Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Ten years of Anuradha Roy’s ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’: What the writer and publisher remember

‘For three years, it was an alternative, secret universe in which I lived, awake or asleep.’ 

On serendipity and the difficult road to getting published: Anuradha Roy, writer 

Read this in Scroll.in

Christopher MacLehose and Anuradha Roy. Photograph by Rukun Advani
An Atlas of Impossible Longing started in one of those “dummy books” – blank pages, hardbound – that binderies used to make to establish accurately the spine width of books that they would bind for a publisher. The publishing house was one my partner and I had recently set up. It had no capital but our savings, no office, and the only books as yet were dummies with blank pages.

Because I still have that notebook, I know I wrote the first section of Atlas in pencil, in a non-stop scrawl that poured out without warning. It went on for a few pages and then came to a stop, after which the notebook went into hibernation. I did not know I had written a part of a novel. I had written stories ever since I learned the alphabet and was a journalist before I migrated to publishing, but I had never thought to write a novel.

Many weeks after the first scrawl, I pulled the dummy from its hiding place and showed it to my partner, Rukun, who said there was something there. It was only then that I started constructing a world for Bakul, the girl at the centre of the scrawl.

I have often wondered where the name, Bakul, came from. Unlike the names of many other characters since, which I mulled over or changed, she arrived named. When I think of her now, I wonder if her name came from the Indian medlar (bakul) sapling my father planted on the footpath in front of our house when I was about sixteen. It was a lacklustre, limp creature that he watered with great determination, seeing in it the beautiful tree nobody else could. His care of the plant and his sorrow over leaves mauled by feral cows became a standing joke in our family. He died two years after its planting, when it had reached waist height. Today its upper branches are level with the fourth floor of the house, it is covered every year in sweetly scented flowers and birds come for its berries.
Like many first books, mine too had autobiographical beginnings. It was a way for me to remember my father. The one character in the book who is deliberately autobiographical, an archaeologist, is modelled on him. The imagined town much of the novel takes place in, Songarh, has a landscape similar to one of the small towns of my childhood. I grew up in a joint family as well, and know domestic politics and power games from up close.

But the book outgrew its beginnings swiftly. As soon as I started writing it, and the formal puzzles of creating a narrative took over, I realised autobiography is no more than the compost from which something completely different from manure appears. A lily. Or even a bakul tree. As my book progressed it began to inhabit a realm very distant from anything I was familiar with and I began to see how the texture of individual lives could provide me with a way of looking at history from a different, lived perspective.

Atlas grew slowly, between other things: a stray puppy we adopted, the work for our new press, a cottage we were building in the mountains, the freelance writing we had to do as we waited to move from red to black. (We had optimistically named our press Permanent Black.) Nobody other than Rukun knew I was writing it. For three years, it was an alternative, secret universe in which I lived, awake or asleep.

After the book was done, I thought the easy, happy part was ahead: publication. I wanted it to be published not only in India but also in the UK: that was what you did in the days before e-books, if you wanted a book written in English to have the widest possible reach. The nasty surprise came when it was rejected over the next two years by sixteen British agents and publishers.

There must a point in the universe where parallel lines meet, because that is the only way I can explain how Christopher MacLehose came to publish Atlas. He too had recently left his old publishing house in unhappy circumstances and set up his own press. I listened to him at a seminar on publishing in London where, unlike almost every other publishing professional who focused on the “market” and “positioning”, he talked about books and authors. It made me think there was a chance – a tiny, slim chance – that he would agree to look at the thirty pages from my novel that I was carrying around in my bag (just in case). I told him every agent I had sent it to had turned it down.

“In that case,” he said, “I will certainly look at it.’”

 On publishing An Atlas of Impossible Longing: Christopher MacLehose, publisher, MacLehose Press

This very small publisher, then a mere embryo of a publishing imprint which has remained ever since devoted to publishing very good books in translation, will always be grateful and proud that Anuradha Roy’s An Atlas of Impossible Longing was our very first English-language book. That was in the summer of 2008. In January of that year we published our first three titles. One was a brilliant novel about a landscape gardener (who would fit seamlessly into Atlas...) by Andrea Canobbio, the eminent Italian publisher at Einaudi. One was the collected unpublished essays of Marguerite Duras. And the third was a novel by a Swedish journalist which had also been rejected by eighteen editors in Britain and in America. That was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It is true, as Anuradha Roy says, that we met at a seminar. She doesn’t mention that she was there in the capacity of having been chosen the previous year by the British Council as one of a dozen outstanding young publishers from all over the world.* The seminar took place on a Saturday just before the London Book Fair and I was there as I was involved in the selection of the following year’s most outstanding candidate. It is also true that when she offered me her typescript, all 350 pages of it, with the instruction that I read it before the fair opened on the Tuesday, she did recite the names of all the editors and agents who had turned it down, and she kindly warned me that two more agents were to be reading it over the weekend. Churlishly I agreed to take only thirty pages.
I did read them, of course, and when she told me on the Tuesday that the final two agents had also turned it down I remember thinking that they must all be half-witted, and perhaps I told her as much and anyway asked her for the whole typescript. Anyone who actually or, as they say in the trade, personally read those opening pages would have seen at once that this was the work of a writer. And not only an exceptional writer, also a storyteller.

What is this atlas of impossible longing? It is – quite late in the book – what an astrologer sees in the palm of a young man whose fortunes we follow:

“‘A veritable atlas,’ he said, his fingers tracing the longer lines on my palm. ‘What rivers of desire, what mountains of ambition...Your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.’”

The fate of this boy is one of nine distinct narrative strands that make up a tapestry of stories which are so beautifully written and so very cleverly told that the reader will be blissfully immersed in a never-before-experienced world, enchanted as to every sense, compelled to care about what will become of every character. The story is set in Bengal between the 1920s and the 1950s. Turbulent times. The power of the book is miraculous in a first novel.

Anuradha Roy has written three more novels – the most recent, All the Lives We Never Lived, will be published in June of this year. I would urge readers new to her work to begin with this, her first novel, and to read them all and thereby to be reminded, as the critic of the Washington Post said, “why you read fiction at all”.

* Anuradha Roy was for some years an editor at the Oxford University Press in Delhi. When she and her husband, who was the editor-in-chief, left the firm, seventy authors followed them as they established their own publishing house, Permanent Black, one of the most distinguished academic presses in India.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Through a Window, a Forest

One of the stories my mother often narrated in our childhood, my brother’s and mine, was that of Grandma Moses. In my mother’s telling, Grandma Moses grew up as a farm hand, became a farmer’s wife, raised a big family, faced the loneliness and difficulties of widowhood from her mid-sixties, renewed her interest in painting at that time, and was ‘discovered’ by the art world in her late-seventies.

The crucial part of the Moses story for my mother, I think, is that a self-taught, single, woman artist with no professional scaffolding found a life in the world of art at a very late age.

Married at 26, widowed at 49, my mother had found herself living a nomadic life after my father, a field geologist, entered her life. She gave up working. Moving from place to place with two children and a husband who developed a serious heart condition at just 37, it was never possible for her to cultivate anything like a career in painting. The story of Grandma Moses must have made my mother hope it was never too late.

For all our lives, when my brother and I were growing up, my mother drew or painted. Often she drew or painted for us – our school projects got a lot of help. Once we were gone, there were others: the number of neighbours’ and relatives’ children she has taught cannot be counted. All along, though, she kept making the pictures she herself wanted to make. There are even pictures she drew in charcoal dating from the sixties, done from the awning of a tent.

Moving house recently, I found her pictures in forgotten cupboard drawers and between the pages of long-unused drawing books. When the opportunities presented themselves, she painted covers for publishing houses; she illustrated books, designed block prints. It was all done on her own, in time she carved away from the people she had to look after.

Most formally trained artists bestow a gently patronising kindliness on the artistic efforts of people who lack a formal pat on the back from an institution in the form of a degree. Who, after all, doesn’t paint a few watercolours or draw a few pictures? They deserve encouragement (measured out in coffee spoons). My mother gratefully reported to me whatever praise came from “real artists”, as if she were not real enough. Of a compatriot at school who went on to become a “real” artist, she spoke in tones of unjealous admiration.

Of late, my mother has formed a community that is all her own: it is one made of picture framers. These are specialist framers, imposing gentlemen in black-framed spectacles and rin-white dhuti-panjabi, who frame the work of well-known artists. Over the many years that my mother has been going to them, they have been looking at her work, critiquing it, giving her the nerve to go on. Most artists need the opinion and affirmation of their peers but the self-taught artist has no community to fall back on. These art framers, who spend their days with the work of recognised painters, have become her community.

This year, my mother is exhibiting her work formally for the first time, and the art framers have become her constant friends and advisers through the preparation. Since she has never exhibited before, she did not know the basics: do you take the pictures to the gallery strung or unstrung? Do they hang them up or do you? Do they need captions? “Don’t muddy the waters putting up a picture you don’t like,” the framers told her. “Be ruthless, leave things out.” She took their advice to heart, the excision process began immediately.

The exercise of excavating all that she has painted has been an instructive one. We realised that her range is enormous. There were landscapes, still lives, portraits, studies of plants. There are different mediums too: she began with watercolours, but moved to pastels initially to tackle a tremor in her hands that came with age -- and found that she liked pastels better. She uses mixed media in many of her pictures, and has even experimented with collages.

Among my own favourites are the pastels she did in a small notebook sitting in a garden in the Kumaon hills: quick lines and dashes of pastel, squiggles of ink, smudges of charcoal. What is astonishing is that her strokes have become more fluid with age, her expression confident, the pastels and drawings atmospheric and sure.  At eighty, she is ready for a show.

On 14th April from 3 pm to 8 pm, at the Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts, 94, Ballygunje Place, Kolkata.
Get updates from The Sunil Madhav Sen Foundation, which is hosting the exhibition.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

 Readers rarely come to know about one person who devotes the most obsessive care and attention to the book they are reading: the typesetter.
Michael Mitchell, the enormously gifted, sharp-tongued, impish, chain-smoking man who typeset all my books, ran the Libanus Press with one partner, Susan Wightman, and together they turned out book after elegant book. His views on type were strong. Once, asked to identify a typeface, he wrote back: "Awful font. We think all except capital I are Futura Extra bold – the slab seriffed cap I is probably drawn. Slabbed cap I's are a serious abomination."
His 'studio' for that is what it ought to be called, was in a beautiful house in Marlborough, Wiltshire. It had lovely huge rooms had an exquisitely groomed garden at the back, as perfect as a well-set page. The times I visited him, there was always lunch and wine and smoke and talk as well as work and always a book at the end as a gift.
He died in November, aged 78. 
Here is his obituary from The Guardian

Michael Mitchell obituary

Typographer and designer who aimed for perfection with his books

Michael Mitchell launched into his career as a printer and publisher in 1975. He founded Libanus Press and in 1979 moved to Marlborough, Wiltshire.
Michael Mitchell launched into his career as a printer and publisher in 1975. He founded Libanus Press and in 1979 moved to Marlborough, Wiltshire. Photograph: MacLehose Press
Michael Mitchell, who has died aged 78, was one of the leading typographers of his day. He combined the chief aspects of his craft, namely an intimate knowledge of type, a mastery of layout, a sound grasp of book design and skill as a printer, with a keen aesthetic sense and a feeling for words. He produced fine limited editions and also designed books and series for a commercial publisher.

Michael launched into his career as a printer and publisher in 1975. At a chance meeting with Richard Shirley Smith, the painter and wood engraver, Shirley Smith offered Mitchell his old press, a stalwart 1860 Albion, together with some Monotype type. With this Michael began typesetting and printing broadsides and small poetry books in his garage. He founded Libanus Press and in 1979 moved to Marlborough, Wiltshire. As professional printers were disencumbering themselves of their machinery with the advent of the digital era, he collected several other presses. He acquired greater quantities of lead type and then a Monotype caster. This considerably widened the range of his type styles.
(Read the rest of this article here)

Saturday, 20 January 2018

A shop of one’s own

Every now and then, I am seized by the desire to have a small shop on Mall Road.

“Small” is a tautology when you know Ranikhet’s Mall Road, because the road is only a few feet wide and the shops along it are no bigger than half a garage. My shop would be a room about 6x10ft, with tall, hinged shutters that I would fold close and lock up every evening before I walked home.

Mall Road’s eastern flank has about seven shops: the paanwaala, Gullu Dhobi, the atta chakki (flour mill), the omelette-paratha place, a couple of tailors, and so on. Presiding over the middle is the glass-fronted eating room of Hotel Meghdoot, where all Mall Road’s fringe-tailed dogs take care to position themselves. Finally, there is Raju Taxi and Tour Service, which operates from an Alto. And then the market ends.

What will my shop sell? I am not sure. But in my head it is a warm, happy place where glass jars with freshly baked biscuits sit on shelves of sweet-smelling pinewood. In the corner is a bubbling coffee pot. Maybe my friends who actually have things to sell, such as hand-knitted sweaters and brinjal pickle, will use my shop. There will be books and dogs. Probably not for sale.

My desire for this shop has grown ever more intense after the emptiness that follows on the completion of any large piece of writing. 

At the end of the two or three years I spend writing a book, it is as if someone plunged an ice-cream scoop into me and took everything out. All that is left is a shell. This shell floats in a soothing sea of fantastical dreams.

 There is time to both sleep and dream after a novel is done. When I am writing, I don’t sleep much. I keep waking up, feverish with a thought I can’t let go of and don’t want to lose, and have to reach for a notebook to scribble things I can’t decipher in the morning. I go for walks with people who are as yet real only to me. It is an odd and exhausting way to live, and many in the same job describe writing as agonizing pain. I have never found it to be anything but exhilarating, even if in a fractious, defeated way sometimes. I would not do it if it were otherwise. 

But at the end of three years or so of all this staying awake and talking to people in my head come the deserts of vast eternity when I don’t know if I will ever write a book again. It’s the very last thing I want to do right now—and yet if I allow myself to dwell on it for a minute, the prospect of trekking through an arid, writing-bleached life brings about instant despair.

This is when it beckons: the never-never land of perpetual infancy rooted in a memory of my cousins and me selling boiled sweets to each other from borrowed pickle jars. I want a little shop from which I can observe a succession of sunsets and dooryards and sprinkled streets. Idleness acquires meaning this way. A shopkeeper isn’t just sitting there chatting; she can justifiably claim she is at work. What are literary festivals or book fairs but glorified shops where gossip is exchanged, wine drunk? Maybe some work happens too—nothing that would not get done without going to fairs and festivals.

Just around the time I finished my new novel last year, one of the two tailors on Mall Road—the junior one—threw in the towel. He gave up his shed and left. He had lost his battle with the older tailor known as Mamaji.

Mamaji is a dour man with steel-scrubber hair and black-framed spectacles. He has never been known to smile. He sits on the floor in a cascading mountain of half-cut fabric before an ancient Singer sewing machine and mainly does what is called oltrasun (alteration) whereby baggy old jeans are changed to trendy drainpipes. Mamaji’s secret, I am certain, is his ability to be absent from his shop more or less constantly because he prefers gambling at cards under a tree down the slope, where fortunes are made and lost every day. His tailoring skills have become mythical from being demonstrated so rarely. His unsmiling visage pre-empts questions about pending shirts and trousers. He is the artist who, like Johannes Vermeer, makes only 34 paintings in a lifetime of work. He is the author who writes one novel, then packs away his typewriter for the next 10 years.

My husband, who grew up a bookseller’s son, has no illusions about shops and warns me that the three conditions of a shopkeeper’s life that make it insupportable are that you have to be in the shop all day long; that you have no control over who walks in; and that you may not murder those who enter. You have to see people every single day and smile even at those you want to stick a harpoon into. You (and your wares) have to be available. This is my reclusive partner’s darkest nightmare.

But after several years of wilful misanthropy in the cause of listening to people I conjured up in my head, I think it’ll be a novelty to talk to some actual human beings. Which is why a shop sounds just the thing, and Mamaji’s way of keeping shop just the model to follow. I’ll be at work. I’ll be able to say I am busy. But I’ll open my shop when I want to and leave it to lounge on the western parapet across the road when the sunshine there looks tempting. My shop will let in every passing dog, but not every passing human. I might make an exception for Mamaji, provided he alters my trousers in return for a warm biscuit.

Anuradha Roy’s new book, All the Lives We Never Lived, will be published worldwide in June.

First Published in Live Mint: Fri, Jan 19 2018. 04 26 PM IST

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What happened one morning in Ranikhet

On a dewy morning in early May, a man named Jogi finished his taxi round dropping off children to schools in Ranikhet. He came home at about eight and resumed a quarrel he had been having with his parents. In minutes, the fight became uglier and louder. Nobody is clear when it took a disastrous turn, but all at once, Jogi dashed into the house, pulled out a sari belonging to his wife, and declared that he would hang himself from the nearby deodar tree. Go ahead, his parents said sarcastically, what are you waiting for.

Deodars, a variety of cedar, are massive. Their branches start high up on pillar-like trunks and grow parallel to the earth. They are extremely difficult to climb, but most people in the hills are used to cutting fodder from the upper reaches of trees. Jogi was thirty years old, a tall, athletic man. He clambered up the tree, fashioned a noose from the sari, and hanged himself even as neighbours and parents stared on. It was over in minutes. His parents swore to the police they had no idea he would take them at their word. Gossips observed that they did not shed a tear. His wife had left him a fortnight before, fed-up with his savage beatings. She refused to come for his cremation.

Jogi’s family is one of several that live in rooms they rent in a once-grand colonial bungalow that has become a set of tenements. The bungalow is located in the dip of a hillside next to a ravine and overlooks an arc of Himalayan snow peaks. On that absurdly beautiful day, as a man’s body hung from a deodar, the sky was a gaudy blue and the usual morning symphony of thrushes and barbets was on.

The news reached us minutes after the police arrived and people gathered. We are on the other side of the ravine and I often came across Jogi and his dark blue van. My last conversation with him was about his dog, a shaggy creature who came loping out from behind the van, barking at me. Jogi, who was cleaning the van, told his dog to lay off “Aunty” and assured me the dog’s bark was more sound than bite. We chatted for a few minutes before I walked on.

Most people later reported the same pleasantness from him – that is, when he was himself. But all hell broke loose when he went “crazy-type”, as the hill folk say, or “half-mind”. At such times, he ordered his dog to attack people and hurtled about in his car, almost driving into rockfaces. The day before he killed himself, he had crashed his car and broken its rear windscreen. After his wife left him, he began beating up his parents and threatened the neighbours. He picked fights with drivers in his taxi rank.

Jogi studied at a small Hindi-medium school called Sarasvati Vidya Mandir, which is perched above our one-street market. He did not progress beyond class eight. (This is how it is for most of Ranikhet’s boys; girls  do better at school.) After this, like his friends, he did daily-wage labour at times, or played alley-cricket. He built up a reputation for being helpful, but this was also when he started going “half-mind”. His parents bought him the van secondhand to drive as a taxi – an occupation -- and an income perhaps. They got him married. A wife would be a calming influence.

This is the template for most young men’s lives in the lower Himalayas, including Ranikhet, a densely forested cantonment town set up in the nineteenth century and dominated since then by army regiments. Army personnel live in their own boxes here, all needs catered for. The grand bungalows are owned by wealthy plains-people who come up for a few days of the year. The rest of the population is semi-rural, with no prospect of worthwhile employment. The area is free of industry. Businesses are a non-starter in a place so cut off. Rocky hillsides are interspersed with meagre terraced plots, good only for bare subsistence. People grow greens and tubers around their homes and have a couple of cows, goats, and a few hens: basic food and a little income. Women cut grass and collect deadwood for fuel and fodder. There is no severe poverty, but it is a relentless grind to overcome shortages of every kind.

My husband and I, running an independent publishing house from here, are an anomaly. In the early days we had job-seekers at our door because we were thought of as industrialists. It was hard to explain the economics of small publishing, to turn away from their crestfallen faces. The Indian finance minister recently brushed away economists’ gloom over “jobless growth”, but the relevant fact is that growth in employment nationally is close to zero and India’s impressive GDP growth figure is meaningless to people in the hinterland.

Every street corner in Ranikhet has knots of lounging men shooting the breeze because there is nothing else to do. Most haven’t finished school. They stare at mobile phone screens and dream of escape to Delhi, even to nearby towns like Rudrapur and Haldwani. A few find ill-paid odd-jobs locally as waiters and handymen. Those who make it to a city soon return defeated. They cadge money off relatives, buy a bottle or two, choose a lonely hillside, make a bonfire, drink. The empties they shatter against rocks, strewing forest stretches with broken glass. A way of screaming into the nothingness. The mountains are vast and free and stunning. But they can seem part of a cosmic rat trap.

Many drive taxis as Jogi used to, for want of other work. But tourism has dwindled. This is the idyllic town where Edmund Hillary and Frank Smythe started off on climbs. Small mountaineering companies, mostly branch offices of outfits in the West, have managed to retain something like a foothold. But they too report a drop in bookings and have laid off staff. It seems foreign hikers are no longer coming to India because it is considered unsafe for women. The pilgrim routes are beset by landslides, while the popularity of middle-class driving holidays means Indian tourists travel in their own cars. Taxi drivers idle in long, seething ranks, nowhere to go.

With such hopeless desperation, the impulse to violence is a hair’s breadth away. When he committed suicide, Jogi would have known of the tourist couple robbed and murdered by their taxi driver, Raju Das, in Dehradun during the Diwali holiday of 2014. Both Jogi and Raju Das were in the news for a few days. Many like them, suicidal or murderous, remain unnoticed.

Jogi’s taxi-van is still parked outside the house. The white shroud draped over its missing back windshield gives it a creepy air. The dog has disappeared. Jogi’s mother has taken to showing every visitor his wedding album. Obsessively. He towers over his tiny red-gold bride in the pictures, smiling and handsome and ready for life.


Friday, 20 January 2017

Tochi Onyebuchi: An Interview

A tranquil beach town named Jarmuli is the setting of Anuradha Roy’s third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and made the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Four older women travel as friends in search of a bucolic vacation, and a young woman, contending with the trauma of her past, finds her stay in Jarmuli tied with theirs. Roy braids the narrative threads of these and other characters together to create a butterfly stitch that examines personal trauma, a national epidemic of violence, and the ways in which power is used to injure. The prose is deft and powerful, the resort town beautifully rendered, the turmoil bubbling underneath terrifyingly realized.

Roy and I corresponded over email to discuss the book, the nature of violence, and the craft of storytelling.
(Read it here in The Rumpus)
The Rumpus: Could you talk about your choice of structure for the book? The superficial serenity of Jarmuli bookends the oppression depicted in Nomi’s recollections both of the ashram and of Norway. Each of those threads could be their own capacious story. Why bring them together in the fashion you did?
Anuradha Roy: It is Nomi who connects each of these places; these are threads from her life, and they contain other people, too. The different people and places had to overlap and yet remain distinct—they are like planets of different orbits who come close and then drift away again. I fretted over the structure a lot. It took a lot of doing and involved a great deal of misdirection because of the multiple stories and shifts in time and place.
Rumpus: Among Latika, Gouri, and Vidya, deep affection is braided with judgment and occasional resentment. And traveling with friends always impacts a friendship. I was wondering if you could speak to that and whether there were any real-life analogs you drew upon.
Roy: Friendship is such a complex, endlessly evolving thing. I’ve been fascinated by its pulls and tugs for a while. The Folded Earth, my second book, had at its center a friendship between a scholarly old eccentric and his tenant, a young woman trying to find her feet after a bereavement. In Sleeping on Jupiter, there are several friendships, not only the one between the three older women but also those that Nomi has as a child at the ashram she is trapped in. It’s the many contradictory emotions in friendships that make them so interesting and along with friendship, there is its other side, betrayal and failure, which some of the characters in the book face as well.
Rumpus: There is a very beautiful scene where a kite’s flight prompts Gouri to begin murmuring a hymn. The moment ends suddenly, and she’s brought back to earth, as it were, to the deterioration of her body and the cramps and aches that attend that process, but also to the deterioration of her mind. Gouri’s physical aging seems to be the most mentioned out of the group, yet she seems the most spiritual. Is one an impetus towards the other? The spirit’s willingness a result of the flesh’s weakness?
Roy: No, that is not how I meant to write it, though it’s an interesting way of looking at it—a rough parallel would be the way sharper hearing is meant to compensate for bad eyesight and so on. But I do not see the spiritual impulse as something that exists because a weakness in another area. In the novel, Gouri has always been religious, even when she was young. Her practice of religion is a personal thing with no connection with religious extremism or ostentation, nor is it a result of her physical frailty; it is just a part of her personality.
Rumpus: On the issue of saintliness, Badal has aspirations towards holiness or the reverence that Guruji has usurped his way into. For the men in the novel, these aspirations towards sainthood feel very much poisoned. There’s something selfish about them, whereas Gouri’s devoutness seems almost effortless, definitely without guile.
Roy: One of the themes of the book is the different ways in which religion impacts different lives. Guruji is not spiritual at all, of course—he is merely using religion as a means to his ends. To Badal, on the other hand, religion has been an intense, meaningful thing, what anchors him and gives him sustenance. His quandary is completely different from anything to do with the Guru; he is faced with two passions that seem equally pure to him, one for a human and one for God, and the two contradict each other.
Rumpus: I guess it would be cheating to ask if the albino monk is Guruji or a sort of spirit-second, especially given the haunting eeriness I felt comparing the monk’s interaction with Raghu to Guruji’s and the girls of the ashram. But the strangeness of Guruji’s appearance is made apparent very early on. Clean, smooth face. Glossy black hair in place of locks. In fact, one of the women who keeps the girls in line is described as “golden-haired.” Is this ashram meant to be unique? A stand-in for all ashrams where these horrible abuses happen? Or something in between?
Roy: What is important is that this particular ashram is a place where the diktat of one powerful person prevails and his power comes from religion. Religion elevates him above the law and above scrutiny. It allows him the freedom to oppress the powerless. This is not a situation unique to ashrams, we know it to have been the case in all kinds of religious institutions.
Rumpus: Most of the violence in the book—the vast majority in fact—is committed by men against women. From the initial assault at the train station to what ultimately transpires between Suraj and Nomi. When one of the fighters storms the refuge housing Nomi and the women caring for her, he says “This is for your own good, this is for our motherland, this is for our mother tongue.” Among the first things that Guruji says to Nomi is “I am your country.” What did you have in mind regarding the impulse of men to tie their acts of violence up into some sort of patriotic duty?
Roy: I did not mean to portray violence against women as patriotic duty, no. The first instance you mention refers to a civil war, where everyone is being targeted, even men (Nomi’s father is killed, we know). In the second it is the Guru trying to brainwash little girls who have lost their country. Most of the violence is against women, and this reflects the reality we live in, but there is violence of different kinds in the book, including against animals. The level of daily routine violence in India is horrific and extremely disturbing.
Rumpus: Why stop where you did with this story? I found it personally satisfying, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say it might frustrate some readers.
Roy: You have to write to please yourself and I ended the book the way I wanted to. I know that endings are usually unsatisfying for one reader or another, whatever the author does. When reading crime thrillers, I want every last question answered, every bit of the puzzle solved too. But Sleeping on Jupiter is less about plot and incident than about inner transformations, and I needed to leave some areas in the shadows and some things unsaid.
Rumpus: This is your third novel, but also the third to have in its title a word of cosmological or cartographic significance. We have An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth, and now Sleeping on Jupiter. Do these novels form a trilogy of sorts?
Roy: They share certain themes but no, they are not meant to form a trilogy.
Rumpus: Do you feel while writing or after having written that you are in dialogue with other literature from the subcontinent? Operating within a tradition or in revenge against it?
Roy: All that we have read over our lives forms the soil in which our own writing grows. Maybe everyone writing is in dialogue with other writers, not only from their own countries but from any country or any era. Many kinds of literature and culture have gone into my head, from Bob Dylan to George Eliot to the Mahabharata, so I don’t think of myself as consciously operating within any tradition or against it, I am not even sure what tradition is for someone like me who reads and thinks in two or three languages.
Rumpus: I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I got the same feeling, reading this, as I get from reading short stories. Like those of Ray Carver or Alice Munro, where the accumulation of small details leads to these massive internal revolutions in characters.
Roy: Yes, I love those stories, and I think it needs a lot more nerve and conviction to write a slow, calm narrative than one where something keeps happening. If you read something like Per Pettersen’s Out Stealing Horses for example, or any of Alice Munro’s stories or Kawabata’s Sound of the Mountain: an infinity of seemingly small things happen or don’t happen and in the end you are left with the sense of having read something memorable and meaningful. They are beautifully paced, profound, and interesting on every page without any apparent effort to seduce. I would love to write something of that kind. In Sleeping on Jupiter I wanted to preserve the elusiveness and concentrated power of the short story in a novel.

Tochi Onyebuchi is a writer and legal professional who works in civil rights and criminal defense. Much of his non-fiction can be found at "Boy Boxes Bear," and he has an M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He is currently at work on a YA novel. He tweets, on occasion, at @TochiTrueStory.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

A Literary Festival at the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata: KALAM

I was born in Calcutta (as it was called then) yet by some quirk of fate, I've never done a book event there, not even a bookshop reading. So this is very exciting.

The complete programme of the festival is here. It runs from 25th to 29th January. All the events are at the Victoria Memorial, a spectacular setting.
It will be balmy and sunny and festive at this time of year.
 No passes are required, all the events are free.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

My Year in Reading in 'The Millions'

A Year in Reading: Anuradha Roy

By posted at 11:00 am on December 16, 2016

coverOne of my treasured discoveries this year was Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Originally published in German in 2014, and translated by Charlotte Collins, this is a short novel told with apparent artlessness, but from the very first page you know it’s about to rearrange your mental universe. It is a breathtaking, heartbreaking story that encapsulates a universe of change, loss, resilience — in about 24,000 words.

A Whole Life is, quite literally, the whole life of taciturn, hard-working Andreas Egger, from the day he comes to the mountain village as an orphan with a leather pouch of money around his neck, to his death many decades later. He is by turn a laborer, a soldier, a guide to the mountains, and through the course of his life modernity comes to his village in the form of electricity, machine guns, and tourists. He is crushed by forces of both nature and man that are beyond his control — a world war, an avalanche, an uncle who cripples him as a child.

Despite the devastating tragedies and hardship, Andreas Egger’s sensitivity to every whisper and rustle in the natural world and the depth of his love for his wife endows his life with a beauty and tenderness that make the novel profound and moving. In this it reminded me of a film by the Chinese director Zhang Yimou called The Road Home, which tells a similarly moving story of a village schoolteacher and the girl who falls in love with him. At the end of the film, there was not a dry eye in the auditorium although it was hard to explain why: all we had seen was the story of a man and woman falling in love, being separated for a while by the revolution, marrying, having children, growing old together. Eventually, as in life, one of them died. That is — on the face of it — is all that happens in the film.

coverThe other book that swept me off my feet was Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at War, a scholarly history of the Second World War as it played out in India. When Armistice Days and Veteran Days come around annually, few in the West remember the millions of colonized people who suffered and sacrificed in a war they did not choose. I hardly knew anything about it myself. Yasmin Khan gives us a deeply knowledgeable account of a country in turmoil, where half the population was fighting to preserve the British Empire and the other half was fighting to be free of it.

covercoverOver 2.5 million Indians fought in the Second World War, in places as far away from home as the Mediterranean and North Africa. Landlocked peasants became seamen, farmers were forced away to disease-ridden jungles in conditions of slavery to carve roads from swamps and mountains. Military imperatives led to lands seized, village boats destroyed, people starving in a famine that killed millions. Yasmin Khan’s detailed and analytical account includes prisoners of war, politicians, generals, laborers, prostitutes, road gangs, industrialists, nationalists, nurses, airmen. She consults a mind-boggling array of sources, from letters home to government communiques, memoirs, news reports, and so on, and yet, uncharacteristically for an academic book, this is a compelling, accessible narrative.

A related book I read and learned from was Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field, in which he tells the story of the Second World War in India through the lives of three ancestors, one of them his maternal grandfather. Conceived on a smaller, more intimate scale, Karnad’s book provides a different yet gripping view of the same war.

My final discovery was the enchanting Plumdog, a graphic novel by Emma Chichester Clark. It sounds cutesy, the diary of a dog in words and pictures. It is anything but that. This book could only have been made by someone who knows and loves dogs enough to notice their every little foible. It is beautifully illustrated, funny and sweet, and guaranteed to make you happy. I only wish I could read it to my dogs.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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.


Tuesday, 27 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