Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, was one of the first MacLehose Press titles to be published in 2008. It went on to receive lavish praise from reviewers and has been translated into thirteen languages to date.
Roy lives between Rankihet, a town in the Himalaya mountains, and New Delhi, where she works for the independent academic publisher Permanent Black. Her second novel, The Folded Earth, will be published by MacLehose Press in January.
Paul Engles: Where did the idea for the story of The Folded Earth first spring from?
Anuradha Roy: It was when I saw a photograph of Roopkund, a lake in the Himalaya at an altitude of over 16,000 feet. About 500 skeletons were discovered in that lake in 1942 and parts of those skeletons are still there – it is informally called the Skeleton Lake. The skeletons have been carbon dated to about the sixth century but the reason for the death of so many people in that uninhabited area – as well as the reason for their journey – are still matters of conjecture.
My friends had gone there for a trek, some of them had made it, some didn’t manage to climb the final distance, but I knew from the moment I saw their photos that this lake would not stop knocking about inside me until I found room for it in a novel.
Paul Engles: The references in the novel to the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten, who was the last Vicerene of India, and Jawaharlal Nehru, her first Prime Minister, are intriguing. Can you tell me a little about it?
Anuradha Roy: Many of Edwina’s letters to Nehru and snippets from his letters to her are in Janet Morgan’s biography of Edwina Mountbatten. It is clear from those letters as well as from the events in their lives that the relationship was a deep and emotional one. Morgan’s biography tells us how both the families – Edwina’s husband and children as well as Nehru’s family (he was a widower when he met her) — discreetly arranged things so that they had time alone with each other while maintaining the sorts of proprieties their public roles demanded.
Nehru’s letters to her have never been published because his descendants, still India’s most powerful political family, have not allowed it; their relationship however is common knowledge.
As for the letters in the novel: those are all made up, but drawing from the style and content of their own letters.
Paul Engles: Another real-life figure you bring into the novel is Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter of man-eating big cats. Living in Ranikhet, have you ever had an encounter with a tiger or leopard?
Anuradha Roy: Ranikhet no longer has tigers. It’s astonishingly lucky for us to have even leopards around because this is a town, not a national park. Ranikhet is surrounded by forest, and those forests have wild boar, deer, martens, many kinds of animals and birds.
Leopards are hard to spot because they are so secretive. We hear them calling often enough but over eleven years of living here I’ve seen them only six times; years can pass between one glimpse and the next. Once it was a full moon night and a leopard crossed the road just ahead of us when it saw our car and strolled off into the forest.
Then it came back, perhaps attracted by the scent of our dog, and stood in the headlight beam staring straight at us with a still, pale-eyed gaze, incisors on display. When it dropped into the forest again, I could see it in the moonlight for quite long, moving around among the trees. It combines beauty with unhurried menace so powerfully that our hearts were exploding though we were safe in the car.
A few yards ahead, we came upon three men warming themselves on the roadside around a small fire made up from dry leaves. They were quite unaware that there was a full grown leopard within sniffing distance of them.
This unawareness is a scenario very common in Corbett’s stories. The leopards he killed were man-eaters. He was enormously brave and charged off alone into deep forests pursuing tigers and leopards that had killed dozens, and were lethal. His books are read everywhere in India, even in translation. When we are in certain places such as Rudraprayag, Ramnagar, or Mohan, which are nearby hamlets, we get that “Corbett was here!” feeling, because he has written about the place and its wildlife so wonderfully. Our Ranikhet leopards have fortunately never been man-eaters but their version of a hot dog is the real thing, so we are very careful to bring our dog indoors after dusk.
Paul Engles: The Folded Earth is partially concerned with the divisive effects of Hindu nationalism in India. Do you think that this is a growing problem?
Anuradha Roy: I think the divisiveness of Hindu nationalism is one of the strands of the book – the vanishing of the wilderness is an equally important theme, as are other less large things. In India religion, caste, etc. are used for political gain with absolute cynicism, and Hindu nationalism is feared for its potential for brutality. We’ve experienced it often in this country and it’s a landmine; you don’t know when someone will step on something and set off full-scale horror again. The lumpen sections among Hindu nationalists also have no qualms burning libraries/books/ pictures and threatening artists and writers with violence, thereby setting up a bullying, hooliganish censorship state of their own.
Paul Engles: There are so many fantastic characters in The Folded Earth – Ama, the infinitely wise village woman; Mr Chauhan, the officious administrator and frustrated writer; Diwan Sihab, the curmudgeonly academic; Puran the bumbling cowherd – which was the most fun to write and create?
I loved writing Mr Chauhan and his signs. I still have fun thinking up other little literary gems by him that could have gone into the book. But I think I enjoyed Ama the most. From the moment she parked herself on the page, she sort of took over. She is as resourceful, wise, strong and energetic as she is snide, gossipy, infuriating. Despite the poverty and drudgery in her daily life, she has a lip-smacking enjoyment of it. Writing her dialogue was difficult though; it is when you want the flavour of slang or proverbs that you really wish—when you come from a country like India—that you could write one novel in three or four languages.
Paul Engles: Your first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing has been translated (or is in the process of being translated) into thirteen languages. How closely do you work with your translators?
Anuradha Roy: Strangely enough, I know only three of my translators. The happiest translation story for me is how Myriam Bellehigue became my French translator. We have been close friends ever since we found ourselves living on the same staircase at university in Britain. She now teaches English literature at the Sorbonne. When she read the first draft of Atlas she made detailed suggestions for improving it and also said she wanted to translate it if that opportunity ever came up. The book was taken by Actes Sud, they gave her a trial, and then the book to translate! I hear her work is exquisite, wish I could read it. It’s being published in April 2011.
Paul Engles: As well as writing novels, you are publisher of Permanent Black, an independent academic publisher. How do you find the roles of novelist and publisher dovetail?
Anurahda Roy: They don’t really, not for me. My main work was to acquire and edit books, but now I find it very hard to carry my own book plus someone else’s in my head while writing, because editing is hard, intensive, involving work, just as writing is. So I now do the other stuff: I do all our cover designs, look after our blogs, make coffee for authors when they visit, design ads and stationary and so on. I am a sort of publishing dogsbody. The actual publishing is done by my husband, who acquires mss, edits them, sells and buys rights, does our finances: everything but the distribution, proof-reading and selling.
Paul Engles: What do you think about e-books and digital publishing? Are they big in India?
Anuradha Roy: They are just about being introduced. Most people here are not affluent enough to invest thousands of rupees in a device that will enable just one person to read. Books are lent and borrowed a lot here - even a single copy of a newspaper might be shared by five people - while the whole concept of an e-reader is that it is a personal device that contains all your reading and travels with you. If it ever becomes as cheap as a mobile phone and combines books with music, DVDs, and games it might just gain popularity.
I made an honest attempt to read on an E-reader and just hated it. Fiddling with wires and chargers and tiny buttons and magnification percentages when I could just have opened a book and read!
Paul Engles: Are there any writers – of fiction or non-fiction – in India that English readers may not know about, but certainly should?
Anuradha Roy: There are too many to mention because of the richness of the literature in languages such as Bengali, Urdu, Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil. If I make a few suggestions they’re only from what’s in translation and all governed by my own taste: in poetry, the translations of classical Tamil poetry by A. K. Ramanujan; in fiction, the work of the Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, such as Song of the Road on which Satyajit Ray based his Apu trilogy. In theatre, the disturbing, brilliant plays of Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad; epics: the Mahabharata (John D. Smith’s translation) is really worth dipping into even if you can’t last the distance.
I’m not well-read enough to make a sensible list actually. I’ve just been reading Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (first published by the Hogarth Press in 1940) which I found remarkable for its depiction of the tragedy of losing your history in the process of being colonised, the rich randomness with which characters come and go, and its gritty, detail-soaked picture of urban life in Delhi in the early twentieth century.
Paul Engles: Would you say you have a favourite writer?
Anuradha Roy: No favourite writers, only favourite books, and those keep changing too. There are phases too when I hate almost everything I pick up to read. When that happens I comfort myself with the more reliable pleasures of crime fiction.
Paul Engles: MacLehose Press publishes mainly works in translation. Do you have a favourite translated novel?
Anuradha Roy: I have two absolute favourites: Chekhov’s novella, The Duel, and The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata. They were revelations and I read pages from them at random on and off when I feel dehydrated. Among MacLehose Press’s recent books, I loved Brodeck’s Report.
Paul Engles: When writing, do you have an idea in your mind of your “ideal” reader?
Anuradha Roy: I keep a reader in mind only for matters of narrative clarity, pace, etc. Just a generalized sort of reader who is probably much like me…
Paul Engles: On the photo on your Facebook page you are pictured with your dog. What is his/her name; what breed; how old? Do you have any other pets?
Anuradha Roy: Biscoot is her name and she was tiny, only about 4 few weeks old, with no mother dog to be seen when she was found in a Delhi park. It was a very cold December and I held her inside my coat to keep her warm while my husband drove us home. Heart-rending yowls the whole way and people in neighbouring cars staring as though we were kidnapping someone.
Once home, she looked around, approved, and then took over our lives. And has ruled us ever since – she’s nine now. Once I rescued another puppy and tried making Biscoot see reason, but she insisted we give it away. So there are no other pets.
Paul Engles: Are you already working on a third novel? If so, would you like to share anything with us about it now, or is it top secret?
Anuradha Roy: I said Never Again when finishing this one. But my instinct for self-destruction has always been powerful.