Anuradha Roy wears
several hats rather nattily. After a long career as a books editor and
journalist, she opened an independent press, whicha she runs with her husband,
Rukun Advani. She is a designer, essayist, and novelist. Her first novel, An
Atlast of Impossible Longing, which traces two forbidden romances through
several decades in the early twentieth century, was shortlisted for the
Crossword Prize 2008 and Shakti Bhatt Prize 2009. Her second novel, The
Folded Earth, which unfurls in the bucolic hillsides of Ranikhet, was
longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 and the DSC Fiction Prize,
shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Award 2011, and won the Economist Crossword
Her latest novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, a beautiful meditation on abuse, abandonment, and companionship, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, and has been shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live Fiction Award 2015. As praise and honours pour in for the book, and literary festivals make demands on her schedule, Anuradha Roy sat down to an email interview with Fountain Ink.
I know you’ve answered this question a thousand
times, but do you remember what you were doing when you heard about making the
Booker longlist? You’re no stranger to awards and longlists and shortlists, but
does it feel extra special because this is a prize which is not just
prestigious by reputation, but which is open to the whole world?
I think I was getting ready to take the dog for a walk, and my husband was checking his email, he saw the news first. I never expected to be on the longlist, so yes, it did feel exhilarating.
These listings bring you new readers and you’re grateful for that, but I’ve become more and more aware how arbitrary it all is. If there were different judges the entire longlist would have been different.
You were an editor for a long time, before you
took on the additional role of writer. And an editor’s sensibility is unique,
because s/he has to think of the writer’s voice and the writer’s narrative and
the writer’s opinions while working on a manuscript. In what ways do you think
this unique sensibility came into play when you transitioned into a writer?
I’m not sure my work on other people’s books has changed how I write, although the one thing I learnt as an editor was that every text has flaws and needs a fresh eye. Everyone needs (ideally) a wise, compassionate, intelligent and sympathetic reader telling them what is not working within a book, or what more could be done with the material.
Apart from that, all writers are editors of their own work. You write something, you put it away, let it cool its heels for a while, and then when you come back to it you see all kinds of flaws and gaps in it, as if you were reading it as a stranger. Of course, over many drafts it gets harder and harder for you to spot the problems in your own text because the material has become so familiar.
You’ve spoken about how you always wrote
stories, from when you were a child, some of which have been published in
newspapers. You had a successful career in publishing and journalism. How did
it all lead to your taking the plunge, and writing your first novel?
I did not begin the piece of writing that ultimately turned into my first novel thinking that I was starting a novel. I wrote a chunk and then found that I kept thinking about it and slowly a novel evolved from that first chunk. I’d never thought I would write a novel.
All your novels have had complicated
structures—you write from different points of view, go back and forth in time,
switch from first to third person, and mould each character at different points
in the narrative. Why do fractured narratives of this kind interest you? What
is the biggest challenge in weaving a dramatic arc from this form?
At some points while working on the narrative, one voice, rather than another, just seems to work better. It’s not that I want to write fractured narratives or that it is an experiment with form that interests me. Certain parts of the narrative come to me in a different voice and it’s very hard then to resist it and force it into something else. Of course it has to make sense in terms of the overall structure and logic of the narrative if the switch between voices and times is to work.
To speak specifically of Sleeping on
Jupiter, you bring up various issues which don’t get much attention in
the mainstream media, or in Indian writing in English. Some are overt, and some
are subtle, but I’d like to know how you answer that horrible question that all
authors dread—‘What’s your book about?’ To you, what is the most important
aspect of Sleeping on Jupiter?
When I started it was a book about friends going on a holiday—so it was largely about the complexities of friendship. And it remains a book about friendship and betrayal—even with the children who are abused at the ashram, I am interested in how they find comfort in each other and how one of them has to live with betraying the trust of another.
It is also about people facing completely unexpected situations in their lives in a different setting. Sometimes they have planned to be there and at other times they have found themselves there, but they are at a crossroads in their lives where they have to face things they haven’t before and this often brings them to some form of crisis.
Religion too is central to the book: the town is frequented by pilgrims who are there because they are religious or they are coping with questions of belief and faith; some have been scarred by religion and some enriched by it. There are many references to the epics in this book and the structure plays around with the 18-day duration of the war in the Mahabharata.
About 10 years ago, an illegal adoption racket
was busted in Tamil Nadu, and it was found that children were being kidnapped
and sold to foster parents in Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries,
Germany, and The Netherlands, sometimes to be abandoned. When some children
were traced, and brought back to India, they had no means of communicating with
their birth parents, because of language. There is a hint of this in Nomita’s
story. Were you moved to write about this double alienation because of
No, I didn’t know about this racket. Nomi’s Norwegian mother is a well-intentioned woman who is confused and hurt by Nomi’s rejection of all her efforts to make something out their life together. That part of it is quite straightforward: there is pain and bewilderment on both sides.
In both The Folded Earth and Sleeping
on Jupiter, and to some extent in An Atlas of Impossible Longing,
I couldn’t help but notice that animals play a major role. There are characters
who are kind to them, and characters who are cruel to them. I know you have a
dog, Biscoot. But is there any reason you think animals figure so much in your
stories? Do you think people’s interaction with animals says something about
In fiction animals have always been present both metaphorically and otherwise—there are great examples like the whale in Moby Dick or the fly in Metamorphosis. I haven’t ever had animals in that way in my books, as a central feature representing an elemental battle or as a metaphor for existence itself, but in my head, all of The Folded Earth was about the natural world, and the central tragedy in the book was the death of the deer and the dehumanisation of Puran, the cowherd whose deer it was.
In Atlas, Mukunda’s relationship with the parrot was a sort of barometer of his moral degeneration and at his lowest point he lost the parrot. How people are with animals does tell you a great deal about them.
You spoke in an interview of how the
inspiration for The Folded Earth was the discovery of 500
skeletons in Roopkund Lake, and the image was knocking about in your head until
you started writing the novel. Can you tell me how the character of Maya
evolved? Her husband Michael is a distant figure, who is already lost to us,
whom we don’t follow in his pursuit of this Skeleton Lake. What made you choose
the passive narrative, rather than the active one? Why is it more interesting
I’m not sure what you mean by passive narrative ... the book begins after Michael’s death, and the narrator is his wife, who was not with him on that journey to the lake, so it is her partial knowledge we have access to.
As for the characters, Maya included, they evolve gradually. After finishing, I feel as if they were born the way they are in the book—and it just took me a long time and lot of effort to draw them out —but that’s not true, it’s not as if they arrive easily or fully formed. They come to be who they are as I discover draft after draft what is ringing true or what is not alive on the page. They change as I write.
The Folded Earth had
an array of real-life characters. You’ve said in interviews that the contents
of the legendary, secret letters between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal
Nehru were made up for the book. Jim Corbett featured through Diwan Sahib’s
biography. Can you tell me about this blending of the real and the fictional?
Why does it excite your author’s imagination?
The Folded Earth was a very different sort of book for me because I usually write about fictional places that exist only in my head, whereas I live in Ranikhet, and have in a sense been surrounded by these characters out of history for years. They make up the place as much as the mountains and trees and wildlife, so blending real and fictional characters made sense to me in this book.
Many novels mix up the real and the fictional, and it’s an interesting thing to play around with; to interrupt or alter or divert real life events in the What-If way that is the start of much fiction.
To get back to Sleeping on Jupiter,
you’ve spoken about the sexual abuse of children in an ashram, by this
terrifying godman. We’ve read reports of sexual abuse in orphanages, and godmen
have become associated with sex scandals. In bringing the two together, and in
the light of India’s current brand of intolerant Hindutva, were you worried
about the reception of the book, and whether one of these sanghis who seem to
make it their jobs to get books and movies banned would target yours?
I was. Everyone is worried about this kind of thing, especially now, with reason.
A theme that runs through your books, subtly
in An Atlas of Impossible Longing, but very evidently in the other
two, is mental illness and care for those afflicted. It is a subject that is
not discussed much anywhere and in India, among other countries, there is a
sort of social stigma. We hide mentally ill relatives. We make fun of people
who are mentally ill. It needs to be understood better, written about more. What
is your interest in mental illness?
Themes that recur in novels are hard to explain; so many things about writing are hard to explain. Sometimes these difficult things like mental illness are there because it makes for a more gripping narrative: happy marriages, sane grannies, sweet children—these are all desirable in life but would make for very dull reading. In fiction, conflict is so much more interesting and gives us room to think. Apart from this, a radically inverted way of viewing the world, which is what mental illness often is, can be a way of reflecting on the ‘normal’ world.
There seems to be some sort of link between
loss of one’s moorings in the real world and interest in spirituality—in the
case of Gouri, who has Alzheimer’s and becomes rather fervently religious; in
the case of Puran, of whom Diwan Sahib remarks that he is the sanest of them
all, going by how the animals are drawn to him. Was this something of which you
were conscious when you wrote these characters?
You are conscious of everything you write, you can’t but be. Gouri has always been religious, that is how Gouri is in the book. Even in her youth, with her husband, her happiest memory is a pilgrimage to Badrinath. The book doesn’t say anywhere that her mental health has anything to do with her spirituality.
With Puran, yes of course: he finds it easier to relate to animals than to people and he has a deep, instinctive understanding of the natural world that Diwan Sahib admires. I suppose you would have to be impractical or simple-minded to have a deer as a pet, as Puran does, but that is what makes him more admirable in my eyes than most supposedly normal people.
While all your stories have specific
geographies, the events themselves are universal. In fact, you seem to keep the
events deliberately vague. We don’t know to which war you’re referring early on
in Sleeping on Jupiter. Do you think this makes the novel more
relatable, more immediate to readers in different countries?
In Sleeping on Jupiter I did not specify which war because it is irrelevant: the book is not centrally about a war, it is about what happens to a girl displaced by a war. But suppose I had said the war was in Burma or Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, would it have changed how people related to the book? I don’t think so: after all in the book, the war takes only about 10 pages, the rest of the novel is clearly set in India; every reader sees it as an Indian novel.
In Atlas and The Folded Earth the historical events are quite specific.
Somewhat related to that: even when you
speak of specific historical events, such as Partition, you look at the ways in
which the lives of little people are affected. Even when we see famous
people—like Nehru, for example—we see them through the characters. And it is
real vision, real impressions; not, for instance, a character attending a rally
and reporting the speech. What do you think this filtering (of big events
through small people) brings to the narrative?
I think that makes it fiction rather than history.
So far I haven’t written novels of ideas or novels about historical movements, I am interested in people’s lives, in the way big impersonal historical events sometimes affect ordinary life.
Is it true that you grew up in a bookshop?
There’s something so wonderful about growing up among books and writers! Is
there one particular enduring memory that you have?
I wish I had. But no, not at all. My father-in-law has a bookshop, but my father was a geologist. In my childhood my only contact with books was as books. One of my great aunts was a renowned Bengali writer, Jyotirmoyee Devi, and she was the only real-life writer I met as a child. She was already very old then, and terrifying to us.
You speak of an exploratory trip for Sleeping
on Jupiter, on which your mother accompanied you. Was there any particular
image or experience during the trip that stayed with you, that’s particularly
precious in the novel that came out of it?
I remember my mother and aunt standing knee deep in the sea, looking carefree and childish, laughing happily, their saris floating on the surface of the water. I think this became an image in my head for normalcy and happiness—which are interrupted in the book, and life is altered forever in a flash.
I’m interested in autobiographical elements,
not in terms of experience, but in terms of opinion. In looking back, what are
the things you hold most dear that seem to have come out through your books?
I think a sense of landscape is the most important of the things that has come from my own life because of spending much of my early childhood in wild, open places. Old houses, joint families, mountains: these are all things I have experienced. But writing fiction is all about empathy and imagination. You draw on your reading, your research, your encounters with other people and their stories.
You draw on your own experiences too, but in the end what fuses it into coherence and meaning is your imagination, which transforms the material. This is what is interesting about writing, the transformative power of the imagination.
Every time I ask about your books, I have to
pause a little bit to savour the titles. Can you tell me how you arrived at the
titles for all three? I’m sure you must have given them a lot of thought, since
even before you officially became a novelist you would have sat down with the
authors of books you had acquired as an editor and planned everything from
title to cover design?
I find titles very difficult, both for other people’s work and my own, and yet they are crucial. I never have a title before the book is written and sometimes it comes swiftly at the end, as with The Folded Earth, or it takes a lot of agonising at the end, as with the other two—making lists and lists of titles until one of them seems right.
There are several motifs in your books, which
become apparent when one reads them all together: loss, loneliness, trust,
betrayal, and this overwhelming, irrevocable, devastating sort of love, almost
‘soulmateship’. To ask why they feature so heavily in your books would be
crass. So I’m going to ask you this: which human emotions do you think of as
the most abiding?
That’s more or less impossible to answer. You can’t really set these things in any order of preference, different things matter at different times, whether in life or fiction.
Do you believe in happy endings? Your books are
somewhat like life. The ends are not tied up neatly, one doesn’t find all the
answers, loss is real, characters are not role models. The people we thought of
as ‘us’ become violently unrelatable at times. In some ways, this is the
opposite of what writing workshops would recommend—this sense of
I’ve always tried to end books when there is more to be said: when every major character’s inner life has been altered by what has taken place yet there are still things that might happen. Most of Chekhov’s and Alice Munro’s stories, which I love, and novels such as Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, end leaving you slightly flummoxed, wondering about them for ages. I enjoy this feeling.
One of the character transitions I really like
is that of victim-to-fighter. A lot of these characters, abused in some way as
children, or taken for granted, or treated badly by relatives, become fiercely
independent and resourceful. Is the latter trait is a natural offshoot of the
No, of course nothing is natural or universal in that way, as you know: people react differently to pressure in real life. Some people have nervous breakdowns. But if you’re not writing a novel about a nervous breakdown you would create a different kind of character.
There are two plot elements that feature often
in your writing: that of childlessness, or ‘barrenness’ as it is so cruelly
called in India; and, almost as a juxtaposition, that of abandonment of
children, who are given up by their parents or left to be raised by others. Could
you tell me a little about why these two conditions intrigue you?
Maybe it’s an after effect of all the children’s books one read, where the most interesting character was usually an orphan. One of my favourite childhood books was the Golden Goblet, set in ancient Egypt, where the protagonist was an orphan boy who triumphs over tomb robbers all by himself. Maybe all my books are versions of this one, who knows. It isn’t possible to psychoanalyse your own writing, really, other than as a joke.
In the Acknowledgements section of your first
novel, there was a note about Ravi Dayal’s harsh critique of your book. Was it
the first time you were on this side of the fence, at the receiving end? What
does it do to a writer—especially a first-time writer—when s/he is not handled
with kid gloves?
What I say in the acknowledgements that his ‘acerbic pencillings became our last conversation together’; I was used to his tongue-in-cheek way of speaking, the comments did not seem harsh to me.
I actually enjoy the editorial process, including acerbic comments. When you’re writing a book, thinking about it all the time, you sometimes don’t notice inconsistencies or flaws that should be stating you in the face. With the first round of comments I am often furious, then I calm down and see that they make a lot of sense and help me to think harder. It’s idiotic to be hurt or annoyed by editorial comments: this is the closest and most sympathetic reading your book is going to get—that is, if you have an editor who is gifted and with whom you are on the same wavelength.
Is there anything you would tell the self who
wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing, all these years and books
later? Is there anything about that self that you envy?
I would certainly tell that self to plan out a book better. With Atlas I discarded thousands of words, hours of work.
I envy the innocence of it. I set off without a thought of the long, long haul I was in for because I had no idea what it would be. It’s like going to a country for the first time, everything new.
When you publish abroad, there is a dilemma.
There are certain rituals that are described in your books that Indians would
instinctively understand, such as touching one’s eyes or heart after
accidentally stamping on someone’s foot, say; but which would bewilder the
non-Indian. To not explain is perhaps unfair on the latter. To explain would
earn you the label of ‘catering to the West’. How do you resolve this dilemma?
I suppose it’s also a bit like choosing between using the vernacular words and
the English translation.
It’s not possible to make allowances for other people’s ignorance or lack of familiarity when writing. I think every reader draws different things from the same book. Readers who are knowledgeable about the Renaissance have a richer experience of Shakespeare or Marlowe. Unfamiliar foreign readers have a somewhat incomplete experience of Indian books, and when we read translations from European or other languages, we go through the same moments of not-knowing.
Sometimes the perspectives of people coming to a book from ‘outside’ are very interesting and throw up all sorts of new readings of a book.
Is there something you would like to see change
for writers, or for Indian writers?
Plenty. For a start it would be nice for us if more people actually read books.
If you could change
one thing about the India in which we live, what would it be?
I’d want to change the way people scream ‘Off with Her Head’ at the least sign of difference or disagreement.