Writers At Work | Nilanjana Roy
The critic and novelist on the pleasures and pains of reading, reviewing, and writing fiction
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Some versions of book love
Nothing can be more propitious than to have an adorable ginger cat sit in on a conversation about books, some of which are about cats. As critic and novelist Nilanjana Roy and I sit chatting in the drawing room of her house, we are joined by Tiglath, a British shorthair, and Bathsheba, a fidgety little tabby, who walks in, is thrilled and terrified by the strange guest, and runs away.
Roy’s second novel, The Hundred Names of Darkness, is just out, and continues the story of Mara, Southpaw, Katar, Hulo and Beraal from The Wildings (2012). After an epic battle with the feral cats, Mara and friends are seeking a safe haven in this sequel and, helped by Doginder and his gang of strays, succeed in their mission, but not before they’ve had many adventures.
Other than cuddling cats and talking about books, Roy and I spoke about her long career as a reviewer and the myriad challenges thrown up by the written word. Edited excerpts:
Did you deliberately choose to divest your fiction of any obvious Indianness?
I have no problem explaining and footnoting in my journalism, but in fiction I’m not going to. If I can struggle with baseball terms in a Philip Roth novel, I am not going to explain Indian architecture and how it applies to cats. If you cannot bridge that gap without glossaries, maybe you shouldn’t be writing at all.
Did the cat’s-eye view leave you changed as a writer?
Identity is a big cage. It was exhilarating to overturn it and identify with another animal. When I say this to people, they look at me strangely and start moving away. Particularly since I spoke at a book reading about the way my view of the world changed and I started looking at people at parties and thinking, “What a nice ape that is!” “Those monkeys are entertaining!”
When did the cats start speaking to you?
Back in 2002, the story started with me following around Mara, a very friendly cat. Till then, I hadn’t contemplated cats much beyond the fact that they are furry creatures, nice to pet, and have sharp claws. By following the cats and their clan structure I started knowing the animal world intimately. But I didn’t have the confidence to write. I had been a reviewer for so long.
In 2009 I went through a series of mid-life crises—I decided to have them in my 30s than wait for my 40s. I quit a series of good jobs, including one at Westland. Everything seemed to be going well for me but something was gnawing at me. At the end of that period of upheaval, I found myself writing. I tried to write the sort of book I felt I was supposed to write—something involving three generations of women in a Bengali family—but kept going back to the cats.
Were there major inspirations that set you on to reviewing?
My usual answer is that I was ill-suited for any other kind of employment, so I started reviewing. The truth is the love of books got to me very early. For anyone who is a reader, by the time you get to your mid-20s, you’ve already read a certain minimum number of books. My benchmarks were rather old-fashioned then. I revered Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Hedgehog and The Fox”, for instance. I had read some Susan Sontag and realized I was nowhere near that kind of criticism. I was yet to come across Rebecca Solnit, who is currently one of my touchstones for how one should read.
I remember realizing that aside from cleverness and the breadth of reading, they also had the things essential to be a good critic: curiosity, compassion and a sense of justice. I had started thinking of the annihilating review as a cheap shot. The milk-and-water reviews did not give me any satisfaction either. At the very least, a book should do what good conversation does. It should leave you rich with ideas; change your landscape in some fundamental ways.
Early on, I also discovered writers who reviewed a good deal—Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Tim Parks. These are not just people who understand craft and technique. When I read Seamus Heaney on poetry, there’s always the sense of a practitioner who is remembering what it’s like to be a reader. At the same time, I developed a great respect for reviewers who could do the weekly reviews and still kept the faith. There is a quiet nobility in being able to do that.
How did it feel to be a book critic in pre-Internet India?
One assumed book reviewing was marginal territory. It was an activity that wasn’t taken seriously and still isn’t. The assumption frequently was you didn’t have to read a book to review it. It was always seen as a lesser skill and, to an extent, in India, political journalism will always be more important. But there was also a parallel tradition of a few good reviewers like Kai Friese. It wasn’t lonely so much as it was humbling. And I like being on the margins anyway, peering interestedly at people, rather than being at the centre.
Looking back, it strikes me I only learnt about the history of Indian writing in English when I started reviewing. In those days, it was assumed that anybody could review without needing to know this, the emphasis being on having to know English—not even American, let alone European or Latin American—literature. At the most, it was desirable to be bilingual.
Then the Internet happened and literary blogs started appearing—“The Old Hag”, “The Elegant Variation”, “The Book Slut”, Laila Lalami started her book blog “The Moorish Girl”. I suddenly felt a precious sense of belonging to a community I didn’t even know existed. In a later period, commercialism
took over, resulting in the very Indian assumption that a book was only important if it did something—either in monetary or prize terms. That knocked reviewing sideways.
I don’t know whether we entirely appreciate or need honest criticism. One of the things that started making me deeply uneasy was the sense that book reviewing was supposed to happen in a vacuum. As a reviewer you were not supposed to refer to the political, social or cultural environment of the time. It was peculiarly airless. As the word-counts shrunk, it became an even more narrow and claustrophobic space. It was almost as though people were writing without memory of any kind. Pankaj Mishra, Amitava Kumar, Urvashi Butalia were some of the exceptions who widened that sphere.
Reviewing also becomes complicated when one starts being too much of an insider.
Some five years back I stopped reviewing as much as I used to precisely because of this. On the one hand, you may argue that if you know so many people you will be impartial anyway. But the two risks of that are, first, compassion—if you know an author is ill, it is going to affect your review. The second is a sense of futility. We review each other all the time. I’d still review a book that I really like but by and large, I’d just put out a tweet. I think the foreign correspondent approach should be followed in the case of reviewing—you’re not allowed to be in the same place for more than four years.
Reviewing can also induce the anxiety of causing offence.
My biggest problem is that I’m naturally polite. On occasion when I’ve felt strongly about a book, I have written about it with complete honesty. Once I managed to review a family friend’s book without realizing it was by her. She didn’t speak to me for 16 years.
But there is no easy way out, is there? If you praise a book by someone you know, you will be accused of nepotism.
What happens is that we all tend to retreat at some point. You try to attend fewer book launches, desist from being part of literary committees. There are literary worlds where you can review each other knowing each other at a safe distance, and that’s fine. I was surprised to find that many African newspapers, especially the Nigerian and the South African ones, review in this way. I was reading the reviews of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka recently and felt a strange sense of eavesdropping on a set of long-standing family quarrels that nobody outside the community knew what they were about. I suspect that’s what the Delhi book world may look like.
Can reading give clues to live?
I like the anarchy that comes with books, the way lives are distilled into them. I’ve never quite understood why people think of reading as a sedate pleasure. My father was a big reader. In Cuttack, he had lots of books but not enough—that is the kind of situation which makes great buyers and collectors out of people. My mother would give him money to get groceries and he would come back with chocolate cake, figs and books.
Did you start identifying fictional characters in real life? When I discovered Jane Austen, for instance, I found Mrs Bennet in all my ‘mashis’ (maternal aunts).
Oh yes. Austen was a gold mine in terms of mashi identification. Annie Proulx gave me a handle years later when I was assimilating into Delhi after Calcutta. People say it so casually that books allow you to imagine a life not your own. But it’s not just that. They let you inhabit a life not your own.
How did you get to food-writing?
Food-writing started as an accident when the Business Standard’s food critic left and we couldn’t afford to have a new person or pay for meals at restaurants. As a result I found myself doing a weekly column on food without being able to eat out. If you spend so much time reading, there is almost something that balances out the living-too-much-in-your-head effect. For me, it was food. It had to do with memories, with the politics of what you served at your table, it stood for very real inequities.
When I travel in Europe or East Asia, the first thing I do is go to their markets. What do people buy there? Do they get their hands dirty? These are the questions that trigger my interest. I don’t trust places where people are indifferent to their food—which almost always goes hand in hand with a fundamental cruelty.
We spoke of the joys of the Internet. What are its perils?
I’ve noticed a terrible pattern. When I am in between books, I spend a lot of time on arguments on social media. I’ve discovered many interesting people there but I must say when Twitter became an India-inflected space from being an open global space, and everybody started feeling that unless they tweet about something it didn’t happen, I found myself retreating into silence. When I was writing the book, my interest in winning or participating in a Facebook argument was zero. That has now become an index. When I spend too much time online, I realize I should be writing then.
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