Saturday, 14 July 2012

HOUSE ON A MOUNTAIN

"...some people have the mountains in them while some have the sea. The ocean exerts an inexorable pull over sea-people wherever they are – in a bright-lit, inland city or the dead centre of a desert – and when they feel the tug there is no choice but somehow to reach it and stand at its immense, earth-dissolving edge, straightaway calmed. Hill-people, even if they are born in flatlands, cannot be parted for long from the mountains. Anywhere else is exile. Anywhere else, the ground is too flat, the air too dense, the trees too broad-leaved for beauty. The colour of the light is all wrong, the sounds nothing but noise." The Folded Earth

For three days it had rained as if the sky had turned into a giant shower. It was my third trip to Ranikhet and yet again I was leaving without a glimpse of the high peaks. It didn’t matter. The sound of rain on a tin roof, the dry spells when the hills were honey-coloured in the newly-washed air: who needs more?
Then someone said, “Look”.
“Look higher.”
I looked higher, to where the sun or moon should have been. And there — inexplicably — they were, replacing flat old sky. They were blue and white on a cotton-puff of clouds, as in postcards. But no postcard peaks look like that. These floated. Five times bigger than the hills at their feet, yet ethereal. A rooster crowed just then. It should have been the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth.
Leeches clung to us as we ran down a muddy slope through the trees blocking our view. We noticed the blood on our jeans only later. We needed a vantage point and there was such a hurry. The clouds might wipe everything away again.
At the tip of the slope stood a derelict cottage. We found a place to stand against its crumbling walls and stared at the shapes before us, the jagged, massive ice pyramids whose names we still didn’t know. They blazed in the light of the new sun.
We had to stand tip-toe because the place was a soggy mess of plastic bags, warped shoes, dented tins and bottles. The cottage had broken windows blinded with sheets of newspaper browned with age. Inside, the floor was a mound of dank mud. Rotted sacking hung from a ruined false ceiling. Beams of wood sagged from it.
And in one corner, stood a dog. Its eyes shone in its sooty face. Its peaked ears were the colour of copper. Its fringed tail waved slowly side to side, like a banner.
Only a few things in life can be pinned to particular moments. This was one: we knew immediately, my husband and I, that we would live there, in that cottage, on that hill.
The year we began resurrecting the cottage, we were also struggling to establish our own tiny publishing house. Alongside masons and the water board, there were authors and books to be dealt with. Ranikhet had no internet service then, nor cellphones. WiFi was the stuff of fantasy, mainly ours. Through the next year, we would take our laptop to the phone-booth to hook on to our dial-up connection in Delhi. A crowd would stare over our shoulders as we typed, murmuring to each other about the miracle of letters squeezing themselves through a phone line onto a TV screen.
Days passed, weeks. The carpenter absconded because his fruit trees were being ravaged by monkeys. We waited. Then he turned up, smiling all over his face, holding out a bag of wine-red plums exploding with juice. The power failed because a tree had fallen on a wire. “What use is bijli in the daytime when there’s sunlight?” the electricity people asked. We waited. The plumber vanished to his village to tend to his ailing buffalo. When back, he sat and smoked because the taps he was to fit still hadn’t come from Haldwani. How could they? The road was blocked by landslides.
We waited, and I planted lily bulbs and rose cuttings into our patch of landfill. In my mind’s eye it was already a flowery meadow straight from The Sound of Music. An old woman observing me battling the rubbish-clogged earth said, “Everything happens in its own time. Flowers bloom in their own time.” She laughed fit to burst as her goats munched bushes nearby.
There’s a certain bend on the road to Ranikhet where the air changes to champagne. We draw such deep breaths here that if we were balloons, we would inflate to the tips of our toes and fingers. Soon a line of small shops appears, roses tumbling over their roofs. There’s laughter and chatting on the street. Life in the mountains is not easy but good humour is a widely-transmitted virus. People smile a lot and idle as if they have nothing but time.
Busyness does seem an affectation here. Things happen, after all, in their own time. In this season, everyone is excited about the first gourd-sized hill cucumbers at the vegetable shop. In another season the sensation will be the radishes.
There’s nothing more exotic you can buy in the bigger bazaar either, which is about a mile long. Anything you need is available within this mile — or you have to do without it. It makes life straightforward and also convivial. Shops buzz with amiable conversation about the general lack of things, from water in our taps to electricity to supplies of batteries and coffee.
Ranikhet is the base for several trekking companies, American, Norwegian and Indian, that take people to the Pindari glacier area. Other travellers go looking for different kinds of summits: they go on pilgrimages to the many sacred places in the mountains, including Badrinath and Jageswar. Our own travelling here is lazier. We travel for the rhododendron in springtime or the changing colours of autumn. Or we drive to towns like Kausani and Binsar, to look at the snows from a different angle.
It’s been twelve years. Yesterday I was woken at 3 AM by a light on my face. The full moon, neon-bright. I lay awake, irritable, thinking yet again that we needed thicker curtains. Then I drifted back to the time when, driving home, we had to stop to let a leopard cross the road. Its pale fur and pale eyes gleamed in the headlights. It paused and gave us a long look, telling us whose land this really was. Then it loped off into the darkness.
Putting aside thoughts of curtains I shivered at a window, looking at the moon-sharpened shadows outside. Out there in the deep forest were foxes, leopards, deer, living their secret lives. The hoot of an owl echoed in the absolute silence. Huddled in bed, my dog gave a low growl.
Travelling from city to the hills, this silence appears profound. Some friends of mine run from it, restless and bored after a day or two. Others find that the slowness, silence, and vast wilderness changes something inside them for good. No other place, however beautiful or exciting, will ever mean to them what the Himalaya does. These are the people who keep coming back. Some begin to live here, as we have.
I can’t remember when I went back to sleep, but at dawn the thrush was pouring out its melodies as if it had a concert coming up. The tips of the peaks had turned rosy in the new sunlight. The trees were red and pink with springtime flowers. 
And three of my lilies had bloomed, having taken their own time.
(In National Geographic Traveller, July 2012; copyright Anuradha Roy)

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Literary Topography


Novelist ANURADHA ROY’s latest book explores the complex relationships between people and place. Samantha Leese catches up with her in Jaipur

ANURADHA 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.


Saturday, 7 July 2012

THE DIFFICULTY STARTING

"How's your young lady on horseback progressing?" Tarrou would ask. And invariably Grand would answer with a wry smile: "Trotting along, trotting along!" One evening Grand announced that he had definitely discarded the adjective "elegant" for his horsewoman. From now on it was replaced by "slim." "That's more concrete," he explained. Soon after, he read out to his two friends the new version of the sentence: " 'One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.' 
"Don't you agree with me one sees her better that way? And I've put 'one fine morning in May' because 'in the month of May' tended rather to drag out the trot, if you see what I mean." Next he showed some anxiety about the adjective "handsome." In his opinion it didn't convey enough, and he set to looking for an epithet that would promptly and clearly "photograph" the superb animal he saw with his mind's eye. "Plump" wouldn't do; though concrete enough, it sounded perhaps a little disparaging, also a shade vulgar. "Beautifully groomed" had tempted him for a moment, but it was cumbrous and made the rhythm limp somewhat. Then one evening he announced triumphantly that he had got it: "A black sorrel mare." To his thinking, he explained, "black" conveyed a hint of elegance and opulence.
"It won't do," Rieux said. 
"Why not?"
"Because 'sorrel' doesn't mean a breed of horse; it's a color."
"What color?"
"Well—er—a color that, anyhow, isn't black."
Grand seemed greatly troubled. "Thank you," he said warmly. "How fortunate you're here to help me! But you see how difficult it is."
"How about 'glossy'?" Tarrou suggested.
Grand gazed at him meditatively, then "Yes!" he exclaimed. "That's good." And slowly his lips parted in a smile. Some days later he confessed that the word "flowery" was bothering him considerably. As the only towns he knew were Oran and Montelimar, he sometimes asked his friends to tell him about the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne, what sort of flowers grew in them and how they were disposed. Actually neither Rieux nor Tarrou had ever gathered the impression that those avenues were "flowery," but Grand's conviction on the subject shook their confidence in their memories. He was amazed at their uncertainty. "It's only artists who know how to use their eyes," was his conclusion. But one evening the doctor found him in a state of much excitement. For "flowery" he had substituted "flower-strewn." He was rubbing his hands. "At last one can see them, smell them! Hats off, gentlemen!"
Triumphantly he read out the sentence: "One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare alongthe flower-strewn avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.  "But, spoken aloud, the numerous "s" sounds had a disagreeable effect and Grand stumbled over them, lisping here and there. He sat down, crestfallen; then he asked the doctor if he might go. Some hard thinking lay ahead of him. It was about this time, as was subsequently learned, that he began to display signs of absentmindedness in the office. A serious view was taken of these lapses of attention, as the municipality not only was working at high  pressure with a reduced staff, but was constantly having new duties thrust upon it. His department suffered, and his chief took him severely to task, pointing out that he was paid to do certain work and was failing to do it as it should be done. "I am told that you are acting as a voluntary helper in the sanitary groups. You do this out of-office hours, so it's no concern of mine. But the best way of making yourself useful in a terrible time like this is to do your work well. Otherwise all the rest is useless."
"He's right," Grand said to Rieux.
"Yes, he's right," the doctor agreed.
"But I can't steady my thoughts; it's the end of my phrase that's worrying me, I don't seem able to sort it out."
The plethora of sibilants in the sentence still offended his ear, but he saw no way of amending them without using what were, to his mind, inferior synonyms. And that "flower-strewn" which had rejoiced him when he first lit on it now seemed unsatisfactory. How could one say the flowers were "strewn" when presumably they had been  planted along the avenues, or else grew there naturally?
 From The Plague, by Albert Camus