Friday, 23 August 2019

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE

Almost each time I am travelling to a country I've never been to, Christopher Maclehose, my publisher, sends me a book for the journey. On my first trip to Bali, he had sent Christina Jordis's Bali, Java, in My Dreams -- which introduced me to Walter Spies and started off my new book. When I was going to Iceland earlier this year for the Reykjavik Literature Festival, he gave me Independent People, by Halldor Laxness.




This magnificent, engimatic tragedy is not to everyone's taste. When it was published in the US, Kirkus Reviews called it "A bleak and bitter book, with little to interest or attract the American reader". But I am not American, and although it mystified me at times and its main character Bjartur often made me very angry, this is one of the most brilliant books I've ever come across. It haunts me still, weeks later, and despite its length I know I'm going to go back to it. I don't know how it read in Icelandic, but in English translation, the writing is magical.

If you have not read it yet, settle in, give it time, lots of time -- think War and Peace or The Idiot -- and you will feel enriched and altered by the end.

Here is a good review of it, from Crooked Timber, by Chris Bertram:

I finished Halldor Laxness’s Independent People a few weeks ago. It took me a very long time to read. Usually this is a sign that I’m not getting on with a book, but not in this case. Rather, Laxness’s prose is so rich, his descriptions are so compelling and his observations so unsettling, that I found it hard to read more than a few pages at a time without taking a break. Certainly it is the best book I’ve read all year, and maybe over the last five or so.

Independent People, which won Laxness the Nobel in 1952, is (among many other things) the story of an Icelandic crofter, Bjartur of Summerhouses and his family, especially his daughter Asta Sollija. Life is hard, it is cold, it rains, there are sheep, there are long discussions about worms and other parasites. Not tempted? I admit that the apparent dreariness of the subject-matter had me doubting when I first bought my copy. But I’d been recommended it by someone who had been so captivated that she’s booked a holiday in Iceland on the strength of the book. Well, when someone whom you think of as having good judgement does that, it is worth giving a book a try.

One way of reading the Independent People is as a satire. The two Icelanders with whom I’ve discussed it say how funny it is (as does Jane Smiley on the cover blurb). Once you are several hundred pages in, it is easier to get the jokes, but much is inevitably lost on non-Icelanders. The title refers to Bjatur’s obsessive desire for independence and the way that he permits neither financial encumbrances nor ties of personal affection to disrupt his independence. In the end, this stubborn refusal of vulnerability turns out to have been a mistake, and a mistake that Laxness sees as permeating the Icelandic national consciousness. But that’s only one way of taking the book. It is also a meditation on peasant life at the edge of survival, on traditional cultures, and, more universally, on human relationships. Bjartur’s understanding of the landscape around him is mediated by his knowledge of myth, of the Icelandic sagas and of a tradition of oral poetry. This understanding of the present in terms of a heroic literary tradition is both mocked and celebrated by Laxness. Celebrated in the way in which Bjartur is able to endow his most mundane of actions with meaning because of his access to that canon; but also mocked because this leads him into a comical misperception of his real relations with both nature and others. He casts himself as a hero, and this enables him to endure against cruel setbacks and in hard conditions; but it also makes it impossible for him to encounter his daughter as a real individual.

I’m going to read the Independent People again soon, since I’m sure that there’s much I’ve missed. Laxness’s writing and insight is often superb. There’s one passage where he describes Bjartur’s quest of a lost sheep that is, in fact, already dead in which he evokes Bjartur’s sense of freedom as being in control in a landscape he identifies with. There’s another in which he sets out in a few lines the difference that losing her virginity makes to Asta’s relationship to her family members, even though it will be a while before the consequences of the act become plain. For some reason these two remain especially clear in my mind, but just about every page is a joy.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

A New Chapter at Lockbridge Pottery


I am going to miss the new show at Lockbridge Pottery on 23rd and 24th August, but cannot believe how lucky I am to be going there the week after because of a hugely generous invitation from potters Jeff Diehl and Donna Diehl.

Jeff Diehl’s work has appeared in many prestigious collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Korean Craft Museum. He has been making pots for over forty years. They live and work in a converted schoolhouse, which they renovated and then built kilns around to fire their ceramics. 

Of the pottery, an article by Lucia K. Hyde says: 
Lockbridge Road in Summers County winds for several miles through rolling farmland, past houses and grassy meadows, before arriving at an old, two-room schoolhouse. The school sits well back from the road on tidy grounds. Clusters of flowers bloom around the broad front porch, and the school's canine mascot naps on the stone walkway. In the large field that stretches off to one side, you might expect to see a set of swings and a metal slide, but at this school, potter Jeff Diehl and his family have created their own sort of playground.

In his more than 20-year career as a full-time potter, Diehl has developed both a thriving studio and a lifestyle as beautiful, unique, and functional as his pottery. In 1980, Diehl and his wife, Donna, established Lockbridge Pottery by turning the abandoned country schoolhouse into a ceramic studio and home. Neighbors who had attended the school as children helped the Diehls remodel the beloved building. 'We have great neighbors,' says Diehl. 'They all went to school here. They have been invested in the care of the property and interested in our lives since we moved in.’

One of the old classrooms serves as Diehl's studio, where he spends 45 to 50 hours per week throwing clay. 'I always have fun in here,' claims the award-winning potter. Metal shelves filled with fresh, unfired pieces line the spacious room that also houses Diehl's potter's wheel and office. A collage of photographs, memorabilia, and artwork fills one wall and reflects his three loves: family, ceramics, and kayaking.

The Diehls added bedrooms and a kitchen, bathroom, firing room, wood shop, and newly finished gallery to the school. From the porcelain sink basin in the bathroom to the intricate kitchen counter tiles, evidence of Diehl's handiwork appears in every corner of the house. The Diehls have also used the building to raise and home school their two sons, Erik and Andrew. Both teenaged boys are accomplished potters, musicians, and kayakers. The whole family assists Diehl with glazing and firing his pottery. 'My family helps out tremendously,' says Diehl. 'They are a critical aspect of the operation.' 


 I'm so looking forward to learning from them, getting to know how a real pottery functions day to day, and most importantly, making friends with their dog,Lucy.


Have a look at their wonderful gallery here.

While there, I'm going to do a reading -- A New Chapter bookstore, Lewisburg. 
This will be on 13th September 2019.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

MUD

Out now in Indian Quarterly


Read the complete essay here

The wind’s direction has been changing from south-west to north-north-east on my phone’s weather app as irregularly as a breeze throws around leaves. The sky clouds over, rain follows, icy with hail sometimes. The cold’s teeth sharpen. Snow is possible again and, although we know the mess afterwards, we want to be suspended in the dreamy silence it brings. This year though, there has been mostly sleet and ground frost that melted into muck, only once or twice the enchantments of a snowfall.

This doesn’t feel like the start of warmth, but the earth knows more than humans do. Just a few days into February, in our part of the Himalaya, the soil changed. Overnight it had become loamier, more friable. The ice-hard, cold-dead ground was coming back to life. Worms slid through the clods when I forked the earth. Beads of green dotted the bare brown, multiplying every new morning into grass and weeds. In another week, below the budding plum trees, the white tips of bulbs planted months ago had pushed their way towards the light.

Itching to muddy my hands, I thought I’d knock my pot-bound chrysanthemums out to divide and replant them. Out of the pot, I found that the roots of the overgrown chrysanthemum plants had twisted round and round from the top downward to the base of the pot. The entire caked soil was in the tight embrace of the corkscrewed roots. I had to twist and very gently prise them apart until I had separated the tiny saplings and could plant them in the ground. Now, from one plant I had twenty.

Many people advise wearing gardening gloves, and it’s sensible to do that when dealing with thorns or nettles, but you can damage tender roots and shoots with those clumsy big gloves. You need to feel things with your fingers: real maalis never wear gloves. Some years ago, on BBC Radio, the gardener and writer Anna Pavord was being interviewed for Desert Island Discs, and she described dragging herself along the floor towards grass and earth when she came out of an intensive care unit after surgery for stomach cancer:

“When I could actually move… one day I was in a different room and there was a patch of lawn outside the window… On my hands and knees I crawled along the corridor to get out onto that grass. I just needed to feel the real world. The real world to me is not buildings, it’s not cement or tarmac, it’s not all the stuff of which so much of the world is now constructed.”

She went on to talk about why she did not wear gloves when gardening:

“I like to feel the plants, I like to feel the earth, I get a real sensuous pleasure from the touch of plants and from the touch of the earth and, you know, the feel of sticks and all the other things you sort of have to touch when you’re gardening. It’s all part of it.”

Our patch of the mountains is ringed by deodar, Indian Cedar trees that are at least a hundred years old and, for that length of time, they have been covering the earth underneath with their needles and pollen. The needles blanket the ground, a mat that suffocates other growth and releases acid juices as it disintegrates. On this acid soil there had been a building: once a cow shed, it was turned into a two-storeyed cottage which was later abandoned; empty for years, it disintegrated into a heap of mud plaster, stone blocks, rotting wood and shards of window panes. The hump of land on which this shell stood when we found it had become, for generations of goats and humans, a rubbish heap and grazing ground. But the ruined cottage faced north: a long sweep of Himalayan snow peaks, including the Nanda Devi, was on the horizon. We decided to remake the cottage to live in it.

Once we began living in the remade cottage, we had to clear all that was not soil year after year, going down deeper as if at an archaeological dig. Construction rubble had now been added to the rubbish of decades. What if we find hidden treasure, the village women digging with me fantasised. Gold. A pot of ancient silver coins even. It’s been known to happen. But the closest we came to history were colonial-era sardine cans. For the rest, we dug out glass bottles, discarded syringes, medicine foil, age-blurred polythene packaging. We have had to feed our patch for years—hundreds of sacks of cow dung manure by now—to turn that wasted earth into dark brown soil in which things could grow.

Read the remaining essay here

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

THE WALTER SCOTT PRIZE FOR HISTORICAL FICTION

Wonderful to know that All the Lives We Never Lived 
is in this amazing list of books 
nominated for the 2019 Walter Scott Prize.


Sunday, 6 January 2019

GUEST POST: THE MEANING OF CERTAIN TREES


This is a Guest Post by Madhumita Mazumdar, who discovered an intriguing story behind the flowers and foliage planned for the city she lives in, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

Photograph by Partha Chowdhury shows an avenue of Amaltas (Cassia Fistula) in Dwarka, Delhi

One of the many things I loved about Myshkin Chand Rozario, one of the enigmatic protagonists of Anuradha Roy’s novel All the Lives We Never Lived, was his job as Horticultural Superintendent in the small town of Muntazir in the foothills of the Himalayas. Though often derided as “glorified gardner” Myshkin took immense pride in what he believed was his precious bequest to the little town -- its rows of carefully planted sheltering and flowering trees along major roads and pathways. He knew well he where he had to plant the white and purple orchids, the flaming red Gulmohurs, the Amaltases, the brilliantly hued kachnars, the softer pastels of the resham ruis. The streets were colour coded around the images their names conjured -- some magical some mundane.

Myshkin’s story came back to me rather oddly as I read a curious bit of city news a couple of days ago. The title of the news story suggested that streets of Gandhinagar, Gujarat, were about to be saffronised. I reckoned it would be a Yogi-like project of pavements and buildings in saffron – a project through which the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, has been painting everything from buildings to toilets a bright Hindu saffron, even the Haj Building. But it turned out to be a little different. Civic authorities had decided to plant two of the busiest roads leading to the Secretariat with saffron-hued flowering trees. Apart from the gulmohur there would be the ‘kesuda’ and the ‘raktarag’. “We will plant new trees and shrubs according to the colour code of each road,” said Chief Conservator Forests, “but plant the Gulmohurs, Kesudas, and the Rugminis in a sequence of subtly varying saffron shades along a long and wide stretch of road with bougainvilleas along the dividers”.
Gulmohur (Delonix Regia) in bloom in Delhi
Myshkin planted his row of Gulmohurs and Amaltases on a road bearing the name of Begum Akhtar. He felt the flowers would reflect the “romance and intensity of the singer -- as a fireworks display of red and gold through the summer.” Far removed from the romantic world of Myshkin’s imagination, the Chief Conservator of Forests, Gujarat believes the flaming Gulmohurs along ‘Gh’ road and ‘Ch’ road in Gandhinagar would bloom and rear up in April and May close to the elections -- blazing our eyes and filling our minds with the many splendours of saffron!

I love Gulmohurs but this bit of news leaves me with a strange sense of unease.


Madhumita Mazumdar is at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information Communication Technology, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

You might also want to read:
"As the billboards fall in Bengaluru, will citizens reclaim the city and its trees?" by T. R. Shankar Raman

Friday, 14 December 2018

The Rosalind Wilson Memorial Book Discussion

The Rosalind Wilson Memorial Lecture has been a fixture on the Delhi school calendar for more than twenty years, and has featured writers such as Vikram Seth and William Dalrymple.
 This year, the book being discussed was All the Lives We Never Lived.

Springdales School organizes the discussion to honour the memory of Rosalind Wilson, who taught there. She was an English teacher at the school and also served as the head of the English department. She later founded and edited the popular children magazine Target. She died at the age of 49 in 1992.

The Principal of the school, Mrs Ameeta Mulla Wattal, wrote in with this report of the discussion, which took place on 14th December 2018.
 
 "The book discussion was riveting. Over 150 students across schools in the National Capital Region participated.
All students had not only read the book but were very perceptive in giving their views on the issues in the novel.
Gender justice, the politics of colonialists, questions of individual liberty versus pressures of society, the idea of freedom and the dynamics of the self were some of the points raised.
Students even revised and revalued their own positions at the end of the discussion. It was heartening to see the way they were able to connect the content of the novel with current concerns. Nationalism, the new laws on adultery, article 377, the whole debate around gender and so on.
The discussion was moderated by Dr. Nirmalya Samanta, an alumni of the school, who is extremely bright and is able to bring out the best in students during a book discussion.
His inputs were valuable"
 
Listening to the students discussing the book, it was striking how much intelligence, thought and empathy there was in their readings. Different students reacted to different aspect of the book: one noticed man's relationship with nature and solitude; another observed that by focusing on a woman and child, the book had decisively shifted the focus away from dominant nationalist narratives. With charming candour, one of them confessing to finding the narrative too slow until she "got into" it and was swept away by it. 
Most students had perceptive and refreshingly unpretentious things to say. They may be a part of the Snapchat and Whatsapp generation, but are obviously love reading critically, at length and in depth as well. Despairing adults are given to moaning over the how social media is ruining the young, but if this discussion was anything to go by, all is not lost -- at all.


Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Winner of the Tata Book of the Year: All the Lives We Never Lived


All the Lives We Never Lived won the Tata Book of the Year Award on the 18th of November in Bombay, India. Speaking of the book, the judges said that its prose was "glittering" and that the book "did not put one foot wrong" in dealing with complex and varying themes.
Also on the shortlist were Janice Pariat's Nine-Chambered Heart and Tabish Khair's Night of Happiness.

ALL THE LIVES WE NEVER LIVED IS PUBLISHED IN THE US TODAY

20 November:  Publication Day in the US and Canada. 

The pre-publication reviews have been wonderful, and the book has featured in several lists of essential reading, including TIME and WASHINGTON POST. It has also been listed in Bustle, Entertainment Weekly, The Millions, LitHub, Afar, and Shelf Awareness, among others. Book Riot's quirky Horoscopes and Book Recommendations for November recommends it especially for Librans!



"Roy’s skillful blending–of fact and fiction, of personal and political, and of suspense and reward–creates a rich and layered read. But the modern resonances of rising nationalism, in India and beyond, ensure that Roy’s story of what happened in Muntazir transcends its own pages. “Once the letter was read,” Myshkin says, “it would be over and I would have to start waiting again.” It’s a feeling readers may well share."

Naina Bajekal, Time


"Lyrical, subtle, [and] finely observant... A novel of history, both global and personal, gracefully wrought."
Kirkus Reviews

"[A] moving tale... Roy (Sleeping on Jupiter, 2016) peppers her novel with intricate descriptions of small-town India and weaves an eloquent and tragic story of straitjacketed lives upended when history and personal ambition intersect." Booklist (starred review)

"A lush and lyrical fusion of history and storytelling... This mesmerizing exploration of the darker consequences of freedom, love, and loyalty is an astonishing display of Roy’s literary prowess."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This novel has an epic feel but also portrays the feelings of an abandoned child and captured woman while strongly evoking the sounds, scents, plants, people, and social structures of India at the time."
Library Journal

"Already published in Britain, the novel has been called 'elegiac,' compelling, and powerful, among other things. Conceived during a time Roy spent in Bali, this is an affecting novel."
The Millions

"Spanning World War II Germany to present-day India, Anuradha Roy's latest novel presents a powerful portrayal of love as a son goes in search of the truth about his mother."
MyDomaine

"Historical details make this work truly shine, and readers will become deeply invested in the Rozario family."
Bookish

"A sweeping novel set against the backdrops of the Second World War and India’s struggle for independence, All the Lives We Never Lived narrows in on a son’s quest to make sense of his mother’s choices. Weaving in both fictional and historically accurate characters, the book highlights the impact of imperial powers, as well as the oppression that dictated women’s lives in the early part of the 20th century." 
Afar 

"Roy zeroes in on small moments of connection, showing how even in the midst of great national upheaval, it's those moments that ultimately prove the most profound... Anuradha Roy's All the Lives We Never Lived paints a thoughtful portrait of family and freedom in the midst of the political upheaval of the Indian independence movement." 
Shelf Awareness

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

UBUD WRITERS AND READERS 2018: A DIARY IN PICTURES

SESSION: FEAST AND FICTION, AT THE BRIDGES, BALI
A PREVIOUS VISITOR TO WALTER SPIES' HOUSE IN ISEH: DAVID BOWIE

AT VILLA ISEH, BALI, WALTER SPIES' OLD BAMBOO HUT IS NOW A BEAUTIFUL BOUTIQUE HOTEL
SESSION: WHAT A MAP CUTS UP; ABOUT BOUNDARIES, NATIONALISM, ART, WRITING


SESSION: CARL HOFFMAN SPEAKING SPEAKING ON THE WILD MEN OF BORNEO

NOTES AND THOUGHTS

A SISTERHOOD OF GREAT READERS


SESSION: FEAST AND FICTION; FATIMA BHUTTO TALKING ABOUT THE RUNAWAYS

SESSION: THE BIG READ. STORYTELLING, PLAIN AND SIMPLE
QUESTIONS, ANSWERS

SESSION: FEAST & FICTION, GAIL JONES SPEAKING ON THE DEATH OF NOAH GLASS

UNASKED QUESTIONS
SESSION: ISLANDS OF INSPIRATION  WHERE WILL BUCKINGHAM, CARL HOFFMAN AND I TALKED ABOUT THE CONNECTION OUR BOOKS HAVE TO INDONESIA

MY BOOK WILL JOIN THE THE OTHERS IN THE WALTER SPIES BOOKSHELF IN HIS OLD HOME IN ISEH
SESSION: FEAST AND FICTION. A MEMENTO

SARASWATI, GODDESS OF LEARNING AND THE ARTS, INNER COURTYARD OF THE UBUD PALACE



(Almost all of these images are in the copyright of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Shortlisted for the JCB Prize and Longlisted for the DSC Prize

This has been a dizzying couple of weeks. All the Lives we Never Lived was shortlisted, on 3rd October, for the JCB Literature Prize. And today it has been announced that it is part of the longlist for DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
 
"The longlist represents the best of South Asian fiction writing over the last year and includes submissions from a diverse mix of publishers and authors of different backgrounds writing on a wide range of issues and themes. The novels include stunning portrayals of migration, war and the pain of displacement, poignant love stories, the exploration of new found relationships and identities, and vivification of the personal struggles, hopes and aspirations that symbolize the urgent and divisive realities of contemporary South Asian life," the Prize committee said in a statement.

Apart from authors based in South Asia, it also features those based outside the region who have brought alive the subtle nuances of South Asian life and culture.

Among the longlisted authors and their works are: Anuradha Roy for "All The Lives We Never Lived"; Arundhati Roy for "The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness"; Chandrakanta for "The Saga Of Satisar", translated by Ranjana Kaul; Deepak Unnikrishnan for "Temporary People"; Jayant Kaikini for "No Presents Please", translated by Tejaswini Niranjana; Jeet Thayil for "The Book Of Chocolate Saints"; and Kamila Shamsie for "Home Fire".

The longlist further features Manu Joseph for "Miss Laila Armed And Dangerous"; Mohsin Hamid for "Exit West"; Neel Mukherjee for "A State Of Freedom"; Perumal Murugan for "Poonachi", translated by N. Kalyan Raman; Prayaag Akbar for "Leila"; Rita Chowdhury for "Chinatown Days", translated by Rita Chowdhury; SJ Sindu for "Marriage Of A Thousand Lies"; Sujit Saraf for "Harilal & Sons"; and Tabish Khair for "Night Of Happiness".

The longlist was unveiled at the Oxford Bookstore here and features four translated works from Assamese, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi. Six of the longlisted authors are women, besides three other women translators. Two debut novels have also been recognised by the jury panel, chaired by historian and academic Rudrangshu Mukherjee.

(Information sourced from here)

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Soon out in the US and Canada

A couple of months to go before its US release, All the Lives We Never Lived has a starred review in Publisher's Weekly. Describing it as a "lush and lyrical fusion of history and storytelling", the review goes on to say:

"This mesmerizing exploration of the darker consequences of freedom, love, and loyalty is an astonishing display of Roy’s literary prowess"

Read the complete review here.

Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize said:

"All the Lives We Never Lived is a moving and beautiful story of loss, of the lives of those beloved to us. What makes this novel so special is the sinuous way Anuradha Roy seamlessly and masterfully shuttles between time, overlaying the past with the present, mystery with knowledge to cumulatively create a brilliant tapestry of that is the story."

A number of newspapers and book sites listed this as one of their books to look forward to this Fall. Among them are Washington Post, Southern Living, LitHub, and The Millions.

The novel will be published in hardback in the US and Canada on 20th November.
 

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

All the Lives We Never Lived is longlisted for the JCB Award



The longlist for the first JCB Prize for Literature contained ten books, among them All the Lives We Never Lived. Describing the book, the jury remarked:

"This beautiful novel, set in the southeast Asia of the 1930s, evokes beautiful imagery of places and landscapes. It does its work quietly and with great subtlety, but it is a novel of big ideas."

Read more about it here.



The JCB Prize for Literature is a Rs 25-lakh award presented each year to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author, as selected by the jury.The shortlist will be announced on 3 October. Read more about the other books on the longlist here.

Monday, 27 August 2018

All the Lives We Never Lived travels to Sri Lanka

In 2016, I went to Sri Lanka for the first time, for the Galle Book Festival, and was interviewed for one of the panels by Ameena Hussein. She was dazzling -- widely read, perceptive, quick-thinking, free-wheeling. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had of being in a literary event.


Through the course of the festival, and during one of their trips to India, I had the chance to get to know Ameena and her partner Sam Perera better. Much as Rukun Advani and I run Permanent Black, they run an independent publishing house, Perera-Hussein. Besides this, Ameena is a writer, author of The Moon in the Water (long listed for the Man Asia Prize) and two award-winning short story collections.

Perera-Hussein was established in December 2003, and has a list that includes writers such as Gananath Obeysekere, Nayomi Munaweera, and Nayanjot Lahiri. And this month, Perera-Hussein published All the Lives We Never Lived in Sri Lanka. It is out now in paperback, priced 1250 Sri Lankan Rupees.

You can buy it in Sri Lanka from their website or from Barefoot | Cargills (Majestic City) | Carrousel de Galle | Daniels | Expo Graphics ! Gihan Books (Dehiwela) | Jeya | Kalaya | Kiyavana Nuvana | Lake House | MD Gunasena | Odel | Pitraban ! Rohan's Kiosk (Liberty Plaza)| Samayawardhana Bookshop | Sarasavi | Serendib ! Sooriya Village (Havelock Town) | Vijitha Yapa















Saturday, 4 August 2018

All the Lives We Never Lives reviewed in Spectator


Is Anuradha Roy India’s greatest living novelist?

Beautifully out of sync: All the Lives We Never Lives reviewed in Spectator
David Patrikarakos


Anuradha Roy (image: Getty)

David Patrikarakos

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

All the Lives We Never Lived Anuradha Roy

MacLehose, pp.336, £16.99

‘Myshkin’ wants ‘a tiding ending’ to his life and has settled down to write his will. An ageing Indian horticulturalist, his childhood nickname (after Dostoevsky’s protagonist in The Idiot) remains. It is the first sign that this is a novel about people out of sync with their times and their surroundings.

Abandoned by his mother as a child, Myshkin has received a letter ‘pulsing with the energy every unopened letter in the world has’. It involves his mother but he cannot bear to open it. Instead he narrates her life, and his own, one of tending trees with commendable diligence, and waiting for her return.

As with Roy’s previous work, the prose is intensely visual. The novel is a vista of ‘bulbous slate-grey clouds’; it’s filled with characters who ‘ladle out advice’. And in the style is the meaning: ‘The day my mother left was like any other. It was a monsoon morning,’ Myshkin informs us. Two perfunctory, contrasting sentences prepare the reader for the normalisation of disorder that characterises the novel.

And so it should. Myshkin’s mother walks out on her young son to take up with the (real-life) German painter Walter Spies. She is a woman whose father was determined to nurture her gifts not because ‘daughters were meant to have talents: those that would work as bait to catch a husband’, but because he had ‘seen a spark inside his daughter that could light up whole cities if tended’.

From this starting point, Roy’s narration intermingles fact and fiction, history with fantasy, to superb effect. The young Myshkin watches Axis prisoners of war pass through his hometown of Muntazir on a train — and is aghast. ‘We were accustomed to Indians being skeletal and diseased,’ he observes. ‘But white men were born never to resemble them.’ It’s the ‘were born never to’ that does the heavy lifting here — the essence of colonialism captured in one throwaway clause.

But this is no leaden anti-colonial polemic — Roy is too subtle a writer for that. Myshkin’s staid and obstinate father is not a sympathetic figure: devoting himself to the cause of wider independence while neglecting his familial duties.

Taking in the second world war, the fight for Indian independence and occasionally fast-forwarding into the 1990s, All the Lives We Never Lived is ultimately both a work of beautifully realised history and personal narrative. The cover blurb tells us that Roy is ‘one of India’s greatest living authors’. On this evidence it’s hard to disagree.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Profile by Claire Armitstead in the Guardian

Her latest novel features artists, radicals and political upheaval drawn from real life. The writer talks about social change, authenticity and the Himalayas

Such journalistic broadsides might lead one to expect that her novels would be equally polemical, but the longlisting of her third novel for the Man Booker prize in 2015 drew the world’s attention to a singular novelist capable of combining a no-holds barred analysis of India’s sexual hypocrisies with a delicate social comedy involving three elderly women on a temple pilgrimage.

Anuradha Roy with Miska. Photo by Christopher Maclehose
Where Sleeping on Jupiter was sharp and contemporary, her new novel sounds a more melancholy note. All the Lives We Never Lived is set against the tumultuous history of the 20th century, as India is dragged into a war that is not of its making and then abruptly liberated of colonial rule to make what it can of independence. Roy’s approach to this upheaval is characteristically oblique. The vacated bungalows of the British Raj in 1947 create a gardening problem for a new class of civil servant unfamiliar with the concept of land as leisure; the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi a year later is seen not in terms of the communal violence that provoked it but through its impact on Sydney Percy-Lancaster, the Anglo-Indian horticulturalist who is charged with providing enough flowers for planes to strew petals along five miles of funeral route.

Percy-Lancaster is one of several characters from history in the novel; they include the poet Rabindranath Tagore and the German painter and curator Walter Spies. Roy feeds the words of these figures – gleaned from diaries, letters and newspaper columns – through the consciousness of Myshkin, a fictional apprentice to Percy-Lancaster. When Myshkin was nine, his mother left him and his father, a political radical, to run away to Bali with Spies; he narrates the story in old age, looking back on his mother’s departure as the defining trauma of his life.

“I’d been carrying him around for a while,” Roy says of Myshkin. “When I first started, what I had in my mind was a little boy who was so immersed in pictures that he became them.” Her search took her to Bali, where she discovered paintings by Spies, who was credited with raising awareness of Balinese culture in the west in the early 20th century. “When I researched Spies, it was as if the dots of light on a map were starting to blink.”

It turned out that he had collaborated on an influential book about Balinese dance and theatre with another of the novel’s bohemian émigrés, the English dancer Beryl de Zoete, whose aquiline elegance was immortalised by the photographer Cecil Beaton. Spies had also acted as guide to Tagore when the Bengali poet visited Bali in 1927 in the company of an Indian academic who kept a detailed record of their travels. Collected into a book which is only available in Bengali, the writings of Tagore’s Boswell – Suniti Chatterji – provided a version of Indonesian history and culture that was very different to romantic European visions of “this enchanted island”.

Roy, who writes in English but speaks “Bengali with my mother”, Hindi and English with her husband and “Hindi to the dogs”, was well-placed to process this source material – some of which hadn’t been read for nearly a century. “I really felt when I was writing this book that all sorts of windows were opening up in my head,” she says, though she was aware of the risks of over-researching. “When you’re writing a historical novel with historical figures you can become burdened by the demands of authenticity. I wanted it to sit quite lightly.”

Her first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, also covered India’s early 20th-century history, though without the complication of real people. Published in 2008, it told the story of three generations of a Bengali family whose disintegrating houses speak of their faltering ambitions and fortunes – from a colonnaded riverside villa, in constant danger of being swept away, to a secretive forest house with its back to the road.

Roy herself lives on a remote hill farm in the Himalayas with her publisher husband, and the story of how they came to be there could come directly from one of her novels. Born in 1967 in Calcutta, the younger of two children, she spent her infancy living in makeshift camps as the family followed her field geologist father around some of India’s remotest regions. A picture of her mother washing clothes in a river while Anuradha and her brother look on from boulders attests to the material hardship behind this childhood idyll.

When she was seven years old, her father suffered the first of the heart attacks from which he would die when she was 19. The family were grounded in Hyderabad, where she went to local private schools before landing a university place to study English literature in Calcutta. As the future loomed with nothing obvious to fill it after graduation, she and a group of girlfriends dug out an old typewriter and decided to apply to Oxford and Cambridge “for a lark”. To her astonishment, they wrote back and she found herself enrolling for a second English degree at what was then New Hall (now Murray Edwards College), Cambridge.

After returning home for a while to look after her mother – “my father’s death was still raw for her” – she moved north to Delhi and landed a job with Oxford University Press, where she met a promising novelist turned star editor, Rukun Advani. For three years they worked together, until he was offered a writing residency in Scotland, and she could only get a visa to join him as his wife. When they decided to get married, there were difficulties: Roy says she was informed that OUP policy prohibited married couples from working together (although OUP disputed this). She left the company and Advani resigned in protest.

“It was absolutely ghastly. We had no money. They even took the car back before we could clear out our stuff,” Roy recalls. As the news spread, outraged writers began to cancel their contracts. “One of them said they’d left OUP, so what were we going to do about it?” So began Permanent Black, the academic publishing company which the couple founded in 2000. They named it after the ink pens they both liked to use, but also to honour their sense of “otherness … It felt like a different colour and identity from the very elite white publishing in the west.”

Starting from scratch was tough. A publisher friend gave them his mother’s old car along with the keys to a dilapidated house in the Himalayan foothills, which they restored, and where they now live and work. A writer – Sheila Dhar, to whom All the Lives We Never Lived is dedicated – bought Roy a laptop after seeing the couple squabbling over who was going to use their computer.

Permanent Black now publishes around a dozen books a year, and has a backlist of more than 400 titles, with Roy doing the design and publicity while Advani looks after the editing, rights and accounting. When her thoughts turned to writing her own novels, she assumed that she would have an easy ride – but she found herself back at the bottom of the heap, confronting 16 rejections. It was only when she bumped into the British publisher Christopher MacLehose at the London Book Fair that her luck changed. “He was very forbidding but he took 50 pages away with him, and at the end of the book fair said he’d like to read the rest.”

An Atlas of Impossible Longing, which was translated into 18 languages, was followed three years later by The Folded Earth, before they hit the Booker longlist jackpot with Sleeping on Jupiter. Roy wouldn’t publish with anyone else and doesn’t have an agent, saying “Of course I’ve had approaches, but I’m happier without one.”

The Himalayan setting of The Folded Earth gives a sense of the appeal of mountain life, with peaks glimmering in the dusk “as if jagged pieces of the moon had dropped from sky to earth”. But though Roy is a nature lover, who has carved her own garden from the rubble-strewn hillside, she is too political a writer to let herself be carried away by an ideal of natural beauty. In her novel, rumours of espionage and border raids swirl around a community in which a young girl is attacked by a political enforcer. Does she feel personally threatened in her mountain hideway? Not at all, she says. “Sometimes not seeing friends or having a cultural life feels very unhappy-making – and we have very shaky internet, which is a source of daily trauma – but it’s one of the few places in the country where I feel completely safe. There’s nobody there, and I have three very large mountain dogs.”
She writes in the mornings and afternoons, spends the evening on her design work, and now has a second cottage dedicated to her pottery. She doesn’t sell it, she says, “because if it’s beautiful I wouldn’t want to part with it and if it’s ugly nobody would want to buy it”, but it means that she drinks her morning coffee from a pot she’s made herself.

In All the Lives We Never Lived, Myshkin recalls his battles with his activist father. “Could I really not see what a gigantic project there was ahead for every young, patriotic Indian. Was I blind? When our just-freed country had to be pulled out of poverty, hunger, violence, illiteracy – what I wanted to do was grow flowers?”

There’s something of both father and son in Roy, who sits in her garden raging at a nation that is still beset with poverty and violence 70 years on. Days after our interview, as she is making her way home, she sends an email suffused with the observational detail that brings such a bloom to her fictional world. “Here we have rain,” she writes. “I am briefly in Delhi, green and monsoony, and saw a peacock pirouetting in a garden yesterday, which transformed this grubby old city in one second flat.”


Thursday, 14 June 2018

The first readers: what they thought

All the Lives We Never Lived was published on 15th May 2018 in India and 30th May 2015 in the UK


“. . . moving and brilliant . . . In the way that only fiction can do, Anuradha Roy’s thoughtful, eloquent and beautifully wrought novel allows us to feel the pulse of human actors whose lives and choices constitute an alternative to political history, yet prove that the personal is also the political” Supriya Chaudhuri, Biblio

"a writer of great subtlety and intelligence...a beautifully written and compelling story of how families fall apart and of what remains in the aftermath"
Kamila Shamsie, Guardian

"An extraordinary writer with many gifts"
Tishani Doshi, Hindu

"This questioning and subtle book, which ranges through freedom, nationalism and ecology, but is really a meditation on history itself. ... The scope of All the Lives We Never Lived is vast but also personal, both in temporal and geographical terms. It manages to retain a closely observed and restrained tone without omitting all of the outside factors that shape a person"
Sean Hewitt, Irish Times

"Taking in the second world war, the fight for Indian independence and occasionally fast-forwarding into the 1990s, All the Lives We Never Lived is ultimately both a work of beautifully realised history and personal narrative. The cover blurb tells us that Roy is ‘one of India’s greatest living authors’. On this evidence it’s hard to disagree"
David Patrikarakos in Spectator

"a novel that comes but rarely in our day and age...global in its appeal and yet Indian at its heart, there is never a dull moment ... a once-in-a-lifetime novel"
Saket Suman, Business Standard/ IANS

"Haunting, elegiac... with elements of the fantastical yet believable sense of magic realism that permeates the finest Indian literature from Salman Rushdie through to Vikram Chandra"
John Walshe, Sunday Business Post

"Affecting tale of flawed characters and the constraints they struggle against - and amid the atmospheric historical detailing, there are pin-sharp modern resonances with modern India's nationalism and punishing patriarchy"
Siobhan Murphy, The Times

"A devastating story of love and loss...a brilliant book about human relationships, and a particular time in the history of India woven together in a book of blinding perception and compassion for the human condition"
Jennifer Crocker, Cape Times

"From Sleeping on Jupiter to this book, Roy seems to be bettering her own brilliance. Though the narration is effortless, Roy’s research and imagination in recreating a bygone era shines out. This is an excellent, unputdownable book"
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Hindu

"Roy’s writing is full of nuance – there is nothing didactic about the way she tackles the grand themes that pit the personal against the political . . . complex characters are conveyed in simple prose. She shows the tragic fallout of the decisions they make while not detracting from their humanity"
Salil Tripathi in South China Morning Post

"This novel has Roy’s trademark features that have won her previous books critical acclaim and commercial success: lyrical lucid prose, fully realized characters, a flawed female protagonist, sensuous evocation of a bygone era, a quiet examination of the myriad fissures of India.... from its arresting opening, the narrative sweeps you along"
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, The Punch

"reinvents the idea and act of freedom during the colonial struggle for independence"
Jessica Xalcxo, ShethePeople

"[A] wistful tale of wartime collateral damage, both continental and intimate in scale"
Anthony Cummins, Daily Mail

"Anuradha Roy has crafted the perfect novel on one woman’s search for freedom... [she] is a novelist at the peak of her prowess, and in this novel there is little she does wrong"
Devapriya Roy in Open

"A love letter to writing and storytelling, set in the landscape of personal memory and public, political history" Sana Goyal, Scroll

"a brilliantly crafted novel ... that piques the reader's interest with every turn of the page" Pooja Salvi, DNA

Selected interviews
Talking Books with Gavin Esler at the Hay Festival 2018
telecast on BBC World 16th and 17th June 2108
Front Row with John Wilson, BBC Radio Four; podcast downloads available
Interview with Manreet Sodhi Someshwar in Punch 2018
Interview with Jessica Xalcxo in ShethePeople
Interview with Amrita Dutta in Indian Express
Interview with Mini Kapoor in the Hindu
Interview with Sana Goyal in Scroll








Monday, 14 May 2018

ALL THE LIVES WE NEVER LIVED

PUBLISHED TODAY IN INDIA
(Hachette)

PUBLISHING IN BRITAIN AND EUROPE ON 31 MAY 2018 (Maclehose Press)

PUBLISHING IN THE USA AND CANADA  
(Simon Schuster/ Atria Books)
ON 20 NOVEMBER 2018 

PUBLISHING IN SRI LANKA IN SUMMER 2018 
(Perera-Husain)

Translations into German, Russian, Romanian, French coming soon

War, nationalism, and trees shape lives in unforeseeable ways in this novel about a family and a country struggling with enormous transformations.
‘In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman’ – so begins the story of Myshkin and his mother, Gayatri, who is driven to rebel against tradition and follow her artist’s instinct for freedom.
Freedom of a different kind is in the air across India. The fight against British rule is reaching a critical turn. The Nazis have come to power in Germany. At this point of crisis, two strangers arrive in Gayatri’s town, opening up to her the vision of other possible lives.
What took Myshkin’s mother from India to Dutch-held Bali in the 1930s, ripping a knife through his comfortingly familiar universe? Excavating the roots of the world in which he was abandoned, Myshkin comes to understand the connections between the anguish at home and a war-torn universe overtaken by patriotism.
Anuradha Roy’s deeply moving novel tells the story of men and women trapped in a dangerous era uncannily similar to the present. Its scale is matched by its power as a parable for our times.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The India I grew up in has gone. These rapes show a damaged, divided nation.

(Published in The Guardian, 17th April 2018)


A chilling leitmotif of Nordic crime fiction is a child leaving home to play, never to return. Detectives search out trails pointing to sexual violence and murder, and by degrees it becomes clear that the crime is not isolated: it is the symptom of a damaged community. The abduction, gang-rape, and murder in India of eight-year-old Asifa Bano reveals such damage on a terrifying scale. It shows that the slow sectarian poison released into the country’s bloodstream by its Hindu nationalists has reached full toxicity.

Where government statistics say four rapes are reported across the country every hour, sexual assault is no longer news. Indian minds have been rearranged by the constant violence of their surroundings. Crimes against women, children and minority communities are normalised enough for only the most sensational to be reported. The reasons Asifa’s ordeal has shaken a nation exhausted by brutality are four. The victim was a little girl. She was picked because she was Muslim. The murder was not the act of isolated deviants but allegedly of well-organised Hindu zealots. And the men who are accused of raping her included a retired government official and two serving police officers.

When the police in Jammu (the Hindu-dominated part of Kashmir) tried to register a charge against the men they had arrested, a Hindu nationalist mob threatened the few honest policemen and lawyers who were trying to do their jobs. The was a mob with a difference: it included government ministers, lawyers and women waving the national flag in favour of the arrested men, as well as supporters of the two major Indian parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in Britain this week to attend the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

Nationalism can be benign as well as malignant: Tagore foresaw the malignant variant a century ago. “Alien government in India is a chameleon,” he wrote. “Today it comes in the guise of an Englishman … the next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen.” Given the right political conditions, virulent nationalism creeps into every bone, every thought process. When it leads to the calculated mutilation of a child, ethnic cleansing does not appear too far distant. If the world has understood fascism better through Anne Frank, its understanding of contemporary India will remain incomplete unless it recognises the political venom that killed Asifa.

Asifa belonged to a nomadic Muslim tribe that herds its cattle 300 miles twice a year in search of pasture. In January, when the snow lies deep in their alpine meadows, these shepherds walk down to Jammu. Here they graze their animals in the little land still available to them. Asifa went one evening to bring back grazing horses, and never returned.

Recently filed police investigations conclude that a group of men imprisoned her for a week, drugged her, starved her, and took turns to rape her in a Hindu shrine. It was well organised. The hiding place was agreed, and sedatives kept at hand. The motive was to strike terror among the Muslim nomads and drive them from Rasana, a largely Hindu village. Tribal Muslims make up a negligible percentage of the local population, perhaps 8%. Even so, the Hindus there fear “demographic change”, and have been fighting to drive them out.

Absolute darkness begins imperceptibly, as gathering dusk. Reading of 1930s Vienna in Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist some months ago, I began to feel an uneasy sense of familiarity. At first, only a few minor problems befall Seethaler’s Jewish tobacconist. His antisemitic neighbour, a butcher, contrives through a series of petty offences to make life difficult. After each act of vandalism, the tobacconist replaces broken glass, swabs away entrails, opens his shop again. The vandalism is a feeble precursor of what is to come. Anschluss is a few months away and it requires little conjecture to know how the novel and its tobacconist end. 

Even as the details of Asifa’s death emerged, another crime came to light, this time from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, also ruled by the BJP. The father of a teenage girl wanted merely to lodge a report with the police that his daughter had been raped over several days by a legislator and his brother. The father was arrested and died soon after in custody.

The thread that binds these crimes is the sense of invincibility that a majoritarian regime has granted its personnel and supporters. Manifestations of the newfound swagger include vandalising sprees after electoral victories, and the lynching of Muslims and Dalits (the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy). The general idea is to create a sense of terror and uncertainty, and in this the tacit support of the state pumps up the mobs – and they rampage with greater confidence. In swathes of rural north India, violating women to signal caste, religious and masculine supremacy is only an extension of such activity. The primeval divisions within Indian society have never been sharper. The BJP’s ruthless drive to consolidate patriarchal Hinduism has pressurised women about what they can wear, families about what they can eat, and young people about who they may marry. Parties in the opposition, envying the electoral success of the BJP, tend to speak out against this culture of sectarian hatred after first sniffing which way the wind is blowing, then gauging how strongly it is blowing.

In the India where I grew up, memories of Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru were strong; the necessity of secularism was drummed into us. We knew that our politicians were largely venal, but it was still a country in which morality and humanity mattered. Now, journalists and writers who speak up against the undeclared war on Dalits, Muslims, poor people and women are trolled by cyber-mobs. – if they’re lucky. The most publicised murder last year was of a dissenting journalist shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru, in south India.

Modi, renowned as a demagogue, is coming to be even better known for what he chooses to stay silent about. Sympathy for the suffering individual, many have noticed, is not among his most distinctive traits. When the student Jyoti Singh “Nirbhaya” was raped and killed in Delhi in 2012, it took several days of massive public outrage to stir Sonia Gandhi and her ruling Congress party, from their mansions. In the aftermath of Asifa, the current prime minister, perhaps quicker off the blocks, took a mere three days after the details of the eight-year-old’s killing were released to understand how much he stands to lose by saying nothing when the whole world is watching. The times are such that even so little so late from Modi has been seen as an acknowledgement, however reluctant, that India’s constitution requires him to ensure justice and equality for all its many communities.