India | 2007
Tishani Doshi is a writer and dancer based in Madras. Her first book of poems, Countries of the Body, won the 2006 Forward prize for best first collection. She was also winner of the 2006 All-India Poetry Competition, and a finalist in the Outlook-Picador Nonfiction competition in 2005.
For a long time I believed that I could write only when I was in India – specifically at my writing desk in Kodaikannal, in the hills of South India, where I’d spent most summers as a child. When I was in Madras, I managed to do some work – patchy and distracted. And when I was in London, I accomplished nothing at all. So, when I agreed to come to Santa Maddalena for six weeks this spring, I was more than a little worried.
It would be beautiful, of course. I had no doubts about that. It would be charming, and Beatrice Monti della Corte would live up to and exceed all accounts that I’d been given in advance. But would I be able to write? Would I be able to fashion something out of this first draft of a first novel that I’d been lugging around for more years than I’d care to admit to?
It’s difficult to say how long it takes to abandon the outside world when you arrive at Santa Maddalena. For some, the effect is instantaneous. They arrive, make pleasantries, figure out the best walking paths, the coffee machine, the hidden stash of wine, as if they’ve done it all before. Indeed, some of them have. But I took a while. There was email withdrawal for one, and a deficit of news for another. For a whole week, the only news I got was of an Italian who’d been abducted by the Taliban. At a certain point though, you cross over. Things cease to matter. Once in a while, someone from the outside will get through to you on the telephone downstairs in the tower, and hand you a bit of news that you might mull over for a few minutes, or hours. But otherwise, it is all stillness. You are left alone with yourself and your words.
And yet, there is movement. Meals are prepared, laundry is taken care of, rooms are cleaned and weekly trips to the supermarket all take place regardless of how many words you churn out a day. You have access to a charming room and a study, and are left to do as you please, knowing that at a certain time, if you walk into the kitchen, a fire will be going, food will be on the table, companionship will be offered.
Perhaps this is really the magic of Santa Maddalena – this combination of the solitary and the social – which most writers struggle with, and which Beatrice provides so effortlessly. And it’s not just her or your fellow-writers who will find ways to commune with you – there are people in absentia who regularly drop into dinner conversations: Gregor von Rezzori, Anita Desai, Colm Toibin, Michael Ondaatje, Bernardo Bertolucci, Zadie Smith, Bruce Chatwin – so much so, that after a while, you begin to believe that sunning by the swimming pool with Ralph Fiennes was a shared experience, enjoyed by all of Santa Maddalena’s fellows.
My entire time at Santa Maddalena reminded me of when I was just beginning to dance in Madras, going to the legendary choreographer Chandralekha’s house, and sitting on the swings while architects, poets, filmmakers, painters, intellectuals, all dropped by. Different people everyday, all doing something path-breaking or devastatingly beautiful; ideas, words and images being bandied freely about, while I just sat and listened, happy to have a place amidst it all.
To arrive in Santa Maddalena then, a few months after Chandralekha’s death, was to be able to dip into a world that I believed I’d just lost – only transposed to a Tuscan setting. It also affirmed my superstition about the power of places. Some places make it easier to write because of all the creative energy that has been spent inside their walls, all the possibilities they promise. Santa Maddalena is one of those places.
Now, back in Madras, where there are no olive trees or pink villas nearby, where Ralph Fiennes is certainly not planning to visit, I go back over what I accomplished while I was at Santa Maddalena, and I’m amazed that I even hesitated in deciding whether to go. Not only did I manage to finish draft two of the novel, I also thought up ideas for a new poetry collection and a few short stories. If I hadn’t gone to Santa Maddalena, I wouldn’t have known the ecstasy of having two back to back 5000-word days. I wouldn’t have learned to eat spaghetti properly, or seen Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, or survived death by driving illegally on the autostrada to Arezzo. I certainly couldn’t have known what joy a pug sticking its chin out for a scratch could offer.
With lessons and experiences like this, who wouldn’t want to do it again?