Writer in residence Neel Mukherjee is staying in Passa Porta’s writer’s flat. He blogs weekly on this experience, the texts are posted on the website of project partner the British Council and of host Het beschrijf.

I’m back home in London now. It feels like I’ve returned from an intensive exercise regime. When you enter the gym after years of slobbing and zero exercise, you feel cold terror: surely you’re going to have a heart attack if you step on the cross trainer, the treadmill is bound to swallow you, you’re going to die of hyperventilation … Slowly the increased alveolar capacity, the existence of hitherto unsuspected muscle groups, the body’s amazing capacity to deal with ‘good pain’ all take you by surprise, then you take them for granted. How good it feels. Then there’s all that endorphin rush.

The trick is to continue performing at that peak condition, perhaps even push it further, in un-gym-like conditions. Will I be able pull it off?
Every writer will tell you that there is a long-ish stage after beginning a book when they can walk away from it without much cost involved. Then something topples; you reach a stage when you know that you will have to finish the book or it will finish you. My residence in the Passa Porta writers’ apartment brought me to that point of no-return.
I found several things in Brussels: the heart of my novel-in-progress; the ability to work; some tangible result to show for my 6-week stay; solitude. But I also found something more elusive, more contested: happiness. I can truly say that I was happy in Passa Porta.


Writer in residence Neel Mukherjee is staying in Passa Porta’s writer’s flat. He blogs weekly on this experience, the texts are posted on the website of project partner the British Council and of host Het beschrijf.

Blog #4
The act of writing, when it goes well, is a kind of restlessness for me. I pace up and down in between sentences, a lot of the times even mid-sentence. It’s a jittery kind of excitement, knowing, yes, I can write about this small thing, a sentence or two at a time, which does not reflect dullness or lifelessness back at me. I’m in a meditative stupor when things are NOT going well. So I’m at my most attentive to the outside world, paradoxically, when the inside world is becoming more and more credible to me. It’s no secret how much I value indolence, idleness, and the attendant boredom that is a natural consequence of having the luxury of time. One of the things that I do when I hit that strangely beautiful boredom-in-idleness is to look out of the window a lot; my time in Brussels has been an intermittent yet long narrative of that gazing.

There is a luxuriant honeysuckle creeper, miraculously still in flower, on the corner of Oude Graanmarkt and Moutstraat, against the edge of one wall of the Greek restaurant Menelas, directly opposite one of the windows of the front room that looks out onto the square (which is not actually a geometric square, more a narrow quadrilateral very gently tapering towards my side of things). What must they have been thinking to want to name a restaurant after Western literature’s greatest cuckold? On the window of the first-floor-apartment adjacent to ‘Menelas’, an umbrella palm, a spider plant, a weeping fig, and a succulent whose name I do not know. In the window of the apartment on the same level but in the next building, two unmistakable scented-leaf pelargoniums. And I thought I was the only person who grew them indoors. The world is the same everywhere.

The second building down Moutstraat is a school. Three times a day, at 12, 2 pm and 3:30 pm, it spews out large groups of children and teenagers: noisy but never rowdy or misbehaved, they briefly hang out in street corners, full of swagger and chatter and laughter. They seem so happy, all of them. They do brief dance moves, play with their cellphones, josh each other, stand in little groups, bubbling over with friendliness and joy and life. The world really is the same everywhere.

And the first building, the one closest to me, right next to the school on Moutstraat? It’s a construction site. My heart sank when I first saw it but in the nearly six weeks that I’ve been here I don’t remember being disturbed by construction noise – and what can be worse than that? – at all except for a brief period in the middle of one day only. The name of the building company is Herpain. To the English-dominated ear, what does that sound like? A gender-joke in bad taste about labour? An unpleasant transmittable disease? Odd, the things and details one picks up: I know the name of the laundry services used by Atlas Hotel next door (Fortex, in case you’re interested). They take away the bedlinen in pink-and-blue candystriped cloth bags and the towels in blue-and-green striped ones. The bags resemble huge bolsters.

A man cycles past on the square, bearing a huge origami of a dinosaur at the back of his bicycle. The world is not the same everywhere; every place is different.


Writer in residence Neel Mukherjee is staying in Passa Porta’s writer’s flat. He blogs weekly on this experience, the texts are posted on the website of project partner the British Council and of host Het beschrijf.

Blog #3

Boredom is a bonus that the gift of time brings. Yes, it’s a bonus, you read that correctly; one to be accepted by a writer with greed and profound gratitude. Writers are often asked where a book comes from, or which other writers or books have influenced them. Most of us try, gamely and honestly, to answer those difficult questions but the truth is shorter and, on one level, simpler: most of us don’t have access to that part of our brain where books originate, where influences work their reactive chemistry. The region is too deep for us to know consciously and talk about with any degree of truthfulness. But a lot of writers will admit that when they hear a low hum of boredom in their lives they are approaching the stage before they get to what Keats immortalised as ‘negative capability’. When your life is an unstoppable carousel of duties or full of events and excitement, very little space is left inside the head for things to fester – used advisedly; think of what Yeats wrote, that ‘Poetry is made in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ (my italics) – and give rise to the germ of your book.

On the other hand, 6 weeks of uncontested time of which you cannot retrospectively say with dismay and regret, ‘Oh, it all went in living my routine life of doing this and then that and then I went out for lunch and had coffee with so-and-so then went to the post office/supermarket …’, puts you in a position to understand and empathise with the characters in Waiting for Godot, who, because they’re waiting, experience time in its purest form. In a residency too; in the (long) lulls between writing the dark matter, as it were, that expands to fill the gaps life is a weak, mildly enjoyable form of boredom. And it is this state that you need to reach to have things cooking away in that part of your head you don’t have access to. It may sound irrational – and I guess it is, being more a matter of belief than something provable – but in my experience I have found that there is a very simple positive correlation between creativity and times of dullness and stasis (and, correspondingly, a negative correlation between productivity and a busy/thrilling/teeming-with-people-and-events kind of life).

The American writer Vestal McIntyre writes to me about the benefits he found in a residency, ‘how the change in my thinking was the very best part – very calm thinking. At Yaddo I fell asleep at 9pm for a few nights and got very frustrated because that was my reading time. Then I just got into it and started falling asleep at 9, even 8, and waking up when it was still dark and thinking for an hour or two in that quiet, beautiful room before getting up –just wandering. It was so good for my writing.’ (He also adds, ‘The room was filled with Patricia Highsmith's old furniture that she had willed to Yaddo.’ I bet that helped.)
Boredom is a greenhouse; beautiful flowers grow there. I’ll leave talking about one such flower for my next instalment.


Writer in residence Neel Mukherjee is staying in Passa Porta’s writer’s flat. He blogs weekly on this experience, the texts are posted on the website of project partner the British Council and of host Het beschrijf.

Blog #2
I grow scented-leaf pelargoniums indoors, where they seem all right enough, becoming spindly and straggly and bolting for a bit before curling down like a creeper which cannot keep up the fight against gravity any longer. They look sparsely frothing, if weak and amorphous and a bit spineless, Victorian maidens in a particularly effete Pre-Raphaelite painting; their leaves are pale and they never flower. I have seen the same plants in a friend’s garden outdoors – in fact, mine are from cuttings given by him – and they are dense, sturdy, rudely flourishing, ascending bushes that flower regularly. Well, the Passa Porta writer’s apartment is that outdoors garden for my writing. I didn’t understand before coming here that sometimes you need to be liberated from the routine practices of your own life in order to discover how much or how comparatively easily you can write when transplanted to a different soil.

I remember reading somewhere, many years ago, that Graham Greene wrote 500 words every day before lunch before hitting the whisky bottle. I was clearly at an impressionable age then so I decided to make that writing-routine (not the whisky from noon) my model; 500 words every day, not necessarily by lunchtime, just to make things easier. Easy enough, you would think. I hadn’t accounted for what I can only call life-creep, the way bits and pieces from your life begin to edge their way, mostly unnoticed, into the seemingly-insulated domain of the writing of those 500 words. A phone call that you grasp at, like a drowning man a piece of wood, and continue chatting for an hour because the call has arrived at a sticky point in the writing and saved you from making tough decisions or from a spot of difficult thinking. Travelling into town to do ‘quick’ lunch with a friend, thereby cutting up the entire day. Grocery-shopping. Cruising cookery websites to get ideas for supper. Reading seven newspapers online and refreshing those pages every fifteen minutes. Brushing the cat because it looks a bit ungroomed. Washing-up from last night. They sound like clichés but have you ever thought that clichés are clichés because they are, on a very fundamental level, true?

The transplantation changes the game. First of all, there’s a moral imperative going: these kind and generous people have given me a gift and it is up to me to use it properly or to waste it. Which road am I going to take? Then there is the commitment to your own work: don’t you love it enough to want to do the right thing by it? To think carefully about it, to write it with the care and attention and concentration it deserves, to finish it on time? Being in a context other than your quotidian life shines a clearer light on to these questions because you are in a place where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you and you can’t use that ‘lunch with a friend’ as a displacement activity any longer. The pattern of things changes; you have, essentially, been given a holiday from your own life and the opportunity for 6 weeks to remake it as something different altogether. You simply cannot use that hoary old excuse, ‘There are other pressing things eating into my writing time’, any more. A writer recently advised rookies wanting to join the game, ‘Don’t hoover. Don’t wash the dishes. Starve your children. Stop exercising the dog.’ None of these distractions, duties or constraints here, only that extraordinary gift, of time, of seemingly limitless time and freedom. What are you going to do?