Anuradha Roy on artists facing threat, publishing in India, and literary dogs.
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Anuradha – thanks for talking to me. Your latest book, The Earthspinner, reiterates something that I’ve encountered in your other titles: a deep and complex interest in the role of “the artist”. Could I start by asking you to talk about that a little?
I didn’t think about the “role of the artist” when I was writing my first book, but over the years it has become clearer to me how tangled the process of making anything is. Not only must the writer or artist mine the force of her imagination – her personal seam of ideas and images – and then do what it takes to turn them into books or pictures or films; the outer world intrudes and alters the shape of things, too. This doesn’t have only to do with time and space and family (as in my earlier book, All the Lives We Never Lived). In The Earthspinner, the potter finds that he has to overcome not just his self-doubt and his lack of material supplies; his dream of making a clay horse runs full tilt into the hostility of his community. The threat of the mob is something every artist now faces, anywhere in the world, and all of this together is fascinating to me: how people continue to create despite everything, including their own senses of themselves.
Reading the book, I was taken by its remarkable calmness. Did a lot of anguish go into crafting that calm?
Your question makes me think of a scene from Satyajit Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), based on a book by one of my favourite writers, Bibhutibhushan. In the film, Harihar, the father, a penniless village priest, comes home after long travels, unaware his daughter, Durga, has recently died. He mistakes his wife’s silence for annoyance and starts unwrapping the humble gifts he has brought – a rolling pin, a picture. When he brings out a sari that he has bought for Durga, his wife can no longer stop herself from breaking down. Ravi Shankar directed the music for the film, and, at this point, instead of sobs, questions, explanations, there is only the high note of a wind instrument called the taar-shehnai. Durga’s death was one of the most wrenching parts of the book, but in the film it was even more intense, and I can imagine Ray, the director, felt every bit of its grief before he arrived at the powerful restraint and wordlessness of the scene.
He is so charged up with his vision it doesn’t cross his mind that his speaking horse might be too talkative for some.
Last year, I spoke to Kritika Pandey about her short story, ‘The Great Indian Tee and Snakes’, which is at bottom about the invisible walls between a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl. Kritika discussed how the story grew from a single image: the girl piecing together the shards of a ceramic cup smashed after the boy had drunk from it. I wondered if (and sensed that) The Earthspinner had been spun from some of the extraordinary images from which it takes so much force? Could you perhaps talk about one of those images – the clay horse?
I first came across clay horses in my childhood. They are made in Bankura in Bengal, and I later discovered huge clay horses were made in parts of South India for an annual festival. When I read about the horse in Hindu mythology, I encountered a rich set of myths about a “submarine horse” that roams the ocean floor. In The Earthspinner, the potter turns the sacred horse into a secular one; he wants to make it not for worship, but as a gift for his Muslim beloved. And to unite their two worlds, he has verses in Urdu (seen in India as the language of Muslims) inscribed on it. He is so charged up with his vision it doesn’t cross his mind that his speaking horse might be too talkative for some. Would he have made his horse in the exact same way even if he had been aware of the dangers? That’s the question all of us ask ourselves when we function as artists in dangerously repressive societies.
I know my books are populated by characters who have stepped off the train that is carrying the majority elsewhere.
The Earthspinner doesn’t deal in political polemic, but it’s of course nonetheless deeply political (as all literature is). Its social and political backdrop is of the 1980s, but that has evident currency in 2021. How does the current political landscape of India bear on you as you write? Or does it not?
It makes me feel more and more marginal everyday – politically, culturally – though fortunately there are quite a lot of people with whom to feel marginal. This does affect what I write. I know my books are populated by characters who have stepped off the train that is carrying the majority elsewhere. Like most writers, I respond to my times, but I’m not interested in writing polemic or novels that are baldly political. While I want my fiction to speak to the present, I’m also interested in language and form and the excitement of experimenting.
Some years ago, I found myself in Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s archive (his words appear in The Earthspinner’s epigraph). There are letters there that discuss the formation of Permanent Black, the publishing house that you and your husband, Rukun Advani, founded back in 2000. To run with a couple of words that come to mind having read The Earthspinner – ‘transformation’, ‘change’ – a couple of decades on, how would you reflect on how the tectonic plates of publishing in India have shifted?
Arvind’s Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English was one of our first books at Permanent Black, and recently we published his Book of Indian Essays. There are almost twenty years between the two books, and in that time Indian publishing has become much more globalised, dominated by the Indian branches of multinational publishers, as well as Amazon, self-publishing and social media, which did not exist then. Although independent publishers and booksellers have quite a hard time in this context, I think many things are easier for us than before – we are nimble, we can operate on a shoestring from anywhere (because of better internet), and with social media, marketing is a more even game . At the same time, we can see how catastrophically reading as a form of entertainment is dropping. We’ve never known such small print runs, and there is no literary sphere to speak of – at least not in English, the language in which Permanent Black publishes.
I trust him completely even if I don’t always agree with him, and I don’t feel at peace with a draft I’ve written until I know what he thinks of it. I think my lucky star was hard at work the day I met him.
Talking of publishers: The Earthspinner is published by Mountain Leopard Press, Christopher MacLehose’s new imprint. I know that Christopher has published all your works in the UK, and I wonder if you could speak a little about that writer–publisher relationship?
Many publishers now don’t read typescripts at all, nor do they edit; quite a few of my writer friends deal with freelance editors or beg friends for advice and feedback – every writer needs an honest, intelligent reader, someone who is in their corner but not there to flatter. Christopher and his kind are rare, almost extinct. He inhabits the world of a book in the making, responds to it with deep empathy and profound intelligence. From the moment he has read a typescript, there is a steady stream of surprises from him. These continue right up to publication – it can be nerve-racking, but never boring. I enjoy the editorial process with him (many arguments, but the book comes out vastly improved for them). I trust him completely even if I don’t always agree with him, and I don’t feel at peace with a draft I’ve written until I know what he thinks of it. I think my lucky star was hard at work the day I met him.
It was a powerful ending, but I think I could never do that to a dog, even in a book.
Finally, talk to me about dogs! (The Earthspinner has been added to my list of novels where dogs are star characters, both in and of themselves, and in how they drive plot – along with Pilar Quintana’s The Bitch, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, several of JM Coetzee’s books, John Berger’s King, etc.)
I actually have a hard time reading books with dogs because the dogs always seem to come to a tragic end. I was very sure from the start that nothing ghastly would happen to the dog in my book! We have four, and they are of the kind you find all over India – strays – who have adopted us, just like Chinna in The Earthspinner. Chinna knows nothing of religion or human warfare. He wanders between classes, castes, localities, managing a biscuit here, a chunk of meat there. He is very much a distillation of all the strays I’ve known – an archetypal element in any Indian landscape and a creature that unites as much it divides. In Coetzee’s Disgrace I found it chilling how absolute desolation takes the shape of a dog pound, and the man sends to its death a young, lame dog with whom he has formed a bond. It was a powerful ending, but I think I could never do that to a dog, even in a book.
Anuradha Roy is the author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth and Sleeping on Jupiter, which won the DSC Prize for Fiction 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015. Her last book, All the Lives We Never Lived, won the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award 2018. It was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Hindu Literary Award, and the JCB Award for Literature 2019. She lives in the Himalaya in India.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.
Photo credit: Rukun Advani.