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.




No More Calmly Sailing By


Published in The Wire, 13th April 2018


Who among us today, if we were born Hindu, does not have at least one relative or acquaintance who hates Muslims? Who among us does not have friends – men and women thought to be moral and humane – that have closed their eyes to the brutal amorality of the ruling regime, seeing it instead as the political road to India’s salvation? Will they be able to carry on unchanged even now, after the people they voted in have sprung to the defence of the rapists and murderers of an eight-year-old? Will they fail even now to see that a girl of that age is neither Hindu nor Muslim but only a child?


The barbarism of victorious armies was meant to have been over and done with, and the founding of the League of Nations after the First World War came with the liberal belief – shattered by the Nazis – that civilised life was more or less inevitable. In the India where I grew up, the exploitative British regime was over, it was post-Nehru, a country peopled with liberal myths and socialist dreams. There were riots, the country did simmer and boil off and on, but in the end, it was agreed, the state and the judiciary would follow the Western institutions on which they were modelled. Until the early 1990s, when the Congress Party grew unbelievably corrupt and turned a blind eye to the Babri destruction, medieval brutality was, I thought, over: political enemies would no longer be poisoned, women and children would no longer be savaged as a matter of course to signal the conquest of a victorious army.

After their giant electoral victories, the new, democratically elected armies of the Hindu Right have proven the opposite.

I was about to catch a flight when the details on Asifa were published and as I tried functioning with the normalcy and efficiency airports demand, it became a steady drum beat inside me: when you were taking a train down from the hills, a voice inside me said, they shoved two pills down her throat to drug her; while you were making yourself toast, they shoved themselves into her: grown men took turns forcing themselves into a child; while you were walking into the airport, they bashed her head in with a stone; they raped her in a temple; they hid her under a bed; they strangled her with her own clothes.

After that, one of them joined the search for the missing girl. Because he was a policemen. Kashmir’s lawmakers then marched to save the policemen from being charged with rape. Women too marched to defend the rapists: because they are Hindu and the child who was gangraped and killed was the daughter of a Muslim goatherd. It is impossible, when this level of mental sickness and brutality have coalesced, to do anything more than fall into the silence of absolute despair. Until, that is, an overwhelming rage sweeps away the despair.

Around me, at the airport, a woman argued over why they had given her chicken noodles when she’d asked for veg noodles. A group of little girls were planning a movie outing on their first day of travel. I drank my lassi wondering why I had that strangely disjointed, disembodied feeling you have when someone close dies, as if there is a fuzzy glass between you and normal life. But nobody close to me had died. This was a child I had never known, a little girl who went out to bring back her family’s animals and then was drugged, imprisoned, raped, and tortured for a week before her head was battered with a stone.

A long-ago poem by Auden came back to me, sounding curiously anaemic now. “Everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster . . . and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” That poem is about obliviousness, not indifference. The dogs who “go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse [who] scratches its innocent behind on a tree” have no idea there is someone being tortured, a boy falling to his death.

But what of those who do know?

I remember the preternatural hush that hung over Delhi after the Nirbhaya rape and am old enough to remember the countrywide horror over the Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. There is no horror any longer. These things happen, they happen somewhere else, they happen to someone else. At the airport there was no inkling of a national crisis. If you are affluent enough to fly, if you are not Dalit or Muslim, you are forever in a bulletproof, air-conditioned cocoon. But what is it like not to have the cocoon?  

I went to a Muslim school in Hyderabad where most of my childhood friends were Muslim. At that age, I had nearly no awareness of my minority Hinduness, nor had my playmates much inkling of their Muslimness. I have a sense of where these friends are now: they are silent somewhere. They are feeling cornered somewhere, besieged by the sense of hunting dogs coming after them. This is not the country we grew up in together, the necessity of secularism drummed into us. The venality and cynicism of politicians was ordinary, normal, an unworrying aspect of how politics was done in our part of the world. It was still a country in which parents were more likely to teach you about morality and manners, not sheer human survival.

What can you do as an ordinary citizen trying to survive in a country run by criminal gangs? Mafias on a scale so large that they seem to exist beyond anyone’s reach. Mafias so clever at manipulating belief that millions believe their every lie? What can you do when you see your protectors turn into killers? And what can you possibly do as a solitary writer?

Everyone in wartime is not a soldier, nor can everyone in times such as these be a lawyer or activist. Masons, plumbers, teachers, doctors are still needed; there are still houses to be built, children to be taught, leaking taps to be fixed. For a long time I told myself my usefulness lay in doing my own work. Is this true or is it merely a way of legitimising my desire to somehow carry on living only as I know how to? I don’t have the answer.

Other writers say much the same: that the work of the writer is to write books that make people think, which alter their world even if for the few days they are reading that book. Writers are not investigative journalists, and for a writer of novels it is especially difficult to respond to events that are current, volatile. “It’s dangerous for novelists to point a plot at a moving target,” says Lionel Shriver. It is also true now that novelists are more usually valued when they write novels that are overtly political. They have always to bear the burden of being literary activists – how else, in this kind of country, can a writer remain relevant? Is it possible to construct perfect paragraphs while your house is burning?

In my small hill-town I teach spoken English to a girl of nine. She is a goatherd. She goes to a government school which teaches her quite little. She dreams of being an actress. After school, in the evening she sets off to bring back her family’s grazing cattle, waving a switch, walking into the deep forest with nothing but two dogs for protection. I walk with her for a part of the way and we talk, she in halting English, I correcting her pronunciation and tenses. Then I turn back and she carries on alone. Our town is safe, we say, she has only wildlife to fear.








Turning Seasons


(The Telegraph, Wednesday April 25th 2018)

On the morning of 24th January we woke to white: it must have snowed steadily through the night for the trees to be so laden and for our surroundings to acquire such a hushed stillness. From our windows we could see that every range between us and the Trishul and Nanda Devi had changed colour. It was the first snow of the season, and the first sign of any moisture in months.

Two days later, walking in the forest, I came upon a rhododendron scarlet with flowers. At the foot of the tree was a hollow with snow still ankle-deep, as were many sheltered parts of the forest that saw little sun through the day. To find rhododendron in flower in deep winter is as strange in these hills as sighting a peacock. Soon, reports began to appear about the early flowering of the Rhododendron arboretum all over the western Himalaya. It appeared that my tree-in-a-hurry was not the only one to bloom ahead of time, rising temperatures meant that trees were flowering prematurely in many places.


The first blossoming of the buransh, as rhododendron is called in the Kumaon, is followed by one of the more picturesque festivals of the hills, Phooldeyi. Children appear in the morning bearing steel plates with peach, plum, and buransh blossoms that they scatter on doorsteps, in the hope of a little pocket money. It is a festival that marks spring by saying, “Winter’s over”.

In rural areas the flutterings of climate change are swiftly apparent. Someone points out it has been a year since we saw the raven, which used to be a common sight. The pushy grey pigeon of the plains has been making determined moves to oust our whistling thrushes from their nooks and the thrushes are too elegant, too understated, too musical to win crude power games. From our windows, through December, we could see that as days passed without winter rain, the sides of the high peaks darkened: what we were looking at was not ice but black rock. There was a scattering of white only at the very tops of the peaks.

For most people in the plains, the hills come alive in summer. Many who live here – those who are not hoteliers or taxi-drivers – dread its arrival. Winter is a time of icy cold and utter calm, of walks through empty forests, trees laden with oranges -- and water in our taps. The bliss ends in summer, when pleasure-seekers thunder uphill in their four-wheel drives to hotels that will suck all the water out from the town systems to feed their flushes and showers.

Summer is for water wars. Not only is there less water to go around, it is an open secret that the hotels make offers to waterworks employees that they cannot refuse – and soon after, our supply dries up. Days can pass without water and every conversation begins with the words “Paani aya?” Around communal taps you can see a queue of assorted water-gathering vessels from plastic jerrycans to buckets and pitchers that are stand-ins for their human owners. The bucket queue, though inert, pulses with potential for wrecking the peace. Buckets that have somehow acquired life and gone up or down the queue illegally can ignite blood-feuds.

In Capetown, as they approach Day Zero when municipal water supplies cease and people are limited to 25 litres of water a day, the South African cabinet is drawing up plans to deploy police at the water collection points. This dystopian scenario does not seem too far-fetched in Indian hill stations. Squabbles and intrigues over water conjure up more conspiracy theories than bank frauds.

The spindly, alcoholic waterworks clerk charged with turning taps on and off becomes the most sought after man in town. Once, having searched for him fruitlessly for more than a week, I spotted his familiar bald head just below the dip in a slope and rushed towards him with a grovelling “Namaste” only to find that I had interrupted him at a critical point in his al fresco ablutions. We did not have water in our taps for several days after that.

Other than news of water, the bush network remains alive through the summer for news of fires. After a winter as dry as this one has been, the hills crackle like heaps of kindling waiting for one carelessly tossed match or cigarette -- or for arsonists involved in timber smuggling, as some allege.

Bush fires in California and Australia are fought aerially, with water and fire retardant sprayed from helicopters. Here the fires have to be beaten out and fire-lines created to prevent their spread. There are evenings when we stay up hypnotized by the slow approach of necklaces of flames that creep closer and closer. The air is dense with the smell of smoke. For the firefighters raking firelines across the slopes it is even harder to breathe than it is for us. Most terrifying of all is to see ridges covered with chir pine burst into flame. And down in the burning valleys around us, there are wild animals with no escape routes.

Ironically, one of the prized features of hill holidays for well-off metropolitan tourists is the “bonfire dinner”. Most hotels offer it as the cherry on the package tour cake, so that at the height of summer when the snow peaks -- or whatever remains of them – are hidden in a dust haze, people gather around blazing bonfires and sing and drink their stress away. Owls hoot and foxes call unheard as the antakshari competitions hit their high notes. It is unusual to find tourists in the hills who come here to walk or climb or birdwatch. Instead, we are often stopped by cars that pull up next to us, after which a window slides down and someone demands: “Yahaan Place-to-See Kya hai?”

Since Ranikhet is resolutely lacking in “Place-to-Sees”, the administration cleared away a substantial stretch of mixed oak and kaphal forest some years ago and created an artificial lake complete with duck-prowed boats and a nylon rope-bridge for “adventure tourism”. If Nainital and Bhimtal have famous lakes, could Ranikhet afford to be left behind – even if there were no water in the taps? This pond of brown, largely stagnant water is now featured in tourist brochures as “Rani Jheel”. Park benches circle it and signs lead the way to it, including one on a road above the lake that points to the “First View of Rani Jheel”.

And so the buses and 4X4s come and go, leaving trails of Lays and Bingo. I recently read about a Swedish way of exercising called Plogging, which simply involves picking up the trash while jogging. We have been doing this for years. Once a week every summer, when we walk, we leave home with large bin bags and carry on for as long as our energies last and our bags have space, picking up trash dumped by picnickers. I now have an intimate sense of the consumption patterns of metropolitan Indians. They love eating, specially junk that comes in foil packets; they love drinking alcohol, especially super-strong beer and Old Monk rum. They consume quantities of gutka. And they drink bottled water.


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)