Mohua Chinappa likes to think of herself as a “rebooter”.

At an edition of the Alekhya Retreat in Himachal Pradesh.

She gave up a career in public relations decades ago, to care for her family. When her son moved abroad for further study, she found herself an empty-nester. So, at the suggestion of a friend, she signed up for a residential writing workshop in 2019.

The Himalayan Writing Retreat (HWR) is a boutique offering run by authors Chetan Mahajan and Vandita Dubey. Against the scenic backdrop of the mountains, it offers workshops led by acclaimed authors such as Arundhathi Subramaniam and Jerry Pinto, aimed at helping first-time writers and published authors alike navigate the difficult process of conceptualising, writing and publishing a book or screenplay.

Chinappa’s experience began a tad dramatically. “I missed a flight, a train and a bus, and finally got a ride from a stranger who was also going to the retreat,” she says, laughing.

It was a little intimidating putting herself out there, but she had always wanted to write. “And I was hellbent on taking this journey to find out if I really can,” she adds.

Chinappa, 54, now has two books to her name — a collection of short stories, and a collection of poems — with a third due for release this year. She also hosts two podcasts. “The experience remains one of the best decisions of my life,” she says.

HWR is one of a range of writing retreats emerging across India, catering to a growing clientele of first-time writers (though established authors are welcome too). Indian Summer House in Kerala has offered two such retreats a year, since 2018. The Bound India Writers’ Retreat was launched in Goa in 2018. The Alekhya Retreat in Himachal Pradesh began in 2017; HWR in 2016; the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat in 2014.

Participants at an edition of the Himalayan Writing Retreat.
Participants at an edition of the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

Where retreats for authors have traditionally been set in remote locations where the landscape may serve to both isolate and inspire, here the scenic locales allow for other activities too, such as treks into the forest, yoga sessions, and toddy-tapping.

The idea is to offer an experience, albeit one built around the written word, and thus make the idea of writing more accessible, even fun, opening a gateway into what is otherwise considered an exclusionary and intimidating world.

The retreats are thus open to all. Prices for the four- to 10-day experiences range from 50,000 to 1.35 lakh.

“At our last retreat, in May, we had people who work in marketing, a psychiatrist, the CEO of a bank,” says Mahima Sood, a data scientist who hosts the Alekhya Retreat at her family’s apple orchard in Himachal Pradesh. “I think, for a lot of people… they can write, they have an idea, but they don’t know where to begin. When they come here, they get structure and detailed feedback, and many go on to finish their books.”

Mahajan would agree. He started HWR after a dramatic period in his life ended in a memoir. The business manager was three months into a job with a Chennai-based coaching-class company when he was accused of fraud, and arrested. He spent a month in jail before securing bail; he was eventually cleared. The diary he kept in prison became the seed of his book The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail (2014).

“I realised then that there are a lot of people like me out there, who would really like to be able to tell their stories,” says Mahajan, 53. “Unlike art or sculpture, where you need to master a new set of skills, we all know how to read and write.”

The aim isn’t always a book. Some participants go on to become better travel bloggers. Others are better able to write for themselves. Whatever the mission, a key benefit of the retreats, organisers and participants say, is the sense of having a safe space and becoming part of a community.

This is what keeps Vanessa Challinor returning, all the way from Luxembourg (she has attended four editions of the Panchgani retreat so far). “We keep in touch even when we’re not there, doing writing challenges online or just sharing our work,” says Challinor, who is currently working on her first novel.

“We’ve put writing on a pedestal and made it seem like something that’s out of the reach of most,” adds Chennai-based journalist Praveena Shivram, 42, who attended two such retreats (Bound and Alekhya) while finalising her debut work of mythological fiction, Karuppu (2023). “But really, it is intrinsic to us as human beings who use language to communicate. Anybody who lives and breathes can write.”