#DesiLitBiz: Chetan Mahajan on cofounding The Himalayan Writing Retreat and what it offers

About Chetan Mahajan

Chetan Mahajan is a former jailbird. He is also a published author, blogger, columnist, and the cofounder of The Himalayan Writing Retreat. His nonfiction book, The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail (2014), is an account of his month-long wrongful imprisonment in Bokaro jail in Jharkhand, India. Mahajan quit the corporate world and moved to a village in the Himalayas in 2015. He started blogging about his new life on www.uncity.blog, which won the Indiblogger award for Humor in 2017. He is also a writing coach with the London-based the writing coach. Currently, he’s working on his first novel, Tara and Vishnu. Mahajan occasionally writes columns for The Mint, Hindustan Times, Outlook Magazines, Hindu Businessline, and Reader’s Digest. He loves public speaking and his TEDx talk has had over 66k views.

About The Himalayan Writing Retreat

The Himalayan Writing Retreat - Desi Books #DesiLitBiz

The Himalayan Writing Retreat is a residential learning center in the Indian Himalayas. Writers come here to learn or to work on book projects in nature and solitude. It has become the muse of many writers. HWR writers have published over twenty books and won several awards. Like most characters, the HWR is best understood through its actions, which are as follows.

1. We run an International Writers Retreat in the Himalayas once a year for writers from all over the world.

2. We build communities of writers through the First Draft Club (also known as FDC), where writers work as a group on their writing goals for a full month. We don’t think once a year cuts it and we offer a much higher level of support than NaNoWriMo. All proceeds go directly to a school for underprivileged children near the retreat.

3. We offer many courses and workshops, both physical and online. These cover creative writing, short story, poetry, blog and article writing, non-fiction writing, Kindle publishing, and much more. 

4. We offer India’s only workshop on emotional wellbeing through writing led by a clinical psychologist and published writer. It takes writing beyond a skill into an approach for personal wellbeing.

5. We love physical bookstores. We’ve recently started the #StepUp4BookStores campaign to profile and support the best physical bookstores in India. Join here

Write better, write more. That is what we want all our writers to do.

Chetan Mahajan is a writer, blogger, columnist, and the cofounder of The Himalayan Writing Retreat. In #DesiLitBiz, he discusses how the retreat came into being and what it offers. @DesiBooks

Desi Books: Let’s start with the genesis. How did HWR come into being? You were in the business world before this. You gave it all up to become a writer and then founded HWR. And, from what I’ve read (and our earlier discussion), it’s been quite a journey for you personally too. What was the first seed of inspiration?

Chetan Mahajan: My time in jail. See, jail is like an extreme writing retreat with terrible food but very colorful characters. I spent a month in there. No devices or friends but every inmate was a walking-talking storyas was I. 

You just needed eyes, pen, and paper. I wrote a diary everyday while in jail and that book was published by Penguin Random House India as The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail. That pulled me into the world of writing and was the foundation for HWR. 

The second big thing was the inspiration and peace I found in the Himalayas. It isn’t just great for writing but for any creative pursuit.  

So we started the retreat in 2016. And I want to point out: we make sure that the food is awesome. 

Desi Books: Did you approach HWR as a business with a detailed plan or was it more of a passion project that grew organically? Talk a bit about your startup approach, please.

Chetan Mahajan: Oh, it was and continues to be completely organic. Even today, we do way too much free and charitable stuff (like the First Draft Club and the #StepUp4BookStores campaign) because we’re fired up about it, because we believe in it. 

We’re a tiny team and we’re having a blast. I’m the Chief Pfaffing Officer. Namrata, my colleague, is the VP of Buzz and Chatter. We have fun but we take our work seriously. Our customer ratings are all 5*, or very close to that.

The Himalayan Writing Retreat - Desi Books #DesiLitBiz

Desi Books: HWR celebrated five years just recently. Looking back on this journey, what are a couple of key accomplishments you’re most happy with and proud of? And what about a couple of challenges that you encountered along the way and had to get past?

Chetan Mahajan: The biggest reward is books our writers have published and awards they’ve won. That is clearly our single most satisfying achievement. And that number continues to go up. 

Also the kinds of people we’ve been able to associate with: Kritika Pandey for the short story (2020 Commonwealth Prize), Manjula Pabmanabhan (Onassis Award) for playwriting, Arundhathi Subramanian (Sahitya Kala Academy Award) and Rochelle Potkar (writer-in-residence for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program) for poetry, and so on. 

In terms of challenges, building a place in the Himalayas wasn’t easy. But it is so wonderful now.

The biggest challenge for us was getting the word out. We’re a tiny, niche business and we wanted writers to know about us. Our blog and web presence have helped us hugely with that. Our guru is Sumit Bansal, a professional blogger and a brilliant teacher. He teaches a blogging masterclass for us twice a year. 

Desi Books: The global pandemic threw a monkey wrench into everyone’s plans, whether business-related or personal. How did it affect HWR and what did you do to pivot to other models or formats?

Chetan Mahajan:  COVID-19 was a big challenge. We refunded thousands of dollars for canceled events. But, in some ways, it changed us for the better. 

Until March 2020, we did everything only at the retreat. Nothing online. But the pandemic forced us to change that completely and we went online. “Bigly”.  We realized that there was an audience we had been ignoring, who really valued what we offer: people who could not travel because of personal reasons, or people in places like Singapore and Dubai and even in the US, for whom flying to India for a 3-4 day workshop didn’t make sense. Of course, physical retreats in the Himalayas can’t be matched but online added a huge missing dimension and also increased our reach significantly. Teachers like Kritika Pandey, who lives in the US, now teach for us. That was not an option earlier.

Desi Books: What kind of support have you had along the way, whether from the general writing community or specific individuals?

Chetan Mahajan: I mentioned Sumit Bansal, who has been critical for our online presence growing. Earlier, we used to put up posters in cafés like Roots in Gurgaon and iHeart in Bhimtal. And folks like Ashish (Arora, cofounder of Roots) and Tim (Sebastian, cofounder of iHeart) supported us too.

Besides that, it really has been the universe conspiring to help us along the way. People like Mariam Karim Ahlawat and Kiruba Shankar, who supported us very early on. Teachers like Erika Krouse and Paula Younger, who travel all the way from the US to run the International Writers Retreat.

But the most important pillar is Vandita, my better half and cofounder. She brings in a huge amount of attention to detail, in terms of décor and cleanliness and the menu, and so much else. Her workshop, ‘Emotional Wellbeing Through Writing’ has helped so many people. Participants rave about it. 

Desi Books: Given where you are now, how would you define HWR’s mission and goals?

Chetan Mahajan: Our motto right from the beginning was “Write better, write more” and that continues. We don’t set corporate style quarterly or annual goals. As long as people continue to find value in what we do, and we enjoy our own work, we’ll keep doing what we do. And we’ll keep trying new stuff that we think is fun.

Desi Books: Looking across your industry, what are some key trends you’ve seen evolving in India for writing retreats like HWR? What are some things you think are working great and the ones that are not-so-great?

Chetan Mahajan: The general desire to travel and people having interests beyond just their jobs are all good social trends for us. I believe our participants are also looking for positive enriching experiences, not a traditional classroom setup with an authoritarian teaching environment. Because Vandita and I have both studied and taught in the US, I think it has helped us be less traditional with our workshops. 

One of the most significant developments has been how technology and new platforms are now providing a big boost to Indian literature. Pratilipi is a platform that publishes in over twelve Indian languages and offers monetization models for writers. Kindle now supports Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, and Marathi. This shift is great because it truly enables writers in these languages to find their readers. Otherwise, these voices were at risk of being lost. Publishing has changed and is now accessible to everyone. The gatekeepers are not as powerful and, in many ways, that is a good thing. 

However, one of the important functions of gatekeepers is to ensure a minimum level of quality. I see way too much substandard writing finding its way into print. Writing which reads like a bad first draft.  With self-publishing, the responsibility for quality shifts from the publisher to the writer. Writers need to realize that putting a bunch of words together does not make a book. It takes a lot of crafting, editing, and patience to deliver something truly high quality. When I was in advertising, we used to say “You can either have it great, or have it by Tuesday.” I hope more people choose great over Tuesday. 

Another unfortunate side-effect is that a lot of unscrupulous players are now offering writing workshops and coaching, and some at suspiciously low prices. Many of these are vanity publishing companies using a front of workshops simply as a sales channel for gullible “wannabe writers.” Their goal is not to impart skills but to create customers. It isn’t illegal but it is unethical and bothers me. 

Desi Books: Looking forward, please could you share some new initiatives or ventures we can look forward to?

Chetan Mahajan: We’ve just kicked off the #StepUp4BookStores campaign to profile and support the best physical bookstores in India. The idea is simple: encourage people back into bookstores to buy from them instead of online. 

If anyone reading this loves any particular bookstore, either now or from their childhood, we welcome them to write about the store on our blog. We will give the writer full credit. Readers, you can learn more about the campaign at the links below.

Physical bookstores in India — Who? Where? And ten reasons why

Story of the bookstores in Delhi

In a couple of weeks, we’re launching our first course on Udemy. That will make our learning accessible in a completely different way.

In January 2022, we’re coming out with the Indian Writers Handbook, which we will update every year. It will be a comprehensive resource book for anyone interested in publishing their work in India. It covers both online and print, self as well as traditional publishing models. It also helps writers understand the value of things like editing, cover design, and so on. It will also be a resource book on where to find such services. All in a single book.

[Editor’s Note: This handbook will be a first in India so it’s quite an important and necessary undertaking.]

Desi Books: HWR offers a range of writing workshops. But what kind of writer is best suited to the HWR experience? What traits might be helpful to ensure a successful HWR experience for a writer?

Chetan Mahajan: We mostly ask participants to share a writing sample so that we know where they’re coming from. The main thing is to filter for some amount of uniformity (in terms of writing skill levels) within a class. We’ve told advanced writers who applied for a novice-level course to do a masterclass and have also turned some people away if basic language was an issue.

But, from our participants, we’ve not come across anyone who hasn’t fit. We’ve had very young participants and we’ve had senior citizens. Our participants have been across genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and religions. We don’t believe talent is limited by any of these.

If I had to pick people who thrive the best—that is, get a lot of stuff published and win awards—they would be folks most open to learning, willing to work hard, and willing to put themselves out there.

Desi Books: Thank you so much, Chetan, for your responses. We’ll close with my usual final question: what’s your favorite desi book and why? It can be any genre, any language.

Chetan Mahajan: Em and the big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. I haven’t come across any other book that lets you into the mind of someone suffering from bipolar disorder like this one does. It also shows us the lives of the family members of someone with bipolar disorder. It’s sensitive, deeply personal, and offers incredible insights. That book changed me and that’s the biggest thing any book can do.

Learn more about Chetan Mahajan and The Himalayan Writing Retreat.

Chetan Mahajan is a writer, blogger, columnist, and the cofounder of The Himalayan Writing Retreat. In #DesiLitBiz, he discusses how the retreat came into being and what it offers. @DesiBooks

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