Friday, 29 July 2011


It was lovely to find that Jillian, of the Delirious Kitchen blog, read An Atlas of Impossible Longing and concocted out of it.... a mango chutney! You can look up the recipe here and her blog here. I know the feeling -- that need for a deep red glass of good wine, softly ageing camembert cheese and herbed olives that charges at you exactly five and a quarter pages into A Year in Provence. Miles away from both in Ranikhet, I saved myself pain and shut the book on the sixth page -- but Jillian's is a better solution.

Talking of chutneys, an eighty-plus writer I knew used to sit out in a square of sun in front of his cottage and drink gin and lime. A glass jar with decaying pieces of lime stood on the window sill next to him and he claimed it was lime pickle in the process of being made: each time he squeezed drops of lime into his gin, he tossed the used piece into the jar, sprinkled a bit of salt over it and shut the lid. Sure enough, a few months of perseverance led to a whole jar of salted, pickled lime wedges.

The process doesn't seem that different from the writing of a novel...

(image of lime pickle from here)

Saturday, 16 July 2011


It is a pastoral idyll within the squalor of East Delhi: a cool lake, patches of purple water hyacinth, ferny leaves overhead and twisted fingers of keekar below. An egret contemplates its dinner on a little island halfway across. On the other bank, a line of full moons have dipped from the sky to the ground. Except that the full moons have trousers bunched below them and what they are doing is releasing into the water the odoriferous still-lifeform known as Turdus giganticus.

Delhi has the overwrought elegance of Nehru Park and the ancient stone grandeur of Lodi Gardens. And far away from the bureaucrats and embassies, it has Sanjay Gandhi Park. This is a seven kilometre park that begins in Mayur Vihar and ends in Trilokpuri, linking middle-class Delhi with the urban badlands that terrify the middle-class.

I began going to the park when a curly-tailed puppy adopted me. The park was an enormous stretch of wilderness from which paths were being hacked out. It had a sparkling lake shadowed by trees and bulrushes. In winter the water was noisy with ducks, painted storks and cormorants. In summer boys fished and swam in it. My puppy ran about as puppies do, chasing squirrels. Apart from workmen building boundary walls, there were no other people.

Once the paths were ready, the matrons and pensioners of Mayur Vihar discovered it. Things began to change. My pup became a pariah. The average Dilliwala knows from birth that while every dog is a leopard in disguise, a dark dog is a man-eater. White poms and golden labradors are acceptable. But a dark brown mongrel is evil incarnate: not of good family, nor fair, and therefore not lovely. One day, as my puppy was discreetly disbursing her own Turdus minuticus beneath a secluded bush, a group of passing elders observed, not without hostility: ‘Fine place you’ve chosen to make your dog shit.’ To which my companion suggested, ‘Why don’t you join her?’

Because by now, the park was the extension of the neighbouring slum’s communal toilet (which drains into the lake). Many spurn that toilet in favour of multi-tasking: taking in the air while answering nature’s call and gossiping (for this is a group activity). The real birds have long fled, replaced by Delhi Tourism’s swan-headed boats. As the turds plop into the lake, lovers whisper to each other downstream in lurid bird-boats,trailing their hands in the water. When it rains, and the water becomes a steaming brown broth, women swathe their faces with dupattas as they sail, trying not to retch between their flirty giggles.

The stretch near middle-class Mayur Vihar has rock and cement grottoes, a squeaking windmill and a bridge across the lake. There are benches, warped and limbless now, exhausted with vandalism, so most people sit on the grass. On hot summer days the grassy patches fill with people from the slums in search of air and it becomes one of the few places in Delhi where the affluent and the wretchedly deprived share the same air, sky and grass. Nearby are herds of grazing cows as well as goats who skip around unaware they are being fatted for rogan josh. Women from the slums forage for edible weeds. In winter they scour the woodland areas of the park for twigs and strip bark from trees for fuel. The brick-dust pathways are tramped by determined lines of walkers dodging cricket balls. Teenaged boys thunder past them on motorbikes, brandishing bats and wickets. The meadows have turned into quadrangles of baked earth packed with screaming young cricketers: all boys, because Indian girls don’t get to play.  In the monsoon even the boys stay home as their pitches are flooded with black sewage from the overflowing lake.

My dog, now six, rolls about with boundless joy in the stench-filled mud. A kind-hearted man who has a shanty in the park unleashes a waterpipe for a tenner so that we can wash her.

Delhi, 2006

Saturday, 9 July 2011

THE FOLDED EARTH, an extract

My companion in the bus that morning reached her stop, still
chattering of Would-be. She said smiling, “Tomorrow I’ll bring you a
card; you must come for my wedding!” I got off two stops later, and
walked towards Father Joseph’s office, feeling disembodied, weakened
and sleepy, as if I would be compelled to sit on the pavement and then
not know how to get up again. I found myself outside a hotel painted
pink and yellow, and walked through its gates to a swimming pool at
the back. There was a sheltered staircase next to the pool. I sat on one
of its steps, before the shining blue emptiness of the water, the stretch of
green tiles around it, the damp towel discarded on a chair. There was
a line of plate-glass windows on the other side that produced mirror
images of everything I saw. A bird passed overhead, low enough for its
shadow to ripple across us. At the other end of the pool, a little girl was
being urged by a swimming coach to plunge from the diving board.
She shouted, as if in a movie: “Let me go! I want to live! I want to
live!” My eyes blurred and I began to see human skeletons and bones
at the edges of the pool, on the green tiles: skulls, clavicles, fibulas,
tibia and femurs. Mandibles and ribs, foot and hand phalanges with
ancient silver toe rings and gold finger rings on them still. Necklaces
of gold beads intertwined with vertebrae. I saw skulls at the bottom of
the pool, turning their blind gaze this way and that in the clear water,
magnified by it. They bobbed to the surface. One of them splashed
to the edge of the pool, next to my feet, and the face streaming away
from it in dissolving ribbons was Michael’s.

The windows, the towels, that screaming child, the green tiles, the
fire-blue sky with its shadow-birds, retreated. The step I was sitting on
crumbled and I began to fall dizzily through a vast sky, as you do in
dreams. It was only when a face rose from the water close to my feet
and in a French accent said, “Are you alright?” that I realised my face
was wet with tears, my nose was running, my hair was dishevelled, and
I was late for Michael’s priest.

I ran up the stairs to Father Joseph’s room and burst in without
knocking. I stopped and held the back of a chair to steady myself. A
house with a trident-shaped peak framed in its window, Michael had
said: a house that looked out at the Trishul, and at its base Roopkund,
the phantom-lake. He had seen such a house once, he had told me
where it was. He had dreamed we would live there and wake each
morning looking at the Trishul emboss itself on the sky as the sun lit
its three tips one by one.

“Father, find me work in Ranikhet. Please,” I said. “I can’t stay on
here a single day longer.”
* * *

Four months after Michael died, I climbed into the train that had taken
him away from me. It went from Hyderabad to Delhi, a northward
journey that took a day and a night. One more night on a different
train brought me further north, to Kathgodam, where the train lines
stopped and the hills began. It was another three hours by bus over
twisted, ever-steeper roads to Ranikhet, a little town deep in the
Himalaya. In my bag was the address of the school in which Father
Joseph had fixed me a job. I was going to be two thousand kilometres
from anything I knew, but that was just numbers. In truth the distance
was beyond measurement.


1) Can you tell us about yourself?

What can I say about myself? As a child I lived all over India because my father was a field geologist and this work made him move around a lot. Thirty or forty years ago when phones and television and internet had not connected everyone, moving from one part of India to another was like moving to another country. The language, food, culture, architecture: everything changed totally. I went to many schools, then moved to Calcutta for college and then to Cambridge for university — so I have roots everywhere and nowhere and am an insider and outsider simultaneously anywhere I find myself. It was only when I began working at a publisher’s office in Delhi that I first spent a long stretch of time in one place and now I live with my husband and dog partly in a tiny town in the hills and partly in Delhi.

2) When and how did you get the taste for writing ? What did your write first?

I’ve written stories ever since I can remember. I published my first few in an Indian newspaper when I was fourteen. The money I earned from those stories financed a box camera. One or two of them even attracted letters from readers. So immediately two of the “side effects” of writing became apparent.

3) Novel is a tradition in Bengal literature from 19th century : do you consider you are continuing this tradition ?

I haven’t read enough Bengali fiction to think I am continuing that tradition. I feel myself a fusion of all sorts of traditions from Bengali literature and nonsense verse to Chekov and Hardy and Asterix and Henning Mankell.

4) Who are the writers, from India or any other place, from present or past times, whom you consider have an influence on you or you admire ?

This novel was most influenced by the films of Satyajit Ray and the fiction of Bibhutibhushan, a Bengali writer whose work is exquisite, poetic, and deeply moving, filled with humanity and empathy for landscapes and places.

I admire many writers: Chekhov, Yasunari Kawabata, Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Anne Stevenson, Ahmed Ali and Bibhutibhushan are among the writers I re-read. I love Kawabata’s very Chekhovian novel The Sound of the Mountain which reveals the extraordinary through a series of daily events and perceptions – nothing earth-shattering has happened, yet by the end of the book after layer upon layer of incidents, memories, talk -- everything is altered. The same applies to a novel like Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I think I gravitate towards fiction that doesn’t feel the need for obviously grand themes but is about the lives of ordinary people.

Among the present-day Indians who write in English I enjoy and admire Vikram Seth’s writing because he is so versatile, and uncaring of trendiness. You have to be very brave — apart from brilliantly gifted — to write a novel in sonnets as he did, or a novel which focuses on Western classical music.

There are some books I love but know to be quite different from anything I would ever aspire to write. For example I’ve just been reading Imperium, Ryszard Kapucinski’s book about the Soviet Republic and the brutality and tragedy he writes of, and the kind of travelling he does to reach his stories, are both unimaginable and terrifying for me. Currently I am reading Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which is a book about Dyer’s inability to write the book he is meant to be writing. Like all his writing it is hugely witty, highly intelligent and acrobatic in its ability to keep seemingly insignificant ideas afloat, draw meaning out from them. Again it is a book I can only be helplessly admiring of. But I suppose all that anyone reads settles in, layer upon layer, and turns into a kind of rich compost in which their own writing sprouts.

5) An Atlas of Impossible Longing is your first novel : how did you get the idea to write this story ?

The novel grew out of an image of a large house half-submerged by a river. It was a haunting photograph of an actual house that had to be abandoned by my aunt’s family. This image kept coming back to me, gradually people—the novel’s  characters— floated up out of its surroundings and the novel began.

6) Would you please give a clue about the story ?

It is a family saga, a kind of trilogy-in-one-volume structurally, and follows the fortunes of a cloistered, conservative family in India, into which is introduced – almost by accident — an orphan who moves by degrees from the periphery of the family to its centre. The novel is set over a long period of time, 1907 to the 1950s during which time India went through gigantic transformation (from being colonised to becoming an independent country, the Partition of India among other thing) and some of this is reflected in the lives of the characters; but it is primarily a book about solitude, loneliness, domestic politics, love, lost landscapes, the migration to big cities. These themes could have worked in the present day equally, but I wanted a language and pace from time when things were slower, and the slowness allowed for a different kind of richness.

7) What is the most important in this novel : characters, places, emotions, ambience, social message... or what else ?

For me the most important reason to write the book was that I had to tell the story of the people in it, and of the landscapes and houses that were inextricable from those people, and which vanished with them. They felt like real people and places to me: things happened to them, and I had to write about those things, convey what the gradual dissolution of one way of life meant.

8) How would you define your style ? Is style a special preoccupation when you write ?

If by style you mean the prose, I revise and rewrite and rethink quite obsessively until each sentence sounds right to me – but of course you can never get everything right. I really dislike having to go back to read anything I’ve written because I know those deformed bits I’d rather forget will pop out and stare at me. Language is everything in good fiction: I can’t read indifferently written novels and wouldn’t want to write one.

9) Being also a journalist, has this activity any influence on your writings ?
I was not a full time journalist for long; I understood very quickly it was not my world. Since then I’ve only written as a freelancer or been a consulting editor, which is not at all the same thing as being a journalist. But even my brush with it did some good: for a start, it made me very obedient with deadlines. So if I have promised my publisher that I will finish reading proofs by a certain date, for example, I will stay up nights and wake at dawn to get it done by then. I think a spell of journalism demystifies writing, makes you aware of the drudgery, makes you understand that if you need to write something, you have to be at your desk and chair for long hours and get down to it. If you have something you need to write, you know you can’t wait for absolute solitude and a darkened room and a year in which to devote yourself only to writing.

10) Can you tell us about Permanent Black ?

Permanent Black is an independent publishing house doing mainly books on Indian politics and history. My husband and I started it in 2000 and have been running it since then; we have published over 250 books in these years. The best and most renowned social scientists and historians have published with us as well as absolutely new, brilliant young scholars of promise. One of the French writers we have published is Christophe Jaffrelot, who writes on political and caste issues.

11) What are your plans now ? Maybe soon another novel to be published ?

My second novel, The Folded Earth, was published this year in Britain and India and is due out in the US in 2012. The first of its translations is going to be out soon, in Norwegian. This book is set in the present day, in a small town in the Himalayan foothills – in the town where I live.

read the interview in its original place here.

Thursday, 7 July 2011


Tolstoy hated Chekhov's plays. And Chekhov's only consolation was that Tolstoy did not like Shakespeare either. 
Some brilliant vignettes from a writer's life here, from the soon-to-be published MEMORIES OF CHEKHOV by Peter Sekirin.
(And if you like Chekhov, then Janet Malcolm's book slim little book on him, READING CHEKHOV, is an unimproveable combination of travel, biography and literary history.)
Ivan Bunin, “Chekhov,” from The Russian Word (1904)
I got to know Chekhov in Moscow at the end of 1895. I remember a few specifically Chekhovian phrases that he often said to me back then.
“Do you write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.
I told him, “Actually, I don’t write all that much.”
“That’s a pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical of him. “You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your life.”
And then, without any discernible connection, he added, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.” 
Sometimes Chekhov would tell me about Tolstoy: “I admire him greatly. What I admire the most in him is that he despises us all; all writers. Perhaps a more accurate description is that he treats us, other writers, as completely empty space. You could argue that from time to time, he praises Maupassant, or Kuprin, or Semenov, or myself. But why does he praise us? It is simple: it’s because he looks at us as if we were children. Our short stories, or even our novels, all are child’s play in comparison with his works. However, Shakespeare… For him, the reason is different. Shakespeare irritates him because he is a grown-up writer, and does not write in the way that Tolstoy does.”


Peter Gnedich, “Memories,” from The Book of Life (1922)
Lev Tolstoy sincerely loved Chekhov, but did not like his plays. He told Chekhov once, “A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.” They both—Tolstoy and Chekhov—laughed at these words.
Chekhov told me later, “When I am writing a new play, and I want my character to exit the stage, I remember those words of Lev Nikolaevich, and I think ‘Where will my character go?’ I feel both funny and angry.” Chekhov’s only consolation was that Tolstoy also did not like the plays of Shakespeare.
Chekhov told me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was bedridden due to illness. Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’”