Thursday, 17 December 2020

What We Need: Animals and Touch in Lockdown

 "The longer we are denied what we took for granted, the more intensely we yearn for it."

(Published in Lit Hub and Indian Quarterly)

At the hour when, in pandemic times, sleep tends to thin or spin into nightmares, I felt one of my dogs climb into my bed last night. She placed herself against me so that she found the curve of my neck where she knows she can rest her head. This dog has trained me for five years, and not for nothing: although I was half-asleep, my hand reached out as if it had a life independent of my drowsiness, and my fingers began to run through her fur. With each movement of my fingers, her breathing deepened. So did mine. The nightmares receded, and we fell asleep together.

Not long ago, we used to hug, kiss, stroke. We touched the feet of the elderly to show respect. They blessed us by resting their hands on our heads. Today, scenes in films that show people flying into each other’s arms at airports or sharing the same spoon at a café bring about a deep, desperate sense of nostalgia. We used to live in that world. We may never live there again. And the longer we are denied what we took for granted, the more intensely we yearn for it.

It is almost a year since the meaning of touch contracted and then changed. When you say “let’s stay in touch,” you now mean “over a touch screen.” At times I find my fingers reaching out as if the smooth plastic of the phone’s screen were a curtain I could push aside, or water into which I could plunge and emerge at the other end to actually smell and feel what I am seeing during a video call. The screen remains unmoved. You can run your fingers over it all you like, but it won’t change pixellating images into real people with skin that is warm or cool or sticky with sweat. You can see on-screen that your friend’s hair has grown wild and long through the barberless lockdown but you can’t bunch it in your hand and tug it.

The more distant the familiar human world becomes, the more I retreat for comfort to the earth. My hands are soil-stained from the garden or from making pots. Though they are fundamentally the same substance, the earth in the garden has a very different feel from the clay with which pots get made. Far removed from the dense silkiness of clay, garden soil is friable and unpredictable. It has pebbles, pine needles, insects, old roots. It is not always kind. As my fingers try and avoid sharp stones while seeking out the round shapes of the flower bulbs my wrist brushes against a nettle that is just poking its way up, so green and new and soft that I pay it no attention. But nettles are born to be hardy survivors: even as infants they have their armour on and daggers out. For at least a whole day my wrist will tingle, red and inflamed from its brush with the nettle.

The clay with which I make pots harbours no such malevolence. To pick a ball of it out from the bucket and wedge it is to feel the world slow down and settle into place. Midway through the lockdown I started running out of clay and one of my potter friends wrote anxiously, “Can’t you get some from your hillside? Being without clay is like being without food or water.”

Only those who work with clay will understand that this is no exaggeration nor a figure of speech, not really. If you are a potter you remember and need the touch of clay with your whole body—your fingers, shoulders, skin. When I open out a ball of clay on the wheel and it moves between my fingers to grow into a tall vase or a wide, shallow bowl, it does not feel as if there is lifeless matter in my hands, spinning on a dead metal wheel. Clay is not inert like the screen of a phone. It’s alive. It is soft and firm and changeable and volatile. Some days it rebels and I can’t make anything; on others it falls into shapes I hadn’t thought my fingers could persuade it into. It almost breathes.


In far-off wealthy worlds, the start of the pandemic did not bring worries of the kind we had—there were few anxieties about food or shelter. In their already isolated lives in big cities, it was companionship that people in the West knew they would be starved of. Especially if they were single, the loneliness could seem as vast and eternal as the sky. After a phone call one evening with a friend in San Francisco, I woke up to a message the next morning saying, “You’re the only person I spoke to all of yesterday.”

A spurt in dog adoptions followed lockdowns in the West. But should you really look to dogs for physical affection? Is a dog’s lick a sign of love? Some dog trainers and animal behaviourists say it is bad to hold or cuddle your dog. It suppresses the dog’s natural instinct to run from danger and the confinement brought about by your loving arms might scare it enough to bite you. Nobody discussed the possible scientific veracity of these strictures with our three big dogs. Oblivious of their bulk and weight, they climb all over me and my husband, demanding absolute physical dissolution of their Self into our Other. Every morning they rumple our bed and us, a glorious heap of furry limbs, as if they are still puppies who love to sleep somehow simultaneously on top of and under the other. When they see each other after even brief absences, they—unless guarding food or territory—touch noses, wag tails, lick, roll over and nuzzle each other. They do this to us as well, seeing us as strangely unfurry, half-limbed dogs who smell odd and seem handicapped in not possessing that most expressive of appendages, a tail.

A few weeks into the pandemic there were reports of dolphins showing up in search of humans. Workers at the Barnacles Café and Feeding Centre at Tin Can Bay, Queensland said that a 29-year-old male humpbacked dolphin named Mystique has begun to bring corals and shells on his rostrum or beak and “carefully” presents it to them. The workers give him a fish in return. This exchange was not a trick, they said. “We haven’t trained him, but he has trained us to do this.” Our dogs are not alone in working out how to train humans.

All kinds of animals appear to seek out human contact and affection. Walking around a farm in Australia once, I saw how the farmer’s barrel-shaped truffle-hunting pig waddled to him as fast as her absurdly disproportionate legs could carry her when he called out: “Clementine!” She reached the fence, buried her head in his shirt as he held her and cooed her name, a different endearment prefixed each time. Here in the hills, our neighbour had a billy goat named Michael who came when called and regarded us with a calm, professorial gaze. He was not the only one. Each of my neighbour’s goats have names and bleat with touching longing when she calls, ignorant of the fact that their affectionate goatherd is feeding them to help the butcher feed others. Michael long ago turned into mutton stew.


Touch. The word unfurls like a flower bud as soon as it is uttered, evoking images of sensuality. The tenderness of parents caressing for the first time their new baby’s miraculously soft, unworn feet. Lovers, their forbidden limbs. The way certain mimosas fold into themselves when stroked.

Still, even as we yearn for lost and longed-for touch we know there are other kinds. To alter the shape and texture of the word, you only have to turn it over and look at it again, from other angles. I remember the way one of my aunts used to drop food from a slight height onto the plate of the woman who cleaned the house. The woman had a demarcated aluminium plate, the kind that no scrubbing can improve, and after eating she washed it at the outside tap and put it back along with her glass into a niche in the veranda. Her plate and glass became untouchable the moment she had touched them, a practice routine enough in India for my aunt never to think of herself as perpetrator and the woman as victim.

I think of yesterday, when an arm-thick, three-foot-long snake slithered across the road, or another time when a lizard plopped down from the ceiling onto the floor next to me. Neither snake nor lizard were within touching distance, and yet I had felt my skin crawl. I have a friend who loves reptiles. She goes to the zoo to be closer to pythons and crocodiles. I think of her locked up in her apartment in Brooklyn, longing for the rubbery chill of a lizard.

I think how nauseous I used to be for hours after journeys in packed city buses on which anonymous men used an immobilising crowd to press their erections into the backs of young girls. Every girl who has used Indian public transport understands with an immediacy that has registered not only in her brain but on her body why some men are absolute pricks.
When memories of this kind return, it seems to me that plagues may have upsides. Although there may be no plague on God’s earth that will ever stop a man in an Indian bus, maybe no man would dare come close just yet. Perhaps a new kind of untouchability has taken root: a powerful blend of fear and disgust that will not easily leave us.


In the third volume of Between Three Plagues, an Estonian masterpiece by Jaan Kross set in the 16th century (forthcoming, translated by Merike L Beecher), a housewife surrounded by dying friends and neighbours daydreams of the day she was first touched by her husband. In her mind she contrasts the bliss of that touch with the ferocity of another—the touch of bubonic plague:

“And even now, worn out though she is with the day’s tasks and the ache in her head from the heat, Elsbet feels her heart quicken and her knees go weak at the memory, recalling the intensity of the encounter . . . And afterwards, having recovered, she found herself in a state of sweetly sinful, blissful excitement, harbouring a longing for it to occur again, and God knows what else . . . And then she is the wife of this strange man who makes her knees feel weak . . . Her sense of how different, unfamiliar, and strange her husband is diminished and soon vanishes—a feeling of distance, of bleakness. And all around her now, only the plague . . .”

Shortly after this scene, the plague infects Elsbet and her children. With her last drops of energy, as she feels the fever and pain overcome her, she goes around her house searching for things to destroy:

“That’s the rule—everything I have touched must be quickly buried . . . She feels, as if from a great distance and with a sense of unreality, a kind of horror that she herself is doing this.” Her husband arrives, presses his face against hers. “Lord God,” she thinks feverishly, “if only he would keep his distance—so as not to catch this disease…”

The only comfort possible from this account is that, despite the horror of Elsbet’s death, what remains is the tenderness and beauty of her memory of that first touch.

(Read it here in LitHub)

Friday, 16 October 2020

All the Lives We Never Lived in Chinese

Rights to the Chinese translation of All the Lives We Never Lived have been acquired by Horizon, one of the most prestigious literary publishers in China. They publish an exceptional list of authors, including Khaled Hosseini, Hermann Hesse, Orhan Pamuk, John Williams, Roberto Bolaño, Sara Gruen, and Sarah Waters.

Not many Indian novels are translated into Chinese and it is even more unusual at a time when things are not too warm and loving on the Indo-Chinese border. It's good to see publishers refusing to let a few border disputes get in the way of their need to bring out what they value.


The book has so far been translated into German (Luchterhand/Random House), French (Actes Sud), Romanian (Humanitas), and Russian (Azbooka Atticus). Other than UK (Maclehose Press) and India (Hachette India), other editions of the book have been published in the US (Atria/ Simon&Schuster), Sri Lanka (Perera Hussein), Large Print (Thorndike), Audiobook (Atria).


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
OR Books | 137 West 14th Street | New York, NY 10011

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.