I work in my living room — a space open to the rest of the house. When I first moved in to the apartment a few years ago, I zeroed in on the corner of the room overlooking the balcony, that received the most sunlight throughout the day. I may have loved for the desk to be in a room all by itself, but to be honest, the living room allows for a different charm – for the space to pace, to read out loud, to think, even to nap. I share the apartment with my sister, and, once she leaves for work, I have it all to myself.
I am quite a tidy person, so, I find myself to be most productive in a space that is organised. If the workspace is cluttered, so is my mind. On my desk, you will only find notebooks – several open at the same time, as I prefer to write in longhand first – and an Urdu-English dictionary. But beside the desk, within arm’s reach, there will always be a pile or two of reference books.
I am a visual writer. I also like to learn (at least, to a beginner’s level) whatever I am writing about — whether it is calligraphy, bookmaking or even phrases from a new language. Maybe this is a kind of method writing, but I’ve always felt that if I can see and grasp something, then I can describe it better. It keeps me inspired and invested in a project that may take years from conception to fruition. The wall above my desk transforms in appearance almost on a weekly basis. When I was working on my first book on Partition, this wall was plastered with maps and photographs of all those I had interviewed over the years. There were post-its with names, ages, migration routes.
These days, as the manuscript I am working on comes to a gradual close, my wall features only a map of Lahore from 1914, the colour palette of a painting I was recently writing about, and a text on the beauty of hands. However, in the last three years of working on this book, the wall has held dried flowers, old photographs, postcards of Paris from the 1800s, architectural plans of 19th c havelis, portraits of sepoys from World War I, velvet remembrance poppies, and notes and timelines from the manuscript.
As a full time writer, I’ve always worked from home, which is becoming a new normal across the world because of COVID-19. What is crucial is to have a routine in place, similar as you would in an office. My desk is my office, it is sacred and I need to remain productive at it. When I am deep into a manuscript, the phone is away, and on silent, and the internet purely for research. My days are spent in research while the nights — the hours from 11 pm- 2.30 am — are devoted to writing, when the city is at its quietest. However, these days with silence blanketing the country, it feels like night has come early, and, with it, the time to write.
Aanchal Malhotra is an oral historian and author of Remnants of A Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, shortlisted most recently for the British Academy’s 2019 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding
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