The mistress of words
Jan 21 2016
Anuradha Roy, who won the DSC prize for south Asian literature early this week, peoples her fictional world with ethereal characters that linger long after reading
“I am not a feminist writer.” Anuradha Roy might cry herself hoarse, but anyone who has read her books will tell a different story. In fact her latest, Sleeping on Jupiter, is a harrowing tale of abuse, sexual and otherwise, of women and children, in which Roy packs in the reality without mincing words, telling the world what it means to be a woman in a place like India. Her voice is so poignant that the world is sitting up to take notice of this reticent author, who lives up in the Himalayas. Early this week, Sleeping on Jupiter, long-listed for Man Booker 2015, won the DSC prize for South Asian literature.
An “overjoyed and honoured” Roy says she was taken by surprise when the news of the win reached her. She took to the social media to express her joy, admitted that she had no prior idea of her win and said she “was stunned” to hear her name. “The other shortlisted books, many of which I have read, are strong and beautiful and I had not thought mine stood much of a chance.”
Again, Roy might cry herself hoarse, but the world has made up its mind: here is an author who, quietly but surely, is notching up winners; who doesn’t hesitate to write about the evils that prevail in a society; doesn’t hesitate to talk about taboo subjects, be it paedophilia or homosexuality. And the one thing that her readers agree wholeheartedly is that Roy’s characters have that ethereal quality — the kind that will linger much longer after one puts the book down.
When she was 14, Roy tells you, she had her short story published in a newspaper. But that was that. “I suppose it was just life. I was doing other things: as a student, then as an editor at a publishing house… I was writing all along, but a lot of it was on-demand work for newspapers and the fiction I wrote at that time was not good enough for me to want anyone else to read it.” All that changed in 2008 when she published her first work of fiction, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, to excellent reviews, both locally and globally. Her second novel, The Folded Earth, published in 2011, won The Economist Crossword Prize for Fiction and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize.
The poetic prose is a dead giveaway, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise when Roy says she is influenced a lot by imagery. “I don’t choose a theme ever: it’s always character and place-driven for me. Both Atlas and Folded Earth started from images. One was of a house, which had a river lapping at its verandah, the other of the lake at Roopkund with skulls floating on it.”
That nature inspires her imagery is again not surprising considering she lives in Ranikhet in Uttarakhand, “for the greater part of the year”, with three dogs, going for long walks and indulging in cooking and pottery. Naturally, even her fictional town is filled with delicate details of nature. As in the case of Sleeping on Jupiter, Jarmuli, the fictional seaside town has given her ample opportunities to bring to life the coastal atmosphere.
And here Roy excels, as brilliant prose is her undeniable strength. Given the exquisite embellishment, for all we care, she might have painted her fictional world not just write. “I spent my early childhood (her father was a geologist) in small places, in tents, often in hilly regions. May be that does influence what I write. It’s very hard to separate out the landscape and the characters or say which takes shape first. Usually the setting and characters come together and as I follow the characters the narrative develops. It is difficult for me to function as a writer if the world of the narrative is not real to me. ”
But to give credit to where it’s due, if embellishment adds to the joy of reading, her plot is almost always riveting. Roy creates a choppy world in her books — a world that, from what she describes, is far removed from her idyllic existence —so realistically that it is a telling proof to the storyteller in her. For instance, Sleeping on Jupiter, tells the story of Nomita, who manages to escape the harsh fate of a underprivileged homeless girl in a developing society but continues to be troubled by dark memories of the sexual abuse she was subjected to as a child by the very person who she regarded as her guardian. It deals with betrayal, loss of innocence, complexities of friendship, communal violence set in a small town that comes alive as the narrative of Nomita coming back to her childhood town to film a documentary unfolds.
That brings us back to where we started: despite her denial, Roy’s subjects are every feminist’s treatise. Point that out to her and she amends; “It’s difficult not to be [a feminist]. These are things which affect me deeply.”
That the world identifies with them is something she is happy about, but not necessarily something that will drive her to write. “Both when I read and write fiction, the important things for me are the language and the narrative. I don’t agree that dark social narratives of a developing country necessarily have a greater readership in the western world – I can think of other kinds of books that have been successfully published in the west. It’s hard to tell why particular books strike a chord with readers around the world.”