“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” – Anne Rice
I don’t know what made me sign up for that writing workshop. Perhaps it was the way the promos were worded – ‘Write by the river’. It reminded me of a scene from an old Malayalam movie, where the heroine, a middle-aged writer, takes a short break to stay in a cottage by the sea. That lovely picture of the pretty seaside cottage and the young heroine made to look older by a pair of oversized spectacles and a crisp cotton saree had stayed in my mind. Well… if not the sea, here was an opportunity to not just stay near the River Periyar, but also pretend to be a writer!
The day dawned bright and clear… well that sounds like a true cliché (my writing guru, Pramod Shankar had warned us against using clichés), but the sky was definitely clear with no trace of rains and in the darkness of the July morning, I strapped on the seat belt of my car and headed South towards my destination, The Big Banana Island Retreat at Chendamangalam in Ernakulam district, which as per Google maps was a drive of about three hours. All through the winding roads and awesomely green terrain, I was actually suffering from serious misgivings wondering if I made a mistake in registering for this workshop. It had been several decades since I left behind my classroom days and I was clueless as to how this would turn out to be. Would it be one of those boring lecture classes where I would struggle to stifle a yawn? Could I cook up some ’emergency’ and head back home? I was not even sure as to what I wanted from this workshop. How does one learn to write? Wasn’t writing a creative process and how does someone teach this creativity in a matter of two days? To be frank, it literally felt like going on a blind date (Not that I have ever gone on one). The only known face over there would be Radha, who was on the organizing side. She represented the banner Ekarasa, who was organizing this event. So in essence, I was literally going to walk into the midst of strangers and spend my next 48 hours with them!
As per Radha’s instructions and contrary to what Google Maps directed, in the last lap of my drive, I turned off the road into a narrow lane bordered by dense hedges and bushes, that was just wide enough for barely a vehicle to pass through. The rustic road took twists and turns and at one point I almost panicked at the thought of having taken a wrong turn. But suddenly the road widened and there it was… a small board on which was written, ‘The Big Banana Island Retreat’!
A few other vehicles were parked in the small space and I got out of my car wondering for the umpteenth time if it were a huge mistake. A pretty young girl and an attractive lady were walking by, and I hesitatingly clarified with them that I was indeed in the right place. Perhaps they too were participants! Anyway, with my bag slung over my shoulders, I walked in through a hibiscus tree-lined pathway to the reception area.
Registering formalities completed, a girl took me to my allotted cottage. A few people were scattered around in an open hall and somewhere, I could see Radha talking to someone. But what made me spellbound was the sight of the river. The Big Banana Island Retreat was practically on the banks of the majestic Periyar. The large hall that doubled up as a dining area too, as well as the quaint little group of cottages that accommodated the guests, were situated right beside the calmly flowing river and all I could do was gape with an open-mouthed wonder!
The beautiful cottage was large and well equipped with essentials. The decor was simple and maintained an eco-friendly approach. The doorway itself was painted traditionally. The best part of the cottage, I felt, was its small verandah where one could sit facing the river that was just a few steps away. Plants like hibiscus and a few others found locally, grew abundantly, bringing in a coolness that was certainly refreshing. Greedily, I drank in the pristine beauty of the surroundings.
It was time for the workshop to commence. A group of eleven enthusiastic students of all age groups led by a talented teacher goes a long way! Pramod Shankar, our ‘guru’ as we fondly called him, is a soft-spoken, dignified gentleman who has carved a niche for himself in the literary arena. He certainly knew how to sustain his students’ attention with enough activities and exercises. Assignments were fun and he made it a point to discuss each one of our literary creations. What I particularly found endearing in him was the fact that never did he put down any of our literary attempts or create fun of it in any way. On the contrary, each of us was made to feel as though our writings were worthy of the Booker Prize. Suggestions, if any, were given subtly without us feeling in any way incompetent.
The ‘student’ group itself was interesting in the sense, each of us belonged to different spheres of life. There were teachers, an architect, a poet, a graphic designer, students, corporate stalwarts, etc who just had one intention primarily… to have fun… and of course, to become better writers. Together we helped get rid of each other’s inhibitions and fears, and together we rediscovered our strengths. Together we laughed, together we read poetry, together we ate and together we talked and talked. There were no judgments, mockery or any sort of prejudices. We were essentially ourselves without any sort of embarrassment or fear, and that really meant a lot.
Night approached stealthily with all its beauty and gradually it was as though we were enveloped by a magical blanket. The trees and plants which grew densely and wildly on the riverbank, the beautiful river that stretched across miles with its waters that shimmered in the moonlit night, the hearty croaking of frogs and the incessant chirping of crickets were all rather enchanting in itself. A few fireflies were flying nearby emitting their fluorescent glow. I guess the last time I saw fireflies could have easily been more than two decades ago. Deepan, our host, was saying that there were a couple of owls too who came by every night as though to check out on the place.
Deepan and his French wife, Geraldine were truly wonderful hosts, simple in their tastes and attire. We were treated to delicious and wholesome meals and snacks which apart from being made with some pure ingredients procured locally, was also laced with a whole lot of love… and that perhaps brought out the lip-smacking taste that lingers on even now. Deepan related stories about the 2018 flood and how it had destroyed almost everything in the retreat. They had to redo all the décor from scratch. Here was a man who really loved this land and his people.
Partings are not exactly happy, but ultimately, we need to turn the page when we finish off a chapter. A significant part of my life had been lived in those two days, and I returned home very happy and extremely fulfilled with the knowledge that I have gained some priceless friendships for life.