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.