Saturday, 27 August 2016

THROWING IT OUT AND STARTING AGAIN

One evening in 2007, just as I was sitting down to dinner in Delhi, my then-brand-new publisher phoned from London. In the marvelously parenthetical, elliptical manner that was to become familiar to me over the next few years, he began talking of symphonies. Had I considered, he wanted to know, how symphonies are structured? “Not really? Well, as it happens . . .” After around ten minutes of his apparently aimless lecture on music, my interrupted dinner stone cold, the penny dropped: On the brink of publication, he wanted me to rethink my opening chapter. 
Christopher MacLehose and Miska. photo by Anuradha Roy
photo by Madhu Kapparath
(published in Catapult)

Monday, 18 July 2016

A Writer's Room They Said


A magazine somewhere asked me for pictures of my work space, they publish a regular feature about writers’ work rooms they said. As an example of what they meant, they sent me links to previous such photo essays about the work spaces of writers. The pictures showed weathered wooden desks cluttered with pens, paper, Mexican pottery, moleskin notebooks. Windows looking out on to vistas of green. Walls lined floor to ceiling with shelves full of books. The shelves somehow appeared vastly better engineered than any of my bookshelves.
The rooms they sent were bathed in the kind of light I never have in my life - a pale, new-washed silver-gold that made everything glow, including the antique typewriter that presided over one of the pictured desks. The magazine wanted a few specimen pictures from me to see if my workspace would ‘work’ for them. I had no idea what that meant. What kind of room ought I have to please such an important magazine? What would appear writerly enough? Should it be bare or artfully cluttered? White-walled or covered with interesting photographs and posters picked up on book tours in Reykjavik, Mauritius and Cuba?
I turned from my email and cast a newly critical eye over my dog-eared room -- dog-eared because rooms shared with two large dogs and two smalls puppies have a tendency to look less than impressive.

The two puppies discover that a ball can bounce

I tidied up, hid away the heaped blankets and towels, pushed collars, leashes, tick powder, chew sticks, mangled toys, muddy shoes and gnawed bones out of sight, and arranged myself a desk with books, paper, pens scattered around as if they had accumulated over days of inspired writing. Writers are meant to drink a lot of coffee. Maybe a coffee mug would not be out of place. (Which one, though? Golden Bridge or one of my own creations? Full or empty?) Perhaps a cigarette in an ash tray? But no, this was for an American publication, they might then have to preface the article with a health warning.
photo by anuradha roy
What complicated matters was that this time the monsoon in the mountains where I live is nothing less than a Tennysonian (or is it Wordsworthian?) thundering cataract. The sky burst open about five days ago and has not been stitched back since. The drumming of rain on the roof is ceaseless, the trees are whited out by cloud and rain. Our road to the plains is blocked by landslides, the power collapses for half a day at a time. 
Yesterday walking in the forested roads during a ten minute intermission in the rain, I heard a creak. I looked up as the creak turned into a groan and then leaped for cover: a green, many-branched oak was swaying dangerously on the slope a few metres above. I saw it dip, then tilt and then it came crashing down the hillside, flattening other trees in its path. It happened in slow motion, every stage in the sequence a separate one.
As if things were not bad enough, we woke this morning to the sound of someone airdropping a gunny bag full of stones onto our roof. It was dawn, we were still half asleep. We lunged for cover and the dogs went berserk barking. It took a few minutes to work out that the massive sound had been made by a langur who had jumped onto our tin roof from a deodar branch above. Langurs are human-sized monkeys and a leaping langur is like a six-foot tall man on the move. Elegant when airborne, all black and silver with curving tails that fly as they go from branch to branch, beautiful to admire at a distance. The rest of the langur’s tribe had gathered for breakfast at our mulberry tree, and as if to prove how quickly monkeys learn new tricks, each one of them left the tree with a mouthful of leaves and landed on our roof by turn, replicating the first one's thundering impact. They ran down the length of the roof and on to a tree nearby. Then they repeated the whole thing. We could tell they were having fun.
Langur outside my window/ by anuradha roy

A calming coffee later, I discovered that my laptop, left to charge on a desk in the back room we ambitiously call ‘The Study’, was wet. The plugs near the charger were spattered with water. The desk had pools of water on it. A bookshelf beside it was dripping, and my precious, hardbound old copy of The Valley of Flowers was soaked at the spine as were the five books on either side of it. When we spotted small drips a few days ago we had sealed them with M-seal, but the monkey business must have shifted the tin sheets on our roof, created new gaps and fresh, large cracks. These cannot be repaired until the rain stops. The rain shows no signs of stopping. All we can do is drape towels and plastic sheets and position tubs and bins where the drip is not a fine spray but a stream.

By some miracle, my loyal Macbook is soldiering on despite its soaking. I've decided this laptop is my workroom. It goes wherever I go and turns every bedroom, train, bus, cafĂ©, hotel room, garden and hilltop into a study. I think I’ll just send the magazine a picture of my notebook and my laptop and title it My Workspace. They can crop out the plastic rainwater tubs if they want to.
MY WORKSPACE/ anuradha roy

Friday, 19 February 2016

Anything But Books


One of the best things about literary festivals is meeting another writer with whom you feel a sense of immediate fellowship. Tishani Doshi (writer, dancer, poet) and I met in Galle and then saw each other for several days over the Galle and Jaipur festivals this year. Eventually our conversations led to this.

Writing is always known as a lonely activity. But, even when in a house on the hills of Ranikhet, you're never alone when writing fiction. And especially when you have canine company. Here's what we talked about — obsession for dogs, living in the boonies, sea versus mountain, painting, pots, pine cones, and daring to climb trees…. Anything but books, really.

TD: We share a somewhat similarish lifestyle, Anuradha, in that we both live in back of beyond places—you the mountains, me the ocean, our spouses are involved in the making of books, and we have three dogs each. It’s the dogs I want to talk about first, because I know for me, living in an isolated place makes the presence of the dogs that much more integral. We begin to narrativise their lives, talk about them as if they were children. Sometimes they are the only other beings we converse with for days. They mark the hours—meal times, walk times etc. So I want to ask you to talk about what it is about these dogs, about the essential dogginess of dogs, that begins to obsess you. Were you always a dog person? How did this come about, and how has this relationship with these canines affected your life as a writer? 
Barauni (left) and Piku
AR: Have been mulling over your question, trying to type out a reply, interrupted each time by the demands of Piku, who is the youngest of our trio of dogs. She's still a puppy who believes that play is the only thing that matters. She appears holding something delectable in her mouth -- a torn sock, a pine cone -- and looks at me as if to say, Is that computer a patch on this? And then I am forced to stop work and play a demented game with her. My first dog came when I was seven. After that it has always been this way. No human relationship brings this combination of happy absurdity and endless love and this sense that every single day is crowded with new things to find and toss joyfully in the air.

This is really the centre of it for me -- in relation to work and the dogs. They have such a different notion of things that matter. We tend to view dogs as four-legged-humans but when my old dog Biscoot used to join the forest's foxes howling, her head vertical towards the sky just like their's, we remembered she had a whole universe inside her that we could only guess at. Their sense of what is important is so different from the hierarchies of the human world. Their needs have changed the things I value as well. If I have to choose between work and playing with a pine cone, I invariably end up choosing the pine cone.
TD: I’ve been fixating on the idea of pine cone, I can almost smell it. It feels quite removed and foreign here where I am on this stretch of the Bay of Bengal. Tell me a bit about what you see out of the windows of your house. Do you have a room with a view when you work? What are the challenges of living in a place like Ranikhet, and what do you miss most about it (other than the dogs) when you’re away?
Pine Cones, 1925, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
AR: There's a lovely study of pine cones by Charles Rennie Mackintosh of which I have a print on my wall, deceptively simple looking watercolour. I tried drawing pine cones too and realised via many clumsy attempts that the tree's structure mirrors the tightly nested, pointed structure of the cone. Nothing like drawing (even inept) to make you look at things more closely.
Our house is surrounded by forests of chir pine, oak, cypress, and deodar (cedar). There are 3 village huts down the slope from us and then forest and hills and finally a long, unbroken arc of snow peaks. What I miss when I am away is this sense of huge space and the silence -- as well as the sounds this silence carries. The sound of rain on our tin roof, the roosters next door, foxes and owls at night, the bells on grazing cows. And the wind in the trees -- which can sound much like the waves in your Bay of Bengal, actually. I miss walking in the woods and the possibility of climbing trees -- though I've not dared to climb one for years. When I see an intrepid village woman high up on a swaying tree, I feel very incompetent.
TD: There’s an old debate about sea versus mountain… I suppose much of it depends on personality type and what you’re used to. I grew up by the sea, and so, I sometimes find being in the mountains beautiful but isolating. There’s a fear of getting lost in them, of losing myself and my connection with the world (I once spent three weeks in a cottage in Kodaikannal by myself—not exactly mountains, I know, but still, by day 3 I was having long monologues in an effort to fill the silence) By the sea, I don’t feel that same quality of loneliness, although it does remind me that I’m a smidgen, and with every newly rusted hinge in the house, ushers me towards a heightened sense of mortality. Do you have a dichotomy about sea/mountain? And what’s your equation with loneliness visavis writing?
AR: Right now, thunder is rolling over the hills and although the wind has fallen, there's still rain on the roof. That's all that is audible -- and tomorrow will be the same! I know people who go nuts in places like this. We started living here 15 years ago, and at first the isolation did feel unsettling at times. It was a slow process by which I began to actually long for this solitude and feel irritable when I did not have it for a length of time. 
I think I could live by the ocean just as happily, though I never have and maybe you're right, maybe mountains are more isolating. But I don't feel lonely when I am writing, I feel intensely alive, sometimes so much that I can't sleep at all -- but also very, very unsociable, reluctant to meet people, cook meals etc. I don't believe you are ever alone if you are writing fiction. I know that physically it's a lonely job: you don't have coffee breaks with colleagues. But there's so much going on in your head. I am a mess only when I am not writing, or painting or making pots. Whether in a city or in the hills.
TD: Ah, the pots. I wanted to get to the pots. And the painting. What kind of paintings? What kind of pots? When did you begin? When you’re writing, do the pots and paintings take a backseat?
AR: It's nothing very serious, I just like messing around, making things. The painting is particularly frivolous -- I just paint things for fun. Doors, windows, cupboards, walls, nothing is safe. But the pottery means something more -- and I've been doing it for years, since I was a student. Everyone who works with clay will tell you there's something addictive about it: despite long breaks when I didn't touch clay at all, I keep going back to it. It absorbs every molecule of your attention while you're doing it and even when you're not. When I am in the middle of testing out glazes, I can't think of anything but colours and chemicals and minerals. So I don't go near my wheel when I'm writing.
Blue Jug, by Anuradha Roy. (Stoneware clay fired at 1200 c with oil spot glaze)
TD: And are you writing now? Are there periods when you are not creating either books or pots? How are those days filled? 
And finally: I’m curious to know how you felt when you finished Sleeping on Jupiter…. Eudora Welty said of endings: "Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.” Do you have a similar journey of moving from writer to reader? 
AR: I don't have this "sunburnt" feeling about what I write, though I can understand it. I am neurotic and thin-skinned about the book right till the end -- but once it's out I feel a sense of detachment very quickly, as if it's not mine any longer. Maybe this is just a survival mechanism.
With anything I make, if it somehow turns out roughly the way I wanted it to be--that makes me feel calm about it out there. I found the writing of Sleeping on Jupiter a thing of turmoil, difficulty, anxieties -- and I was unbearable bore to family and publisher through the writing of it. But when I finished it, I felt as I do with a few of my pots: that nothing  that anyone says about it will make a difference to me. (I don't know how long this feeling will last.)
As for writing now -- yes and no. At least I'm past the huge empty space that comes after finishing a book when everyone other than me appears to have a life, a real job, a reason to wake up. You know what I mean.
(Copyright Tishani Doshi; read it here in The Hindu)

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A poem for the new year and some books to read

The year is in its last week and most of the annual Best Books lists are out. Sleeping on Jupiter is in several of them and in great company.


THE NATIONAL, UAE: Top Ten International Titles of the Year
"Not one of the easiest reads of the year, but it certainly felt like one of the most-important. The Indian novelist lifted the lid on the hypocrisies of her country against a backdrop of abuse, brutality and painful memories as a 25-year-old film-maker’s assistant returned to the temple town of Jarmuli to confront the demons of her past. Only a courageous and talented novelist is able to coalesce such weighty, unsettling and yet topical issues into a compulsively readable book" 

http://www.thenational.ae/arts-life/books/the-top-10-books-that-flew-off-the-shelves-in-2015---in-pictures#8

THE ASIAN WRITER, UK

"This is not a book I highlight because it shares the entertaining qualities of my previous choices, but because it signals a departure from the stereotypes that can often characterise fiction from the subcontinent. Here Roy says what has previously been almost unsayable about violence towards women. It feels like a sea change in what we expect from South Asian literature – a topical story reimagined, a hard message, beautifully written."
http://theasianwriter.co.uk/2015/12/writers-pick-the-best-books-of-2015/

THE TELEGRAPH, Kolkata

"The novel lays bare the many forms of violence against women in India. Yet Roy’s women seem to be unbeaten: they are hardy, spirited and eager for life. Each violent moment is acutely imagined and presented with precision in Roy’s chiselled prose."
http://www.telegraphindia.com/1151225/jsp/opinion/story_60172.jsp#.VnzRPnt5yHI

DECCAN HERALD, Chennai
"With no power, phone signals or places to go during the recent Madras flood, reading was an option. When there was light, I read a book. When light failed, I lit a candle, and later, my Kindle. Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping On Jupiter kept me going through the night with its sharp prose and vivid descriptions..."
http://www.deccanherald.com/content/519706/flowers-flood.html


ASIA HOUSE, LONDON
"Then there was Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, another Man Booker nominee. Despite its ethereal name, this is a book looking at harsh realities – sexual abuse of women and children in India – and a conversation on the book at Asia House was framed around that very topic.  Read about that here. Also take a look at our interview with Roy that was published ahead of this talk. Neither Sahota’s nor Roy’s books were light reads, but with their well-executed characters and moments of humour, they were certainly good reads."  

BIBLIO, Delhi
"Sleeping on Jupiter gleams quietly in the smog. Thank God, our godmen didn’t hear of it or they would have got it banned! Searing and lyrical but most significant to me because of hopes raised by the writer’s name! When she wins a major international award there could be some global publicist zeroing in on Anuradha as the next buzzword in books" 
-- academic and novelist Anuradha Marwah

HINDUSTAN TIMES, Delhi "The books that defined 2015"

IDIVA, Mumbai: 11 Books to read before 2015 ends

DESI BLITZ: AMAZING BOOKS TO READ THIS WINTER
http://www.desiblitz.com/content/amazing-books-read-winter-2015

I've found lots to read from these lists, and what I plan to get first is Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Not because I know very much about the book except for its rave reviews, but because it made me rack my brains for a couple of days until I remembered where the title came from: one of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson. I'll leave you with the original poem and with wishes for a new year of hopes fulfilled.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Emily Dickinson

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Storyteller from the Hills: by Anjali Thomas





Image: Madhu Kapparath

T
he characters in Sleeping on Jupiter are like ghosts. They are persistent in their haunting and linger long after you read the final line of the novel. Even their creator Anuradha Roy does not quite know their future but, she tells ForbesLife India, imagining their fate, the ‘what ifs’ of their lives, is a “pleasant private parlour game”.

Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, Sleeping on Jupiter is Roy’s third novel. It is set in Jarmuli, a fictional temple town by the sea, where, over the span of five days, the lives of the protagonist Nomi, three elderly friends, a poetry-spouting tea vendor and his assistant, a temple guide and a fixer collide.

The impact is not pretty, especially because Roy reveals how relationships can turn violent. In a narrative which, much like the sea, alternates from gentle to choppy, Roy writes about faith, religion, rape, abuse, old age and homosexuality. At the centre of the story is Nomi, who is born in India and adopted by a family in Norway. Almost ethereal, she belongs neither to the land she was born in nor the one that adopted her. She is looking for answers in Jarmuli, home to an ashram where, as a child, she was sexually abused by a famous god-man.

The common thread, says Roy, is friendship: “Between the three women, between two little orphaned girls, between the main character and the gardener, between the temple guide and the tea boy.” In an email interview with ForbesLife India, she talks about her novel, life in Delhi, the stories she writes, the books she reads, and Permanent Black, the publishing house she runs with her husband.
Excerpts:

Q. Do you have a writing process?
I wish there was a process. It’s just the usual slog work a lot of the time, writing passages that I delete the next day, making more notes than I can keep track of and so on. When I am working on a book, I work very methodically and regularly, but at other times, I don’t write every day. I don’t show novels in progress to anyone, not until a full draft is done.

Q. Can you explain the title of your book, Sleeping on Jupiter? Is it a play on Jupiter as the god of sky and thunder? 
The ‘Jupiter’ of the title is literally, as well as metaphorically, another planet. One of the characters who wants to find a different world for himself thinks of it as the farthest he can go to, a place removed from where he is, where everything is altered, including its sky, which has 16 moons.

Q. The effect of age on the human brain is a gentle but insistent theme in Sleeping on Jupiter. The character Gouri has what could well be the early onset of Alzheimer’s. And as the story progresses, her friend Vidya feels her mind beginning to unravel as if it were “an undone skein of wool”. In your first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Amulya Babu’s wife has an unnamed mental disorder. Both she and Gouri lead less than full lives. What was going on in your mind when you chose these very real age-related illnesses for your characters?
I very often find myself saying ‘I don’t know’ to these questions. It’s not possible for me to work out why certain themes and character traits came into a novel; I can’t fully analyse how the narrative took the shape it did. With Gouri, I think I know the route, a bit: Some way into working on the book, I went on a trip with my aunt and mother. We got ourselves rooms in a nice hotel, and they were so delighted about everything, it was great fun. But some years after that, my aunt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I found myself going back to the trip to work out if there had been signs of it and if we just hadn’t noticed anything unusual. Maybe that influenced the way I thought of Gouri, though she isn’t remotely like my aunt in any other way.

Q. This is a story about abuse, paedophilia, misogyny, rape…  and Nomi is at the centre of the storm,  having been sexually abused by a renowned god-man in her childhood. Is your book an indictment of blind faith and god-men? 
The character who turned out to be Nomi was an incidental figure. She appeared in one scene in a short story (I had written) out of which this novel came. Afterwards, I found myself thinking about her—and about Badal (the tea vendor), who was also a walk-on character—long after I had put away that story. When I thought of her past, I instinctively felt it was one which had great suffering, but also that she had come out of it fighting. As for faith, the characters have a whole range of approaches to religion, from the commercial and exploitative to the devout and deeply spiritual.
Image: Madhu Kapparath
HONOUR ROLL: Anuradha Roy published her first work of fiction, An Atlas of Impossible Longing,in 2008 to excellent reviews, both locally and globally. Her second novel, The Folded Earth (2011), won The Economist Crossword Prize for Fiction and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize
Q. There’s a point in the story when Nomi thinks of the Sargasso Sea. Was that a deliberate reference to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel that was framed as a prequel to Charlotte BrontĂ«’s Jane Eyre?
It’s nice when someone catches these little things inserted into a book. For example, only one of the reviewers pointed out that the action takes place over 18 days, the period of the war in the Mahabharata.

Q. In your earlier novel, The Folded Earth, the town of Ranikhet looks to the Himalayas in the way that Jarmuli is embraced by the sea. How important is backdrop to you as a writer? When you choose a motif or theme, is there a process you go through?
The backdrop is vital. Until I can feel and see every bit of the setting, I can’t get the novel clear in my head. I don’t choose a theme ever: It’s always character- and place-driven for me. Both Atlas and Folded Earth started from images. One was of a house which had a river lapping at its verandah, the other of the lake at Roopkund with skulls floating in it. Sleeping on Jupiter began as a short story and if I was thinking of any themes at all, it was friendship. A lot of the book is about friendships—between the three women, between two little orphaned girls, between the main character and the gardener, between the temple guide and the tea boy.

Q. By the end of the novel, everything unravels. The scenes are almost disjointed. You could have extended it, and allowed events to run their course. Instead you give us fragments…beautifully written, but still fragments. Why? 
I wanted the compressed elusiveness of the short story in a novel, for it to end when things could still have happened. I know I could have followed many of the strands further, but did not want to. I wanted a sense of disintegration towards the end and structured it accordingly.

Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s an average day like? I read that you have a dog.

I’ve had dogs since I was a child and right now we have three, one of whom is a very little puppy we found a month ago wandering lost on the hill highway.

For the greater part of the year, we live in Ranikhet, a small hill town in Uttarakhand, and my husband Rukun Advani and I run a press called Permanent Black, which publishes history and politics. Most days are a combination of long walks, designing, writing, cooking or pottery, which I’ve done, not very well, for many years.
Q. What kind of work do you do at Permanent Black. Why did you start it? 
We started Permanent Black in 2000. We were both at the OUP (Oxford University Press India) and it seemed a natural progression to start our own press. I used to acquire and edit books, but found that difficult once I started writing. Now I only design our covers. I love design work partly because I feel I am using a totally different part of my brain.

Q. What are you reading now? Do you have a poem or a poet you go back to often?
I’m reading In Defence of Dogs by John Bradshaw, and a manuscript on Maoists, which is very good. I do read quite a lot of poetry and have favourites such as Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Stevenson whom I go back to. For Sleeping on Jupiter, I read a lot of Bhakti poetry in translation.

Q. What do you think of the state of Indian writing in English? What do you like or dislike about it?
From what publishers and distributors say, all the buzz around new titles and lit-fests is not reflected in sales. Only a few titles in English sell in large numbers and, on the whole, reading is not a priority in this country. There was one writer in English—I can’t remember who—who claimed he had never read a book in his life. There are lots of interesting writers and a brilliant new wave of translations, but writing in English can’t be in a great state if there is so little reading.





Friday, 30 October 2015

The Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 2015

The Train to Jarmuli

Kate Webb

"Roy does not adjudicate between these positions. She holds her story in a fine balance, scrupulously turning from one perspective to another in order to show the often yawning gap between how we imagine ourselves and how others see us... Roy writes in a lucid, realist manner, contrasting her restraint with the violence of her subject (the colour red is everywhere, page after page has images of blood). But this not a conventional novel, because it is to freighted with ambiguity and impotence."

The theme of child abuse is becoming ever more prevalent in fiction. In the recently Man Booker-shortlisted A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara explores the subject as the ultimate experience of pain, and therefore the ultimate marker of uniqueness, among a group of contemporary New Yorkers much preoccupied with their individualism. In Sleeping on Jupiter, Anuradha Roy frames her story of a young girl’s abuse as part of a broader malaise in India, describing a town caught between ancient superstitions (“The die for God is what we live for”) and an economy built on selling the past, trapping its workers in a nightmare of regression an frustration. Both novels have religious men as their principal villains, but in Sleeping on Jupiter the ashram where the abuse takes place is not isolated or unusual, and Nomi, the child at the heart of the story, is not unique, being just one of twelve refugee girls who are abducted and cruelly maltreated. Lying on the outskirts of Jarmuli, a (fictional) coastal town of medieval temples, the ashram is part of a tourist industry and, it is implied more broadly, of a society “transfixed” by powerful gods and godlike humans.

Complicating this scenario are the attitudes of Western visitors who respond to the temples’ erotic carvings in ways that humiliate the people working in them, pushing them into defensiveness. “Is that a child?” one woman asks, “accusingly”. “Not a child, Madam”, the guide responds, “Not in Indian culture”. Native visitors, on the other had, simply ignore the mix of religion and sex in these images, refusing to entertain what they might once have signified, or how their legacy could live on in the present. Roy does not adjudicate between these positions. She holds her story in a fine balance, scrupulously turning from one perspective to another in order to show the often yawning gap between how we imagine ourselves and how others see us.

This is not to say Roy is not partisan. She pointedly gives the authority of a first-person testimony to Nomi, while the rest of her third-person narrative focuses on others in India’s excluded majority—the many outliers who feel shadowy figures of power at their backs (there is a particularly sinister monk skirting the edges of the story), but whom they rarely catch sight of, much less are able to confront. Nomi has returned to India with a vague idea of doing just this, having persuaded the Norwegian film company she works for that the town would make a scenic location. On the train to Jarmuli she encounters Gouri, Latika and Vidya, three elderly women—supporting and snapping at one another as old friends do—holidaying before dementia and aching bones confine them at home. Then there are the town’s workers: Badal, the women’s  tour guide; Raghu, the boy he lusts after who is an assistant at Johnny Toppo’s tea stand on the beach; and Suraj, employed to help Nomi with reconnaissance work.

Roy writes in a lucid, realist manner, contrasting her restraint with the violence of her subject (the colour red is everywhere, page after page has images of blood). But this not a conventional novel, because it is too freighted with ambiguity and impotence. The beach where Toppo serves his sizzling ginger tea suffers a Ballardian entropy. It is a liminal place suggesting something beyond—the possibility of a different life and, with this, fantasies of escape, of dropping off the edge of the world or flying it Jupiter. Many of Roy’s characters, trapped by poverty or tradition, experience some kind of vertigo: the women find the ground beneath their feet falling away, while Suraj starts to drown, dropping down through the sea.

If the physical world lacks solidity and seems constantly liable to give way, incapable of supporting the people who roam it, the language available to them is equally treacherous and difficult to navigate. It is not just that Nomi remembers all the things from her childhood “that we could not talk about”, and into adulthood remains unable to discuss what happened to her; nor that Latika reflexively puts her hands over her mouth to stop words that might cause disapproval, nor even that Badal, Suraj and Toppo are all forced by their work to fawn and perform, but a more general sense that language is unauthentic, a system of deceit produced by a  patriarchal and colonial past that leaves its speakers adrift.

The inheritance of this unexamined history, of being forbidden to talk, is that men like Badal and Suraj are unequipped to understand their sexual feelings, forcing themselves on unwilling partners with disastrous consequences. For Nomi it means a constant wish to disown herself: “Like stepping out of your own life. Like leaving your own story”. In Yanagihara’s novel, an inability to endure the legacy of abuse leads to suicide. Here, too, there is no escape for Nomi other than to abandon her life and return to the “North”, to a silent lake in Norway where she casts off the relics of her Indian past. As in much contemporary fiction gloomy about the possibility of political change, where speech is registered as debased or prohibited, Roy suggests that the only response lies in writing. Nomi recounts how after she escaped from the ashram she wrote down what happened to the kidnapped girls, posting her fragile words in a homemade envelope to a newspaper. It is not clear if she is the source years later of articles about child abuse in Jarmuli, and their publication comes too late to rescue any part of life she abandons, but the story, finally is out.



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!”
REMEMBERING MANISHA BHATTACHARYA, Potter 
(died 1 September 2015)

Monday, 7 September 2015

UNDER THE FLYOVER


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.