Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Beauty of Just Being

Sometime in August last year, Manisha and I went through a series of one-line messages to each other to find a date when we were both free to meet for lunch. Two days before we were to meet though, I had to cancel. I had dislocated my elbow. My right arm, I wailed to her. What if it never worked normally again? How would I make pots? “I am paranoid about my hands & legs,” she wrote back “…jodi kichu hoye jaaye taholey kaaj ki kore korbo!!! [How will I work if something happens to them?]  That December, we were sitting in the sun outside her barsaati studio, and I was gazing with distaste at my hands, which were rough and knobbly with being constantly in cold water and clay. She noticed and said, “We don’t have beautiful hands, but they make beautiful things.”
She knew the place of beauty in art is a tricky one. It is easy to be dismissive of works that are beautiful as being not sufficiently deep. In the world of high art, if a work did not come with an incomprehensible paragraph describing what it was trying to do, it was not serious. To be the maker of beautiful things was not enough. The equivalent in the world of fiction, which I inhabited, was to be labelled a “good storyteller”. So we exchanged a fair number of rueful, heartfelt notes on this subject.
The first half of last year, Manisha was thinking constantly and feverishly about what she wanted to do. She was getting ready for a major exhibition with former students of the Golden Bridge Studio, Pondicherry, where she too had learned much of her ceramics. Like any student worth her salt (or clay), she had grown away from her training and created a language of her own. She worried about how her work would sit beside those of her peers and teachers.
Around this time, she was alone in her studio throwing porcelain bowls, when a friend of hers called, attacking someone else’s ceramics as “merely attractive”. It shattered the peace of her morning, but immediately replaced her diffidence with certainty. “Deep in one's heart one is not apologetic,” she wrote. “Alone in my studio, throwing those porcelain bowls....trying to achieve the delicate lip......I was lost in a world of my own…at this point of time I am joyous just making a beautiful thing.....damn the meaning! I am sure it also has a validity, a reason for being.....even without a meaning.”
Two of Manisha’s ceramic installations are on the covers of books published by Permanent Black. Although artists are extremely protective about their work, she did nothing to dominate the designing of the covers. She knew how suffocating it is to have anyone breathing down your neck when you’re trying to make something. “You have complete freedom,” she wrote, reminding me only that “There is the plug and wire showing on the left side of the image, can you Photoshop it out?” As we looked at photographs of her works, she remembered how deeply she had been involved in photography, like her oldest brother. It made her dream up a new kind of installation, combining ceramics and photographs. That was what she would do next, she said.

It was when I was working on those book covers that I realised how complex and intriguing her ceramics were. They were, in fact, full of meaning. They spoke without words of the themes in those books. If Manisha was aware of this she did not say so. She was an outlier in many ways and her lack of pretentiousness, so unusual in the world of art, is embodied in these works. They remind me of Sheila Dhar quoting the Queen of Tonga’s profound words: “I just Be-s.” Manisha’s exquisite seed-pod bowls and her folds of porcelain that look like shells or waves: they just Be-s.
It was such happiness to Just Be with Munu. To sit in her studio and watch her forcing her students to think -- harder! To drink the dark, strong coffee her brother made, and eat her home-baked cakes. To absorb all the learning she had picked up over years of work and yet was so generous about sharing. To think up hairbrained schemes, mostly deep in the night, to do things and go places. The last such plan was an expedition to Tamil Nadu to see their gigantic terracotta horses. I was all fired up about them, having just read an article in Ceramics Monthly. “Been there, been there, seen it,” she messaged back. “These are the Ayyanar horses. Look awesome in real life. Can go again!”
(died 1 September 2015)

Monday, 7 September 2015


At nine-thirty on a weekday morning in the monsoon, Delhi’s Defence Colony flyover is a noisy, semi-immobile caterpillar. The rain always makes the traffic inexplicably denser. Nothing’s moving, there is no likelihood that it will any time soon. Through car windows you can see men and women in corporate uniforms glaring into mobiles. If their fingers stop tapping the keypad, they begin tapping the steering wheel, a steady drumbeat of rage: delayed meetings, lost opportunities, money down the drain.

Underneath the flyover, a young man with a single silver earring and an improbable beret on his head is murmuring to a bird on his wrist. The bird is large, and it has a hooked beak. For a moment I think it’s a falcon, because I’ve heard of trained falcons. When I ask the man, he says with an adoring smile: “She’s a kite. She is mine. I love her.”

The Frendicoes animal shelter and clinic has the Defence Colony flyover as its ceiling. The flyover is made of joined up prefab blocks of concrete. Gaps between the blocks let in a drip-drip of dirty rainwater on to parts of our waiting area even as the cars and buses above -- when they finally move -- make the clinic shudder with their vibrations. The space outside the clinic is a dimly lit passageway and its two coolers struggle to shift the sultry heat. Impatient dogs, cats in carriers, hamsters and birds, all wait their turn here, sometimes one hour, more often two. The vets are furiously overworked, two of them treating five animals at a time, charging from one patient on a drip to another with a gaping wound.

The man with the kite has come because his bird has fractured a wing. Three years ago, the kite had fallen out of its nest as a chick. The man had put the chick back in the nest, but it fell out again. This time he took it home and she has lived with him ever since. “We have a dog too. They are good friends. This bird is a member of my family.” As if to prove this, the bird kisses the man’s lips with its beak, which looks lethal enough to slice faces in half. Its talons quiver on the man’s bandaged hand.

Wait long enough at an animal shelter and you will see all of human life. If this isn’t an ancient proverb, it should be.

We’ve seen ramshackle drunks bring in a wounded bitch for treatment -- complete with her litter of suckling puppies, their eyes as yet blind to the world; injured pigeons, and kittens hardly bigger than mice, wrapped in hankies or aanchals; we’ve seen labourers, motor mechanics, women in patched saris, come long distances with strays, sometimes tied with no more than a rope because leashes and collars are unaffordable. These are animals they happened to see knocked down by a passing car or wounded in a fight. “How could we leave them to die?” is a common refrain. One woman said, “I had to look after her because she was wounded, but then it became love (phir pyaar ho gaya).” Some say environmentalism is a “full stomach” phenomenon: by that logic, people will care most for trees and animals when they can afford a 4x4 to drive to wildlife resorts. But under the flyover is compassion, not entertainment.

There are other kinds of people too: I saw a well-dressed trio come in with a Saint Barnard they claimed belonged to a neighbour. The ‘neighbour’ didn’t want the dog any more, they said. After a few formalities in the office, they patted the dog with a “Bye Bye, Bruno” before walking away, freed of their fifty-kilo charge. The huge, furry dog, as out of place in Delhi as a polar bear might be, gazed at his new surroundings unaware his family had gone forever.

In one experiment, when Konrad Lorenz hand-reared goslings as soon as they had been hatched, he discovered that the process of recognizing parents is not instinctive in birds: it is learned. The goslings followed him around exactly as they would their mother goose, and paid no attention to their biological mother. This is known as filial imprinting, and many animals imprint on to more than one other species, provided they meet them early enough in friendly encounters. The biologist John Bradshaw describes how puppies, between the fifth and twelfth week of their lives, can extend this filial attachment to several species. That is why puppies who encounter friendly humans or cats early in life adopt these aliens as extensions of their own family. Cats and dogs can be the best of friends.

What about humans? Is affinity to animals instinctive or learned? Why do some humans develop a deep sense of kinship with animals -- most commonly dogs? Is it because they have had dogs as children or is it an innate, unlearnable capacity like an ear for music or an eye for colour?

In the West this affinity is valorized: there is a whole publishing and film industry built on its foundations. It is considered good manners -- actually just plain normal -- to greet people’s dogs. Dogs are allowed to travel on trains and go to cafes. I’ve been to expensive restaurants where the immaculate head waiter presents the dog with a bowl of water before he turns to the humans with a menu card.

In our country, it is usually the opposite. Meet someone with your dog and the distrust is immediate: “Does it bite?” This may have complex social causes, and there are exceptions of course, but the bottomline is that most of us in India are indifferent to animals and often cruel. There are other countries where animals are savagely treated as well, but here, the venerated cow is an abstraction. Bull calves, always unwanted, are commonly left to starve to death; boiling water and even acid is flung on stray animals.  Most animals, especially dogs, are seen as dangerous and dirty. It is no accident that the Frendicoes shelter is hidden away in a dark corner under a leaky flyover. Another shelter I have been to, the NOIDA SPCA, is set in a wasteland near a cremation ground and a graveyard. This is a country in which its National Human Rights Commission has issued a statement against stray dogs, calling it a “'Human Rights' versus 'Animal Rights' battle.”

For much of the middle class in India, with two jobs, two children, a small flat and dreams of second or third cars, every minute and square metre is apportioned. This does not allow for the genial anarchy of animals, the care and sacrifices they require. Few people have pets at home or feel the need for them. Some want pets, but worry about time, money, space. Their children, who never encounter animals, are usually rigid with ignorance and fear when confronted by so much as a playful puppy. I once saw a boy wash his cricket ball, which had recently rolled several times into a drain, after my dog picked it up. In his head the drain was hygiene compared to a pet dog’s mouth. In his head, as in that of far too many Indians, the species hierarchy was as immutable as the caste system, with humans at the top.

The other day there was the rare middle class child at the shelter: a five-year-old who waited for two hours in the heat with her father, grandfather, and Golden Retriever -- incongruously named Silver. She patted our dog with complete confidence and was unfazed by the dozens of lame and mangled strays who ambled around the waiting area. She’s going to be the odd-girl-out among troops of self-absorbed children growing up unaware of the needs of any species but their own.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Mango Republics

Yesterday Suman, a friend who lives down the stairs, handed me a mango. It was one of the few she in turn had been gifted by her brother who in turn had been gifted by…. Well, this was no ordinary mango: it was an Alphonso, and therefore it was an act of real generosity for her to part with one. I had never tasted the fabled Alphonso, could hardly believe I had one in my hand. She shrugged that she thought it overrated, but ok, an Alphonso, is an Alphonso, she said, why not taste it and decide.

I realised,  going up the stairs holding my precious Alphonso, that I had actually tasted one, not a month ago, in London. Only, I had clean forgotten it. To those of us used to the Benishaan, the Chausa, the Langra and the Sindoori,  the vital thing is that lovely tangy twist that gives mangoes character. Their tastes unroll on the tongue layer by layer. I had forgotten eating the Alphonso because it was merely nice: sweet, pleasant, uncomplicated.
photo courtesy:

Yet Bombaywallas regard every other mango with contempt.  My view is that the international fame the Alphonso has grabbed is no more than a marketing coup, maybe in-product selling via Bollywood. Why is it almost the only Indian mango known by name outside India?

At the London shop where my friend Munni was buying the Alphonsos I ate last month, a polite, very Angrez disagreement took place because the chit of a till-girl, hardly twenty and not even desi, flicked her blonde hair and informed us that she thought Pakistani mangoes were better. My friend smiled and corrected her. The young woman stood by her views, she even sneered a bit. My blood frothed immediately with what Shivam Vij calls mango nationalism: how dare she!

He’s written about it so entertainingly I won’t even try:
“I am telling nothing but the truth when I tell you that Indian mangoes are better than Pakistani mangoes. It infuriates me when Pakistanis don't agree. That makes mangoes an India-Pakistan dispute just like Kashmir. … What annoys me further is that there are Pakistanis who claimed to have tasted Indian mangoes and still think Pakistani mangoes are better. The problem with such Pakistani mango lovers is that they are Pakistanis first and mango lovers second. Which is not to say I have tasted Pakistani mangoes. Why would I do that when I get to eat the world's best mangoes? India has over 1,200 varieties of mangoes, Pakistan only 400.” (Read the rest here)

The sudden Indo-Pak rivalry via a Western mediator at a London grocery reminded me of Maulvi Sahab, protagonist of  Joginder Paul’s, Khwabrau [The Sleepwalkers, transl. Sukrita Paul Kumar]. Exiled to Karachi at Partition, Maulvi Sahab is haunted by all he has lost, and decides he still lives in Lucknow, not Karachi. One of his greatest griefs in his makebelieve world is that he can no longer eat Lucknow’s Malihabadi mangoes: “Don’t you find it strange that we eat the mangoes grown here but our hearts can be satisfied only by the clay imitations of Malihabadi mangoes?” Hakim Sahab, another character in this novel is obsessed with creating a chemically engineered replica of the Malihabadi mango in Karachi. It doesn’t work of course. Lucknow’s mangoes can grow only in Lucknow.

I feel helpless outrage abroad as Europeans eating giant, shapeless, tasteless pretenders from South America inform me that they think mangoes are overrated, Indians needlessly rhapsodise over them. What do they know of mangoes who have never been in India in summer and allowed a chilled mouthful to slide down their throats when the air is shimmering outside at 45 degrees and the hot wind is crisping up leaves into papad? You can only pity them.

There is a reason why Mirza Ghalib (1797 – 1869) mourned at 60 that he could no longer eat “more than ten or twelve at a sitting... and if they are large ones, then a mere six or seven. Alas, the days of youth have come to an end, indeed, the days of life itself have come to an end." (Read the article from which this quote is taken.)

He was talking about Indian mangoes. Probably not Alphonsos though, since he lived in north India and there was no DHL mango-post then.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

From the Reviews

"The themes of innocence stolen, the refuge of the imagination, and the inclination to look away are handled with sensitivity and subtlety in some of the best prose of recent years encountered by this reader. Roy brings a painterly eye, her choice of detail bringing scenes to sensual life, while eschewing floridness: a masterclass rather in the art of restraint, the pared-back style enabling violence close to the surface to glint of its own accord."
 Rebecca K. Morrison, The Independent

"Anuradha Roy’s brilliant new novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, is a riveting and poignant read...There’s a whole tapestry out there: lost innocence, displacement, violence, friendship, survival, unconventional love, rejection, and pain...all penned with excellent craft. The opening chapters are violent but etched in delicate, detached prose."
Suneetha Balakrishnana, The Hindu

"Both incredibly timely and extremely brave."
Lucy Scholes, The National

"Playing hopscotch with narrative energy and moving with pointed fingers like one does in a whodunit, Sleeping on Jupiter is that nearly utopian beast – a literary page-turner....If you’ve ever lost something, you must read this novel. If you’ve ever found something you lost, you must read this novel too."
Sumana Roy,

"Took my breath away ... Magnificently disturbing storytelling" Jaya Bhattacharjee Rose

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


Sleeping on Jupiter was released in April in India (published by Hachette India) and in Britain (published by Maclehose Press).

The formal "launch" was at Asia House London. A complete account, including an audio link here, from the Asia House site.

Spunky, feisty older Indian women are central characters in new book

Indian author Anuradha Roy, left with the Guardian and Observer books editor Claire Armitstead
Indian author Anuradha Roy, left, the Guardian and Observer books 
editor Claire Armitstead, right, at the launch of 'Sleeping on Jupiter', which was held at Asia House

By Naomi Canton
A book portraying older Indian women – not the typical centres of Indian fiction – as spunky, strong, rebellious and flirtatious and no longer simply living their lives for others, was launched at Asia House.
Sleeping on Jupiter by Indian author Anuradha Roy, was launched as part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2015 and was the first pre-Festival event.

In the same way that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) film gave older people a new lease of life as central characters of a popular movie, this book gives older Indian women the unusual role of being the main characters of an Indian fiction book as they set off on holiday together – without any children, or men. Whilst the book also shows a dark side of India by portraying child abuse in ashrams by godmen, through these three women’s feisty spirits and slight rebelliousness, the book also challenges the negative stereotyping of Indian women as oppressed.

“The book is set over five days with flashbacks,” Roy said in conversation with Claire Armitstead, books editor for the Guardian and Observer. “It is essentially about people facing completely unexpected situations in their lives by being in a different setting. Sometimes they have planned to be there and at other times they have found themselves there, but they are at a crossroads in their lives where they have to face things they haven’t before and this often brings them to some form of crisis.”

The book is about people who have reached a point in their lives where they need to find a different reality. One of the characters finds that in another planet that has 16 moons – thus the title of the novel, she explained.

Roy’s third novel is set in an imaginary Hindu pilgrimage town by the sea called Jarmuli: a deeply Hindu town full of temples, some ruined and some still in use. “The town is frequented by pilgrims who are there because they are religious or they are coping with questions of belief and faith; some have been scarred by religion and some enriched by it, but they are all there because of their religion,” she said.

Roy added: “It’s a town which brings together religion and sexuality in a very odd sort of way.”
The three old ladies, all good friends from Kolkata, are sitting together on a train going on a pilgrimage holiday. “They have lived a life of looking after their children and working but never before been on holiday like this as women on their own,” Roy explained. “They know inside themselves this is their first and last chance to have a really good time. A young woman gets off the train and does not get back on,” she added. “If there is any part of the novel that is autobiographical then that is it. I once was on my way to Dehradun to the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival in Uttarkhand and I got off the train to get something to eat and I saw this train set off before I got back on and it had my luggage on it! So I ran to get on this running train. My heart was exploding my terror,” Roy recalled.

“Older people are often seen as irrelevant in Indian fiction, but in my book the older women are constantly thinking about their relationships with their children and their husbands and lives they have lived,” she said. “They don’t always feel that maternal or good about their children always demanding things from them and one of them still feels tugs of flirtatiousness. I wanted them to be just fully-fledged human,” she said.

Whilst on the one hand these women are quite feisty, at the same time “you feel they have had a lifetime of having to cope and having a hard time in India as every time you take a bus you have to think about how you can protect your front, back and side,” Roy continued.

“There is a hint one of the women is suffering from dementia and by the end of it you don’t know what’s going to happen to them, she added. “There are shadows over their lives,” she said. “I think any book has to have – right to the end and even for years afterwards – some areas of mystery and ‘unknownness’ that make you think about the book,” she added.

This novel started as a ‘long short story’ based on these three older women and Roy’s publisher told her to either cut it in half or expand it. “The short story was their holiday and they have an encounter with a girl on the beach during this holiday that leaves them extremely disturbed,” she explained.
A young refugee child called Nomi is another central character of the book who is searching for where she grew up.

“You don’t start out saying ‘child abuse is really important; I must put it into my novel.’ The character comes first. When I thought about her she turned out like this,” Roy said.

In the same way that the Aamir Khan record-breaking movie PK questions and  exposes the practises of a godman (guru or holy men who often claim to have paranormal powers) in a Hindu Temple, the book also questions the practises of some Hindu godmen.

“In the book there are godmen using religion to abuse women or children. All the Brahmin patriarchal Hindu religious infrastructure is bent on crushing all the oppressed which are women, the underclass and Dalits. There are still Hindu temples in India that women are not allowed to enter. It was a very difficult book for me to write because it made me physically sick at times to read about it and write about these things,” she said.

The book is not all darkness; it has moments of comedy. Apart from the comic old Bengali ladies, the chai (Indian tea with spices) vendor who often fills people’s glasses with froth rather than tea is a favourite character of Roy’s.

Roy, a former books editor at The Hindu, now runs a small publishing house with her husband in India.
“Ever since The Satanic Verses both from fatwas to the Hindu right, liberals in India are embattled everywhere and people will always try to silence you. The problem with India is that if someone objects to a book there is no one to defend you and if it gets a stay order in a court in any part of India then you can’t sell it. What we really fear as publishers is that someone somewhere will object and it will go out of circulation,” she said.

She said there was a lot of competitiveness in India between those who write in English and those who write in vernacular languages because the books by the latter do not get translated enough and there is a perception that those who write in English get more readers and money, whilst those who do not may have extraordinary talent but can’t access the same number of readers.
 “My Bengali is not good enough. I read Bengali but could not write in Bengali. In a natural way I write in English,” she said.

Sleeping on Jupiter was published in India a week ago, but has not been translated into local languages. “The Indian Government very rarely supports any kind of literary work by giving you grants. So only those novels that are expected to make really big sales will get translated like Salman Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh,” she said. “Publishing is not a rich industry in India. My Indian publisher might do some kind of launch if he can. You do as many festivals as you can. People won’t pay to come and listen to you talking about a book and there are no longer these champagne launches. I am going to some festivals in Bali and Sri Lanka but those are just to see nice places!” she said laughing.

The book switches between the first person and third person depending on what she is describing, she explained.  “I feel certain parts of the books work better in the first person and I want the intimacy of the first person in those bits but in the rest of the book I want both, I want to sit and look at everything on high and also have the first person.  I also worked very hard on the language the child speaks. My mother is very disturbed by the fact there is an orphan in each of my books,” Roy added laughing.
“All I want is for people to read it and think well of it. I don’t need it to start a social movement,” she said. “There are such huge inequalities that exist in India that it’s almost systematic to ignore the oppressed who are the poor, children and animals. But people in India prefer you to portray a happy picture of India. It happened years ago even when Satyajit Ray made his films. The Hindi movie world found it unpatriotic when he made a film which showed very poor village life,” she added.

“I don’t feel like a woman writer, I just feel like a writer. The joys of being a writer are if someone read it and likes it,” she said.

She denies the book portrays men in a negative light. “There are women in the book aiding and abetting the godmen in the ashram who know what’s going on and that is quite a normal scenario,” she said, adding she was fond of the male “temple guide and the tea seller” characters. “People might find it surprising I deal with religion as it’s not usually a topic in Indian fiction.  Religion often enters Indian fiction by our mythology.”

But she insists the book is not anti-Hindu. “It has characters who are believers and looks at their problems of belief but does not, at all, run down the religion. But it sees this religious feeling as something that gives their life meaning.

“This is really about the feeling inside people of devotion, how it might make some people feel fulfilled and is a release them or for others it might oppress them. It is about religious feeling than a particular religion,” she said.

The book also shows there are many kinds of realities for women in India and they are not all suffering and repressed. She points out even in Indian villages women are becoming more independent. “Even very poor village women in the hills are talking outside more than the men and young people from the hinterland are making their way in the cities in the workplace,” she said.

(For the audio link, please click on the hyperlink at the start of this piece and go to the end of the page that opens)

Saturday, 4 April 2015

"Incredibly timely and extremely brave" - The Nation

On the second page of highly acclaimed Indian novelist Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, a 7-year-old child witnesses the murder of her father by axe-wielding masked men who have invaded their home. Like much of Roy’s writing, it’s a scene described in visceral detail: the smell of a ripe grapefruit fresh from their garden is contrasted with the sight of the whitewashed wall inside their hut “streamed red” with the father’s blood, and the echoes of his haunting screams as he’s beaten then butchered like an animal. “When the pigs were slaughtered for their meat they shrieked with a sound that made my teeth fall off and this was the sound I heard,” the daughter recalls.
It’s a brutal and jarring beginning, but in the context of the novel – which takes place over five days in the coastal temple town of Jarmuli in contemporary India – it’s the next chapter, less savage but no less disturbing, that unsettles the most.
A young woman, all braided hair, tattoos and piercings, boards a train to Jarmuli. Her skin is the same colour as that of those around her, and she speaks a “halting” Hindi, but her passport bears a Nordic name, Nomita Frederiksen; she’s both Indian and not Indian, something of an enigma to her fellow passengers. She disembarks at a station en route, to buy some bread and tea from a stand on the platform, but within minutes, the three old women sharing her compartment see the girl running for her life after being aggressively accosted by two men. The horror of this apparently unprovoked violence combines with the staging of the panorama – physically separated from the attack by the window, the women’s helpless anguish is palpable – to create something genuinely shocking.
The train continues on its way, Nomita’s fate unknown to her motherly travelling companions, “their holiday high spirits snuffed out by the absence of a girl they knew not at all”; until, that is, they encounter her a few days later in Jarmuli. So begins Roy’s graceful interweaving of a cast of characters thrown together by circumstances in a town where, although it’s populated ostensibly by priests and pilgrims and known as a spiritual sanctuary, evil and brutality appear to trump goodness and innocence at every turn.
The devout travel to Jarmuli to pay homage at the temples for which the town is famous, but Nomita’s pilgrimage, we slowly learn, is an attempt to confront the traumas of her past. Six years of her childhood were spent living here in an ashram under the protective wing of a guru publicly lauded the world over but, when the outside world wasn’t watching, who inflicted emotional, physical and sexual abuse on her and the other children in his care. This story is told in flashbacks, the true barbarity of his crimes gradually revealed until the final picture that emerges is one so inhumane it’s hard to bear.
One of the town’s temples depicts carvings of lovers coupled in a variety of embraces. “In ancient India no barrier between life and love. Erotic is creation itself, so it is celebrated in our temples,” a guide explains to a group of tourists. “Nothing wrong. Please understand.” But juxtaposed with this history of pleasure is the thick vein of sexual violence that runs through the novel.
There’s been a recent call to action against sexual assault in India as rape cases have begun to make international headlines rather than just being accepted as part of everyday female experience in the country. In focusing on this perpetration of violence against women and children, Roy’s book is both incredibly timely and extremely brave.

This book is available on Amazon.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Book Detours

Published in, April 2015

The other day, my father-in-law was in a reflective mood brought on by looking at his accounts ledgers at the end of the financial year. He concluded with a sigh that he had not made much money from selling books. But he had no regrets, books had brought him riches of a different kind: a full life and good friends. At 93, Ram Advani has been running his own bookshop, Ram Advani Booksellers, for over sixty years. His is the old kind of bookshop where authors from all over the world write to him asking what is new, where customers come back to him to ask what they should read, where friendships begin as conversations about books and then blossom and grow. 

Ram Advani (left) in his bookshop
 I may be biased of course – but working in the world of books is the best kind of work. It’s certainly one where you get to know interesting people, and do the kind of work together that encourages long friendships (or enmities). 
The first real publisher I encountered was Ravi Dayal, who used to head Oxford University Press, Delhi. By the time I joined it as an editorial slave, he had left to start his own imprint, Ravi Dayal Publisher, but he strolled in some days to cast an appraising eye over his old patch. He operated in chaotic solitude from a tree-fringed, wood-panelled study in his bungalow. Out of this room emanated the books on his distinguished list, all edited and proof-read by him, and clothed in jackets he designed with ink and crayon, innocent of technology. He had strong views on type and book design, loving statuesque fonts like Bembo and scorning pallid, sans-serif upstarts such as Arial. I was stunned by the honour when, after years of observing my work, he asked me to design a book jacket for him. This, I thought, was what soldiers felt when medals were pinned to their chests.
Ravi Dayal (2nd from left) with Girish Karnad, Charles Lewis (extreme left) and Neil O' Brien (centre)
My husband Rukun Advani and I run an independent press, Permanent Black. He is the publisher, accountant, and production head; I am designer, publicity manager, and general dogsbody. When we started it fifteen years ago, no accountant thought it would survive, and I wonder still at the courage and friendship of the authors who gave us their precious manuscripts to publish in those first two or three years. These authors had worked editorially with us before -- even so, it was heroic for them to publish with us when there was nothing to Permanent Black but a lovely logo created for free by a designer-friend who wanted to help. 
My own books have all been published by Christopher MacLehose, formerly of Harvill and Collins, known for publishing José Saramago, Haruki Murakami, WG Sebald, Claudio Magris and Javier Marías, American authors such as Raymond Carver, Peter Matthiessen and Richard Ford and fiction from Peter Høeg, Henning Mankell. He is also known for going on epic drives across Europe every year with his dog Miska and a bag of manuscripts. He camps in various towns en route meeting authors and agents who have got used to the idea that if they want to talk books with him, they might need to trot across a meadow in wild pursuit of a publisher who is chasing his hound, who is chasing a frisbee. 
Christopher and Miska at work on a manuscript
Maclehose Press was in its first year as well when it did my first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. At that time Christopher was in the news for taking on Steig Larsson’s Salander trilogy when dozens of other publishers had turned it down. My manuscript too had been turned down by every publisher and agent I had sent it to when Christopher, obviously the patron saint of lost causes, accepted it. The next few months were punctuated by long phonecalls from him, one of which I recall started with him explaining the structure of a symphony and ended with him stating that by now it was surely obvious to me that I needed to rework my opening chapter radically. 
Such crises, I have realised after three books, are normal when working with Christopher, and always to the good.  There are water diviners who roam the arid stretches of rural India, using no more than rudimentary loops of wire to predict where underground aquifers lie. Christopher has a similar ability to pinpoint those areas of a manuscript where seams of untapped possibility lurk, to which the author needs to return, rethink, rewrite. Years ago, I sent him a long short story and he said it needed either a swifter machete, or I ought to go back to it, think about it, and write some more. I did the latter. Over many drafts, each of which he read and commented on, it turned into my third book, Sleeping on Jupiter.  Not one of these editorial discussions took place across a desk in an office. And over the years, envelopes from him came bearing not just proofs or work but more often than not, books, pictures, music, newspaper clippings, coffee, toys for my dog.
Sheila Dhar
I realised just how deep these friendships that grow over books can be when in Delhi, at the OUP, after two numbing years of editorial plodding through scholarly manuscripts, the classical singer Sheila Dhar turned up in my room one day. Her book Raga n’ Josh is unmatched for its rich blend of observation, learning, and story-telling. We met as strangers — author and editor — and in a few months Rukun and I were under the spell of her great wit and intellect, and her infectious sense of fun.  She could turn dreary days into carnivals, stealing us from our desks for long lunches where she sang, mimicked, and planned future books. 
On some days Bill Aitken would arrive, full of stories and sarcasm, and odd little nuggets of information he had picked up on his travels. The meetings were long and leisurely, much time was spent mulling over the delights of Scotch whisky and the pleasures of cookery classes with Nigella Lawson. Future books were outlined and fantasised about. 
Bill Aitken in Ranikhet, October 2010
With both of them, we scribbled deadlines and outlines into diaries, sustaining the pretence that these were working lunches and dinners. 
It wasn’t really pretence. This is how books get made: in an alchemical process, through chance collisions of people, places, energies, thoughts, ideas. Some of those books make it to our shelves. And many remain effervescent conversations that led nowhere but to friendships.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

When Pirates Become Saviours

The most surreal aspect of these last few days has been watching prominent, liberal and highly regarded feminists on the same side as right-wing politicians burning effigies of the BBC as they demanded a ban on a film they had not even seen. There were widespread and passionate protests against a ban, including in Parliament, but the documentary, about an Indian problem on which every Indian has a view, has now been aired everywhere except in India.
Naturally, it went viral in seconds. I had friends posting links, and thousands watched or downloaded swiftly so that they could see it before the State blocked it off the internet. Watching it through, the first feeling was of vindication simply in the act of watching, the sense that the thousands of people in India, outraged by attempts to control them, had personally thwarted State censorship.
It is a harrowing, deeply disturbing film that you need a strong stomach to watch. The image that emerges through the long interviews with the victim's grieving, bereft parents is of an ordinary, happy family destroyed beyond recovery by the savagery of what was done to their daughter. The raped woman's tutor, an articulate young man who tells us about her aspirations and dreams and the determined way in which she set about achieving them, is the absolute opposite of the stereotypical Indian male. The film also records the wife of one of the accused men in her village in Bihar, and the mother of two others, all leading lives of extreme deprivation. Apart from the jailed man and his lawyers, it has interviews with feminists, judges, policemen.
We are used to governments banning films and books and artists in India. The NDTV channel's black lines through sections of Shobhaa De's article were an eerie reminder of censorship during the Indira Gandhi Emergency years (1975-1977). But to see enlightened feminists demanding a ban on a film makes all of us writing and publishing in India wonder if surviving just got a little harder. For writers, publishers and artists it was difficult enough knowing how easily their work could be banned by the State, or bullied into extinction by fundamentalist groups. And now we have to deal with sections of the liberal intelligentsia turning fundamentalist as well.
Some of these feminists - an isolated minority now that people have seen the film - argued that the film is a patronizing, simplistic, white-Western attempt to condemn a country wholesale; that it does not address 'structural problems' (the Left's term for inequality and poverty); that it profiles all poor Indian men as potential rapists. All these are criticisms, and a sign of democratic health is the fact that these criticisms can be heard. It is doubly ironic then that these same activists support xenophobic State censorship against a film for which apparently every legal permission was granted before it was made. They sidetrack us away from the fundamental issue: why not let us decide what to watch? Why prevent us from forming our own opinions? Should Kipling, Naipaul, and Rushdie be banned because they often say things that many Indians dislike?
When I began writing my third novel, I did not know that one of its central concerns would turn out to be systemic violence against women in India. What I had in my book in one of its very early drafts was a girl on a beach who was an incidental character. In that draft, she stood by a stall selling shell necklaces and I could see her only from the back. Characters in fiction do not always arrive by design and deliberation. The writer is as much a stranger to them at first as the reader, and the process of writing is one of coming closer and closer to the characters, of unpeeling them layer by layer until you know them - and even then, not completely. As I tried to follow the girl's story, to work out what brought her to that particular beach on that day, it emerged that she was a young woman with a traumatic and violent past. Whatever I had to read and research to get her character and life clearer in my head made me feel physically sick or tearful at times, to the point that I was not able to write. I don't know why I reacted to my own narrative in this visceral and crippling way. It was not efficient. The book took me forever to finish.
At the final stage I began to worry about its reception. Not only the critical response to a novel, as every novelist worries about, but whether someone would find things in it to object to. Does it show India as a more generally dangerous place for women than it is? Does it end up showing the West as a refuge and thereby 'pander to the first world'? Will every character or incident be generalized into a type? And these questions in my head which will transmute into criticisms in other heads: are these now reason enough for someone wanting my book banned?
My publisher had the manuscript read by a lawyer and said I had no reason to worry. But in this new context -where women I usually agree with and admire support banning a film for reasons that mostly appear to originate in differences of opinion - I feel less certain. This is suddenly a country in which the joke this week no longer seems a joke: "It's Thursday and only five things have been banned so far." Films. Books. TV shows. The head of the censor board even wants the word 'Bombay' to be banned because it is the West's version of Mumbai.
I remember when Rushdie's Satanic Verses was banned. I lived in Calcutta then and vendors would sidle up and offer pirated copies on the sly alongside cheap lipsticks and fly swats. In the same way today, viral downloads of Leslee Udwin's film have defeated the structures of the State as well as the demands of misguided feminists. As a writer and publisher, net pirates depriving me of royalties and sales ought to be my natural enemy. Ironically, I live in a country where I am forced to see them as everyone's best friend.

(Published in The Telegraph, 9 March 2015. Read it here online) 
An article by Kavita Krishnan, laying out the point of view supporting postponement or alternations is here, in the Daily O.

Monday, 20 October 2014


You get the feeling from Murakami’s latest novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, that while the rest of Japan was waiting with champagne on ice for his Nobel, he took a more sardonic view of the circus. "What a strange world we live in,” says a character in the book. “Some people plug away at building railroad stations, while others make tons of money cooking up sophisticated-sounding words.”
A recurrent opposition is set up in the book between those who live by making things and those who live by words or ideas. The word tsukuru, the narrative explains at some length, can mean to “create”, but Tsukuru Tazaki is named after its more basic meaning,  to “make or build”. Following the conventional world view, Tsukuru thinks that as a mere builder of railway stations, he is much less interesting than two of his childhood friends who deal in words: one has become a car salesman, stereotypically an occupation defined by smooth talking. Another runs a corporate training company called Beyond that brainwashes middle management employees into following orders. A third is a pianist and the fourth, Kuro, is a potter who makes exquisite though flawed cups and bowls: “It doesn’t bring in much money, but I’m really happy that other people need what I create”; Tsukuru understands this, since “I make things myself”.  Just as Kuro etches her name on the undersides of her pottery, Tsukuru writes his into the wet concrete of the stations he builds. They feel the deep sense of kinship that anyone who makes things with their hands will recognise.
There isn’t necessarily an opposition of course: there have always been potters, sculptors,  and carpenters who write, and writers who construct bridges or make planes. The author-note in The Small Wild Goose Pagoda describes Allan Sealy as an apprentice to a bricklayer and the book contains detailed passages on building gates and walls. Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter. Murakami, in a recent interview to the Guardian, describes writing itself as manual work: “I guess I am just engineering something. I like to write. I like to choose the right word. I like to write the right sentence. It’s like gardening or something. You put the seed into the soil at the right time and in the right place.”
In August this year, literally by accident, I discovered precisely how manual writing is. My dog was being attacked by a bigger dog and as I tried to drag my charge to safety I toppled, fell on hard concrete, then noticed that everyone around me was staring at my right arm. An hour later, I was on an orthopaedic’s table cradling my deformed elbow. The doctor diverted me with small talk as he tried to set the dislocated joint in place. “What do you do?” he murmured, yanking my dangling forearm. “A potter,” I screamed, almost throwing up with the pain. “I’m a potter.” “Oh, I see, an artist,” he said pulling savagely. I think I passed out at that point and they transferred me to the surgery.
At that crucial moment, when my work flashed before me as one’s life is said to before death, why had I claimed I was a potter? The fiery pain was my moment of truth: suddenly I realised I regarded writing, which is my bread and butter, as a kind of sleight of hand. Writing? All my friends write. Anyone can write. You can do it with half a brain and one arm. But making pots out of clay -- things that other people need -- few can do that and those few are fully-armed.  It was my instinct to stick to the pottery story because then, you see, the doctor would truly appreciate that my arms were vital in a way they weren’t for accountants or writers. I am no ceramic artist, my clunky pieces are cherished by kind-hearted family and friends alone. Yet if I never wrote a book again I knew I would make pots; if I never made a pot again I had no idea what I would do.
Two days after the surgery, I found myself landed with a writing deadline. It would be difficult typing one-handed, but still, one hand meant five fingers, and the writing would distract me from the pain. I would manage. I opened the book into which I usually scribble notes or sometimes a draft before I start typing into my laptop. I picked up a pen.
Perhaps a thought entered my mind, perhaps it didn’t. At any rate, by the time I got to pinning the thought to paper with my left hand, it had flown off, an unvanquished butterfly. After struggling to write left-handed for many frustrated minutes, I gave up and turned to the computer. I would just type the article straight in. I tapped one word, then another. Attempted a third. But by this time, my mind had swerved off the road, disgusted with the pace. Use a voice recorder, helpful friends suggested, but I could no more think aloud than write one-handed. When I complained in despair to my barber who was chopping away my hair because one hand isn’t enough to tie a ponytail, she whipped out her mobile and said, “Let me show you a video, this man has no arms, no legs, and he manages everything so well!” A close friend was worse: “Wittgenstein’s nephew played Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand after his right arm was amputated.” Luckily I’m not musical, I said, aiming a punch with my left fist.
I could manage quite a lot one-handed -- but not everything, and writing one-handed was one of those things.
“When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down,” says Ferris Jabr in a recent New Yorker essay on “Why Walking Helps Us Think”. This connection between mind and body is felt keenly by even beginner potters who moan that “on some days, nothing works.” It is only over weeks of work at the wheel that you realise those are the days when for some reason the switch that connects your brain with your fingers has short-circuited and you don’t have the power to repair it. Try too hard and you sweat for nothing. Try too little and you get nowhere. Every potter waits for those days when there is a seamless, inexplicable flow of energy uniting body, mind, clay and wheel that results in pots Bernard Leach described as “life flowing for a few moments perfectly through the hands of the potter." This is the “life” that either flows or doesn’t through pieces of writing as well. I was finding out writing was manual work after all: it’s hard enough making words come alive when you are functioning normally, it was impossible one-handed.
Ultimately I did manage to meet my deadline, typing two-handed, clumsily using the flats of the fingernails of my immobilised hand. Once I figured that technique out, it was business as usual: the brain had needed only to be tricked into believing both hands were at work. But a spinning ball of clay on a wheel isn’t fooled by mind games. Two months later, I still haven’t been able to make a pot.
“Talent only functions when it is supported by a tough, unyielding physical and mental focus. All it takes is one screw in your brain to come loose and fall off or some connection in your body to break down, and your concentration vanishes, like dew at dawn,” says a pianist who flits through Colourless Tsukuru.  In the book’s brilliant finale, Tsukuru sits alone at Tokyo station during rush hour, still and meditative, the distillation of solitude in “an overwhelming crush of humanity”.  In Murakami’s world, the unassuming maker of things understands much that others don’t.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Cook’s Story

‘It was noted with envy and admiration that the breakfast in these households consisted of eggs, toast and jam instead of vegetable bhujia with paratha, and that even the women had begun to use spoons, though only little ones, to eat. Guests to tea were served cake and sandwiches instead of samosas and barfi. In the evening there was Scotch whisky and soda….instead of keora sharbat’—Sheila Dhar of her family’s move from Old Delhi to Civil Lines

My name is Manju Arya. I think I am 64 years old. My mother died when I was one and then my father married again and went away. My grandmother, my father’s aunt, brought me up in her house in a village near Kathmandu. She was not rich but she gave me laad-pyaar (affection), and did not make me go to school because I didn’t want to go, and by the time I was older I was too shy to go. I played in the rice fields near the house all day and when the dhaan (paddy) came from the fields I took it to the chakki (flour mill) to get it threshed. That was my work. The rice was enough for us for the year. We ate rice for all our meals. When my grandmother died, those days ended and I had to live with my father and his second wife.

Manju Arya (photograph by Anuradha Roy)
I eloped at sixteen. My husband was the valet to the Ambassador of India in Nepal. He travelled all over the world for his work, to Belgium, to America, to other places, and he says he loves Belgium most and after that, Ranikhet. My husband is from Garhwal and the marriage was frowned upon by my father and stepmother. They didn’t speak to me again for many years. At first when I came here  to Ranikhet with my husband—I think it was early in the ’60s—I was quite scared of the jungles around this house and the people whose servant he was. But one day I was doing something and I heard Memsahib shout for me loudly. From the garden of the main house, she was waving towards me with hands glued up with wet flour. I ran up to help her. She had been trying to show the khansama (cook) how to make something out of a book and because he was slow, she got impatient and put her hands into the dough but it was so sticky she couldn’t clean herself. Memsahib could get very agitated very quickly. I cleaned her hands and then kneaded the dough.

No, of course Memsahib didn’t know how to cook and she never cooked. But she had a cookbook in a foreign language and after that day she called me more and more. She would sit on a stool and read from the cookbook to herself and then tell me in Hindi what it meant, what the processes were. In this way I learnt to make tarts, cutluss (cutlets), chicken rosht (roast) and puteen (pudding). Some things I learnt I didn’t like to do: for example putting sharaab (alcohol) into puteen. I can make thin pancakes and also bread. I make soups out of khatta ghaas (wild sorrel) that grows all over the hills and in the monsoon I hunt for junglee tulsi (wild oregano) to put into food. Chicken I cook with rosemary—rosemary bushes work as short hedges around our house. In her salad sometimes I added the leaves of nasturtium, the orange climber-and-creeper which flowers even through cold December. We had no oven and no special pans so I made the tarts on a dekchi (cooking pan) lid and baked them on a chulha (wood stove). For breakfast, when it was in season, I would give Memsahib strawberry—there  was a small patch in the flowerbeds in those days—and malai (cream) from the milk. Sometimes we bought cream from the Military Dairy. There were always more strawberries than she could eat, so we also tasted them. Now the patch is dead.

In our own home we eat daal bhaat (dal-rice) in the morning every day. Memsahib, all her life, gave us two kilos of chana daal to cook every month. In those days it was the cheapest daal. In winter we might have rotis made of madua (millet) which is very warming and bhatt ki daal (black soya broth), which is also warming. When it’s cold, the children pluck big lemons from the tree and get maltas (oranges) from the market and then make the pulp into chutney with dahi and chilli and then they eat it all in the sun. It’s too sour for me these days. When it snows my grandchildren run about playing in the cold and pick up lumps of clean snow to mix with gur and eat as ice cream.

If I ever brought leftovers home from Memsahib, nobody would eat them but my husband and me. My children think all that English food is tasteless. They don’t like anything that is not chatpata (tangy). I’ve slowly started to like soups. I also like tuna, and omelettes with cheese, and coffee. My children don’t like any of these things. My youngest grandchild begs his mother each time she goes to the market to get her just one aloo tikki (potato cutlet), on the sly. But her mother says she can’t do that. There are too many children in the house and we can’t afford aloo tikkis for all of them, except occasionally. I tell them I’ll make you tikki at home, but they say it’s not the same thing.

We’ve never eaten out in a restaurant to fill our stomachs—but if we are stuck in the bazaar long past mealtime then we might eat a samosa or a tikki. One day my granddaughter, who has a new job, took me to eat at Rajdeep Hotel in the bazaar. We shared a plate of chowmein. It was expensive, twelve rupees for that plate. But youngsters want these things, like noodles. They always want Maggi noodles in their tiffin. Look at the tea shops in Ranikhet now: they all cook Maggi noodles and sell it as a snack! The children want ice cream, they want cakes with cream. All these things are too expensive for us. But for their birthdays we buy a small cake and I make chhole (chick peas). For some special days we cook mutton or chicken curry. Earlier when we bought mutton the butcher would know from the small amount that it was for our own use and would always give us pieces of scrap and gristle although we were paying the full price. If we bought bread we would always find we had been given a stale loaf, sometimes with fungus. My daughters, who are very smart, began to tell the shopkeepers they were buying for Memsahib and then they got better quality. My daughters will never be servants like I have been all my life. They are all BA pass, they have different ideas.

I have lived in Bombay with Memsahib also. All along the wall in front of our house there were a line of stalls selling dosa and paav bhaji (bread and vegetables). Early each morning the stall owners would start chopping kilos of onions and coriander and peeling potatoes and then cooking. Then, at lunchtime all the office-goers would crowd the stalls. I had never eaten a dosa before. They had great big tavas (griddles) on which they would spread the batter really fast and bake them golden and crisp. I could smell their sambar (spicy lentil curry) from the balcony: it used to make my mouth water then and even now, I love eating sambar. My middle daughter has learned to make it. We pluck curry patta (leaf) that grow wild near Ranibagh, on the way up from Kathgodam, and dry it and store it. We can now buy sambar powder in the market if we want to. I always say, if you have money, you can buy anything in Ranikhet these days!

In those days, in Bombay, I would stand at the balcony and watch them stirring the sambar and turning out heaps of white idlis. Then after the lunch-time rush was over the vendors would clean up, and in late afternoon, go nearby to buy a piece of fish each for themselves. They’d cook it with a lot of masala and in the evening they would have their one meal of the day with great relish--fish curry and rice. The owners of the bungalows near these vendors would be very annoyed by the crowds and cooking smells, and would try to chase them away, but I could not stop watching them from the upstairs balcony everyday.

I have never returned to Nepal. I was not welcome in my father’s house. I don’t even know what happened to my stepmother, but I know my father is dead. One day a Memsahib from Nepal brought bhogta (grapefruit). I had never seen it since I left the country. When I cut it and saw the pink flesh inside and smelled it, my home came back to me--the fields in the village near Kathmandu. I have kept the seeds and planted some of them. They’ll fruit one day.