Tuesday, November 17, 2015

‘I never thought I’d write a novel’: Interview with Anuradha Roy

(Published in Fountain Ink magazine, November 2015, retrieved from http://fountainink.in/?p=7741)

Anuradha Roy talks about her latest novel Sleeping on Jupiter, the complicated structure of her plots, and the process that goes into naming her novels.

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 Atlas 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 Prize 2011.
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 ofSleeping 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 theMahabharata.
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 reportage?
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 them?
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 to you?
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 incompleteness.
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 former?
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.

Can we save the corner bookshops?

(Published as 'Reader's Indulgence, Yesterday's Dream' in Fountain Ink magazine, October 2015 edition, http://fountainink.in/?p=7649)

(Photo Courtesy: Ink magazine)
On the Friday that rain and a traffic jam brought Delhi to a standstill, I was crouching between bookshelves in Priya Market digging out several J. M. Coetzees that I hadn’t been able to find online. The bookshop was Fact and Fiction, whose impending closure had been recently announced. That day was August 7. It eventually closed on August 23.
Coincidentally, Fact and Fiction was the first bookshop I ever visited in Delhi. I had just joined a television news channel yet to be launched, and reporters were being sent out on trial stories. I had accompanied a trainee who was doing a feature on tattoo parlours, and while my colleague filmed a woman who was getting a rose, or it may have been a butterfly, or a heart, inked on her shoulder, I wandered around until the green doors of Fact and Fiction beckoned. I walked away several thousand rupees shorter, and seven books richer. The handwritten bill said just that–“7 books”.
Eight years later, I made my last visit to the shop. I had moved out of Delhi, and my visits to the city had dwindled to about once a year. The bookshop did not look like it was in its final days. A group of people whose clothes, bearing, and conversation indicated they were from the nearby JNU, were looking through the non-fiction section. Someone whose knees occasionally brushed my shoulder was pulling out collections of poetry.
From the counter, where the owner Ajitvikram Singh and his brother sat, I could hear murmurs of a conversation that sounded like a condolence call. “Why did this have to happen, sir? a visitor was saying, as he sipped his coffee. “Kya karen,” the owner said, with a mirthless laugh, “Times are such.” I searched the V. S. Naipaul collection for one of my favourites—A Bend in the River, a book I had tried and failed to find in several bookshops, as well as online.
Hesitantly, I approached the counter.
“Sir, do you happen to have A Bend in the River?” I asked.
Ajitvikram Singh thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. But it will be here tomorrow.” He turned to his brother, “Likho, V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River.”
I was lost for a moment, savouring the texture of one of my favourite words—the onomatopoeic “pang”. To a bookshop junkie, there’s nothing more tender than someone ordering a book just for you. A symphony of memories washed over me—of the owner at Connaught Place’s New Book Depot, Rakesh Chandra, telling me, as I was kneeling on the chessboard floor of his shop on my day off, “I got you that book you wanted last week;Amen, was it? I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t vouch for its quality”; of a store assistant at Waterstones in Covent Garden, who would grin at me every time I went in after we had jointly lamented the unavailability of the not-yet-ubiquitous Haruki Murakami’s books, in the early years of the millennium when you could walk the length of a store without tripping over his work, an absence creating a bond in an unfamiliar space stocked with unfamiliar names; of an Anglo-Indian whose name I never found out, in charge of the books section at Landmark Apex Plaza, who called me every time a book my brothers or I had ordered arrived, with, “Hi, I’m callin’ from Landmark; the books y’all wanted are here. Come get ’em. See ya!” On my farewell visit to Apex Plaza, I pretended not to see him emptying the shelves and packing the books into cartons.
When, during the weekends and summer holidays in college, I squatted among those shelves, he had often slid a wooden stool my way, saying, “Sitten read, ma’am.”
Once, the founder of Landmark, Hemu Ramaiah, passed by and said, “Tell me if you know any literature graduate who wants a job. Good ones, uh? I’m looking for readers.”
“Readers?” I’d asked.
“Yeah, we need to order in books every quarter. So advance readers.”
It had sounded like the most delicious job in the world. By the time I was qualified to apply, Landmark had changed hands. The corner bookstore had become a corporate entity.
It seems that the corner bookshop only has two ways to go. It can bleed until there’s nothing left, and then close, as so many have done–shops with endearingly presumptuous names like The Bookshop and The Bookstore. One passes those spaces every now and again, staring resentfully at the shop fronts of the stores that have replaced them: a fast food joint, a shop that sells helmets, a travel agent, whose façades have grown respectably old in the decade since they ate up those beloved wooden shelves. Or, the corner bookstore can turn into multi-purpose chain stores, one-stop entertainment for the average family—books for the reader, toys for the children, music and movies and magazines with varying target audiences.
When we watched Landmark grow, we didn’t realise we were watching a bookshop die. But when the gifts section and the toys section and the gadgets-and-games section began to encroach into the floor space for books, we should have known that the readers had become less important than the families who terrorised everyone for hours at a time, but made up with their
credit cards.
One cannot visit these chains without having a child or three ram into one’s knees every so often, as their parents watch with pride, defiance, or belligerence, customised to your reaction. They’re usually staffed by people who are more clueless than the visitors. It’s bad enough to find Dom Moraes under World Literature and Tahmima Anam—or for that matter, Alaa al-Aswany—under Indian Writing, but I even chanced upon Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom under Children’s Books. I suppose someone who lives in a vacuum could be fooled by the title. I felt a twinge of malicious pleasure thinking of the trauma any of the anarchists screaming as they tore down the aisles and treating my feet like a bouncing castle would face if they were to read that book.
I’ve also suffered the ignominy of conversation with a store assistant who insisted that Anuradha Roy had written God of Small Things.
“I said Anuradha Roy, not Arundhati Roy.”
She looked at me smugly, and pointed at the author’s name for good measure. “Anuradha Roy only, ma’am.”
Even if you brave the ill-informed staff and delve into the poorly-organised sections, chances are that you won’t find the book for which you’re searching, because of the miserable distribution network in India. After the initial hysteria over a bestseller, the book all but disappears. Every time a famous author comes out with a new book, his earlier work is brought down from the attic, and then returned to the matrix of unsold books.
Perhaps the big stores don’t feel the need to keep books in stock. This, after all, is draining the pockets of the little stores. A book is deemed a hit in India when it sells 5,000 copies and a bestseller when it sells 10,000 copies. We don’t buy books. We borrow, or steal.
The idea of owning books was bequeathed to me, with the books themselves, by an ancient built-in cupboard in my grandmother’s house. It was filled with books from the Sixties and Seventies, when my mother and her siblings had won prizes in school and college. The generous bindings held paper so thick it crusted when I, in the idiocy of childhood, made dog-ears for bookmarks. The pages were punctuated by illustrations that evoked the English countryside.
And so I also inherited the notion that books were won not bought. I looked forward to the beginning of the new academic year, when prizes were distributed for the achievements of the last. I always won the prize for English and, ­if I was lucky, ­maths, and an all-rounder. My school gave us Higginbotham’s vouchers worth Rs 25 for each prize, and two of these were just enough to buy a Wordsworth Classic.
Looking back, I find that the annoying precociousness of my teenage years, when I spoke gloomily of “nihilism” before I could pronounce it correctly, was tempered by the guilty indulgence of reading books more suited to my age. When I was 12, I found The Chalet School in Exile, and bought it because I liked the brown-and-white uniforms, and because the French-sounding name appealed to my admittedly pretentious taste.
Looking forward to this mini-payday, I would spend many afternoons browsing the bookstores, picking out books that to buy next July, futilely “reserving” them by hiding them behind others as we did in the school library, where we had a quota of books that could be borrowed at once. I would look yearningly at the graphic novels, so far beyond my purse. One of the reasons I started working early was to be able to own the books I coveted.
My passion for owning books is at least partially owed to my dislike of sharing them. Unlike most bibliophiles, I’ve loathed libraries for most of my life, visiting them only because books were not otherwise accessible to me. I hate the smell of used books, the sight of the scribbles people leave in the corners, as if their opinions were so invaluable they must be indelible, the pages ruined by folding, the spines bent by people I wish were illiterate. I hate coming across the name of a former owner on the first page of books that have since been given away for use by anyone who can pay a few rupees. They remind me of pets abandoned at shelters by capricious owners who decided to move cities. Maybe the former owners of the books had the best intentions. Maybe they had no descendants, or none who cared to read. But the least one could do, in my opinion, is to ensure that a treasured book has a good home, not one where it is traded for money every week.
Even more than libraries I abhorred DTP centres where the literature departments of various colleges essentially pirated books, paying 25 paise a page for the mass production of spiral bound volumes, for distribution to aspiring nuns and aspiring housewives, the core population of a literature programme.
I would save up my birthday money to spend on the reading list for each semester, and—to the wrath of my classmates, and chagrin of my teachers—refuse to lend my copies to the DTP centre for piracy.
There are those who say the damage to book sales in corner bookstores by libraries and piracy is far less than that wrought by e-commerce. Often I’m accused of being maudlin by others of my generation who have switched to digital books, or who prefer online portals to bookshops.
For the longest time, I resisted the discounts on Flipkart and Amazon, not because of lofty ideals about saving bookshops with my little contributions, but for a pragmatic reason—I cannot read books with the tiniest flaw in appearance: a dog-ear, a folded page, a bent cover, a broken spine; so I spend minutes comparing all the copies a bookshop has of a particular title, to choose the most pristine. I didn’t trust e-commerce websites to do that job. A friend assured me, however, that books arrive undamaged, and can be exchanged failing that. This is mostly true.
But there was a more whimsical reason for avoiding online purchase. The process seems so cold, so bereft of sight and smell. I was never one to buy books solely on the recommendation of reviews and the names of authors. I don’t read reviews until I’ve finished a book. With a quarter century of reading behind me, I do know which authors I like. Yet I treasure the surprise of being drawn to a book by its aura, its cover and title. I remember the thrill of discovering authors for the first time by reading a few pages into their books.
I remember the embarrassment of finding out later that some of them were Nobel Prize winners. When I was 15, I bought One Hundred Years of Solitude because of the image of a tonsured, white-clad woman levitating, in a corner of the cover, and because I liked the name “Aureliano Buendía”. I bought My Name is Red for the miniature art on the cover. I bought The Famished Road for the image it evoked, a maleficent road tripping up the innocent joy of the red-clothed boy.
How, on the Internet, would I hear the susurrus of fresh pages, and savour the elusive scent of newsprint and porous paper and something else, something I came to understand as the smell of writing? How would I look into the eyes of the author in the photograph on the dust jacket, and decide whether this was someone I wanted to read?
Perhaps it was in these bookshops that I found my calling, that I realised my life would always be contained among these shelves. Higginbotham’s, where I would stock up onAmar Chitra Katha while my mother lost herself in the Medical Books section; Landmark, where the shelves shrank from twice my height to just below my shoulder over 20 years; Discovery, where my brothers would buy The Hardy Boys mysteries and shun Nancy Drew, only for me to tell them they were probably written by the same person; Giggles, where it seemed a pile of books could fell you by crashing down on your head at any moment.
When my first book was published, I made discreet trips to these stores, stealing photographs of my baby on the bookshelf. When I began to attend literature festivals, and meet authors I had first encountered as names on covers, I would experience the magic of watching a loved character emerge from books. Visits to bookshops became a quest to relive those moments. I would linger at the shelves that contained the work of idols-turned-friends; I would look for the books of friends, and friends of friends, who had recently been published, knowing how much they would treasure that illicit in-store photograph. I remember how the writers who now greet me by name, and sometimes sign my copies of their books with only their first names, and a personal message, seemed so far away when I first sat by these shelves.
Whom do we blame, I thought, as I walked among those shelves one weekend carting baskets filled with books to my car. I had spent three hours at the Spencer Plaza Landmark, which was selling books at a 90 per cent discount. I made several trips between counter and car park. I tried to feel good about giving the four gigantic bagfuls of books a happy home. I almost welled up, though, as I looked at the quotes on the iconic carry bags I cannot buy again. I remembered the book launches where people crowded into every crevice, waiting for autographs from Ruskin Bond, Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith.
It didn’t have to be this way, I thought. Why was Landmark shutting down? Why had Oxford given up? Why had Crossword downsized? Whom, really, do we blame?
It has become rather trendy to romanticise bookshops, and blame ourselves for killing them by choosing to order online. This is only partly true. Yes, e-commerce websites slash prices, but their discounts are usually annulled by the ridiculous delivery charges. Worse, some books are only available in imported editions, three times the price of the Indian ones. The distributors are letting down Amazon and Flipkart the same way they let down the corner bookshops.
In cities like Delhi, a large part of the blame lies with the cost of rental space, which seems to increase exponentially every year. When even large chains are forced to cut corners, how can a little bookshop meet the overheads?
The onus is back on the customer, then. It is not about buying online versus buying in little stores. It is about the decision to buy, rather than borrow. It is about the decision to read a book rather than watch a movie based on it. It is about wondering whether carrying the four books you may read on holiday is actually such a deadweight that you would rather replace them with a tablet and its unlimited capacity for books, though there’s little chance of your reading 10,000 books in a lifetime, let alone on holiday.
The thing about bookshops is that they are so much more than quaint little collections of books, striving to exist in a world gone digital. They build communities around themselves. They allow people to find homes. They foster moments of friendship, seemingly ephemeral exchanges about books that will be suddenly replayed in one’s mind, years down the line. They turn people into institutions. There is no reader in Delhi who is not familiar with Mithilesh-ji of Bahrisons, who recognises visitors when they drop by after years, who climbs up to seemingly unreachable shelves and instantly produces books for which one had been searching in vain for the better part of an hour.
Of course, bookshops are not without their horrific customers. It is they who made me give up my dream of opening a bookshop. They walk in with coffee and ice cream and wraps. They flip through books carelessly, or cough into them. They are the kind of people who say they like books to “look read”, and borrow books from friends, only to lend them to others without asking.
The only positive thing about their existence is the moments of camaraderie they unwittingly create. Your heart lurches as someone drops a book, you glance warily as someone opens a book to the middle page; you find a friend when you encounter your own cross face mirrored on the countenance of someone else, glaring at the offender over another bookshelf. Both of you silently condemn the vandal to being recycled as toilet paper in a future birth.
There are times when I think so many of us relate to the idea of living among books that bookshops cannot possibly die. So many of us have built our homes with books. So many of us have arrived in new cities with two suitcases, which have spilled into five rooms. There are so many of us who, in trying to repack those five rooms, find most of the additions are books. So many of us who own enough books to start libraries. So many of us who wake up with four or five books around our pillows. So many of us who get annoyed when visitors to our homes make straight for the bookshelf in an effort to impress us. So many of us who know we have found a lifelong friend when someone follows the proper private library etiquette and asks permission to look through our books. So many of us who must come in, glowing after afternoons in bookshops, so that someone is bound to say, “Either you’ve fallen in love, or you’ve been buying books.”
There are so many of us writing as well, with varying degrees of success, and varying degrees of skill, the two not always directly proportional.
Surely, then, corner bookshops will survive? Surely ours can’t be the last generation that knows what a corner bookshop is?
In my moments of rage, I curse us all, and the bookshops that have sold out to “market trends”. We brought this upon ourselves, I think, and so did the bookshops.
But my heart breaks at the thought that there will be no place where someone can be lost for hours at a time, finding soul mates between the covers of a book, travelling the world without moving an inch, absorbed in the adventures of people who don’t exist in the conventional sense. My heart breaks at the thought that there will be no place from which one will return home with an armful of books, and surrender to temporary dismay upon being confronted with its spatial realities. My heart breaks at the thought that I won’t stare, arms akimbo, at my overflowing bookshelf, and then get to work, dragging out clothes and dumping them on sofas so that I can claim another shelf of another cupboard for my books.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris terror attack: Why the reactions in India disgust me

Picture Courtesy: Sify.com

I was watching the France-Germany match on television when the blast went off outside Stade de France. No one seemed to realise it was a terror attack. It wasn’t until the video clip with the audio of the blast emerged that the world knew what it had witnessed. But, even as the match was ending, tweets and headlines began to flood the internet, growing more bizarre by the minute. There was a blast outside the stadium. A café had been attacked. People were being held hostage inside a concert hall.

By early morning, it was clear that they were coordinated terror attacks – more than 65 people had died, there was still a hostage situation, and everyone was in panic. Over the next few hours, more details emerged – seven attacks had occurred in some of Paris’ trendiest neighbourhoods, where people were likely to be hanging out on a Friday. The touristy areas were not targeted. The seats of political power were not targeted. As a friend who lives in Paris put it, it was an attack on life, on joy, on art. At least eight terrorists were involved. The ISIS has claimed responsibility.

But, through all the tragedy, there were the contrarians, the ones who had to say, “Yes, it’s terrible what happened, but...”

And those posts have been shared, and have gone viral, just as they were and did when the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked. At the time, there were plenty of people, especially from the subcontinent, who decided they must warn the world against Islamophobia, and who felt no hesitation in terming a satirical magazine that has never backed down from taking on various kinds of establishments “racist” and “bigoted” and “Islamophobic”.

“We condemn the attacks, but we are not Charlie Hebdo,” they cried.

Today, the reactions have been even more sickening, and again, a majority of them come from the subcontinent. When the entire world should be coming together to mourn these attacks, there are ugly voices that want to scream over the chorus, asking:

“Why do white lives matter more?”

Every instance of this is preceded by a disclaimer – let’s not take away the pain of the victims in Paris – but...

Why, they want to know, does Paris deserve more attention than Beirut, where 43 people were killed in bombings, and Baghdad, where a Shia neighbourhood was attacked, leaving at least 25 people dead.

White lives do not matter more.

But the scale and coordination of the attacks in Paris took everyone by shock, and it is natural that the news will be reported across the world.

Have we already forgotten that the Mumbai terror attacks of 26 November 2008 received incessant media coverage globally, so incessant in fact that the terrorists must have known exactly what to expect when the counterattack began?

Ideally, the Beirut attack and the Baghdad attack should have received more attention than they did. The fact that terror attacks occur regularly in the Middle East should not be a reason for them to be smaller headlines.

But, on a day when hundreds of people have died in three countries because of terrorists, should we really be comparing the media coverage and the TRPs?

Why does it have to be a matter of geography and skin colour, of East versus the West, when there is only one ‘Us’ and one ‘Them’?

“Muslims are the greatest victims of terror, because they have to fight prejudice”

Really? Because facing prejudice at airports is so much worse than being the victim of a terror attack?

There is some truth in Muslims being the most numerous among the victims of the ISIS. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees risking their own lives and the lives of their families, leaving their homes for shores they may not reach, paying unreliable middlemen enormous sums for a place on rickety boats, because the alternative is much worse – the alternative is waiting for the ISIS to show up on their doorsteps.

There is definite truth in the fact that every terror attack that has horrified the world – 9/11, 26/11, and now 13/11 – has claimed the lives of Muslims, as it has claimed the lives of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, you name it.

But for people to come up with apologist sentiments at a time like this is unacceptable. Fighting prejudice – which anyone of any race, religion, or gender may face, when one is in a minority – does not compare with losing one’s life and limbs and friends and family.

The world does not call upon Muslims to answer for the attacks the ISIS has perpetrated; it does not identify Muslims with the ISIS. It is obvious to everyone but paranoid bigots that the ISIS has flouted every Quranic statute about respect for life. This is a time to acknowledge the terrible dangers and pitfalls of twisting religion to propagate a fundamentalist agenda.

To label the war on terror a war on Islam is to buy into the propaganda that these terror groups are trying to create. And in identifying terror with Islam and claiming that the world thinks of the two as synonymous, one is only creating a rift where there doesn’t need to be one.

Why does it have to be a matter of religion when there is only one ‘Us’ and one ‘Them’?

“The West created the ISIS”

This is the most sickening reaction of all, and it’s all over social media. Respected journalists and political commentators have seen fit, at this time, to say that the West created the ISIS with its interference in the Middle East for its own agenda, and that it is now facing the backlash. What is left unsaid, but which rings in one’s ears is: Therefore it deserves these terror attacks.

What kind of miserable human being must one be in order to give voice to such unabashed schadenfreude?

It may be a fact that some of these terror organisations did indeed have their roots in movements incited by particular powers, in leaders who turned Frankenstein’s monsters.

But there is no homogenous “West”.

And the people who died in New York in 2001 and Paris in 2015 were not the Frankensteins either.

There is only one ‘Them’ – the people who would storm places of peace and open fire – and only one ‘Us’: the people who crave peace.

At this moment, we know that at least 120 people have died, and the toll is likely to increase.

Let us mourn them.

Let us mourn the fact that there are people in this world who would choose to attack young people hanging out at a rock concert, people gathered with friends and family in cafés at the start of the weekend, people out to watch a football match, people gathered at a place of prayer, people at a funeral procession to bid goodbye to a loved one.

Let us not analyse how many people of which colour and which religion and which region died in which blast.

There is only one ‘Us’ and only one ‘Them’. Let us not forget that.

Deepavali fireworks: Spare a thought for the child labour

(Published in Sify.com, on November 9, 2015, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/deepavali-fireworks-spare-a-thought-for-the-child-labour-news-columns-pljkVsacabeff.html)

Traditionally, we speak of Deepavali as the festival of lights, when we celebrate the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness, of the divine over the base.

And, yet, in celebrating it with fireworks, we are bolstering an industry to which evil is intrinsic.

No, I’m not talking about the noise or the smoke or the pollution, which terrorise asthmatics, or the choking of rivers and landfill sites with toxic waste that ruins the ecosystem.  I’m not even talking about the acts of mindless cruelty – strapping crackers on to the tails of cowering dogs, for instance – though we know there are plenty of those.

But, as people flock into temporary stalls in a last-minute frenzy of shopping for fireworks, complete with their privileged children, I want to stop and ask them whether they know that for decades these fireworks were made by little children who were paid ridiculous wages and often lost their lives and limbs to gunpowder explosions.

And though fireworks manufacturers in Sivakasi claim that no children are employed in their factories, evidence suggests otherwise.

In the wake of the horrific fire accident which claimed 38 lives and left 50 injured, in 2012, raids were conducted in fireworks units which resulted in more than 25 licences being cancelled for various violations. These included the employment of children aged under 14 years.

Devastating accidents have been reported at fireworks units in Virudhunagar district in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and in Andhra Pradesh in 2014. In every case, the victims included children. A Google search turns up pictures that stand testimony to just how young some of these children are.

Over the last decade, more than 200 people have lost their lives in 91 accidents.

Nearly twenty years ago, in 1996, the Supreme Court ordered the enforcement of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. But reports show that this is not followed even today.

In 2013, a National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) report made alarming findings. In a survey of the fireworks, matches, and incense stick producing factories of Sivakasi, which numbered nearly 10,000 and employed 1.5 lakh people, it was discovered that children aged 5-15 were working for more than 12 hours a day. Children wearing school uniforms were seen working in factories after school hours.

For fear of discovery, many manufacturers who have not mechanised their production outsource work to contractors and subcontractors. Children often work out of tiny sheds, and sometimes even their homes, with few safety measures in place.

The report found that the fireworks industry in Sivakasi was exploring foreign markets and had even set up manufacturing units in China.

With children being paid on a piece-rate, they are encouraged to work fast and long to supplement their paltry wages, which range between Rs 30 and Rs 50 a day.

The investigation team also found that children were loading flower pots, fixing fuses, making paper pipes, and filling rings without wearing protective gear.

They handle materials including sodium and potassium nitrates, with charcoal and sulphur for fuel, along with aluminium, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium dust to enhance the explosion.

Not only are their clothes and skin covered in chemicals which eventually cause asthma, eye infection, and tuberculosis; but they are also unsupervised as they pack tubes. 

Unaware of the danger of getting the proportion wrong, and untrained in methods, they often pack the chemicals too tight or in the wrong amounts, causing explosions at worst and scalding at best.

While local governments insist that child labour has been stemmed, and is now at less than one percent of all employment, Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has said more than 1 lakh children are employed in fireworks factories, not just in Tamil Nadu, but across Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Chattisgarh, Jaipur and Assam.

The NCPCR report cited instances of verbal, physical, and psychological abuse of these children.

An industry that is estimated to be worth Rs 2000 crore has made its money off nimble hands which should be turning the pages of schoolbooks and not stuffing gunpowder into paper.

There is photographic evidence of children being employed in these factories. Some of these horrific pictures, including those of severe injuries, may be found here. In one, heartbreakingly, a child wearing a ‘Being Human’ shirt is seen packing crackers, unaware of the irony.

Even if some of these factories have done away with child labour, as they claim, it is undeniable that every one of them exploited children in penury at some time.

As we watch our children playing about in their new clothes, we should remind ourselves that an accident of birth could have had these very same children making those very same crackers in little huts.

We should remind ourselves that the festival of lights could just as easily and far less ruinously be celebrated with lamps instead of fireworks.

Because the only way we can eradicate child labour from dangerous industries is to eradicate the industries themselves.

Nothing good ever came of fireworks, and nothing good ever will.
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