TSC Interviews | Nilanjana Roy

1.     Through a personal history of reading, you have also sketched a brief history of Indian writing in English in India. How difficult was it to weave in the two together, in terms of writing it down?

It was a pitched battle between enthusiasm and laziness. But the history of Indian writing in English is so colourful – printing presses abducted from ships, early speculative fiction that imagines the British being conquered by an uprising of tribals, bilingual and trilingual editors who shuttled between Urdu, Persian, Bengali, English, Sanskrit, Gujarati at need, an Indian woman poet who spoke French, wore silk dresses but could unselfconsciously write about Sita in the sacred grove, and died tragically young. It finally wore down my sometimes epic laziness.

I used personal memory and experience as a jumping-off point into this history in part because I discovered Indian writing in English accidentally and haphazardly, and wanted to make it clear that The Girl Who Ate Books is a personal reading history, not a truly scholarly history of Indian writing in English. You have to be very careful not to overdraw on the account of memory – nostalgia is a trap, isn’t it? But I drew courage from Anne Fadiman and Rokeya Begum, who used personal history as a way of exploring far larger literary histories, though I think both of them did it more expertly than I have.

2.     The festival at Neemrana occupies an important place in the narrative and you cite it in a few different contexts. You also write about the schism that seemed to exist between the hosts and guests of the festival and the locals.  More than a decade down the line, how do you see the evolution of literary festivals? Do you think that schism still exists - sometimes as an inevitability due to language and class - between writers of Indian English fiction and the Indian masses?

One of the successes of literary festivals – not all, but a substantial number – is that they’ve grown better at bridging the gap. Of course litfests stand in danger of turning into very long self-congratulatory parties, too. But one reason why I like the Jaipur festival is because it’s managed to make that big tent democratic – the local chemist, auto drivers, mithaiwalas will show you their five-day passes and sometimes point you to the best sessions to attend.

We have very old templates for literary festivals in this country, from mushairas to itihas sammelans and the old tradition of kathakars and patachitra storytelling. Most of these traditions were inclusive, and where they weren’t, it is up to us to create new, radically inclusive traditions.

The problem with the evolution of literary festivals is that it’s only literary awards and litfests that are thriving – the rest of the crucial creative infrastructure that all Indian writers, not just Indian writers in English, need is missing. If you want to grow good writing, good editing, there must be far more direct support for writers themselves. The places where you can teach and learn skills, the residencies, fellowships and grants for writers especially for those who don’t have access to the resources of big cities, the public libraries and bookshops where young writers can have their minds fed are missing.

We have not built a literary culture, and given the present climate of anti-intellectualism, we are likely to dismantle the few individual efforts to create one. Litfests at their best provide writers with a platform where they can connect with readers, and with a place where they can listen to and meet their peers and mentors. But litfests cannot replace a thriving literary culture, and we do not have even a single Indian city that can be proud of its libraries, its bookstores, that can say, “Our writers have the freedom and the support they need to flourish.”

3.     Chetan Bhagat with whom you had a Twitter spat recently does not figure at all in the narrative. He is someone who is often credited for bridging the schism between the writers of English fiction and the masses. How do you place him? Is he a good or a bad influence when it comes to IWE?

The Girl Who Ate Books features interviews with 14 writers, and profiles of several more from the 18th and 19th centuries. It was difficult for me to limit this selection to Indian writers in English, and there are multiple omissions – Cornelia Sorabji, Sarojini Naidu, Imtiaz Dharker, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Janice Pariat, Anees Salim, Amitav Ghosh, Suketu Mehta, to name just a few writers I’d have liked to have seen in the book. I couldn’t locate the full transcript of my interview with Suketu Mehta, and sadly, our youngest cat had unspooled the original cassette tape and eaten some of Suketu’s words. (With great enjoyment.)

There’s a flourishing industry in Chetan-appreciation or Chetan-criticism, and there is enough of both for the world to get by without my opinion of him. I was saddened in our Twitter disagreement, over the issue of the Indian writers who had returned their awards in fear and anguish after the murder of the scholar MM Kalburgi, to see that he was ignorant and contemptuous of the writings of Indian authors in translation who took an active part in these protests.

He said his books were more famous than theirs, which is a dubious claim to make about writers such as Krishna Sobtiji or Surjit Patar. I wish he had not fed  the old stereotype of the bestselling Indian writer in English who remains condescending of his counterparts in other Indian regional languages; this attitude has caused a great deal of damage in the past.

4. A number of writers featured in the book-  and I admire several of them - seem familiar with the high-life, like specialities at five-star hotels, in a way that will most likely be difficult for a Bhasha writer to be. Their education and background is also of a more elite kind, compared to what one generally sees when it comes to Bhasha writers. Even dynasty seems to operate - Moraes, Thayil, and Desai for example had illustrious writer-parents. Do you think this phenomenon is at least, one of the reasons behind the resentment - if one may call that - that one sees sometimes, as in the case of Nemade and Rushdie for example?

The resentment has far deeper roots, it goes to the heart of the question of whether Indian writers in English have transmuted English alchemically into just another Indian tongue, or whether as in some cases, they remain dangerously ignorant of the work that is being done across Indian languages.

But when we’re looking at language as power, there should also be the acknowledgement that Indian bhasha writers often have large readerships that Indian writers in English might envy – the Bengali writer Sankar was amused to be told that a sale of 30,000 copies in the English language market was considered excellent, since his usual sales in Bengal for each book goes into lakhs.

I don’t agree that bhasha writers lack sophistication – so many are very well-travelled, in their own countries, in Asia as well as the US and Europe. Nirmal Verma was a Stephanian, lived in Prague, travelled across Europe, Mridula Garg has connected with readers in Europe and Japan, Shrilal Shukla was an IAS officer, for instance.

Photo by Kavi Bhansali

5. You have also touched upon the issues related to authenticity while citing the points raised by late Meenakshi Mukherjee in this regard. While in the specific case of Chandra, he may have used the section-heads according to a genuine need, how do you place the issue in an overall context? For example, a novel by a Nepali writer comes to mind, called The Gurkha's Daughter, a title that signals Nepal to the West in a rather orientalist way. While I am not disputing the genuine merit of the works, are we in India and the sub-continent still performing for the West?

Two chapters in The Girl Who Ate Books – Finding Dean and Pioneers: An Unbroken Line of Trust – address this question.

Let me throw out an additional provocation: why are Indian writers, across languages, so relatively uninterested in performing for Asian readers? Where is the hunger to be on the bestseller lists in China, which I must confess is a lurking personal ambition, to be reviewed in Shanghai, adulated in Hong Kong, welcomed to Malaysia, dissected in Laos? Why don’t we want to be big in Japan?

6. While the book contains interviews with poets, it does not give us a narrative as structured of Indian poetry in English as it does with prose. Can we expect another book that covers it? There are some who actually believe that poetry in Indian English has been better in quality but due to negligence, had to suffer obscurity. Your views?

In Class VI, I had necessarily unrequited crushes on Julio Cortazar, Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich and Shei Shonagon, all of whom were so far above my reach that none were in a position to return my love, some for the very good reason that they were dead. This is the same sort of relationship I have with poetry – it is an unattainable lover because I know so little about the art of the poem, and do not have the formidable learning of an Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, or the critical tools of an Arundhati Subramaniam.

I agree that Indian poetry is the best of Indian writing, especially in English. Jeet Thayil wrote about many lost Indian poets in an issue of Fulcrum and in his anthology of Indian poetry, and I remember Eunice de Souza’s equally important Nine Indian Women Poets.

Poetry is obscure only because we have grown so used to judging writers by the standard of success, which is to say sales, which is to say we are treating books as though they were bolts of cloth. Poetry is like the best of Indian weaving – exquisite but sturdy, under-appreciated, those who put on the garments of handloom-woven poetry cannot go back easily to machine-made bestsellers, and somehow, it survives despite the many threats. “No one buys poetry,” people say, but so many people remember it, recite it, secretly need it. If you reject poetry, you are left with the tyranny of slogans, the impoverished language of hypernationalism and threats.

7. The problem of the "clique" in IWE has been a long-standing one. Sometimes writers like Nagarkar seem to suffer obscurity because they don't belong to one. How can this be overcome?

It is not a clique as much as it is a joint family system with the biradari, the rishtedars and the patidars vying for space. At any point, somebody is having a property dispute, someone has taken over the house keys, someone is fighting with a junior cousin.

And as with all joint families, it is also possible to step away from the construct itself and live a perfectly independent life. You will notice that Nagarkar is no longer obscure and that he has found his readers despite the early struggles and the opposition of the Marathi literary establishments.

See the ease with which these cliques can be entered – there is a cycle to it, one year a writer is accusing the literary community of being very cliquish, the next he or she is accused of being an eminence grise. But you will also notice that the ones who are doing the best writing surface at literary festivals like dolphins perform briefly, and then swim back into the ocean and stay away from the rest of the politics, as any sensible dolphin does. (Writers are not dolphins, though, let us not stretch these analogies too far. It is a pity, I would have liked to have been a dolphin instead of a writer but you can’t always get what you want.)

8. You have also meditated on the process of writing - by calling it a process of laying down a structure that does not really exist but you make it hold with your sheer conviction. Did that hold true for the sequel to Wildings also?

One-half of writing is imagination, and that is a true mystery. I do not believe any of us can take credit for the seeds of each story – they come out of nowhere, whether it is Nabokov’s Lolita or a far less ambitious story about a clan of cats battling it out in Delhi, finding unlikely alliances with zoo tigers or with a cheel who has significant parenting anxieties. Creativity is a mystery, and I imagine that there is a real ocean of seas of stories in a parallel world, and that everyone is given a boat, and that you can choose whether or not to steer your boat in the direction of that ocean over the course of your life.

I loved writing The Hundred Names of Darkness not just because of the imagination but because I was learning the craft, structure, some technique, perhaps very inexpertly, but still. If your characters are animals, then it falls to you to try to imagine all of the animal world – it won’t work unless you can consistently see Delhi from three feet off the ground, and understand what the city or Goa would feel like to non-humans. Would it be friendly? Hostile? Full of adventures? Full of bait? Are you predator, prey, or both?

9. What do we expect next from you? Another novel? Or non- fiction? Or something else altogether?

Thanks for asking. Some years ago, the figure of a butcher began to haunt me, a man who cut meat beautifully, and who had honed his trade in a bloody war, and come to Delhi to escape his memories. Over time, I learned a little more about him, he had arrived in the city just as the Emergency began, and he was not the main character. His job was to point me in the direction of two places.

One was Delhi in the 1970s, a city of low rooftops, a time when the Yamuna ran so clean that you could bathe in it, or use it to bury all kinds of sins. The other was Haryana in the same decade, and I had a recurring set of nightmares, after some reporting on gender, where I saw road maps laid out connecting canals, small towns, farmland, industrial landscapes through the bodies of women who had gone missing. These two things, a character and an image, are coming together in the next book. It will be fiction, mostly.

1 comment:

  1. Always a pleasure to hear from Nila! Looking forward to the book