rain crash over most of central Mumbai, you log in to the workshop via the technological marvel that is zoom. You are one of eight participants, but the only one with video on and audio muted. A few seconds pass in suspense. Then scratchy background noise is replaced by tinkling elevator muzak. The dull grey screen slo-dissolves into dazzling snow-capped mountains. A smooth male voice welcomes you on behalf of Feminescence – a magazine dedicated to women and to writing that “dares to scale Himalayan heights of excellence.”

The screen splits to reveal the speaker, Mohan Kashyap, whose cherubic face and spiky hair give him the appearance of a cheerful teenager. Beaming, he requests that all videos be switched on. And that mics be off. “Please ladies, there will be plenty of time for interaction later,” he croons.

Mohan has a marketing degree from Indore’s Devi Ahilya University and is an expert in Brand Building For The Digital Future. He is also the bestselling author of ToDream It Is To Achieve It: Channeling Your Inner Guru Towards Self Belief And Success! – available on Amazon and launching soon as a podcast. Mohan thanks the Feminescence website team for anointing him the Wunderkind of Motivational Self Help and blushes wildly.

The woman in the window that’s third from your left frowns, then waves an arm as if to shoo away a pesky fly. Her screen moniker reads WokeWarriorYogita. At first you think this might be an attempt at joke-y self-deprecation, but Yogita’s brand of stridency clearly holds no patience for wit or irony. She talks soundlessly, then remembers to press her UnMute button. Now that Yogita is loud and clear, she demands to know why Mohan – who clearly presents as male – is guiding a writing workshop for women. Mohan blushes again and giggles awkwardly. “Um, good question Yogita,” he says, except Yogita doesn’t smile back. Clearly no mistress of understatement, her white T-shirt spells T-R-I-G-G-E-R-Z-O-N-E in black block letters.

Mohan explains that his wife, the celebrated writer Saarangi Kashyap, was meant to conduct this session. Unfortunately, a sudden work engagement sprang up and that’s why Mohan is filling in. He adds that Saarangi will “drop by” for a few minutes later to say hello; she knows how eager this group is to meet her.

Blank stares all around. Apparently no one knows who Saarangi Kashyap is. Mohan shares a screen shot of a plump doe-eyed woman gazing into the horizon. This is Saarangi’s Official Author Photograph – one Mohan took himself during their recent romantic getaway in the hills of Coorg. Saarangi’s short story, set in a fictional North Indian town and themed to the twin evils of dowry and patriarchy, won First Prize in Feminescence’s All India Writing Contest last month. In fact, The Bride Who Would Not Burn was chosen from more than ten thousand entries for its “searing insights and Manto-esque tone.” The link to the story – which Mohan emphasizes is a must-read – is on the Suggested Reading List emailed to all participants.

Anyway. It’s time for Mohan to switch tack, to share the benefits of what he sweetly calls his humble-yet-extensive experience. “There are Three Basic Rules,” he avers, holding up three plump fingers. “One. Read. Read The Masters.” You gather that this includes Saarangi Kashyap. But Mohan, shaking his head in awe, says that for him, personal inspiration has come from the epic that is Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel.

A beat. Mohan inhales, exhales, continues. “Two. Writing is a Calling. Follow Your Heart. Be Brave.” His nostrils flare. His gaze steels. Another beat. Then his features liquefy into a dazzling smile. “Three. KYC. Know Your Craft. Meaning? SDT. Show Don’t Tell.”

A dramatic pause. The screen dissolves into a shimmering moon and night sky. Mohan reads out the caption that is copy-pasted below, emphasizing each word. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov’s famous advice is now a familiar meme on the internet; for Mohan, it is the holy grail of all writing. He is silent and triumphant, like that ubiquitous spy in every thriller movie who cracks the most complex code using the simplest of clues.

*

After a short break, Mohan asks for introductions and a mention of individual works-in-progress. Anyone can “jump in” with commentary at any time, because this is an open forum and no one should be shy.
He picks you to go first, and comments on the prettiness of your name. “Malena. Where are you from?” You say Mumbai, Delhi, a bit from here, a piece from there. Mohan is confused and asks if you’re really Indian, because, well, he had you pinned for a firang type. You explain your genes. German mother, Gujarati father. Indian citizen. World traveler. Insider. Outsider. Mixed Inbetweener. You wonder if Mohan will ask the usual follow-up question – the one about how your parents met – but he merely nods and smiles, as if everything about you makes sense now that he’s got you categorized.

You say that you are part freelance journalist part burnt-out screenwriter, that you’ve spent almost half a decade working on what you call an autofictional novel, that your protagonist-narrator is a wandering, self-doubting, forty-something champion procrastinator, that the end of your first draft is nowhere in sight.

Mohan makes a fist with one hand and slams it against the open palm of the other. His eyes blaze. “See, the first question to ask yourself, Malena, is this: what is my novel about? If you can nail that one thing in one sentence, you’re home!”

You remember Americanah and the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ifemelu: Why did people ask ‘What is it about?’ as if a novel had to be about only one thing?So you say that stories can be about many things. Mohan shoots you a strange look, a cross between mild contempt and genuine pity. You decide to shut up. You want to explain that your work is an evolving Novel From Life, that so far life hasn’t thrown up a plot that you can neatly synopsize, that it has, instead, unfolded over a series of random messy events that you struggle to find meaning in. Your mind segues from Adichie to Elena Ferrante. The bildungsroman is on the right track when it is clear that no one will be built. You remember the relief you felt when you first read this in Ferrante’s In The Margins. What was her opening essay called again? Yes. Pain and Pen.

Yogita jumps in, stabbing you with what she calls Perspective. “I think maybe your problem, Maa-lee-naa, is your privilege. Where is the external obstacle in your story? The struggling underdog we want to root for? Where is the Real India in all of this? Where is Real Life?” She clicks her tongue impatiently, like adults do with annoying children, and prattles on. “There’s so much injustice all around us, but you write only about your own worries, your self-indulgent, frankly First World trivialities. Why should that interest readers?”

Mohan nods intensely. You feel suddenly, terribly, low on energy. Your mind wanders to an old interview you re-read on your phone this morning. Salman Rushdie in The Guardian, saying I’m not a geopolitical entity. I’m just somebody writing in a room.You suppress a smile, wondering how Sir Rushdie might respond to Yogita because you, at this moment, wouldn’t know how to.

Gunjan interjects. An attractive woman in her thirties, she wants to know what Yogita means by Real Life. “Isn’t all life real? Does writing have value only when it concerns social injustice? Does every artistic expression have to be activist in nature, a fight against external oppressors? Sometimes, aren’t our greatest fears the demons we battle within? Don’t some of us struggle with the simple feeling of, you know, not being good enough? I know I do,” says Gunjan, shaking her head.

You feel a river of gratitude for Gunjan. But Yogita insists on having the last word. She tightly declares that right now her demons are definitely external. Specificallyone demon – in the form of T.N.T. Vijay, the popular Telegu movie producer. Yogita explains that she has just launched an online campaign in protest against T.N.T.’s latest comedy, one in which a macho small-town Romeo stalks, charms and manipulates women to sleep with him. “None of this is funny,” thunders Yogita. “Tell me, what’s funny about pure misogyny?”

Nazneen, who you notice wears a butterfly-patterned hoodie over her headscarf, addresses Yogita in a deadpan voice. “I don’t think T.N.T’s flicks are that bad. They’re actually kind of fun. They present people as they are and society as it is. And anyway Yogita, didn’t you just lecture us on Real Life?”

You laugh. Gunjan does too. Nazneen shrugs in effortless Gen-Z style. “Hey, no offence Yogita,” she says flatly. “It’s totally appropriate for you to not support work you find problematic. But it’s kind of, like, annoying to use art as a way to convict the people who make it. It’s tiring, this whole ideology-driven cancel culture. Ideology is what’s fucking up art, because ideology very often obfuscates truth, and art, if nothing else, is an attempt to seek truth, to see things for what they are and to think about why they are what they are. No?”

Then short-haired, athletic Sandhya sighs, sounding bored and looking like she’d rather be anywhere but here. She says, “I thought this workshop is about the art that women create! Isn’t that what we’re here to do? Why is it that we always end up talking about men?”

*

Ashwini (“call me Ash”) is next and raring to go. She’s a fifty-something homemaker from Kansas who left India two decades ago, and for reasons unexplained, has been “too busy” to visit since. During the many months of Covid-induced lockdown – a time through which her adolescent son chose to quarantine in his NYU dorm and her absent-minded husband became obsessed with gardening – Ash finally got the free time she needed to write a Young Adult novel. Now she reads out her synopsis in a slow Punjabi-Yankee drawl:

“Indian American teens Devi and Kartik are shot and killed in a supermarket by a white supremacist gang. The duo are reborn as moral vigilantes who solve crimes, spread messages of peace and tolerance, and transform midwestern America with the values of traditional Hindu culture.”

Ash believes she has spun a story of pure gold. So obviously she has a lot of questions. How soon can she expect to be published? What does it take to crack the Indian YA market? Do Indian agents grab ten per cent from their authors like US agents do? What if she wants to pitch her book as a series? Her characters would be a smash on Netflix, or on that other one, Amazon Prime, well, whichever gives her the better deal. Can Mohan put her onto the right people? Should she email him right away?

You notice lines of exhaustion forming under Mohan’s eyes. He smiles weakly and mumbles, “Sure, Ashwini, um, Ash. Email me. Okay ladies, who’s next?”

*

Paro has just returned to Shillong after a six-week tour of South East Asia. She and her band mates travelled and played on a shoe-string budget – that, laughs Paro, was its own adventure. Paro explains that she composes and sings blues-y songs set to a traditional Khasi arrangement of drum beats, cymbals and flute; one of them, Moonlight is currently a rage in Laos, and Paro can’t wait to go back there for another concert.
Paro is thirty-five. She’s pretty in a non-descript way and a stunner when she performs a capella (you’ve seen her in a couple of videos on YouTube). Paro has an idea for a memoir. It starts with her formative years in rural Meghalaya, then segues into a cautionary tale about sex, drugs and the vicious competition in and around Shillong’s music scene. After a brief, abusive marriage to an arrogant tenor (Chang had once been a part of Shillong’s prestigious Chamber Choir), Paro lost her magical voice and the will to live. Now, with both regained, Paro wants to build her music career and simultaneously encourage young talent in her home state.

At this point Saarangi logs in. Mohan, hyper-aware of his wife’s presence and perhaps keen to impress, flips back into Brand Expert mode to play with Paro what he calls “the Devil’s advocate.” He believes memoir sells only when authored by a celebrity and explains that Unfinished is a smash because, well, Priyanka Chopra Jonas has written it. “No offence Paro, but who would be interested in a small-time artist from Meghalaya? People only want to read about the lives of stars,” says Mohan in a calm Don’t-Hate-Me-For-Saying-This-It’s-Just-For Your-Own-Good tone.

Nazneen scoffs and challenges Mohan. She asks, “Which Bollywood star can put even two sentences together? Stars will hire meek ghost-writers who can be controlled – and what comes out is shiny hollow hagiography. Boring. At least Paro’s story sounds like it will have bite. And something worthwhile to say.”

Mohan appears to fear Nazneen even more than he does Saarangi. He apologizes for his tone-deafness towards Paro, half-mumbling that what he said earlier came out “sounding all wrong.” Paro, not the combative sort, reacts with amused indifference.

Mohan, sensing an opportunity to score approval points with Nazneen, asks if she’s planning to write of her own life experiences. He imagines these to be something on the lines of — being a young Muslim in an increasingly intolerant India? Nazneen, who is super-focused on checking her phone, rolls her eyes and says “Actually that’s the last thing I’d ever want to write about.” Looking up with mild irritation, she adds, “Why is your reading list so banal? Why isn’t there even one title by a queer author?”

Saarangi’s ears puff out steam – or at least it looks that way. Hearing her story described as trite doesn’t enthuse her. Mohan stutters, blinks, blushes, smiles and then quickly assures Nazneen that he’ll communicate her feedback to the magazine. Taking a deep breath, he says with some relief, “Kim, you’re the last one left. Please go ahead.” Saarangi glowers in silence.

Skinny toothy Kim says a hushed Namaste from her Guruji’s Ashtanga Yoga ashram in Mysore. She floats through her little speech. You catch on that her journey – from toxic corporate executive to unencumbered spiritual seeker – is chronicled in her recently self-published poetry collection titled From Bhog To Yog.

Mohan relaxes and nods blissfully. “Such wisdom in someone so young,” he croons. Kim bows her head in humility and says she does not want praise. Her purpose is only to share that we are all a part of the Divine, that we are all deeply blessed, that we must be thankful. Kim’s life began to change after her Guruji presented her with a Gratitude Journal to write her thoughts in each night. She asks if anyone might like one? Custom-made Gratitude Journals, signed by Guruji, are available online for a small fee. Kim could even arrange for a group discount.

Mohan is entranced by Kim – a fact not unnoticed by Saarangi, who interrupts his reverie by curtly thanking Kim for her sweet but unnecessary offer. Mohan snaps to attention, suddenly aware that Saarangi has been online for several minutes already. He hastily introduces his “very talented better half Saarangi Kashyap” but Saarangi, in a voice sharper than whiplash, cuts Mohan off. She says that it was nice to meet this group, that she wishes everyone well, that regretfully she has developed a killer migraine, that she needs to exit immediately.

And just like that, Saarangi is gone. Mohan looks down and coughs. Ash, unfazed by Saarangi’s rudeness, says it’s too bad Saarangi had to leave so suddenly because Ash actually wanted to ask her about money, specifically, about what kind of money Feminescence pays for a story of, say, three thousand words? Because one thing Ash doesn’t do – ever – is write for free.

Mohan says he isn’t sure about “the money side” of Feminescence, but he’s planning other workshops that might be helpful for writers. They won’t be free like this one, but they will certainly be worth it. He reels off a few themes. How To Negotiate Like AProfessional. Building Your Brand On Social Media. Writing For An Insta-Audience. Framing The Perfect Author Pic For Your Book Jacket.

Time is finally up. You’re surprised that you stuck the session out and glance at the others, who – much like you – stretch or shuffle about awkwardly, unsure of what to say or think.

Maybe it’s the uneven reflection of lamplight on your screen, but Mohan’s eyes suddenly look moist. He says, “Ladies, I just want to say something from my heart. I’m so thankful that you gave me your time today. It feels good to know we can come together, to feel a kind of, well, solidarity. A sense of hope. I’ve learnt something of value from each one of you.”

You have a sudden weird impulse to hug Mohan. But like the others, you find yourself mouthing a quick “Thank-You-All-The-Very-Best-Take-Care-Goodbye” and logging off.

*

For the next ten minutes you stare mindlessly at your open laptop, at its rows and columns of yellow desktop folders, at the tiny Dell logo dancing at the edge of the screen. Beside you, on the bleached writing desk you’ve had since your Delhi University days, sits a green plastic file stuffed with notes for your novel. Through the open window, you can see an ocean of tricolour fluttering on matchbox-sized balconies – remnants of last week’s Independence Day celebrations. Ironically, you’ve felt less liberated than blocked these past many months; trapped and at the same time adrift.

You miss feeling invincible. You miss being young. You miss having lots of time ahead of you. You miss the friendships that have slow-faded into the past. Often, you miss your father who knew how to make jokes, who read everything you wrote, and who left abruptly four years ago, in his sleep, without giving you the chance to say goodbye – or the many other things you would have wanted to say instead.

A sharp ping. You’ve got mail. From Y. Chaudhary, whoever that may be. You click Open and find yourself reading Hello Malena, the two neat paragraphs that follow, and a sign-off by Yogita.

You learn that Yogita Chaudhary aka WokeWarriorYogita is a single parent and a bank teller, currently based in Qatar. Yogita wants you to know how good it was to meet you at the workshop today, that she hopes you can be feedback buddies, that she needs a mentor – ideally someone like you – to guide her through this little book of stories she’s writing for her daughter, that her daughter is just fourteen, that her daughter has recently been diagnosed with a rare sarcoma, that life, as she once knew it, is now a nightmarish haze of tube-lit hospitals and chemo showers, that she is hopeful but not entirely hopeful of the outcome, that thankfully, her boss at ABN Amro in Doha is giving her the time off that she needs, that all she feels right now is a rage at fate and a desperate love for her child, that she hopes you don’t mind that she’s reaching out to you like this, that you should please feel free to say no if you don’t have the time or interest, but that she, Yogita, feels that you, Malena, understand things.

You don’t know why Yogita thinks you understand anything but you feel humbled; humbled and petty and ashamed for having judged Yogita who is fighting a battle more fierce than anything you have ever known.

You don’t know what to say but you press Reply and start to type – that you have all the time and interest in the world, that none of us is as alone as we think, that love is the glue that keeps us together even when it feels like everything is falling apart, that Yogita is the bravest person you know, that everything is going to work out just fine, and that you really, truly mean that. You hit Send.

It has stopped raining. The air in Mahalaxmi is cool and fresh. An orange magic-hour glow tinges the tops of the trees on your street. You stretch a few times, then decide to take a walk on the nearby Race Course. You will aim for 10,000 steps. You will call your mother. You will say a prayer for Yogita’s daughter whose name, Amrita, paradoxically signifies immortality.

You feel a surge of hope, not dissimilar to Mohan’s a little while ago. You smile as you think of Mohan, and imagine him telling a friend right now that even though Saarangi still has a headache, the workshop was a great success.

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