How I write

I write in longhand and compulsively, but I think how we write is very much a man-woman thing

The Knowledge

I write in longhand and compulsively, but I think how we write is very much a man-woman thing. I think I can put that because I spend a lot of time in a patriarchal society [Kashmir] with my hair covered, my head bowed, so most gender politics don’t cut it with me.

Men just seem to have a harder time writing than women. Of course that’s a big fat generalisation, but it does seem to be the case. I have a theory about this. Several years ago I was listening to a writer talking about just this: how he writes. He described the great lengths he had taken to create a perfect room: his writing room. The desk was angled so that late-afternoon light fell across it in such a way as to inspire him as he headed into dusk, his preferred time of day to write. He was very proud of his writing room, but he has not published a book since then. So my theory is that for most journeyman writers, and that is most of us, creating a special room is intimidating. The second you cross the threshold you are stifled by the pressure to write only great and profound things.

A lot of women have a tendency to be more pragmatic about it. Kitchens are a favourite, and by putting that I know I hurl myself straight back into the gender ferment. I don’t have writer-friendly kitchens. My London one is a very short and skinny thing that would mean writing on shelves between chipped mugs. In Delhi, where I am based part of the time, it would be possible, though not advisable with so many naked flames about: candles during power cuts, kerosene lamps and open gas burners. And in Kashmir, where I spend big chunks of my time, Maqbool, who looks after me so gently on the boat that I rent there, would flap me out of the kitchen, his Father Christmas beard bristling.

Having worked in Kashmir, and reported from there across the arc of a 20-year conflict, I’ve picked up a trick that I am so grateful for: the ability to write anywhere and at any time, except in a car or bus. That makes me sick as a dog. I do not underestimate this trick, so I’m wary of writing it, in case it is snatched away. That’s how I see it: a skill given, not owned; something I cherish. Recently I wrote part of a new book, about the brutality of winter in Kashmir, while I was jammed against an open door on a train carriage in north India. It was 37°C outside and everything was limp as we chuntered through sweating landscapes. I was propped between the open door and the jamb, knees bent up, notebook on knees, rambling into it about the lakes freezing over at the height of Kashmir’s winter as sweat trickled down my wrists and onto the paper, turning my train-shake handwriting into a flies’ roller disco, the ink-stained tracks of six legs’ worth of skates careering across my pages.
In The Valley Of Mist is published by Rider & Co. Dhs85, available at Magrudy’s.

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