Madhu Tandan is unlike anyone you’ll ever meet.
When she was 20, the psychology and philosophy graduate from Chandigarh University married her love. Six years, a few jobs in the development sector and a psychoanalysis course from Delhi University later, she left the trappings of Delhi life and moved to an ashram in the hills of Uttarakhand with him.
For seven years, they lived a life “shorn of artifice”, a life of discipline and service, before returning to Delhi and realizing they had both changed in fundamental ways.
Madhu wrote a book about her experience, Faith and Fire: A Way Within (1998), and then another book, Dreams and Beyond: Finding Your Way in the Dark (2009), after a decade of studying dreams. Last month, she released her first novel Hemis, which is as much about love as the absence of it, and how renunciation is not only essential in a relationship but can even sublimate it.
“You have to give up something else in favour of a commitment, and that thing you sacrifice never leaves you. But it can transform you if you let it, if you do it in awareness,” says the 60-year-old, seated in the study of her Delhi home. “Most relationships go downhill because there is no element of giving up anything.”
The novel is an enthralling mix of genres: spirituality, romance and thriller. It presents three different relationships, in all of which ‘absence’ is almost a palpable presence.
“Sexuality is at the heart of everything we do, and yet is it only about progeny and pleasure? Or is there another paradigm one is missing?” Madhu’s quest took her to the realms of the mystical.
The new novel’s setting in a Ladakh monastery also hints at Madhu’s own monastic experience three decades ago. “An unraveling took place,” she says, deep in thought as she tries to put in words the spiritual process that can only be felt and not seen, leave alone described.
“You can taste the fruit but you can’t own it. The rest of you may not be ready to understand what you’ve experienced so you may spend a long time growing up enough to hold that knowledge,” she says.
“But once you’ve been to that ‘quiet space’ inside you, you cannot forget it. I may or may not access it when I wish to, but I know it’s there. That place called home.” The ashram life did that for her, she says.
Writing is a solitary process, admits Madhu. “After great cogitation on a subject, it becomes a mystery and a puzzle,” she says, adding that her husband Rajeev was her fan, critic and mirror in the lonely journey.
“Love has been the strongest defining feature of my life; our shared interest was like a third presence in the relationship. But I’ve seen an absence of love in many other people’s lives. So in the book, I made that a part of the evolutionary process. And when you do that, you transform what could have been wounds into worship.”
First published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine.