Novelist ANURADHA ROY’s latest book explores the complex relationships between people and place. catches up with her in JaipurANURADHA ROY SPENDS most of her time in Ranikhet, India, where she and her husband run a small publishing house. The town is a hill station in the Himalayas that, without the renown of the colonial summer capital Shimla, still has the combined feel of Middle Earth and a Fragonard painting in some need of repair, woven through with faded-glory echoes of the British Raj.
At least, that’s how it seems in The Folded Earth, Roy’s second novel, which wa slonglisted for this year’s Man Asian LiteraryPrize. Ever since the British built theirmansions and verandas in the 19th century,she writes, “Ranikhet has been made up of memories and stories: of trees laden with peaches the size of tennis balls, of strawberry patches and watercress sandwiches, of the legendary eccentrics who lived here...”
This lovely, sad story is narrated by Maya, a young Hindu woman disinherited by her father for marrying a Christian. She moves from the Deccan to Ranikhet after her husband dies in a mountaineering accident, and takes a job teaching at a Christian school.
Under the “circumscribed” sky of the hills, Maya collects a new family. One of its most vivid members is Diwan Sahib, a cantankerous aristocrat with a penchant for Bombay Sapphire, who tells stories of the Mountbattens and is writing a biography of Jim Corbett – the Nainital-born tiger hunter-turned- naturalist.
When Diwan Sahib’s proud and mysterious nephew Veer shows up to establish a trekking company in Ranikhet, Maya faces at once the tragedy of her past and the promise of her future. Another character is Charu, an illiterate cowherd girl who falls in love with Kundan Singh, a cook at one of the town’s revived colonial lodges. They begin a poignant correspondence after the boy is forced to move to Delhi.
Roy has a wonderful sense of place, and writes with discipline and grace. Her minor characters are some of the novel’s most memorable and the major ones are layered without being difficult. Everything from the title and her descriptive, undulating prose to the “hand-drawn” map embedded in the book jacket suggests The Folded Earth is as much about the treasure of a geographical space as it is about human love and loss.
Roy’s first novel, The Atlas of Impossible Longing, was released internationally in 2011. It was shortlisted for India’s prestigious Crossword Prize and named one of the most essential books on modern India. Taking a break from the colourful swirl of the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, Roy spoke warmly about wilderness, change and Winnie-the-Pooh.
Where do your stories come from?
I’m a very visual person. And for some reason, both this book and my first book began with a picture. In the case of The Folded Earth, it began with a photograph someone showed me of an iced lake. This frozen lake is a place where people trek to, and there are still skeletons and skulls from travellers in the 8th century. When these bones were found, they still had gold and jewellery on them, which is all in museums now.
When I saw those slides, something happened and I started to think about it. I wrote one whole big scene and then had to think about where the story was going.
What’s the book about?
I think it’s about loss. It’s about the loss of a wilderness, and a whole way of life, which has become irrelevant in modernised new India. The loss of those values that made it relevant is really sad. I’m not gloomy in real life, but people say my novels are gloomy.
Have you experienced an important loss?
Yes, my father died. It was a very traumatic death, because he had gone in for a bypass surgery that didn’t work. I think that really, fundamentally, changed me.
You know, when he died, my final exams at Calcutta University were some months away. So I thought, I can’t do them. But my tutor said, you are going to do them whether you like it or not because...if you let yourself go now, you are never going to tackle these exams again. So I did them, and I thought I was handling everything really well. It’s only years later that you realise that’s not how it was.
Could we talk more widely about Indian writing in English?
I think it’s a time when Indian writers are celebrating the fact that they don’t need to be published abroad any more. There’s such a thriving market for their books in India. The kind of fame and fortune that came to Indian writers only if they were published abroad – that’s completely turned on its head.
Particularly because the Indian reading public is certainly not interested in literary fiction, it’s the work of these pulp fiction people that captures the popular imagination. And that never travels abroad. So there’s a huge confidence in producing Indian writing in English for Indians.
How does India’s colonial legacy affect its literature?
I’ve never felt that colonialism was bad for literature. It gave us another language and access to so much great writing. I’m influenced by the great British classic writers. I love Dickens, Hardy, Jane Austen and all that. But I don’t think it’s relevant any more. You know, the other day I was reading a very good British novel and I realised that I hadn’t read a book that was written [originally] in English for a very long time.
What compelled you to start writing fiction?
I’ve been writing fiction since I was a child. When I was little, my older brother was going to school and I was not. And I was really grumpy about that. So my mother, to make me feel better, bought me a red hardback exercise book with no lines – it was just blank. She said, this is your book and you do what you want with it.
I still have it, with stories that I wrote when I was four years old. And then there was a period of lots of imitative writing, such as Indian versions of Winnie-the-Pooh. I started publishing short stories in newspapers, and getting paid for them, when I was 14.
Do you have a particular method?
I just need to find isolation and time. When I’m working on a book, I set the alarm and wake up early groaning and grumbling. There’s nothing more I can do, because once those precious three hours from 5am to 8am go, I have to take care of the dog, and the publishing house, and there are people coming in and out. I think writers who say they have [a very special method] might be lying. It’s a kind of self-mythologising.
Are you writing something at the moment?
I write all the time. But right now my work is in the write-and-destruct phase.
What about your press, Permanent Black?
It publishes history and politics and is run by my husband and me. We were both at Oxford University Press before, and we started Permanent Black after we were chucked out of there.
The Folded Earth is published by Free Press, Simon & Schuster in the US, MacLehose Press in Britain, and Hachette in India.