Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Sense of Nonsense

Before I could read, I was read to, and there was only one book that was read aloud in our house.  

I am four years old. Then five, then six, seven. Even when I’ve learned how to read, the routine doesn’t change. The book comes out from its place on the shelf in the evening after my father is home from work. He lies back on propped up pillows, my brother and I lolling next to him. Even though my mother can read the book for herself, she wants to listen in as well; when my father reads from the book, it becomes funnier, hysterically funny. We know all the poems backward, but he only has to start reading and we laugh till our stomachs hurt.

It is a book of nonsense verse in Bengali, populated by a collection of violent oddballs—our favourite is a poem about a head clerk who leaps up from his gentle afternoon snooze convinced his moustache has been stolen. Everyone around him is flummoxed. He is shown his face in a mirror. Your moustache is intact, look! But this enrages him further: that moth-eaten, filthy, tatty broom! They have heads filled with dung if they call that his moustache. It’s been stolen. He will scrape the thief’s scalp with a spade in revenge.

The other poems have wildly improbable scenarios too. Many of them are about killjoys who never smile. People are malicious or credulous or just plain stupid. Adult preoccupations really were as idiotic and futile as they appeared, the poems told children.

Abol Tabol was written and illustrated by Sukumar Ray. It was published on September 19th, 1923 and he died ten days before it came out. He was only thirty-six. His book has never been out of print since.

All my singing ends in sleep, goes the last line of the last poem in the book. My father died at fifty-seven, on the day that happened to be the sixty-fourth anniversary of the book’s publication. But not before he had planted the book and its language, Bengali, in my head.


I was born in Calcutta. My family spoke Bengali at home, I learnt the Bengali script in kindergarten, read children’s stories in the language and even wrote little rhymes in it. When I was seven, we left the place. In our new cities, we had new languages to learn—India has more than twenty languages. I learned Hindi and Sanskrit, picked up a smattering of Telugu, spoke the Hyderabadi dialect.

Over the years, I lost my Bengali. The only reason I held on to a memory of the script was the impulse that came upon me now and then to take that frayed old book of nonsense from the shelf and look over the beloved poems—in order to hear my father’s voice in my head.

He sat up with a vicious start and thrashed his limbs about
And rolled his eyes, and cried, "Be quick! I think I'm passing out."
So some call for an ambulance, and some for the police,
And someone warns "He'll try to bite, so gently if you please."
In midst of this, with thund'ring voice and features grim and swollen,
The Baboo roars, "Confound you all! My whiskers have been stolen!"

(This more or less untranslatable book of poems was translated in the mid-1980s by Sukanta Chaudhuri.)


At school, one of our texts was Bibhutibhushan’s Song of the Road, the book from which Satyajit Ray drew his magnificent film. It was the English translation by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherjee and although it was moving and beautiful, I became exasperated with myself for having to reach it at second-hand. This was a language I knew. I used to write in it. Why was I having to read the book in translation?

On one trip to Calcutta, I bought a stack of Bengali fiction. From the moment I had found The Golden Goblet, Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s spellbinding story of Ranofer the orphan’s lone battle against tomb raiders, all the fiction I had read was in English. My friends knew that, and they killed themselves laughing. “You’ll read what?”

With grim determination I added a Bengali-English dictionary to the pile. Watch this space, I said, brandishing my new dictionary at the merry-eyed sceptics.

It was a plod. The type felt maddeningly small. I discovered that literary Bengali was nothing like the language we spoke at home. The pages were a blur of gibberish. I had the dictionary open more often than my book. I was trying to plough through the collected fiction of Tagore with the language skills of a child in primary school.

That was fifteen years ago. Now I read quicker and there are fewer words I need to look up. Most of my reading is still in English, but there is a rich, different world of words I can reach if I want to. If my father were around, I might have read nonsense poems to him for a change.


Monday, 26 September 2016


By the Missisippi river in Minneapolis

Loud-voiced Woman: 
"This is a purebred dog, Ah paid 2,500 dollars for that dog."

Mumbling Man: 
"I'd -a given ya a baby. I'd-a given ya a baby."

Loud-voiced Woman: 
"Fuck you, Doug, I don' want yer baby. I wanted Jim's baby."

Wall, Chicago Public Library
photo by anuradha roy

Gangsta Hip hop dog, SF
"I'm just living the life, trying to make it on my own"

photo by anuradha roy

Ray Ban dogs, San Francisco.
photo by anuradha roy
About to board. Minneapolis airport.
photo by anuradha roy

Wayside man, Chicago: 
"You want to know where Trump Towers is? You don't want to go there. It's an evil place."

Taxi Driver, Chicago: 
"You going to Trump Towers? I'll take you. Though you shouldn't go there. But what difference does it make? Hillary. Trump. None of them gonna do nuthin."

Dustbin. Trump Towers.
photo by anuradha roy

In New York
Acrobat luring an audience: 
"Where else you gonna see black men runnin' 
and no police chasin' 'em?"

In Minneapolis, at Guthrie Theatre
African American cook on a smoking break: 
"We'll miss Obama. Oh yes, we'll miss Obama."

On the door of breakfast room, hotel, California.
photo by anuradha roy

32 cans of soup, no takers.
photo by anuradha roy

Entrance to the Chicago Public Library. 
No Smoking. Also, no guns. 
photo by anuradha roy

Inside the Chicago Public Library, some home truths
photo by anuradha roy

Saturday, 27 August 2016


One evening in 2007, just as I was sitting down to dinner in Delhi, my then-brand-new publisher phoned from London. In the marvelously parenthetical, elliptical manner that was to become familiar to me over the next few years, he began talking of symphonies. Had I considered, he wanted to know, how symphonies are structured? “Not really? Well, as it happens . . .” After around ten minutes of his apparently aimless lecture on music, my interrupted dinner stone cold, the penny dropped: On the brink of publication, he wanted me to rethink my opening chapter. 
Christopher MacLehose and Miska. photo by Anuradha Roy

photo by Madhu Kapparath
(published in Catapult)

Monday, 18 July 2016

A Writer's Room They Said

A magazine somewhere asked me for pictures of my work space, they publish a regular feature about writers’ work rooms they said. As an example of what they meant, they sent me links to previous such photo essays about the work spaces of writers. The pictures showed weathered wooden desks cluttered with pens, paper, Mexican pottery, moleskin notebooks. Windows looking out on to vistas of green. Walls lined floor to ceiling with shelves full of books. The shelves somehow appeared vastly better engineered than any of my bookshelves.
The rooms they sent were bathed in the kind of light I never have in my life - a pale, new-washed silver-gold that made everything glow, including the antique typewriter that presided over one of the pictured desks. The magazine wanted a few specimen pictures from me to see if my workspace would ‘work’ for them. I had no idea what that meant. What kind of room ought I have to please such an important magazine? What would appear writerly enough? Should it be bare or artfully cluttered? White-walled or covered with interesting photographs and posters picked up on book tours in Reykjavik, Mauritius and Cuba?
I turned from my email and cast a newly critical eye over my dog-eared room -- dog-eared because rooms shared with two large dogs and two smalls puppies have a tendency to look less than impressive.

The two puppies discover that a ball can bounce

I tidied up, hid away the heaped blankets and towels, pushed collars, leashes, tick powder, chew sticks, mangled toys, muddy shoes and gnawed bones out of sight, and arranged myself a desk with books, paper, pens scattered around as if they had accumulated over days of inspired writing. Writers are meant to drink a lot of coffee. Maybe a coffee mug would not be out of place. (Which one, though? Golden Bridge or one of my own creations? Full or empty?) Perhaps a cigarette in an ash tray? But no, this was for an American publication, they might then have to preface the article with a health warning.
photo by anuradha roy
What complicated matters was that this time the monsoon in the mountains where I live is nothing less than a Tennysonian (or is it Wordsworthian?) thundering cataract. The sky burst open about five days ago and has not been stitched back since. The drumming of rain on the roof is ceaseless, the trees are whited out by cloud and rain. Our road to the plains is blocked by landslides, the power collapses for half a day at a time. 
Yesterday walking in the forested roads during a ten minute intermission in the rain, I heard a creak. I looked up as the creak turned into a groan and then leaped for cover: a green, many-branched oak was swaying dangerously on the slope a few metres above. I saw it dip, then tilt and then it came crashing down the hillside, flattening other trees in its path. It happened in slow motion, every stage in the sequence a separate one.
As if things were not bad enough, we woke this morning to the sound of someone airdropping a gunny bag full of stones onto our roof. It was dawn, we were still half asleep. We lunged for cover and the dogs went berserk barking. It took a few minutes to work out that the massive sound had been made by a langur who had jumped onto our tin roof from a deodar branch above. Langurs are human-sized monkeys and a leaping langur is like a six-foot tall man on the move. Elegant when airborne, all black and silver with curving tails that fly as they go from branch to branch, beautiful to admire at a distance. The rest of the langur’s tribe had gathered for breakfast at our mulberry tree, and as if to prove how quickly monkeys learn new tricks, each one of them left the tree with a mouthful of leaves and landed on our roof by turn, replicating the first one's thundering impact. They ran down the length of the roof and on to a tree nearby. Then they repeated the whole thing. We could tell they were having fun.
Langur outside my window/ by anuradha roy

A calming coffee later, I discovered that my laptop, left to charge on a desk in the back room we ambitiously call ‘The Study’, was wet. The plugs near the charger were spattered with water. The desk had pools of water on it. A bookshelf beside it was dripping, and my precious, hardbound old copy of The Valley of Flowers was soaked at the spine as were the five books on either side of it. When we spotted small drips a few days ago we had sealed them with M-seal, but the monkey business must have shifted the tin sheets on our roof, created new gaps and fresh, large cracks. These cannot be repaired until the rain stops. The rain shows no signs of stopping. All we can do is drape towels and plastic sheets and position tubs and bins where the drip is not a fine spray but a stream.

By some miracle, my loyal Macbook is soldiering on despite its soaking. I've decided this laptop is my workroom. It goes wherever I go and turns every bedroom, train, bus, cafĂ©, hotel room, garden and hilltop into a study. I think I’ll just send the magazine a picture of my notebook and my laptop and title it My Workspace. They can crop out the plastic rainwater tubs if they want to.
MY WORKSPACE/ anuradha roy

Friday, 19 February 2016

Anything But Books

One of the best things about literary festivals is meeting another writer with whom you feel a sense of immediate fellowship. Tishani Doshi (writer, dancer, poet) and I met in Galle and then saw each other for several days over the Galle and Jaipur festivals this year. Eventually our conversations led to this.

Writing is always known as a lonely activity. But, even when in a house on the hills of Ranikhet, you're never alone when writing fiction. And especially when you have canine company. Here's what we talked about — obsession for dogs, living in the boonies, sea versus mountain, painting, pots, pine cones, and daring to climb trees…. Anything but books, really.

TD: We share a somewhat similarish lifestyle, Anuradha, in that we both live in back of beyond places—you the mountains, me the ocean, our spouses are involved in the making of books, and we have three dogs each. It’s the dogs I want to talk about first, because I know for me, living in an isolated place makes the presence of the dogs that much more integral. We begin to narrativise their lives, talk about them as if they were children. Sometimes they are the only other beings we converse with for days. They mark the hours—meal times, walk times etc. So I want to ask you to talk about what it is about these dogs, about the essential dogginess of dogs, that begins to obsess you. Were you always a dog person? How did this come about, and how has this relationship with these canines affected your life as a writer? 
Barauni (left) and Piku
AR: Have been mulling over your question, trying to type out a reply, interrupted each time by the demands of Piku, who is the youngest of our trio of dogs. She's still a puppy who believes that play is the only thing that matters. She appears holding something delectable in her mouth -- a torn sock, a pine cone -- and looks at me as if to say, Is that computer a patch on this? And then I am forced to stop work and play a demented game with her. My first dog came when I was seven. After that it has always been this way. No human relationship brings this combination of happy absurdity and endless love and this sense that every single day is crowded with new things to find and toss joyfully in the air.

This is really the centre of it for me -- in relation to work and the dogs. They have such a different notion of things that matter. We tend to view dogs as four-legged-humans but when my old dog Biscoot used to join the forest's foxes howling, her head vertical towards the sky just like their's, we remembered she had a whole universe inside her that we could only guess at. Their sense of what is important is so different from the hierarchies of the human world. Their needs have changed the things I value as well. If I have to choose between work and playing with a pine cone, I invariably end up choosing the pine cone.
TD: I’ve been fixating on the idea of pine cone, I can almost smell it. It feels quite removed and foreign here where I am on this stretch of the Bay of Bengal. Tell me a bit about what you see out of the windows of your house. Do you have a room with a view when you work? What are the challenges of living in a place like Ranikhet, and what do you miss most about it (other than the dogs) when you’re away?
Pine Cones, 1925, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
AR: There's a lovely study of pine cones by Charles Rennie Mackintosh of which I have a print on my wall, deceptively simple looking watercolour. I tried drawing pine cones too and realised via many clumsy attempts that the tree's structure mirrors the tightly nested, pointed structure of the cone. Nothing like drawing (even inept) to make you look at things more closely.
Our house is surrounded by forests of chir pine, oak, cypress, and deodar (cedar). There are 3 village huts down the slope from us and then forest and hills and finally a long, unbroken arc of snow peaks. What I miss when I am away is this sense of huge space and the silence -- as well as the sounds this silence carries. The sound of rain on our tin roof, the roosters next door, foxes and owls at night, the bells on grazing cows. And the wind in the trees -- which can sound much like the waves in your Bay of Bengal, actually. I miss walking in the woods and the possibility of climbing trees -- though I've not dared to climb one for years. When I see an intrepid village woman high up on a swaying tree, I feel very incompetent.
TD: There’s an old debate about sea versus mountain… I suppose much of it depends on personality type and what you’re used to. I grew up by the sea, and so, I sometimes find being in the mountains beautiful but isolating. There’s a fear of getting lost in them, of losing myself and my connection with the world (I once spent three weeks in a cottage in Kodaikannal by myself—not exactly mountains, I know, but still, by day 3 I was having long monologues in an effort to fill the silence) By the sea, I don’t feel that same quality of loneliness, although it does remind me that I’m a smidgen, and with every newly rusted hinge in the house, ushers me towards a heightened sense of mortality. Do you have a dichotomy about sea/mountain? And what’s your equation with loneliness visavis writing?
AR: Right now, thunder is rolling over the hills and although the wind has fallen, there's still rain on the roof. That's all that is audible -- and tomorrow will be the same! I know people who go nuts in places like this. We started living here 15 years ago, and at first the isolation did feel unsettling at times. It was a slow process by which I began to actually long for this solitude and feel irritable when I did not have it for a length of time. 
I think I could live by the ocean just as happily, though I never have and maybe you're right, maybe mountains are more isolating. But I don't feel lonely when I am writing, I feel intensely alive, sometimes so much that I can't sleep at all -- but also very, very unsociable, reluctant to meet people, cook meals etc. I don't believe you are ever alone if you are writing fiction. I know that physically it's a lonely job: you don't have coffee breaks with colleagues. But there's so much going on in your head. I am a mess only when I am not writing, or painting or making pots. Whether in a city or in the hills.
TD: Ah, the pots. I wanted to get to the pots. And the painting. What kind of paintings? What kind of pots? When did you begin? When you’re writing, do the pots and paintings take a backseat?
AR: It's nothing very serious, I just like messing around, making things. The painting is particularly frivolous -- I just paint things for fun. Doors, windows, cupboards, walls, nothing is safe. But the pottery means something more -- and I've been doing it for years, since I was a student. Everyone who works with clay will tell you there's something addictive about it: despite long breaks when I didn't touch clay at all, I keep going back to it. It absorbs every molecule of your attention while you're doing it and even when you're not. When I am in the middle of testing out glazes, I can't think of anything but colours and chemicals and minerals. So I don't go near my wheel when I'm writing.
Blue Jug, by Anuradha Roy. (Stoneware clay fired at 1200 c with oil spot glaze)
TD: And are you writing now? Are there periods when you are not creating either books or pots? How are those days filled? 
And finally: I’m curious to know how you felt when you finished Sleeping on Jupiter…. Eudora Welty said of endings: "Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.” Do you have a similar journey of moving from writer to reader? 
AR: I don't have this "sunburnt" feeling about what I write, though I can understand it. I am neurotic and thin-skinned about the book right till the end -- but once it's out I feel a sense of detachment very quickly, as if it's not mine any longer. Maybe this is just a survival mechanism.
With anything I make, if it somehow turns out roughly the way I wanted it to be--that makes me feel calm about it out there. I found the writing of Sleeping on Jupiter a thing of turmoil, difficulty, anxieties -- and I was unbearable bore to family and publisher through the writing of it. But when I finished it, I felt as I do with a few of my pots: that nothing  that anyone says about it will make a difference to me. (I don't know how long this feeling will last.)
As for writing now -- yes and no. At least I'm past the huge empty space that comes after finishing a book when everyone other than me appears to have a life, a real job, a reason to wake up. You know what I mean.
(Copyright Tishani Doshi; read it here in The Hindu)

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A poem for the new year and some books to read

The year is in its last week and most of the annual Best Books lists are out. Sleeping on Jupiter is in several of them and in great company.

THE NATIONAL, UAE: Top Ten International Titles of the Year
"Not one of the easiest reads of the year, but it certainly felt like one of the most-important. The Indian novelist lifted the lid on the hypocrisies of her country against a backdrop of abuse, brutality and painful memories as a 25-year-old film-maker’s assistant returned to the temple town of Jarmuli to confront the demons of her past. Only a courageous and talented novelist is able to coalesce such weighty, unsettling and yet topical issues into a compulsively readable book"


"This is not a book I highlight because it shares the entertaining qualities of my previous choices, but because it signals a departure from the stereotypes that can often characterise fiction from the subcontinent. Here Roy says what has previously been almost unsayable about violence towards women. It feels like a sea change in what we expect from South Asian literature – a topical story reimagined, a hard message, beautifully written."


"The novel lays bare the many forms of violence against women in India. Yet Roy’s women seem to be unbeaten: they are hardy, spirited and eager for life. Each violent moment is acutely imagined and presented with precision in Roy’s chiselled prose."

"With no power, phone signals or places to go during the recent Madras flood, reading was an option. When there was light, I read a book. When light failed, I lit a candle, and later, my Kindle. Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping On Jupiter kept me going through the night with its sharp prose and vivid descriptions..."

"Then there was Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, another Man Booker nominee. Despite its ethereal name, this is a book looking at harsh realities – sexual abuse of women and children in India – and a conversation on the book at Asia House was framed around that very topic.  Read about that here. Also take a look at our interview with Roy that was published ahead of this talk. Neither Sahota’s nor Roy’s books were light reads, but with their well-executed characters and moments of humour, they were certainly good reads."  

"Sleeping on Jupiter gleams quietly in the smog. Thank God, our godmen didn’t hear of it or they would have got it banned! Searing and lyrical but most significant to me because of hopes raised by the writer’s name! When she wins a major international award there could be some global publicist zeroing in on Anuradha as the next buzzword in books" 
-- academic and novelist Anuradha Marwah

HINDUSTAN TIMES, Delhi "The books that defined 2015"

IDIVA, Mumbai: 11 Books to read before 2015 ends


I've found lots to read from these lists, and what I plan to get first is Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Not because I know very much about the book except for its rave reviews, but because it made me rack my brains for a couple of days until I remembered where the title came from: one of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson. I'll leave you with the original poem and with wishes for a new year of hopes fulfilled.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Storyteller from the Hills: by Anjali Thomas

Image: Madhu Kapparath

he characters in Sleeping on Jupiter are like ghosts. They are persistent in their haunting and linger long after you read the final line of the novel. Even their creator Anuradha Roy does not quite know their future but, she tells ForbesLife India, imagining their fate, the ‘what ifs’ of their lives, is a “pleasant private parlour game”.

Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, Sleeping on Jupiter is Roy’s third novel. It is set in Jarmuli, a fictional temple town by the sea, where, over the span of five days, the lives of the protagonist Nomi, three elderly friends, a poetry-spouting tea vendor and his assistant, a temple guide and a fixer collide.

The impact is not pretty, especially because Roy reveals how relationships can turn violent. In a narrative which, much like the sea, alternates from gentle to choppy, Roy writes about faith, religion, rape, abuse, old age and homosexuality. At the centre of the story is Nomi, who is born in India and adopted by a family in Norway. Almost ethereal, she belongs neither to the land she was born in nor the one that adopted her. She is looking for answers in Jarmuli, home to an ashram where, as a child, she was sexually abused by a famous god-man.

The common thread, says Roy, is friendship: “Between the three women, between two little orphaned girls, between the main character and the gardener, between the temple guide and the tea boy.” In an email interview with ForbesLife India, she talks about her novel, life in Delhi, the stories she writes, the books she reads, and Permanent Black, the publishing house she runs with her husband.

Q. Do you have a writing process?
I wish there was a process. It’s just the usual slog work a lot of the time, writing passages that I delete the next day, making more notes than I can keep track of and so on. When I am working on a book, I work very methodically and regularly, but at other times, I don’t write every day. I don’t show novels in progress to anyone, not until a full draft is done.

Q. Can you explain the title of your book, Sleeping on Jupiter? Is it a play on Jupiter as the god of sky and thunder? 
The ‘Jupiter’ of the title is literally, as well as metaphorically, another planet. One of the characters who wants to find a different world for himself thinks of it as the farthest he can go to, a place removed from where he is, where everything is altered, including its sky, which has 16 moons.

Q. The effect of age on the human brain is a gentle but insistent theme in Sleeping on Jupiter. The character Gouri has what could well be the early onset of Alzheimer’s. And as the story progresses, her friend Vidya feels her mind beginning to unravel as if it were “an undone skein of wool”. In your first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Amulya Babu’s wife has an unnamed mental disorder. Both she and Gouri lead less than full lives. What was going on in your mind when you chose these very real age-related illnesses for your characters?
I very often find myself saying ‘I don’t know’ to these questions. It’s not possible for me to work out why certain themes and character traits came into a novel; I can’t fully analyse how the narrative took the shape it did. With Gouri, I think I know the route, a bit: Some way into working on the book, I went on a trip with my aunt and mother. We got ourselves rooms in a nice hotel, and they were so delighted about everything, it was great fun. But some years after that, my aunt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I found myself going back to the trip to work out if there had been signs of it and if we just hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Maybe that influenced the way I thought of Gouri, though she isn’t remotely like my aunt in any other way.

Q. This is a story about abuse, paedophilia, misogyny, rape…  and Nomi is at the centre of the storm,  having been sexually abused by a renowned god-man in her childhood. Is your book an indictment of blind faith and god-men? 
The character who turned out to be Nomi was an incidental figure. She appeared in one scene in a short story (I had written) out of which this novel came. Afterwards, I found myself thinking about her—and about Badal (the tea vendor), who was also a walk-on character—long after I had put away that story. When I thought of her past, I instinctively felt it was one which had great suffering, but also that she had come out of it fighting. As for faith, the characters have a whole range of approaches to religion, from the commercial and exploitative to the devout and deeply spiritual.
Image: Madhu Kapparath
HONOUR ROLL: Anuradha Roy published her first work of fiction, An Atlas of Impossible Longing,in 2008 to excellent reviews, both locally and globally. Her second novel, The Folded Earth (2011), won The Economist Crossword Prize for Fiction and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize
Q. There’s a point in the story when Nomi thinks of the Sargasso Sea. Was that a deliberate reference to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel that was framed as a prequel to Charlotte BrontĂ«’s Jane Eyre?
It’s nice when someone catches these little things inserted into a book. For example, only one of the reviewers pointed out that the action takes place over 18 days, the period of the war in the Mahabharata.

Q. In your earlier novel, The Folded Earth, the town of Ranikhet looks to the Himalayas in the way that Jarmuli is embraced by the sea. How important is backdrop to you as a writer? When you choose a motif or theme, is there a process you go through?
The backdrop is vital. Until I can feel and see every bit of the setting, I can’t get the novel clear in my head. I don’t choose a theme ever: It’s always character- and place-driven for me. Both Atlas and Folded Earth started from images. One was of a house which had a river lapping at its verandah, the other of the lake at Roopkund with skulls floating in it. Sleeping on Jupiter began as a short story and if I was thinking of any themes at all, it was friendship. A lot of the book is about friendships—between the three women, between two little orphaned girls, between the main character and the gardener, between the temple guide and the tea boy.

Q. By the end of the novel, everything unravels. The scenes are almost disjointed. You could have extended it, and allowed events to run their course. Instead you give us fragments…beautifully written, but still fragments. Why? 
I wanted the compressed elusiveness of the short story in a novel, for it to end when things could still have happened. I know I could have followed many of the strands further, but did not want to. I wanted a sense of disintegration towards the end and structured it accordingly.

Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s an average day like? I read that you have a dog.

I’ve had dogs since I was a child and right now we have three, one of whom is a very little puppy we found a month ago wandering lost on the hill highway.

For the greater part of the year, we live in Ranikhet, a small hill town in Uttarakhand, and my husband Rukun Advani and I run a press called Permanent Black, which publishes history and politics. Most days are a combination of long walks, designing, writing, cooking or pottery, which I’ve done, not very well, for many years.
Q. What kind of work do you do at Permanent Black. Why did you start it? 
We started Permanent Black in 2000. We were both at the OUP (Oxford University Press India) and it seemed a natural progression to start our own press. I used to acquire and edit books, but found that difficult once I started writing. Now I only design our covers. I love design work partly because I feel I am using a totally different part of my brain.

Q. What are you reading now? Do you have a poem or a poet you go back to often?
I’m reading In Defence of Dogs by John Bradshaw, and a manuscript on Maoists, which is very good. I do read quite a lot of poetry and have favourites such as Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Stevenson whom I go back to. For Sleeping on Jupiter, I read a lot of Bhakti poetry in translation.

Q. What do you think of the state of Indian writing in English? What do you like or dislike about it?
From what publishers and distributors say, all the buzz around new titles and lit-fests is not reflected in sales. Only a few titles in English sell in large numbers and, on the whole, reading is not a priority in this country. There was one writer in English—I can’t remember who—who claimed he had never read a book in his life. There are lots of interesting writers and a brilliant new wave of translations, but writing in English can’t be in a great state if there is so little reading.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 2015

The Train to Jarmuli

Kate Webb

"Roy does not adjudicate between these positions. She holds her story in a fine balance, scrupulously turning from one perspective to another in order to show the often yawning gap between how we imagine ourselves and how others see us... Roy writes in a lucid, realist manner, contrasting her restraint with the violence of her subject (the colour red is everywhere, page after page has images of blood). But this not a conventional novel, because it is to freighted with ambiguity and impotence."

The theme of child abuse is becoming ever more prevalent in fiction. In the recently Man Booker-shortlisted A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara explores the subject as the ultimate experience of pain, and therefore the ultimate marker of uniqueness, among a group of contemporary New Yorkers much preoccupied with their individualism. In Sleeping on Jupiter, Anuradha Roy frames her story of a young girl’s abuse as part of a broader malaise in India, describing a town caught between ancient superstitions (“The die for God is what we live for”) and an economy built on selling the past, trapping its workers in a nightmare of regression an frustration. Both novels have religious men as their principal villains, but in Sleeping on Jupiter the ashram where the abuse takes place is not isolated or unusual, and Nomi, the child at the heart of the story, is not unique, being just one of twelve refugee girls who are abducted and cruelly maltreated. Lying on the outskirts of Jarmuli, a (fictional) coastal town of medieval temples, the ashram is part of a tourist industry and, it is implied more broadly, of a society “transfixed” by powerful gods and godlike humans.

Complicating this scenario are the attitudes of Western visitors who respond to the temples’ erotic carvings in ways that humiliate the people working in them, pushing them into defensiveness. “Is that a child?” one woman asks, “accusingly”. “Not a child, Madam”, the guide responds, “Not in Indian culture”. Native visitors, on the other had, simply ignore the mix of religion and sex in these images, refusing to entertain what they might once have signified, or how their legacy could live on in the present. Roy does not adjudicate between these positions. She holds her story in a fine balance, scrupulously turning from one perspective to another in order to show the often yawning gap between how we imagine ourselves and how others see us.

This is not to say Roy is not partisan. She pointedly gives the authority of a first-person testimony to Nomi, while the rest of her third-person narrative focuses on others in India’s excluded majority—the many outliers who feel shadowy figures of power at their backs (there is a particularly sinister monk skirting the edges of the story), but whom they rarely catch sight of, much less are able to confront. Nomi has returned to India with a vague idea of doing just this, having persuaded the Norwegian film company she works for that the town would make a scenic location. On the train to Jarmuli she encounters Gouri, Latika and Vidya, three elderly women—supporting and snapping at one another as old friends do—holidaying before dementia and aching bones confine them at home. Then there are the town’s workers: Badal, the women’s  tour guide; Raghu, the boy he lusts after who is an assistant at Johnny Toppo’s tea stand on the beach; and Suraj, employed to help Nomi with reconnaissance work.

Roy writes in a lucid, realist manner, contrasting her restraint with the violence of her subject (the colour red is everywhere, page after page has images of blood). But this not a conventional novel, because it is too freighted with ambiguity and impotence. The beach where Toppo serves his sizzling ginger tea suffers a Ballardian entropy. It is a liminal place suggesting something beyond—the possibility of a different life and, with this, fantasies of escape, of dropping off the edge of the world or flying it Jupiter. Many of Roy’s characters, trapped by poverty or tradition, experience some kind of vertigo: the women find the ground beneath their feet falling away, while Suraj starts to drown, dropping down through the sea.

If the physical world lacks solidity and seems constantly liable to give way, incapable of supporting the people who roam it, the language available to them is equally treacherous and difficult to navigate. It is not just that Nomi remembers all the things from her childhood “that we could not talk about”, and into adulthood remains unable to discuss what happened to her; nor that Latika reflexively puts her hands over her mouth to stop words that might cause disapproval, nor even that Badal, Suraj and Toppo are all forced by their work to fawn and perform, but a more general sense that language is unauthentic, a system of deceit produced by a  patriarchal and colonial past that leaves its speakers adrift.

The inheritance of this unexamined history, of being forbidden to talk, is that men like Badal and Suraj are unequipped to understand their sexual feelings, forcing themselves on unwilling partners with disastrous consequences. For Nomi it means a constant wish to disown herself: “Like stepping out of your own life. Like leaving your own story”. In Yanagihara’s novel, an inability to endure the legacy of abuse leads to suicide. Here, too, there is no escape for Nomi other than to abandon her life and return to the “North”, to a silent lake in Norway where she casts off the relics of her Indian past. As in much contemporary fiction gloomy about the possibility of political change, where speech is registered as debased or prohibited, Roy suggests that the only response lies in writing. Nomi recounts how after she escaped from the ashram she wrote down what happened to the kidnapped girls, posting her fragile words in a homemade envelope to a newspaper. It is not clear if she is the source years later of articles about child abuse in Jarmuli, and their publication comes too late to rescue any part of life she abandons, but the story, finally is out.