Light up the words, sunshine

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on August 24, 2020

Tread in lightly: The room I work in now has six windows and three doors, one of which opens on to an enormous balcony   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Seasons quietly influence the writer, as do cyclical disruptions

It was as an undergraduate at Oxford that I first realised the influence seasons exerted on me. Having grown up in the plains of North India — Allahabad and Delhi — England’s weather had the effect of throwing my mind-body equilibrium into an elusive turmoil. I couldn’t put my finger on it, even though the university had told foreign students to be wary of something called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I’m sure I would have sought help if the acronym was less literally damning of one’s mental state. When one is young, sadness and melancholy are attractive states of mind.

As the year went on, I realised that it was not just the weather, but the familiar cycle of seasons. The reason I felt out of gear was because the seasons, as I knew them, were out of sync in my new home. In India, the weather would warm up after Holi, the hot loo would kick in by April, while May was the time for crackling dry heat. One felt the hint of winter in one’s bones by early October; winter proper pulled into the provincial station after Diwali and left soon after Basant Panchami, which is when the nip, too, went out of the air.

These days, I live in Dehradun, in the ancestral house that my great grandparents bought off an Englishman who was leaving India for his home, the land of familiar seasons. Over the years that I’ve lived here, I’ve observed (with some horror) that the weather has begun to resemble that of Oxford. In 1998, when I arrived in England, I was told that summer had given the island a miss that year, and it was nothing unusual. This year, summer gave Dehradun the miss, a strange occurrence in the tropics. With or without El Nino, the weather has become wetter: It now rains for 10 months in the year. A full week of resplendent sunshine has become as rare as it was in England.

The weather patterns have changed. It could be because of global warming. It could be something else. Mental health professionals now make a link between mental well-being and subtle changes in seasonal patterns. This has a bearing on the kind of writing we do. With writers, one tends to look for clues in nature and nurture, the writing gene or the environment one grew up in (surrounded by books). But how one responds to the seasons (and how the seasons have changed in mysterious ways) can also play a role in how the writing comes out.

The influence of the seasons is palpable only to the writer. It’s not that if I’m a summer person then, in summer, I’ll write about happy characters and give my stories happy endings. It’s more like an imperceptible tinge that the quality of prose acquires. One’s writing voice remains the same; its tonality, though, might change in quiet, invisible ways. Weather might not affect the fate of the characters but it does change the aesthetics of the written sentence to which the character owes her existence. To this extent, it does alter the character’s ontological awareness.

Perhaps, things are a little different when it comes to music. A song, more reliant on mood and moment, is unashamedly porous to wind, rain and sun. A band might say its sound is sunnier in the new album because it was recorded in California. Radiohead might have gone for a less gloomy sound if its members had grown up in Allahabad than Oxford.

The hot ball of the sun, shining with unapologetic ferocity, has always made me happy and brought out the best in my writing. Extremes of weather do that. As Virginia Woolf writes in The Unabridged Journals, “With the sun burning into rock and flesh, and the wind ruffling grass and hair, there is an awareness that the blind immense unconscious impersonal and neutral forces will endure...” I’ve often found myself wondering what turn Jack London’s snowbound stories would have taken if he’d grown up in the Sahara.

A reason why I quit science at the first opportunity I got in school was that labs were cold dingy places. I could say the same of academia and Indian libraries. The room I work in now has six windows and three doors, one of which opens on to an enormous balcony. Once a famous writer came visiting and wondered how I managed to write in a room with light streaming in from all sides. He proceeded to tell me stories of other famous writers who’d written their novels in darkened rooms, with the windows taped with brown paper to block out the sunlight. I replied, “Well, that explains why I’ve not written a novel yet.”

I would hate to write in a dark room on a day when it is sunny outside. A room open on all sides lets in light, even on an overcast morning. It’s still not enough for me. I slide in a cassette of my favourite gospel rock band, Collective Soul, and plead with the sun: “Whoa, heaven let your light shine down.”



Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on August 21, 2020

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