Saturday, 19 September 2020

All the Lives We Never Lived shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award

All the Lives We Never Lived has been shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. 



The shortlist is drawn from a longlist of 156 novels submitted by library systems in 119 cities in 40 countries.

The statement from the judges said:

"Set in the 1930s, Anuradha Roy’s new novel is like an Indian raga that continues to resonate long after you have finished the last chapter. Myshkin is the nine year-old protagonist, and the central event in his life is revealed in the novel’s opening sentence: “I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman”. The Englishman turned out to be Walter, a German, who had to leave British India in a hurry, taking Myshkin’s beloved mother, with him, triggering a memorable saga of love, memory, kindness, human frailty and the devastating loneliness of a boy."

Listen here to brilliant actors reading from the shortlisted books

Excerpted below is a report by Martin Doyle in Irish Times


Nobel Prize, Women’s Prize, Giller Prize and US National Book Award winners shortlisted

Anna Burns, Olga Tokarczuk and Tayari Jones, winners respectively of the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Women’s Prize for Fiction, are among the 10 authors shortlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.

The €100,000 award, sponsored by Dublin City Council, is the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English.

Eight of the shortlisted writers are women, including Canadian Giller Award winner Esi Edugyan for Washington Black and US National Book Award winner Sigrid Nunez for The Friend, and three are novels in translation.

The shortlist

  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (British) Read our review
  • Milkman by Anna Burns (Irish) Read our review
  • Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (Iranian-French), translated by Tina Kover
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canadian) Read our review
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (US) Read our review
  • History of Violence by Édouard Louis (French), translated by Lorin Stein Read our review
  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (US) Read our review
  • There There by Tommy Orange (Native American) Read our review
  • All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy (Indian) Read our review
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Polish), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones Read our review

As well as Ireland, Poland, the US and Canada, the shortlist spans Britain, Iran and France. Of the shortlisted works not already garlanded with awards, perhaps the standout title is There There by Native American author Tommy Orange. The judges said of it: “the devastating history of genocide against Native American people rubs up against the everyday lives of this cast of contemporary ‘Urban Indians’ with astonishing effectiveness”.


Read an interview in Hindu here.

Read an article from the India Abroad News Service here

Sunday, 24 May 2020

A Letter from Luxembourg

The French translation of All the Lives We Never Lived had a bumpy start. Its release in March 2020 crashed full tilt into worldwide lockdowns. Bookshops were shut, literary festivals cancelled, reading seemed to be the last thing on people's distracted, panic-stricken minds. I thought the book would sink to the bottom of the sea floor and rest quietly there along with other wrecks.
But readers are tenacious people. The other day there was an email from one of them, Valérie Voisin, which I am reproducing below unaltered because it so vividly and movingly describes her experience of how she got and read a book by an author unknown to her, during a lockdown. 
I am grateful to Valérie for taking the trouble to write to me and for giving me permission to reproduce her message.

Dear Madam,

I discovered your novel during the lockdown when the bookshop started a on-line shop section and delivered books at home. It was a new process for the book seller and he only provided list of books without more details.

I selected your novel because of the title which was so intriguing. I looked on the net what it is about and have been convince by the topic, mix of family relationship, art, history and the exoticism of all countries mentioned... all what i generally like.

I am French and i leave in Luxembourg, I am not used to write author. So please excuse my clumsiness.

I just finished to read your book 30 min ago, it accompanied me during this strange period and I am so grateful to choose it.

Being sensitive to art, travel, discovering people, your novel allow me to have all of them when i was just sitting on the sofa with a limited area to move around. I liked the description of human relationship, so complex but not so different from one continent to another. All rules and restrictions imposed on women, the "what will people say". Everywhere it is the same...

It was fantastic to travel through your words in your country or in Bali. To feel and imagine the nature around.

Thanks to you, I am discovering this artist what I never heard about before, discovering his production, his sensitivity. I will have nice moments now to read about him and try to discovering his paintings. The art is the 20's/30's was extraordinary and I am delighted to discover something new about this period.

I am so enthusiast about your book that since 2 weeks, I am recommanding it to my relatives. I don't know what they will do about it, read or not read, but for me it was a fantastic moment.

Your work must have been massive and the help from so many people is impressive but the result is a beautiful jewellery.

Many thanks and I will be happy to ready your other books.

Have a lovely day.

Valerie Voisin

"Un beau roman : drames intimes, soubresauts historiques du XX° et
univers fascinant de Bali" -- Marie de Benoist, Culture Tops

"Un livre dépaysant et émouvant que je vous recommande vivement si vous voulez vous évader" -- Journal de François

"Une roman tout de poésie et de nostalgie" Madame Figaro

"Anuradha Roy maîtrise l’art des récits amples, peuplés de personnages riches, mûris en elle" -- Marianne Meunier, La Croix L'Hebdo

"Ici la grande histoire côtoie l'intime. Un livre poignante sur l'enfance déchirée, l'amour malmené et la trajectoire heurtée d'une femme libre" DNA

"Un merveilleux roman, à la fois historique et poétique, sur la trajectoire heurtée d’une femme libre et sur la douloureuse posture d’attente adoptée par son fils" Madame Maroc,  10 livres à lire absolument (et à se faire livrer)

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Carolyn Reidy 1949 -2020

At a time when the sky is darkening every day with bad news, it grew even darker today with the news of Carolyn Reidy's sudden death.

She was publisher at Simon and Schuster, and its President. "She began her career at Random House in 1974, in the subsidiary rights department. She sat outside the office of Toni Morrison, who was an editor in the trade book division at the time and who, by Ms. Reidy’s account, proved to be an inspiration," says the New York Times.

"She also was never afraid to offer a controversial glimpse into her thinking. At Frankfurt, when asked about Brexit, she made a point of asserting that the advantage the UK market historically has had with its exclusive rights in the European market would be over. Already raised eyebrows shot up even further when she added, 'I still don’t understand why the British think they have India,'" Publishing Perspectives wrote.

Among authors she published in a company that had 17 imprints were Frank McCourt, Stephen King, Hillary Clinton, Bruce Springsteen. And yet, S&S CFO Dennis Eulau notes: "She was equally attentive, on a personal level, to our authors, to whom she sent handwritten notes when they received awards, made the bestseller list, or simply to let them know when she finished reading their books."

This is true. Each time S&S published one of my books, including the very first, she wrote to me after reading it, and her comments showed she read with depth and intelligence and empathy. In 2011, when the Free Press (then a division of S&S) and its wonderful Martha Levin signed on An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by and by I had an email from Carolyn. I did not know who she was at that time and the email came with no pompous designation or job title. It was a while before my inquiries led to an answer about the writer of the email. "I was so captivated that I wanted to write and thank you for giving us a work of such depth and beauty," she wrote. "I was transported to another time and place, felt the oppressive heat and rising waters -- both of nature and of history as time passed."
By the time All the Lives We Never Lived was published, I was not surprised by her detailed and deeply felt reading of it, which followed in due course.

When we met, I had the sense of someone formidable yet democratic and unstuffy. It feels strange and sad to think I will never see her again and that she will not be there as a rock solid presence supporting my books because she had believed in them and taken them on.

Sunday, 3 May 2020


Mall Road, Ranikhet | Anuradha Roy

It is the middle of April and weeks into lockdown, limbo is a jittery place. 

In today’s newspaper, gunshots during a game of Ludo: “Jai accused Prashant of coughing with the intention of giving coronavirus to other people. He shot him in the thigh.” Rumours whine like mosquitoes. A strident voice wafts across from next door: “Is this futuristic Chinese bioterrorism or a Muslim conspiracy?” Some say our hellish sanitation and tropical fevers have given us a carapace of immunity. We breathe calmer for a moment. Then the bad news closes in again: lost jobs, suffering, starvation and no end in sight.

I chanced upon a tweet yesterday from Christina Lamb, a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times. “For the first time in my life I find myself wishing I lived in the country with a dog and a breadmaker and maybe a lemon tree.” That’s been us the past 20 years, in a corner of the Himalayas with three dogs and two lemon trees. No breadmaker though. We’ve always made bread the old-fashioned way, massaging dough like a lover’s limbs, not as a hobby but because it’s the only way we can have passable bread. Now friends at a loose end write for tips on starters and crusts and send sweetly proud images of fresh loaves. I’m a specialist agony aunt with time on her hands. In my past life I wrote fiction, my spouse ran an independent press. Now printing presses are closed and books locked in storage.

For the moment we have sky, forests, bread. And a series of unpredictable problems. Last week someone’s cow keeled over in the nearby forest. We could see it from our house: an immense, immobile mound. Since there are no municipal services for such things the owner gathered four friends who dug a pit big enough to house a lorry, then rolled the carcass into it. Social distancing remained a hopeless aspiration during this exercise.

Read the rest here in the Economist, where I wrote on the experience of lockdown in Ranikhet alongside Nilanjana Roy and Rahul Bhattacharya, who wrote in from Delhi.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Tales of Two Planets


In the past five years, John Freeman, previously editor of Granta, has launched a celebrated international literary magazine, Freeman’s, and compiled two acclaimed anthologies that deal with income inequality as it is experienced.  Here, he draws together a group of our greatest writers from around the world to help us see how the environmental crisis is hitting some of the most vulnerable communities where they live. Galvanized by his conversations with writers and activists around the world, Freeman engaged with some of today’s most eloquent storytellers, many of whom hail from the places under the most acute stress–from the capital of Burundi to Bangkok, Thailand. The response has been extraordinary. 
Margaret Atwood conjures up a dystopian future in a remarkable poem. Edwidge Danticat to Haiti; Tahmima Anam to Bangladesh; while Eka Kurniawan brings us to Indonesia, Chinelo Okparanta to Nigeria, and Anuradha Roy to the Himalayas in the wake of floods, dam building, and drought. 
This is a literary all-points bulletin of fiction, essays, poems, and reportage about the most important crisis of our times.
  "Fierce and provocative, this diverse collection shows that climate change is not just a problem for developing nations. One day, it will become a matter of life and death for rich and poor alike... A powerful and timely collection on a topic that cannot be ignored" Kirkus Reviews
Contributors: Sulaiman Addonia, Juan Miguel Álvarez, Tahmima Anam, Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, Tishani Doshi, Yasmine El Rashidi, Mariana Enriquez, Gaël Faye, Aminatta Forna, Lauren Groff, Eduardo Halfon, Mohammed Hanif, Ishion Hutchinson, Daisy Johnson, Lawrence Joseph, Billy Kahora, Eka Kurniawan, Krys Lee, Andri Snær Magnason, Khaled Mattawa, Ligaya Mishan, Lina Mounzer, Sayaka Murata, Chinelo Okparanta, Diego Enrique Osorno, Anuradha Roy, Raja Shehadeh & Penny Johnson, Sjón, Lars Skinnebach, Burhan Sönmez, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Ian Teh, Tayi Tibble, and Joy Williams

Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World

Edited by

“[E]nvironmental and humanitarian crises in Egypt, Mexico, Hawaii, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and beyond are brought forward in masterful works elegiac, angry, and ironic in Freeman’s clarion global chorus.”

Booklist, starred review 


Order with Tales of Two Americas 
(“A brilliant anthology on inequality” – Salon)
and get 30% off both books.

Offer valid on paperbacks, e-books and bundles
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Friday, 31 January 2020


Late in 2018, I had a message from a stranger in the United States. He was delighted, he said, to see Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book included in my list of six favourites in a magazine he had been reading. He was a potter, his name was Jeff Diehl, and he thought the Leach classic was an unusual title to feature on a novelist’s list. I wrote back explaining that though my work was writing and designing book jackets, I made pots too (after a fashion). 

Over the next months this kind stranger replied in careful detail to every question I asked him about kilns, glazes, pots, wheels. He sent me formulae for glazes he thought might work for me; he worked out programmes suited to my new kiln, sent video links, articles. The generosity was staggering. There also came fragments about Lockbridge Pottery, and his family and other animals: his potter-wife Donna, their two sons, their dog and cat. Our messages travelled on the internet, but they felt like letters. 

Donna Diehl and Jeff Diehl tending the salt kiln
After about a year of this archaic pen-friendship, a writing-related trip to America came up for me, and Jeff invited me to come and spend a week with them, learning. Lockbridge Pottery was in a remote part of West Virginia. I looked it up: a dot on the map, lost in vast washes of green and blue: lakes, mountains, gorges, and white water rivers. It was miles from an airport or train station; there were no taxis or hotels.
I never lock myself into situations where there is no escape route, even booking myself aisle seats on long flights so I don’t feel trapped. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was battered by waves of panic. What did I know of this potter-couple beyond scraps from the internet and their emails? And though they were inviting me into their home, what did they know of me? This was not just high risk, it was lunacy.
I climbed into a train on a chilly September dawn at New York’s Penn Station, and started the long journey south. A mountainous, wheezing man in the next row of seats vacuumed up packet after packet of crunchies and watched reruns of Friends on his notebook. We went past Washington DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and soon my world of known place-names was gone. As morning turned to afternoon, we passed Alexandria, Culpeper and Clifton Forge. I had never heard of them. In the dining car, two men in Amtrak uniforms sat inhaling the scent of microwaved hot dogs, exchanging slow, rambling stories broken by guffaws. The hills and trees outside made you want to walk into the Blue Ridge Mountains, wander the trails, sit below an autumnal beech tree. There were tiny streets with level crossings, and at one of them, an elderly, bare-bodied man stood below a flag, waving at us, beaming like a child.
After ten and a half hours, I got off with my suitcase at White Sulphur Springs and looked around for the people I only knew from emails. Some reckless mutual leap of faith had led to this moment: two American potters waiting at a tiny station in the Appalachians for a stranger from a small town in the Indian Himalaya.
It was a picture-perfect autumn evening. The sunset coated everything with honey.

Early in our correspondence, Jeff had sent me a film about a friend of his, a master potter from Korea, Kang Hyo Lee. In the film, Kang Hyo spoke of his crisis of faith, a time when he had felt utterly adrift, and left home for several months to meditate and reason it out. After a period of hard thinking came a sense of the elusive truth: “In the past, I thought the important things were far away from me. So I worked hard and thought hard every day in order to get to those important things. But I realised these things were actually close by.”
When you look at the first half of Jeff’s career and compare it to his present, you wonder if such a moment of epiphany came to him too. He has had shows in Korea, at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, and taught students in Germany, China, Korea, and closer home. He has won a shelf-full of awards. Yet now, though he still loves to learn and teach...

Saturday, 18 January 2020


The Nilimarani Sahitya Samman 2020 for contribution to Indian Literature  was instituted by the Odisha's prominent cultural magazine Kadambini. It was given last year to Odiya writer Manoj Das. To receive recognition for my work from writers and editors in Odisha, which has a remarkable literature of its own, was a great honour. The ceremony took place on 5th January in Bhubaneshwar, at a literature festival for local magazines that is run by Kadambini.

(left to right) Achyuta Samanta, MP; Rahul Dev, journalist; Haraprasad Das, writer; Santanu Kumar Archarya, writer; Salman Khursheed, former foreign minister: Rajat Kapoor, theatre director; Mridula Garg, writer; Itirani Samanta, writer and editor
Ever since I’ve come back from Bhubaneshwar I haven’t stopped telling people about the remarkable work that is being done by Kadambini and the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, which is another arm of the organisation. It was wonderful to experience the vibrant literary atmosphere at the festival, and to see thousands of tribal children at classes and games at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences. While the monthly magazine is edited by the writer Itirani Samanta, her brother, M.P. Mr Achyuta Samanta is behind the educational initiative for tribal children. I saw extensive grounds, classrooms, sports facilities, vocational training areas, dormitories, modern kitchens and a bakery at which the most delicious rolls and biscuits were being made.

After school wandering in the grounds

Panel describing some of the main tribes in Odisha

Their classes had just ended

Saturday, 12 October 2019


"Fans of Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, “Warlight,” will appreciate Roy’s similarly sensitive exploration of a child’s mingled confusion, resentment and hope...Even more captivating than the unexpected turns of this plot is the way she reaches into the depths of melancholy but never 
sinks into despair" 
Ron Charles, Washington Post

"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

Replete with the author’s characteristic virtues: an unerring eye for meaningful detail, vividly sensual descriptions of place, the ability to dwell in uncertainty, a luminous empathy for outsiders, misfits, and anyone struggling with limitation, constraint, and oppression... it is admirable, impressive, intelligent. Throughout, its artist characters’ dedication to beauty and meaning in the face of disaster and suffering ... shimmers alluringly"  
Priscilla Gilman, Boston Globe

"The book’s content and tone reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. It also has a similar success weaving history into the lives of deeply rendered characters....a smart, powerful and ultimately illuminating book"  

Friday, 23 August 2019


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


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


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