In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously expounded the necessity of writers having the literal and figurative space to write. Whilst her essay particularly skewers the limitations for women writers within an early twentieth century literary landscape that was dominated by men, the spaces that writers inhabit whilst they work have always held a particular fascination for their readers. From writers’ “shelfies” and workspaces to descriptions of their working routine, the demystification of an often intensely private, interior activity is a frequent topic for literary blogs and journals.
On her blog, Anuradha Roy, author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth, and Sleeping on Jupiter, describes her working environment in the hills of Ranikhet, prompted by a request from a magazine for a photograph of her work room. What emerges is perhaps not what the original requester had in mind, but we feel very fortunate that Anuradha has kindly allowed us to reproduce her post here. Whatever Virginia Woolf might have made of the modern trend in shelfies, the writer’s need for the space and freedom to create is an imperative that transcends fashions, and is given an entertaining and surprising consideration by Anuradha Roy in this post.
A magazine somewhere asked me for pictures of my work space, they publish a regular feature about writers’ work rooms, they said. As an example of what they meant, they sent me links to previous such photo essays about the work spaces of writers. The pictures showed weathered wooden desks cluttered with pens, paper, Mexican pottery, moleskin notebooks. Windows looking out on to vistas of green. Walls lined floor to ceiling with shelves full of books. The shelves somehow appeared vastly better engineered than any of my bookshelves.
The rooms they sent were bathed in the kind of light I never have in my life – a pale, new-washed silver-gold that made everything glow, including the antique typewriter that presided over one of the pictured desks. The magazine wanted a few specimen pictures from me to see if my workspace would ‘work’ for them. I had no idea what that meant. What kind of room ought I have to please such an important magazine? What would appear writerly enough? Should it be bare or artfully cluttered? White-walled or covered with interesting photographs and posters picked up on book tours in Reykjavik, Mauritius and Cuba?
I turned from my email and cast a newly critical eye over my dog-eared room — dog-eared because rooms shared with two large dogs and two smalls puppies have a tendency to look less than impressive.
I tidied up, hid away the heaped blankets and towels, pushed collars, leashes, tick powder, chew sticks, mangled toys, muddy shoes and gnawed bones out of sight, and arranged myself a desk with books, paper, pens scattered around as if they had accumulated over days of inspired writing. Writers are meant to drink a lot of coffee. Maybe a coffee mug would not be out of place. (Which one, though? Golden Bridge or one of my own creations? Full or empty?) Perhaps a cigarette in an ash tray? But no, this was for an American publication, they might then have to preface the article with a health warning.
What complicated matters was that this time the monsoon in the mountains where I live is nothing less than a Tennysonian (or is it Wordsworthian?) thundering cataract. The sky burst open about five days ago and has not been stitched back since. The drumming of rain on the roof is ceaseless, the trees are whited out by cloud and rain. Our road to the plains is blocked by landslides, the power collapses for half a day at a time.
Yesterday walking in the forested roads during a ten minute intermission in the rain, I heard a creak. I looked up as the creak turned into a groan and then leaped for cover: a green, many-branched oak was swaying dangerously on the slope a few metres above. I saw it dip, then tilt and then it came crashing down the hillside, flattening other trees in its path. It happened in slow motion, every stage in the sequence a separate one.
As if things were not bad enough, we woke this morning to the sound of someone airdropping a gunny bag full of stones onto our roof. It was dawn, we were still half asleep. We lunged for cover and the dogs went berserk barking. It took a few minutes to work out that the massive sound had been made by a langur who had jumped onto our tin roof from a deodar branch above. Langurs are human-sized monkeys and a leaping langur is like a six-foot tall man on the move. Elegant when airborne, all black and silver with curving tails that fly as they go from branch to branch, beautiful to admire at a distance. The rest of the langur’s tribe had gathered for breakfast at our mulberry tree, and as if to prove how quickly monkeys learn new tricks, each one of them left the tree with a mouthful of leaves and landed on our roof by turn, replicating the first one’s thundering impact. They ran down the length of the roof and on to a tree nearby. Then they repeated the whole thing. We could tell they were having fun.
A calming coffee later, I discovered that my laptop, left to charge on a desk in the back room we ambitiously call ‘The Study’, was wet. The plugs near the charger were spattered with water. The desk had pools of water on it. A bookshelf beside it was dripping, and my precious, hardbound old copy of The Valley of Flowers was soaked at the spine as were the five books on either side of it. When we spotted small drips a few days ago we had sealed them with M-seal, but the monkey business must have shifted the tin sheets on our roof, created new gaps and fresh, large cracks. These cannot be repaired until the rain stops. The rain shows no signs of stopping. All we can do is drape towels and plastic sheets and position tubs and bins where the drip is not a fine spray but a stream.
By some miracle, my loyal Macbook is soldiering on despite its soaking. I’ve decided this laptop is my workroom. It goes wherever I go and turns every bedroom, train, bus, café, hotel room, garden and hilltop into a study. I think I’ll just send the magazine a picture of my notebook and my laptop and title it My Workspace. They can crop out the plastic rainwater tubs if they want to.
All photographs © Anuradha Roy, 2016