Moonrise Barbeque

Moonrise Barbeque

“There is no love greater than the love of food”

(Quote from Britannia Cafe, Ballard estate, Mumbai)

We had just come off a hectic six week spell of guests and visitors. Then suddenly, there was calm. The last guests checked out*. R’s school went on break.

“A” decided on celebrating the quiet with a “Family day” so we cuddled, played board games and badminton, and generally spent the whole day together. “A” improvised a pretty fancy lunch from leftovers, and gave each of us a “review sheet”. Vandita and R gave him 5 stars + so he complained about unfair parenting when I gave his lunch “only” 4.5 stars.

I also had my own surprise planned for that evening. I intended to grill some chicken for the kids. Fresh chicken isn’t readily available around here, so I called the meat shop in Bhowali (30 km away)  and asked him to hand over 1 kg of chicken to the bus that comes up everyday. 3 hours later we met the bus at it’s usual time, but the driver said no one had given him any chicken. A call to Bhowali confirmed that our supplier had forgotten.

The backup was to check at our big neighbourhood grocer Kapil store – locally referred to as the WalMart. His deep-freezer can be unreliable, so I was delighted that he actually had some frozen chicken available. We proceeded to thaw and marinate the chicken. The grill I have is an ancient Weber from my days in the US, carried back from Chicago only because I was entitled to half a container as part of my transfer to India.

So we lit some coal in the grill and sat out in the balcony. It was windy and getting the fire going was a struggle. Both the kids were willing volunteers helping me with everything. We were out of matches so R repeatedly lit the candle from the gas. A went and found some dry kindling, and so on. (The purist in me refuses to use kerosene or other flammables.) The fire finally caught. We played Uno sitting on a durree on the balcony as we waited for the coals to turn red. The air was nippy and soon blankets were brought out and we sat together snuggled in blankets playing uno under the dim balcony light.

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Moonrise Barbeque

My amateur attempts at grilling meant a delayed dinner. But soon an almost full moon rose over the ridge of the local reserve forest, and things went from beautiful to surreal. A simple dinner of grilled chicken and bread was eaten with much relish as we watched the moon wink it’s way in and out of the clouds. It was another lovely evening.

 

It made me remember the time I served in the city, and all the opportunities we had lost. I don’t remember ever having seen a moonrise, or ever having spent an entire day as a family on an activity list made by the kids.

I was glad to be here, even if a few years late. It made me think about the price we pay for our dreams. Made me wonder about the tradeoff between money & happiness, and the habits we find so hard to break. It also reminded me of a beautiful Lao Tzu quote.

“If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

I’m glad I did.

_________

* The place referred to here is quietplace.in , a specialty home stay run by the author in the Indian Himalayas.

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Quiet Place? Really?

Quiet Place? Really?

Everything happened in Nanoseconds. The dog took off after the rooster. The rooster ran flapping its wings, squawking a frantic SOS. Human voices cried out “Po! Leave it!”. For a dog named after a Panda, she moved fast. Things ended without any loss of life, although the rooster has developed a nervous tic and needs counseling. But my psychologist wife insists that Cognitive Behavior Therapy doesn’t work on poultry.

The above is one of many true incidents at our new place. The place which will be the new home for the erstwhile homeless Himalayan Writing Retreat. The same place we were trying to name, and for which many of you had voted. Thank you for taking the time. The votes helped.

In the vote count, “Centreself” topped the list with “Thought Orchard” & “Quiet Place”a very close second. They are lovely names. We realized that they are also very serious, and we’re not. Neither is the place we’re creating. We are serious about giving people a great experience, but we don’t do heavy. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe that’s why the sole award this blog has won was for humour.

Our place, like us, is full of quirks. Our location is a windy, picturesque ridge where our chickens walk on two feet but our wifi limps. Our loving dogs frequently try to reduce our workload by eating our hens. My US licensed, doctoral degree holding psychologist wife sometimes gets paid in vegetables and fruits by the locals for her services.

We all have our quirks. They make us unusual and different. Quirky is best defined as “Weird in a good way.” The quirk can be anything. A need to wear a fedora hat & leather boots – and nothing else – on a beach. The need to know the names of all the birds you see. The urge to wrap the selfie stick around the neck of the person using it. The desire to stop in the middle of things and write down an idea or thought because you might use it later.

It’s all weird in a good way. So we nearly settled on Quirky Ridge for the name.

But then we realized that while “Quirky Ridge” may make people curious, it may not  inspire them to stay with us. We needed a more appealing name – something that goes with the sagacity associated with the mountains. A name that would reflect the physical beauty and calm that mostly prevails at our place. A name that tells guests how perfect our place is for the writer or artist seeking inspiration. A name that appeals to the frantic city dweller looking for stillness.

I wanted a name that slips from the mind and easily sticks to the tongue. Strike that out. I mean I wanted a name that sticks in the mind and easily slips off the tongue.

So after much gut-wrenching debate, we’ve settled for quietplace. You can check out our website at www.quietplace.in .

We plan to train our dog. And if the rooster keeps up it’s racket, we may have to eat it. Very quietly.

Moving to Kumaon? Is your bladder big enough?

Moving to Kumaon? Is your bladder big enough?

For anyone thinking of moving to Kumaon, here’s a checklist.

  1. Grow your bladder.
  2. Replace your laptop with a paper notebook
  3. Be your own garbagemanperson
  4. Start thinking about Caste
  5. Be Zen.

If you think this list is strange, read on.

1. Grow your bladder.

No, not your gall bladder. The other one. You see Kumaon is water deficient. And flush tanks are the biggest enemies of water. The summer months are a severe struggle unless you are one of the lucky few with a natural spring on your land. And even those can dry up in the summer. During those days (such as right now) we often pee collectively as a family. That way we flush just once and conserve water. All our pretty flowering plants are a write off – watering plants is a luxury. Lets not even discuss bathing. If you want to be in the mountains, and not have water problems, choose Kangra Valley in Himachal. It offers everything Kumaon does + water.

2. Don’t be laptop dependent.

The power here can fail often. Mostly for a few hours but it can also stretch to days. The last time we had a long outage, my inverter also packed up. I called the inverter company, and they said they cannot send someone such a long way. So I lugged my inverter to Haldwani (a mere 3 hour drive) to have it fixed. When it was done I brought it back & plugged it in again. One month later – exactly when the repair warranty ended, we had a power surge. It blew the inverter again, along with the power adapter for both our laptops, and myriad other electrical gadgets. The first draft of this post was written on paper.

3. Be your own Garbageperson.

You maybe a dirtbag, but at least you will be politically correct.  Nobody will come to collect your Garbage here. The Economic Times  said they would. That was two years and one day ago. That is गंदा  propaगंदा. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/nainital-to-launch-solid-waste-management-system-for-rural-areas/articleshow/47397029.cms

Getting rid of your garbage is your problem. The more aware residents separate their trash. The organic waste is composted or fed to cows / hens. The non-perishable and recyclable stuff has to be taken down to the recycling centre in Haldwani (which nobody is sure actually works). Many people just burn everything. Those of us with an ecological bone try and dispose of their trash responsibly. The last time I drove to Delhi my car was loaded with full trashbags. I heard another fun story about when the local city migrants had tried to hire someone with a pickup truck to collect all the trash and deliver it to Haldwani. After some weeks they realized that he would take the trash and simply chuck it all down the hillside a few miles away. Right now the very gallant Vikram Maira of Sitla Estate is offering free trash delivery to the recycling plant in Haldwani for all residents who dump it in a pre-appointed spot. We all love that he is doing it, but the fact remains that we are responsible for our own garbage – as we should be. Don’t expect to outsource that.

4. Start thinking about Caste.

Caste is something I have never thought about. When I talk to a person I am never curious about what caste they are, and I dont care. Same for religion. To me they are humans, and that’s that. But here, in the village, our medieval caste system is alive and well. I don’t practice it, but I cannot be unaware of it. Over three years I have developed a certain sensitivity to it.

For example, when we moved into our house, we held a puja for the benefit of the villagers. We were told that some of our staff should not be in the kitchen, as otherwise many of the guests will not eat the prasad. Since the puje was for the benefit of the villagers, we complied.

But now we continue to have some people work on our land, and they still refuse to drink tea made by one of our staff members. Consequently, they often go without tea.  The same crap about women having their periods not entering the kitchen etc. continues to be widely practiced. You get the idea.

5. Be Zen.

The city is all about instant gratification. Dominos will deliver in 30 minutes or its free. Why wait in line? Book your tickets online. And Swiggy and Amazon are all about delivering faster and faster. The village is the exact opposite. Hardly anything is available instantly. The only things readily available are what is available at Kapil’s store, our neighborhood Walmart. God bless Kapil.

You don’t get it. Let me give you an example.

Lets say it is peak summer and you want to eat good Mangoes. Here is how the process goes. Q1 : Is it available at Kapil store? No. Then Q2: Is it available in Nathuakhan (6 km) or Bhatelia (15 km)? Possibly, but cant say for sure. Quality and freshness will be big questions. Call someone in Bhatelia. They say that Mangoes are available but they look dehydrated and  undernourished. They may get better after dipping in ORS overnight. Not good. Then Q3: Will good mangoes be available in Bhowali / Haldwani? Yes. So then you ask around to find out if anyone is going there, and ask them to get a few kilos. If not, then you plan a day trip to the Mandi (3 hours one way) and buy Mangoes for the next 2 weeks. This process applies to everything you may want. Except for many things that are not available in Haldwani, you may have to go further – to Delhi.

So be ready to build some character. Delay gratification.

 

 

Help us name this place

Help us name this place

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Snow and blue sky

We are making our Himalayan home into a hub for personal growth. We’re crowd-sourcing the name. Imagine a serene place where people will come to learn and grow. An inspiring learning space, this will be a future home to many types of Himalayan Retreats ranging from mindfulness to astronomy to writing.  Among other things, we will host a writing residency.

The Himalayas are a great place to connect with yourself. Dr. Vandita Dubey, a published author & US licensed psychologist, will lead the “Inner-You” programs. She currently offers residential and phone/skype therapy for individuals and couples (www.vanditadubey.com).  If you want to strengthen your relationship or want to use writing as a form of self-development, you could do it here.

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Serenity

Before picking a name, you need a full flavour of the place.

To reach here you have to walk the last 150 odd yards on a village path from the road. Someone carries your bags and shows you the way. You amble along a small ridge. To your left, a forest slopes down, covered in Rhododendron, Pine, Oak and much else. To your right are terraced farms covered in fruit trees. A few more steps and you reach our home. The grounds are sprinkled with some guest rooms. The place has a great view. Great turns into magnificent on a clear day, when you can see a span of snow-capped peaks stretching from Garhwal to Kumaon to Nepal. (For those familiar, it includes Chaukhamba, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli before reaching Nepal.)

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The sprouting rooms

Your room is a cozy space with lots of light & windows, two beds, and writing desks. You wash up, drink tea, and go exploring. You walk past fruit trees and the house to emerge onto a ridge with a 270 degree view. Stone benches and tables dot the grounds. Sitting there, you could shoot pictures or watch birds or read or write. But a voice in your head says, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Vegetables grow in a garden patch irrigated by recycled water. Lemons and their fragrance hang from overloaded trees. You may hear bees buzzing around blossoms which will soon become fruits. Clucking chickens punctuate the melodious birdsong. Two playful non-pedigree dogs chase away a cat trying to turn a freshly hatched chick into lunch. The fresh honey you have for breakfast tastes particularly good. You learn it’s from bees bred on the farm.

You realize you are in the company of the birds and the bees. You ask for learning of a different kind. Your request is, sadly, denied.

That evening you sit at what would be a “sunset point” in any tourist town. The sunset makes you wonder how all colors could come from only three. Later that evening you eat your dinner while watching the Himalayan moon rise over the black ink of the forest reserve next door. The next morning you may choose to wake up to the crowing of the rooster and witness a sunrise no photograph could ever capture. You feel inspired without leaving your warm quilt.

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An inadequate photo of the dawn

Later in the morning – after a hot breakfast – you start your activity in a small group of less than 10 people. Except the bird-watchers or the astronomers, who may may follow a very different schedule.

Both Vandita and I believe in giving back to this community we are a part of.  We are committing 5% of our revenue to local NGOs. We vet them, and know many personally. Instead of paying us the full charges, guests are free to donate 5% of our charges directly to the NGO’s we recommend, and pay us only 95 %. Our first beneficiary is the Chirag school, about which I had written in https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/a-joyous-unafraid-childhood-and-the-school-that-allows-it/ .

Now, to the name. Our shortlisted names are:

  1. The Himalayan Hangout
  2. Centreself
  3. The quiet place
  4. The creative farm
  5. The quiet space
  6. Up There
  7. Thought Orchard

So, which of these names do you like best? Please reply by commenting with the name you prefer.  If another compelling name comes to mind, feel free to share it. Once all votes are in, we’ll put out a post with the winning name.

Note : All pictures in this post were taken by us from/of our home.

You can’t eat the view

You can’t eat the view

I just filed my taxes. My income has fallen. In corporate jargon, we have sustainability issues. I live in a Himalayan village. Everything around is incredibly beautiful. Most people who come through envy our life. But I cannot eat the view. I also cannot use it to pay for my kids’ education.

That’s okay because I am the eternal optimist who believes that things will get better. But the tax return did make me think about the trade-off between money and happiness. As I pondered, I came across a diagram for work, money and happiness. It hit home. I have created this version of it.

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Most of it is pretty clear. The “Dreaming” box means you may have a passion for something, and money can be made from it, but you’re no good at it. My ability with music is a great example. I’ve joined guitar classes six times and still can’t play. I’ll never make it to the rock-n-roll hall of fame.

But the boxes here are not an end state. The box you’re in now is a starting point. You could be very happy in your box. If not, move. It’s the difference between “As is” and “To be”. (Apologies for the corporate jargon. To my credit, I did replace “monetize” with “make it pay” in the picture below). The goal is to alter the box we are in. The quest is for the “JOY” box – that ideal combination of Passion, Excellence & Money.  We wont discuss how much money. Let’s just say its personal and move on.

Venn action

Let me take a few examples from my own life. I was in the “rich but stressed” box. I could sound passionate about a revenue target, but I was faking it. You cannot fake your way into a passion. I was lying to my boss, my team, and myself. So I walked away.

I found myself in the ”Happy but poor” box.  I now pursue various passions / projects to seek out joy.

  1. Writing. It doesn’t pay. My first book did well but earned peanuts. This blog has earned nothing except the indiblogger award for humour. The award is also inedible. So I hope my next book sells more and I can make peanuts2 from it. The fact is, I write because it’s fun. Even if I earn nothing. Happy but poor.
  2. The Himalayan Writing Retreat (THWR). I am working hard to grow THWR. It is one way of trying to make writing pay. I love teaching, and I know the retreats are good because the participants love them (on facebook we’re rated 5/5). But the problem is marketing – I have to improve that. I’m working on it right now. I can’t eat the view but it does help me sell and monetize (uff). Once that happens, I will reach the joy box.
  3.  Professional Speaking. This is something I really enjoy. It can pay as well. My initial talks were terrible. I am working hard and getting better. This 4-minute talk is amongst my better ones. I hope to start earning from it now. I expect my next book to boost that. So Professional Speaking is the “dreaming” box where I am trying to excel.
  4. The Himalayan X retreat. We are creating a yet-to-be-named learning destination around our home in the Himalayas. This is a place where people will come to learn. And grow. The rooms and learning spaces will be the future home of many thing writing. We hope to offer writing residencies, and various other writing related programs such as script-writing. We may also do other things on the side like bird-watching & photography. This is emerging from the dreaming box right now.  We have to built it and now it has the potential to give us joy.
  5. Cheesemaking is a big one. My partner Nitin Dayalu and I have recently started producing cheese  locally. Nitin also walked away from the “Rich & Stressed” box around the same time as me. His wisdom came earlier in life. The cheese we make is organic – from the awesome milk we get here. Nitin is deeply passionate about this, and it is his baby. He can – and has – run this business on his own. I am passionate about entrepreneurship, and this start-up really gets me going. I am a handy sounding board for him. For us the goal is to make the project pay enough that we can live by it. And we want to add to the local community in a meaningful way. Again, we are in “happy but poor”, looking for Joy.

Our branding, of course, has a cheekiness which some of you may expect by now.

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One person I definitely know who is in the “Joy” box is Sumit Bansal. He quit IBM to become a full-time blogger on MS Excel. He excels at blogging (hee hee). He is passionate about his work and makes good money from it.  We are jointly hosting the Himalayan Blogging Retreat on April 18-22 (details here).

In all the examples above, the goal is beyond mere wealth. Because we are passionate about what we do, we hope to find joy. We may not excel at every aspect of our work, but we’re getting better. As I strive for Joy, it is surprising how much fun the striving itself is. That effort to make something new and beautiful where nothing existed is enriching. And much more satisfying than my last “job”.

So what box are you in? And what will give you joy? Feel free to share your comments.

 

 

 

Talking about sex. To strangers.

Talking about sex. To strangers.

No, I am not a flasher. I am a professional speaker though, and that can sometimes feel like being naked in public. I like to think I am respectable. Yet I spoke about my sex life to a room-full of complete strangers recently.

The misuse of sex in communication has been the proud domain of the advertising industry. We’ve all seen bad ads with cheap lines. And hoardings with scantily clad women seductively selling cement. So when I was working on my talk for a conference last month, I was wary. I had never talked about sex in any public forum before, and didn’t want to. But for some reason it just fit into this one. And since this event – WPP Stream Asia 2018 – was a conference with advertising, marketing and tech types, I figured it might go down okay.

The talk itself had tough rules – only 4 minutes, 16 slides that move automatically every 15 seconds. No clicker so no control. And 22 speakers back to back with me somewhere in that mix. Given the audience, I chose to talk about my journey from the city to the mountains. I could have talked about my one month in jail, or about writing. But I felt that the audience would really relate to my story about leaving the city – after all most of them are similar to the person I was when I left the city.

So I framed out the talk and ran it by multiple people. As always, my wife offered Talk screenshotamazing insight. More importantly, she did not ask me to chop the sex life bit. Then I subjected my brother and some friends to dry runs in the name of feedback. Their tips helped a lot, but nobody asked me to chop the sensitive part. Wow. “Where are all the prudes?” I asked myself.

I am still working to better my public speaking, and I do welcome your thoughts on this. If you have 4 minutes, take a look at the talk  at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zew_jJfMSho&feature=youtu.be   and please do share your feedback in the comments. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

Your dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

Your dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

Step 1 : Buy the land.

Look at land options and finalize one. After that falls through at the last minute, find another. Clinch that and do the registration. Within six months someone will file a legal case against you. That person will claim to own the land you bought. This will happen despite your most thorough background checks and clean papers. Hire a lawyer and fight the case. Assuming a stay is not issued, proceed to step 2.

Step 2: Design the house.

Scour the internet, which will offer wonderful mountain home ideas, most of which will not be doable by the local building talent. Talk to local pahadi architects who are practical and will ensure you have a structurally solid house. But these folks are conservative and will insist on small windows. Unsatisfied with these architects, send your land survey files to architects all over the world (the Dutch are the current favourite). Over skype, you find their thinking resonant with yours. They will send you amazing designs which look brilliant in 3D renditions. They will, of course, do this without actually visiting your land. Do not discuss these designs with local people or you may discover that these designs are utterly impractical. They may also be insensitive to the ecology and to the local people, but thankfully you will never find out. Proceed with the most awesome architect at dollar rates.

Step 3 : Hire a contractor.

Look for a decent contractor. Talk to four pahadi contractors. Realize that they all seem rather shaky and imprecise in their quotations and work style, and offer no references. Look further for a “professional contractor”. Realize that evolution hasn’t created that species yet – except the Parsis who produced Hafeez Contractor. But he is actually an architect. Go figure. Hire the contractor who seems the best of the lot. Tell him (They’re all men) that your expectations are very high. Set milestones and link them to payment. Pay the advance. Start the project.

Step 4: Follow-up.

Call the contractor regularly. He will assure you that all is going well. Be shocked at the slow progress on your six-monthly visit of 1.27 days (average). Realize that the contractor cannot read the drawings, so he does his best based on what he could guess from the lines on the page. Be patient and civilized with the contractor. Increase your visit frequency to every 4 months, and extend each visit duration to 2.27 days (average). Start flying in on a rental helicopter to be more efficient. After the contractor misses the first 3 milestones, realize that things are not going as per your plan and the structure looks nothing like the glitzy 3D image you saw. Give the contractor a last deadline. He will miss it. The distressed look you wanted on your furniture is now on your face.

Step 5 : Fire the contractor.

After you fire him, you have three options.

A, Look for another contractor. All the best. They’re all equally bad.

B. Decide to do the project yourself. You might as well buy that chopper now instead of renting it.

C. Abandon the project. Take solace in the fact that the mountains are littered with half-finished dream-turned-nightmare projects.

Picture credit : Boulevard of broken dreams

With option A, loop back to steps 3-5. With option B, move to step 6. The best is Option C as you cut your losses.

Step 6: Become the contractor yourself.

Look for workmen in the mountains, sitting in the city. You will need people for civil work, carpentry, electric, plumbing, stone work, Metal work, Tile work, painting, solar, windmill and other myriad things. You curse the Dutch and drop the windmill from the grand plan.  Masons, carpenters and everyone else will promise you dates and times, and not show up. This will happen repeatedly as your hair thins, and the little that remains turns grey.  When they do turn up, they will give you lists of things to get, which you will duly order. Then they will tell you that they forgot one critical thing without which the work cannot proceed. Nothing is available locally, so you will lose 2 of your planned 2.27 days trying to get the missing bits. You will also be surprised at the contractor’s (Let’s call him your Ex – after all he screwed you) bad business sense. You discover that the margins are over 150%! Why would your Ex walk away? Check Linkedin for your Ex’s profile to see if he earlier worked at Fortis, Max or some other private hospital chain. Realize that your Ex is not on Linkedin.

Step 7: The house is finished. And so are you.

After some weeks as the travelling contractor, you have found some decent craftsmen in the mountains, and a good psychologist in the city. The psychologist is US returned and charges dollar rates. As the months pass you reduce your trips to the mountains and increase your visits to your shrink. She (they’re all women) says you should rest and advises against travel. You have developed a strange fear of heights. You now choose to take your 2.27 day vacations (average) by the sea. You put your mountain structure-thingy on the market and hope to sell it, and kiss your mountain-home dream goodbye. But you now have the bragging rights. At dinner parties you boast of the house you own in the Himalayas without making eye contact. Sometimes you throw up while doing so. People assume you have mixed your drinks.

Epilogue: After 4 years, your incomplete house still hasn’t sold, because rich, delusional city-dwellers all want to build their own dream house and not buy something half finished. Although they have no time to live in such homes, leave alone build them. You take a morphine prescription and visit the area again. The shell of your dreams is still standing, now over-run by creepers, weeds and algae. You stay at a nearby resort, paying a pittance for a lovely, well finished room with a grand view. The resort has great food, but somehow the taste in your mouth stays bitter. You try not to think about the return you would have got from putting the 0.37 Gazillion which your non-house cost into the stock market or bitcoins. You leave out the psychologist’s fees – subconsciously. You also try and not think about all the vacation time (n*2.27 days) you lost on the futile project.

Note : The above steps are based on a true story. Actually, many of them. I promised to tell you how to build a house. I never said you would actually live in it.

 

About the author : Chetan Mahajan* is a full-time writer and blogger who has been renting a house in the Himalayas for the last 3 years. He has also bought land and built his own house there over the last 2 years. At the time of going to press, he had just sacked his contractor. He still hasn’t moved in. Late at night, he sometimes applies Maybelline lipstick on his lips and whispers “because you’re worth it” to himself in the mirror. And pouts. His wife is a US licensed clinical psychologist who has a thriving in-house practice.

*Chetan also hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat.