Anuradha Roy Posts

My Best Reads of 2018

Lists are subjective. Reading lists are even more difficult to cobble. Today my list consists of the following books. A few days later it may change ever so slightly. But these are the books that have stayed with me over the months.

Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness 

Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived 

Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa

Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine 

Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents 

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies 

Ranjit Hoskote Jonahwhale 

Ravish Kumar’s The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation

C G Salamander and Samidha Gunjal’s Puu

Khaled Hosseini Sea Prayer

Nazia Erum’s Mothering a Muslim 

Jarrett J Krosoczka’s Hey, Kiddo

Henry Eliot’s The Penguin Classics Book

Cordis Paldano The Dwarf, the Girl and the Goat

Mohammed Hanif Red Birds 

Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell Art Matters

T M Krishna Reshaping Art 

Alan Lightman In Praise of Wasting Time

Anuradha Roy’s “All The Lives We Have Never Lived”

I read award-winning writer Anuradha Roy‘s stunning new novel All The Lives We Have Never Lived which is set during the second world war in British India and Bali. The narrator is Abhay Chand or Myshkin Chand Rozario who many years later in 1992 recounts details of his childhood. His mother was a Bengali Hindu and his father part-Anglo Indian. When Myshkin was nine his mother left the Rozario family. Myshkin was left in the care of his grandfather, a doctor,  Bhavani Chand Rozario and his father, a college lecturer, Nek Chand. A couple of years after his wife’s departure Nek Chand left on a pilgrimage. He returned home with another wife, Lipi and a daughter, Ila.

Gayatri Sen left India for Bali with German artist Walter Spies and another friend of his Beryl. While in Bali, Gayatri would write letters to her son but particularly long and detailed ones to her best friend Lisa McNally. Myshkin receives his mother’s correspondence to Lisa from her children upon her death. 

After finishing the novel I wrote Anuradha Roy a long letter. Here are some excerpts. 

*********

Dear Anuradha,

Today I finished reading All the Lives We Never Lived. It is another one of your stories that will be with me for a long, long time to come.

I loved the dramatic opening sentence “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” It is similar to another novelist I thoroughly enjoy — Nell Zink. I like how you begin as from the present moment, with the boy, now an old man, reflecting back to his childhood. Obviously the opening sentence defined him for years as that is what is crystal clear. He echoes what society says about his mother. Although the rhythm and cadences of the text are so correctly measured with never a word out of place. It is a voice of experience speaking, yet one who is so terribly (and understandably) rattled by his mother’s letters towards the end that he walks through the local marketplace distractedly.

Your descriptions of the women writing letters to each other with every line scrawled upon, as well as in the margins and wherever they could find space transported me back immediately to my days of writing letters. When my friends left India, I would send them letters by snail mail. In those days’ international postage was so expensive for the heavy packets since the letters were long and used a lot of paper. So I devised a method of using an aerogramme and writing as tiny as I could and then writing across the margin and filling up whatever little space I could find on the page.

So you can imagine my delight to discover the letters between Gayatri and Lisa McNally in All the Lives We Never Lived. You had to my mind so effectively managed to make that leap of unearthing memories not only of the characters but also of the reader. So many times I found myself slowing down or grinding to a halt in your descriptions of the plants and trees. The descriptions of the gardener plucking the jasmine and collecting them in a basket of white cloud to later thread them as a gajra for Gayatri brought back a flood of memories. Every morning in the searing summer heat I would go to my grandmother’s garden in Meerut and pluck all the beautiful white blooms off the bushes. Later I would thread the flowers into gajras for the women in the family. It was a daily ritual over summer vacation I loved. The moment I read that passage in your book I got a strong whiff of the sweet fragrance of the flowers –perfect for summer as well as of the needle used to thread would be coated with sticky nectar.

The beauty of nature, the flowering trees whether in the scorching dry heat or in the tropics to the mountain vegetation. The burst of colour in your novel makes its presence felt but what is truly exhilarating is how Gayatri and later her son gets associated with the most vibrantly colourful passages describing nature in the book. The passage where you describe Myshkin filling up his long-unused sketchbooks with studies of trees and plants in the garden while remembering his mother are like the last movement of a symphony, where everything comes together as a whole. It is as if Myshkin is expressing his delight at discovering the joy of who his mother was and experiencing her life through his paintings.

Over the next weeks, my long-unused sketchbooks filled with studies of the trees and plants in the garden that I associated with my mother: the pearly carpet of parijat flowers, Nyctanthes arbortristis, that she loved walking on barefoot; the neem near the bench where she had sat with Beryl listening to the story of Aisha. I barely slept, I forgot meals, I drew and painted her garden as if possessed. I drew the Crepe myrtle and Queen of the Night, the common oleander and hibiscus; the young mangoes on the tree in June, as raw as they had been when Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies first came to our house.

It took me five days to finish my studies of Queen of the Night and then I turned to the garnet blossoms of the Plumeria rubra, the champa. I painted the long, elliptic leaves, the swollen stem tips, the fleshy branches that go from grey to green and ooze milk if bruised or cut. I blended in the ochre at the edges of the petals with the deepening incandescence of the red in the depths of the flower.

Your descriptions of the gulmohar and amaltas trees (though you use the scientific names) are stupendous. One has to live in this ghastly dry heat of the north Indian plans to realise just how much the bright deep rich yellows and fiery reds actually seem pleasant on a hot summer day. Of course the entire sub-plot of the Sundar Nursery and the superintendent of horticulture, Alick Percy-Lancaster, is absolutely fascinating! Years ago I recall you had published the gardening journals of the nursery in a brown hardback with a dustjacket. It is still one of my prized possessions. So I absolutely understood your love for greenery and making a new city green, or the distress at the unnecessary felling of the neem trees in Calcutta and Myshkin’s grief for it was he who had planted the saplings as a young horticulturist.

The characters you create are always so memorable. In a very male household there are only two women – the ayah/cook Banno Didi and Gayatri—who “typically” do not have much of a say in what is happening but the authorial eye gives sufficient clues to the existence of the women and it is not just the tantrums they throw. Or even the religious leader Mukti Devi, head of the Muntazi Seva Gahar, Society for Indian Patriots, whose image in the reader’s mind is created by Nek Chand’s accounts of her. Later even Myshkin’s surprise and then cruel assertion with his stepmother to lord it over in the manner he has seen his father behave, brings into play the sense of patriarchal entitlement men seem to have – even the best of them.  This is exactly why I was so surprised to read the exchange of letters, of which only one set remain, but that is enough to give a great insight into the free spirit Gayatari was. There are so many women in this novel, some prominent (Gayatri, Lisa, Lipi, Banno, Beryl), some absolutely silent (Kadambri, Queen Fatima and Lucille) and others with walk-on parts (Ila’s daughter, Gayatri’s mum, Ni Wayan Arini and many of those in Indonesia). The little interlude with the story of Amrita from Maitreyi Devi’s novel is fantastic too.

The first half of the book is full of men but in the second half the women take over the narrative. You suddenly make visible that is mostly invisible to most eyes, especially male eyes, of the myriad ways in which women manage the daily rhythms of life. It is not just the concerns Gayatri has for her family and mentions it often to Lisa but also the management of it long distance by persuading Lisa to keep a kindly eye on the grandfather and Myshkin. And yet, it is very liberating to see how you make visible the thoughts of the women, their innermost thoughts, their experiences that are usually never made public. Lipi is the only one who upset at her husband’s high-handedness of sending her home instead of allowing her to sit through the musical concert because of her toddler Ila prompts Lipi to create a massive bonfire. She is very direct in her response; almost earthy.

You weave these intricate webs but ever so slightly shift perspectives too. Little Myshkin observes everything, perhaps not always quite understanding it, and yet he absorbs. It becomes a part of who he is and it is best expressed in his writing and later the paintings he draws as an old man. What I truly loved about the novel was how at the beginning the women and men were operating as expected in their socially defined gendered roles despite the magnificent opening line. The prose moves as one would want of a well-structured novel. It lulls one into expecting a good old fashioned story with a few unpredictable twists. Then come the disruptions not just to the domestic setup but also to the prose, the letters make their presence felt and force the reader to engage with the female mind set, even the “common or garden species of readers” is forced to be involved! You reserve many of the tiny details that really evoke the period in the women’s correspondence; later this fine eye for the “thingyness of things” is visible when old Myshkin begins to paint with as much care and attention to detail as his mother may have done.

At another level I felt that Gayatri was trapped yet the manner in which she comes free and you express it so well by changing the text form too. From the “rigidity” of long prose — since it does have a bunch of rules governing it — to the free flowing style of letters. It is not just the breaking of shackles of the form to express herself to Lisa but also the manner in which Gayatri writes. There is a sense of freedom. The correspondence is so much like the intimate conversations women have with each other, whether strangers or friends. They immediately lapse into it.

For someone so one with the elements as Gayatri seems to have been it is does not seem to be out of order to have her engulfed in so many charming stories beginning with Beryl’s own life or her narration of man-woman Aisha, or even Walter Spies himself. The freedom with which they lived; possibly Bohemian but undeniably a very talented group of individuals. Everyone had tremendous “backstories”, some dastardly, all possibly true, and yet their zest for life to explore more and more was so in keeping with character. Through these experiences she meets or hears about different forms of sexualities that exist; Gayatri accepts all these stories and never judges, instead wonders “There must have been a time when love did not have moral guardians saying you may do this but not that – this is how it is in Bali now & how it was in our country hundreds of years ago”.

The parallels that you draw tell another narrative too. For example, referring to Gayatri as “The Indian Painter” and recounting the Amrita story in Maitreyi Devi’s novel is so deftly done as if to silence critics who may be prompted to say that feisty, independent, strong-willed, headstrong women like Gayatri who is “glad to have time to work” could not possibly have existed in British India. The political-historical parallels are unmistakable as well with Arjun’s desire for the country to be governed by a “benign dictatorship” followed by Nek Chand sighing about his students who were locked up for sedition “We are fugitives in our own land.” Gayatri’s statement “I am finding out how limited my world was” seems to resonate at many levels for this story and modern India. Gayatri is ever so magical in the manner in which you create her. She comes across as a modern woman but caught in the wrong time. Sadly though how many women living today can still express themselves or be so confident as to take charge of their own lives as Gayatri did?

The title of the book + the epigraph taken from Tobias Wolff “This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell”, only coalesce as significant once the book is finished. I loved the way in which you immerse the reader as if to exist within a Greek chorus, a multitude of voices, giving their often unasked-for opinions, and yet doing a fantastic job of recreating a moment or a “truth” within a community. The vagueness of the town adds to the blurriness of incidents happening in the past. I do not know how to explain it to say that the story exists in the past sufficiently and in the memory of Myshkin to be real and yet, a little hazy. Loss of the finer details are immaterial as long as the period is evoked; and even the importance of that fades away as the story progresses. And yet reading my response to your book I realise this story will trigger many memories for many readers for you tease out the floodgates of memory ever so gently and politely. It worked for me. It is a powerful book.

Yours,

JAYA

Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived Hachette India, Gurugram, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 334. Rs 599 

27 May 2018 

Literati: “For the price of a book…” ( 13 September 2015)


jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 12 September 2015) and will be in print ( 13 September 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-hunger-for-books-in-india/article7641333.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

How can you argue with the low prices, especially in a nation where such a hunger for books exists?

This year the Delhi Book Fair held at Pragati Maidan was held on a much smaller scale than previous years. It was dominated by stalls put up by publishers of school textbooks. Government institutions were represented by the National Book Trust, Sahitya Akademi and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts with their reasonably priced publications in many Indian languages and dialects. Religious organisations too displayed their publications, some of which were being distributed free. Most of the larger publishing houses were conspicuous by their absence (preparing for the next edition of the World Book Fair 2016).

But it was the smaller stalls of remaindered books that were fascinating. These are books that are scheduled for

Visitors having a close look at the books available at the 21st Delhi Book Fair at Pragati Maidan, in New Delhi in August, 2015. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma ( The Hindu)

Visitors having a close look at the books available at the 21st Delhi Book Fair at Pragati Maidan, in New Delhi in August, 2015. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma ( The Hindu)

pulping in other book markets and are also disposed off by weight. These titles are brought into local markets, usually priced very low. Three books for Rs.100 or for Rs. 500, depending upon their condition and interest in the book or author. It is not unusual to find books with labels from overseas school libraries and institutions, personal inscriptions or treasures like the one Jairaj Singh, a journalist, found at the Delhi Book Fair — an autographed first edition of Kingsley Amis’ Memoirs for Rs. 50 only.

People noodle through these stalls, trailing bags on wheels. Within a limited budget it is possible to acquire a pile of books till the next book fair comes around. It is to these remaindered stalls that the maximum number of buyers— teachers, parents, school children, students, librarians — go. In fact, the presence of these stalls, piled high with books, thrown in an untidy heap, was frowned upon by established publishers at the World Book Fair, February 2015. But how can you argue with the low prices, especially in a nation where such a hunger for books exists? This is borne out by the Amazon India spokesperson who says, “the number of books sold per day has grown by 1400 per cent over the past two years. Over 2500 sellers today offer lakhs of books to their customers across India on amazon.in. The portal has the largest online selection of books in India across languages, including three major regional languages — Hindi, Tamil and Kannada — which have found a huge audience, especially in non-metro cities where regional language books have featured in the top 10 bestsellers list. Over 50 per cent of the orders are coming from outside of the top eight cities.” According to informed sources, online book portals in India are growing at the rate of 12 to 15 per cent per annum.

In August 2015, the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction was revealed. It is a fabulously diverse list, exciting for the range of debut and experienced writers, geographical regions, varied writing styles and publishers it showcases. A handful, such as Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Anne Enright’s The Green Road are readily available. But try getting hold of Leila Lalami’s The Moor’s Sigh, Chigozi Obioma’s The Fishermen or Anna Smaill’s The Chimes — you either have to pay for  it online (there seems to be no fixed price for the edition even on the same portal, so a comparison of prices is advisable) or bide your time till  it is available at a brick-and-mortar bookshop. Recently, there have been discussions on ebook sales plateauing, primarily because of price fluctuation and smartphones replacing ereaders. (“The plot may be unravelling for e-books” Aimee Picchi, CBS News, 4 September 2015, http://cbsn.ws/1XJDgCf )

final-logo-pratham-booksThis is a trend apparent in India too, as is evident with the launch of the non-profit trust Pratham Books’ open source digital platform, Storyweaver (https://storyweaver.org.in/ ). It features 800 stories in 26 languages (14 Indian and 12 international languages), with an image repository of over 2,000 images. It can be viewed on desktop computers, laptops, tablets or mobile phones. Users will be able to read, download, translate, create, print and publish new stories through the platform using the Creative Commons licensed content on the site. Similarly, Daily Hunt (http://dailyhunt.in/ ) offers news, free and some nominally priced books, in 12 languages and has had 2.3 billion views a month.

Freshly published print books continue to be unaffordable for many readers in India, as is evident from the rush to Amartya Senbuy cheaply priced, sometimes weathered, remaindered books. Yet, it is significant to note that most Indians, despite being economically challenged, possess a handheld device. Hence, innovative ways of bringing together literature and technology to whet a ferocious book appetite at affordable prices have to be explored. It is also a tremendous way of giving neo-literates a chance to practice their literacy too, instead of it stagnating. As Amartya Sen says in his introduction to The Country of First Boys “…having an educated …population can be a major contributor to enhancing steady and sustainable economic growth.”

12 September 2015 

Anuradha Roy, “Sleeping on Jupiter”

Anuradha RoyAfter I had finished reading Anuradha Roy’s third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, I wrote her an email. With the author’s permission I am publishing an extract from our correspondence. 

Dear Anuradha,

I am stunned by your book on many accounts. Primarily because I did not expect this after the first two novels. You caught me off guard. It is a sobering lesson on respecting a writer’s evolution and not necessarily expecting the author to be predictable. Unfortunately given the way publishing is working these days, if an author has been successful with a certain style of writing, not necessarily formulaic, it is assumed the person will continue in a similar vein.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian, talking about Sleeping on Jupiter with Anuradha Roy at Asia House, London, April 2015.

You took my breath away with this novel. I think it was the violence depicted in the story that rattled me. I know you are a brilliant novelist but I seriously did not expect this from you. It requires great deal of reserves to come up with such a story, detailing the violence, rape, brutality, lynching, hitting the dog etc. You have a wide range of depraved human behaviour depicted in the supposedly peaceful, religious, sleepy town of Jarmuli. It is probably not only the real and physical violence that is chilling but also the pain evident in the conversation of the three women pilgrims from Calcutta — typical women who are old friends feel they can get away by saying anything, sharing secrets, but are very barbed hurtful remarks; the son ( Suraj) not paying heed to his chattering mother, so taken off guard when he spots the elderly women in Jarmuli;  the violence that faithful experience such as the pilgrim rolling on the temple floor leaving bits of pink flesh on the stone; the sad, sad sub-plot of Badal and Raghu — it stung when

Raghu gave Badal a twisted smile and said, “So, that’s how things are, is it? You don’t say!” (p.201)

Even the experience of the girls at the ashram, the Guruji, the adoption process requires immense strength on your part to observe, assimilate and write as you have done. The power of your writing lies in its details. After I had finished reading the book, certain locations such as the layout of the ashram, the hotel room, the tea shack, the beach, the train compartment etc were crystal clear in my head. I kept thinking, this is exactly what Ibsen set out to achieve in 19C theatre, Anuradha has done it with words and the relationship an author develops with the reader. It is a feat not easily achieved. How did you do it? The only explanation I find lies in the tautness of your writing, not a single word out of place, yet it is the display of a master craftsman — the exquisiteness with which you find appropriate words; the sentences and paragraphs befit the emotion, setting, pace of novel and personality of characters; the structure of the novel too is fascinating — with the first five days of journey + being in Jarmuli being 2/3 of the novel, interspersed with the flashback technique and then rapidly you move to the eighteenth day. In a way I keep feeling the novel is like an Aristotlean tragedy ending in catharsis for Nomi. It holds true even for Suraj, Nomi, Toppo, Badal etc.

I like the way you said in an interview you can only write once it is clearly visual in your head. “…made up places make me feel free to wander and in my head I can see every bend and building in Jarmuli”. ( All though I have no idea why the interviewer was being polite when referring to the rape scenes “loss of innocence”. It makes your novel sound so Victorian which is far from the truth!)

The link between materialism, religion and exploitation is so real, to place it in a made up place does not in any way mitigate the shocking reality. Godmen and their ashrams are mushrooming all over India like a bad rash. Frighteningly being endorsed by powers that be. There was a time when one heard of Osho, Waco, Aum Shinrikyo etc as stray cases but now with religious fundamentalism on the rise and religion continuing to be an opiate of the masses, exploitation cannot be far behind. Hats off to you for not describing the “faith” Guruji ascribes to. Making him so “universal”, the character can be true to any ideology.

Given the wide variety of literature (printed and digital formats) being produced on women and violence, this particular novel shines. I am very glad you wrote it, however hard it may have been on you. It is a novel that has to be read at one go, otherwise the horror depicted will be so overwhelming it would be easier to abandon the book than persist in reading it.

There is a quiet strength and determination in your writing that is admirable. It is as if the ills evident in society are not being addressed sufficiently. Instead you have converted the pent up anger in you to constructively portray it in fiction. Hopefully this magnificently disturbing storytelling will have the desired effect.

Oh, this is a book I am going to recommend for a long time to come.

Thank you for writing it.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

7 May 2015 

Anuradha Roy Sleeping on Jupiter Hachette India, Gurgaon, India. Hb. pp.260 Rs 499

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

Print

 

Literati is the book-club at SAP Labs India, and India’s largest corporate book-club.

Headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, with locations in more than 130 countries, SAP is the world leader in enterprise software and software-related services. SAP logo

 

Literati aims to bring together books, readers and writers. Here’s a list of authors who have spoken at Literati:

  • Amit Chaudhuri
  • Alex Rutherford
  • Alice Albinia
  • Amish Tripathi
  • Amitabha Bagchi
  • Amitava Kumar
  • Anand Giridharadas
  • Anjum Hasan
  • Anita Nair
  • Anuja Chauhan
  • Anuradha Roy
  • Arun Shourie
  • Ashok Ferrey
  • C P Surendran
  • Chetan Bhagat
  • Geeta Anand
  • Harsha Bhogle
  • James Astill
  • Kiran Nagarkar
  • Manil Suri
  • Mark Tully
  • M J Akbar
  • Mita Kapur
  • Mridula Koshy
  • Mukul Kesavan
  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi
  • Namita Devidayal
  • Navtej Sarna
  • Omair Ahmad
  • Pallavi Aiyar
  • Pankaj Mishra
  • Partha Basu
  • Pavan K Varma
  • Peter James
  • Poile Sengupta
  • Raghunathan V
  • Rana Dasgupta
  • Sam Miller
  • Samantha Shannon
  • Samit Basu
  • Samhita Arni
  • Sarnath Banerjee
  • Shashi Deshpande
  • Shashi Tharoor
  • Shehan Karunatilaka
  • Shobhaa Dé
  • Sudha Murthy
  • Suhel Seth
  • Sunil Gupta
  • Sudhir Kakar
  • Tabish Khair
  • Tarun J Tejpal
  • Tishani Doshi
  • Vikas Swarup
  • Vinod Mehta
  • Vikram Chandra
  • William Dalrymple
  • Yasmeen Premji
  • Zac O’Yeah 

Contact: Sumeet Shetty (sumeet.shetty@sap.com)

Sumeet Shetty is a Development Manager at SAP Labs India, and is the President of Literati, India’s largest

corporate book-club.