Thursday, November 1, 2012

Wandering Mystic Meditation From Beara Peninsula

A writer friend once said, “We writers are needy people. We want constant affirmation and assurance about our grandness.” She was mostly right. With the increasing number of people harboring creative aspirations in the world, the competition keeps getting tougher. Everyone strives to get their slice of fame. Each writer tries to be different. Sometimes, it’s easier to find a unique voice when you are away from the distractions of daily life at a writer’s retreat.

So about a month ago, I attended a writer’s retreat on Ireland’s Beara Peninsula. I was jazzed about the opportunity. The focus of this retreat was the accomplishment of artistic goals. The ethos of the place is hoped to enable the process. Artists are pampered to an indescribable extent, so that chores don’t create a hindrance to the creative journey. Even your laundry is done for you. Every meal is freshly prepared with a homemade flair. The Irish, like we Indians, are quite obsessed with loving, sinful cooking. Butter and crème make up a significant part of the meals. No wonder I gained weight, despite walking two hours a day.

I couldn’t wait to enter this fantasy land. Yet when I reached the retreat, I learned the director had left for the U.S. with a family emergency. My world crumbled a little. Before I could panic, an Indian/Irish woman came to my rescue. She was Cauvery Madhavan, author of The Uncoupling and Paddy Indian. She distracted me by sharing info that would excite any budding writer. Authors like Billy Collins and Jhumpa Lahiri had spent time at this retreat. I was staying in the same room where Billy Collins had slept a year ago. I died of ecstasy and temporarily forgot my anxiety.

So how did Cauvery know so well what would calm my nerves? Cauvery and I had driven up together from Dublin, because my flight out of there to Cork had been canceled. Then Cauvery had generously offered to pick me up from the Dublin airport.

Sometimes it takes an eternity to know a person, while other times a few hours are enough. Cauvery and I got chatty on our four-hour drive. There was a sense of familiarity. I don’t know if it was karmic alignment or sheer coincidence, but we had a lot in common. Cauvery went to the same school in Mumbai as my husband’s sister. She and my brother’s wife studied at Stella Maris College in Chennai. Hold your breath! She and my brother both went to boarding schools in Dehradun, which isn’t far from Mussoorie hill station, where my boarding school was. The commonality doesn’t end there: both our husbands are April born and she and I were both January born.

An optimistic lady, Cauvery spoke fondly of life in Ireland and her family. She asked about my career and interests. Our informal banter never got stale. Right from the start, I learnt a lot from her. It’s refreshing to meet a writer who conveys her weaknesses as gracefully as strengths. A good role model.

I knew Cauvery was a novelist but didn’t realize how prolific she was until one morning at breakfast. We were discussing immigration and identity, when she mentioned her article that appeared in the Evening Herald. Cauvery has written for many publications in Ireland and is also the travel writer for a leading magazine. However, she doesn’t wear a brag-tattoo on her forehead. Rather, she attached praise adjectives to my name when introducing me around.

Every afternoon, Cauvery and I would go for a ninety-minute or longer walk. She would share about the history and geography of Ireland. I had so many questions to ask about writing and publishing, which she patiently answered. Sometimes, she volunteered industry tips, words of wisdom, and useful contacts. She said, “You remind me of myself when I was your age.” (Age was a big joke at the retreat, since I was the youngest of the lot.) Cauvery told everyone that I was born the year she graduated from high school. I blame jetlag for my letting that information slip out of my mouth.

As days went by, a volcano eruption in Iceland began wreaking havoc. I was disturbed because my husband was supposed to join me in the Eyeries after the retreat. We had a week of vacation planned around his birthday. With European airspace closed, the likelihood of our trip diminished with each passing day. I was anxious. What would I do until the airspace opened? Where would I stay? Our hotel reservations had to be canceled. Flight, train, and car bookings had to be altered. I loved the warmth of Ireland’s people but wanted to get home.

Cauvery calmly said, “No need for a hotel. You stay with me and my family in Kildare.” This is a village forty minutes outside of Dublin. Normally, I would be hesitant to stay with a stranger, but Cauvery was so nurturing I fully trusted her. Something told me it was okay. She comforted me that I would be alright.

Yet, her bigheartedness didn’t end there. I spent four days with Cauvery, her loving family, three dogs, a kitten, and ten hens. She said to me, “You lost time at the retreat with the volcano distracting you. Use this period at my place to write.” She asked if I wanted to call my parents and reassure them. For some reason, my relatives were under the impression I was sitting in a desolate corner of Ireland, covered in volcanic ash.

Cauvery’s energy extends to her family. Even her thirteen-year-old would inquire whether I was doing okay. We celebrated my husband’s birthday in his absence by cutting a cake and drinking some wine at this munificent novelist’s home. Meanwhile, there was chaos breaking out in Cauvery’s life with friends and her dog falling prey to cancer. Yet, she never once made me feel that I was an additional responsibility.

My mother says that she loves how my husband makes himself at home anywhere. However, I’m not like that. Away from home and family, I’m rather formal. I can be dying with a splitting headache, but won’t ask for tea unless someone offers it to me. Still, I felt quite uninhibited at Cauvery’s. Probably because she was so relaxed and treated me like an insider.

Hollywood actress and Emmy winner Barbara Babcock was also at the retreat. She asked, “Did you both get along immediately because of common Indian roots or was it chemistry?” Cauvery and I answered simultaneously, “Chemistry.” One of the retreat housekeepers said to Cauvery, “You look after her like she’s your younger sister.” Few people would do for me what Cauvery Madhavan did. She welcomed a stranded outsider into her house and not even for a moment did she make me feel unwelcome.

I’m a strong believer in the adage, “Everything happens for a reason.” I’m not sure how much good came out of my plan change. I’m still unhappy about the time I didn’t get to spend with my husband in Ireland. Yet, I do know I’m glad to have made a new literary friend who showed me humility and benevolence. She taught a cynical New Yorker that not every stranger who says hello is a serial killer.

In India, people believe marriages are made in heaven. Does the same hold true for friendships? I don’t know, but fate does have a big role to play in bringing people together. After my experience in Ireland, I believe getting along well with someone isn’t about age or ethnicity. It’s about attitude.

Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a poet, novelist, essayist, columnist and educator, whose musings have become a novel, four chapbooks, two collaborative poetry collections, an upcoming nonfiction book and a collection of poems. Her scribbles have also appeared in several anthologies, literary journals and online publications. A graduate of Columbia University, Sweta lives in New York City with her husband and often teaches creative writing workshops around the globe. Check out her site at

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting, Lyn!

    Sweta, an excellent post. I've heard about this part of Ireland before, and I'd love to see it myself. Cauvery definitely seems like just the right sort of person to meet.