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Where mind meets matter

Sudeep Chakravarti | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 08, 2016

Safe haven Iruttu Pallam is a 45- minute drive southwest of Coimbatore Photo: Siva Saravanan

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A sanctuary offers the writer ways to distil disparate worlds into the story being written. And Iruttu Pallam, the ‘dark valley’ near Coimbatore, is just that: sanctuary

Where does a gypsy write? Here I am in Iruttu Pallam, the dark valley. A storm has just passed, sweeping down from the horseshoe of the Velliangiri Hills, crowned by clouds that shade the valley. Mango saplings and an infant jacaranda are wet, and I know I shall need to protect these children from two cows, with children of their own, that will come cropping. There is a cluster of betel nut trees, watched over by towering palms and jackfruit trees — favoured by elephants that occasionally visit.

This is sanctuary. But it is not the place of the book I’m writing, of ignorance, knowledge, longing, love, hate, and conceits. That is of Bengal, the place of my birth if not immaculate belonging, now more than a thousand miles and a lifetime away.

When this is written, it would be time to travel elsewhere and elsewhen. The home of the story is not always the home of the storyteller.

I’ve waded into several streams, you see: experiences, wounds, joys and curiosities that, for me, lack a convenient tying down of time and place. But I can state clearly that I shed a previous sanctuary, the appalling physical and psychological sore that is now Goa Dourada, a Golden Goa largely pillaged by its own. Moulting brought me to this village of mostly poor farmers and herders in a quiet corner of Tamil Nadu.

Even if I could speak Tamil (with the help of a basic English-to-Tamil dictionary; at times, my request for one order of tea in shaky, muffled Tamil is misinterpreted as three) there would likely be minimal intrusion. At Good Look Hair Lines, the local barbershop, they rarely ask for more than a little time and money. The postman pointed out early on that it is pallam and not palayam, correcting my mispronunciation, which for some weeks changed ‘dark valley’ to ‘dark bridge’. The grocer and I deal with head-shakes, smiles, occasional frowns at inflation, and the mobile phone’s calculator. We call each other anna, elder brother. It works.

Sanctuary offers so many of us who aspire to distil the world into a story, play, screenplay, poem and song, to create cocoons to attempt this chemistry. Sanctuary is where your state of mind takes you. For me the locomotor is the need for greater seclusion to balance intense engagement.

My first book, born of a youth in the uneasy Kolkata of the 1970s, a time of rage, rebellion and numbing inhumanity, was written while schizophrenically ensconced in a comfortable apartment in Gurgaon-now-Gurugram in 2004. The novel, Tin Fish, was completed elsewhere the same year, on a forested hilltop in Panjim, the still-charming capital of Goa. Driven to distraction with the pretensions of media — the world I had called home for 20 years — I moved here from the National Capital Region. It was liberating to slough off a career of corner plot, secretary, chauffeur, doors that so frequently offered to open in seductive quid pro quo, and the remorseless cares accompanying it all.

My next, a narrative non-fiction work, Red Sun, was rooted in a decades-long career as a journalist — as reporter, writer, editor — during which I repeatedly saw the great disconnect between what I call Inland (the privileged zone of which I was a card-carrying member) and Outland (a place of poverty, misery and active dispossession that is removed from the easy mental constructs the Inlanders seek). I wrote much of that book (on the Maoist rebellion) in Goa. As I travelled, absorbed, and then wrote about the deliberate horrors of India, this cocoon — my child, tiny family, friends, my geographical G-spot — maintained the yin and yang of sanity and purpose. That was also where I eagerly shed the skin of a city and adopted the skin of my country.

After five years I moved to a Goan village, at the edge of paddy fields, and with a house in ruins as a neighbour. For five years. Moira is where I wrote my second novel, born of my early years of study and work in Delhi: a city run amok, the politically mandated butchering of Sikhs, desperate hopes of a Rajiv, great games that led to the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya — games that continue to this day. The Avenue of Kings, once colonial and now distressingly current, highlights our democracy of elected monarchs, citizens meanwhile lulled by panem et circenses. Rajpath. How else could such a conceit exist today?

Moira’s sanctuary enabled Highway 39, a work that travels the political landscapes of Nagaland and Manipur, using as sutra a road that also travels through roiled history and an uneasy present and future: another story that could do with all the telling. In short order arrived another work of narrative non-fiction, Clear.Hold.Build, with another subject of tumult, the harsh world of business and human rights in India that I knew of as a career journalist but was institutionally discouraged from pursuing: as ever, revenue talks.

These travels were distilled at a rough-hewn desk in a backyard of frangipani and palm and visiting cats and cobra.

Now waves have washed me ashore at Dark Valley. It has light, and a cradle for stories. A sanctuary is made of mind and matter.

Sudeep Chakravarti has written several works of narrative non-fiction, novels, and short stories

(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the places they call home.)

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Published on July 08, 2016
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