All posts by Nilanjana Roy

Certified hedonomanic. Author of The Wildings (2012) , The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). Next up, essays on reading: The Girl Who Ate Books, from HarperCollins.

Journal: Checklist, useful skills

Below a list of what the well-educated Indian might have learned in the days of Nalanda.

I’m a high scorer on toy-making, composing poetry, filing up blanks, using figures of speech, knowledge of lexicons (though not the rest), talking in riddles, conversing in finger-signs; hopeless at deceptive make-up, needlework, embroidery, weaving, fancy-weaving; can cook, have never made syrups or ear-drops, not so much the garland-things; yes to proper use of scents and shampooing, no to proper use of ornaments, costumes, dyes and sadly blank on the rest of the list (metallurgy, crystals, engineering, wood-carving), including the arts of victory in war. And you?

List of accomplishments for the well-educated Indian
List of accomplishments for the well-educated Indian

Screenshot 2015-05-23 14.45.54

Speaking Volumes: Beyond Human

Indra Das's The Devourers (claw marks courtesy our cat, Bathsheba, who is also an avid reader)
Indra Das’s The Devourers (claw marks courtesy our cat, Bathsheba, who is also an avid reader)

One way to find out what an elephant is saying to you is to drop by the Elephant Gestures Database. Is the pachyderm in your life attentive, ambivalent, defensive; soliciting play or simply asking you for more spacial proximity?

Joyce Poole and Petter Granli started the online database in 2009, based on over three decades of their research on elephants and animal communication. They track the difference between the head-jerk and the head-swing, when to tusk-click, and how an elephant can read seismic vibrations, for instance. As Tania James writes in her novel, The Tusk That Did The Damage, of an elephant known as The Gravedigger: “His trunk, being stout and clumsy, couldn’t sense what his mother’s could sense – the sudden stillness in the rhythm of things, the peril in the air.”

(Visit The Elephant Gestures Database)

The Tusk That Did The Damage, James’ third book, is riveting not just because she’s a thoughtful and precise writer by nature, but because she cracks an old problem for writers: how to write about the non-human mind without, if I might borrow a poco catchphrase, committing the sin of appropriation.

Tania James, The Tusk That Did The Damage
Tania James, The Tusk That Did The Damage

Her novel is set in Wayanad in Kerala, and has four compelling characters – a poacher, a wildlife documentary film-maker, the elephant, and his pappan, who is something of an elephant whisperer. The Gravedigger has earned his name; James’ genius is to make the elephant’s intelligence, anguish, anger and longings completely compelling, while preserving for him a degree of unknowability, respecting the necessary gulf between the human and the non-human mind.

(“It really began with the elephant”: Tania James interviewed in the LA Times.)

Except that it might not be as necessary, or as wide a gulf, in the foreseeable future. Writers have been tackling non-human minds – animal, alien, and in-between – for centuries, but until very recently, experiments in animal language tended to set up human speech as the default. Can animals talk? How much of human language can different species understand?

These old questions are far less interesting than asking how animals communicate – through vibrations (elephants), signature whistles (dolphins), brain wave signals (rats), smells and chemical messages (wolves), complex long-distance vocal communication networks (songbirds). Shift the question around: how well can humans – probably among the most inquisitive of animals – understand other animal species?

 (The science of animal consciousness: Brandon Klein in Aeon)

When writers grasp this, the way they write about animals changes fundamentally. The research that Karen Joy Fowler did for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves led her, for instance, to investigate the lives of lab animals, especially chimpanzees.

She has spoken about two particularly disconcerting moments: the first was learning that one of the torturers at Abu Ghraib had worked on poultry farms, and wondering whether there wasn’t a link between these two professions. The second was discovering that while researchers in early experiments expected chimpanzees to mimic human behaviour, they weren’t prepared for the opposite: the swiftness with which human children imitated chimps.

(Karen Joy Fowler on the Kellogg experiment, interviewed in Bookslut.)

Fowler and James may move on to other subjects, but in the skill with which they attempt to investigate the inner lives of animals, they are in tune with the zeitgeist. It’s been just three years since the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness acknowledged that humans were not the only animals who could generate consciousness: the ability to feel and experience the world with conscious intent is shared between many non-human animals. This might be the first generation of human writers to tackle the problem of writing about animals not just from a position of curiosity, but from a base of mutual respect.

If that’s a difficult rope-trick to pull off, it’s that much harder to write about either aliens or mythical creatures such as werewolves. I approached Indra Das’s The Devourers with some wariness, not expecting to fall in love at first bite. But however badly burned a reader might be by too many clueless fantasy novels where the protagonists make you want to howl at the moon on their behalf, she’ll be delighted by The Devourers.  Das, a very talented illustrator who also writes well-crafted short science fiction, knows exactly how to hook a reader.

(Indra Das, A Moon For The Unborn: short story in Strange Horizons)

His narrator, situated in Kolkata, says, “I met a man who told me he was half-werewolf. He said this to me as if it were no different than being half-Bengali, half-Punjabi, half-Parsi.” Thirty pages later, the professor and the werewolf have set up a meeting exactly where you’d expect creatures of the night to hang out – at the Oly Pub. (Cigarette haze, plates of dirty dalmoth, “the popular refuge of the firmly middle classes”.)

(Read an excerpt from The Devourers.)

Das takes the werewolves back into Mughal India, their stories revealed through old scrolls. One narrative is offered by Cyrah, the survivor of a sexual assault by an ancient creature. Alongside the werewolves, there are also shape-shifters who hunt khrissals (humans), and he throws in a superb set-piece involving a massacre of our kind, set against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal.

His exceptional craft is part of what makes The Devourers one of the most satisfying fantasies to come out of India in the last ten years. By the end of a few chapters, I wasn’t surprised that Das makes you believe that werewolves stalked Mumtazabad and Akbarabad, or when he inverts the hunter-prey relationship to ask who needs whom more.

(“I felt like I was being hunted as well”: Indra Das interviewed by the Bangalore Mirror)

But The Devourers is also about other shaggy monsters – hidden sexual selves and hungers, the loneliness of those who have no skeleton keys to unlock their cages of identity, the understanding that the ability to devour and the ability to love are not the same. It is strange but true: a novel that imagines non-human creatures so well has much to say about the difficult condition of being human.

(Published in the Business Standard, May 12, 2015)

Writers on writing

2013-11-24 16.44.00

Erica Jong, writing in 1988: “Perhaps the literary artist is born like a woman with all her eggs present in their follicles; they have only to ripen and burst forth -and ripeness is all. But sometimes it takes half a lifetime for them to ripen.”

Susan Sontag in 1961: “The writer must be four people:

  1. The nut, the obsédé
  2. The moron
  3. The stylist
  4. The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence*. A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.”

Angela Davis on Toni Morrison as an editor:

“She did not rewrite things for me, but she asked me questions. She would say, ‘what did the space look like? What was in the room, and how would you describe it?’ It was quite an amazing experience for me to have her as a mentor. My experience with writing was primarily writing about philosophical issues. I really had to learn about how to write something that would produce images in people’s minds that would draw them into a story.”

Davis on Morrison as a writer:

“This is something that really impressed me about her: her discipline, her focus. One time, I was sitting in her house in Rockland County, (New York), and she had to drive in to (Manhattan) every day to work at Random House. I would see her when we were driving in. When there was traffic, she would pull out a little pad and write something or pull out a scrap of paper here or there, and I realized she was living the life of the next novel in her mind, regardless of whatever else was happening. I have always been impressed by her ability to be so focused and to inhabit the universe of her writing while not neglecting the universe that involves the rest of us.”

Mary Oliver, Sand Dabs, Seven:

“There is no pencil in the world that doesn’t have the ability to strike out as well as to instigate. It’s best to write, to begin with, generously.”

From the Foreword to Long Life:

‘”Poets must read and study, but also they must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, or we might just as well copy the old books. But, no, that would never do, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”‘


Imaginary places: The Wildings map

I wish I’d learned to draw properly (more School of Gunter Grass, less School of Edna O’Brien). I blame some of my woeful inability to sketch anything at all on the art teacher who made us draw apples for three months straight after which I a) nursed an aversion to drawing b) still associate apples and pencils, sometimes snacking on the wrong one.

When my editor asked for a rough map that the illustrator could use for The Wildings’ Canada/ US edition, I pulled out the one I’d drawn when I was writing the book. It was horrible. It had cats and cheels doodled all over the “map” and plot notes in the corners. So I drew another map. It is not very good but the thing about being terribly bad at drawing anything at all is that you’re so proud of having finished something that’s legible. (Sort of.)

© NilanjanaRoy
Wildings, rough map. © NilanjanaRoy

Now I’m going to go off and drool at these:

Real Maps of Fictional Places

(Drawn by real artists!)

Speaking Volumes: Those Who Stay

(In tribute to Sabeen Mahmud.)
(Published in the Business Standard, 28 April, 2015)

It was around noon on March 2007 when Baghdad’s street of booksellers went up in flames. A suicide car bomber had detonated in the middle of Mutanabbi Street, killing over 20 people. One of them was Mohammed Hayawi, owner of the Renaissance Bookstore.

“Books and stationery, some tied in charred bundles, littered the block,” The New York Times reported. “Firefighters unleashed powerful sprays of water, only to have flames reignite because the paper had transformed into kindling.”

The late Anthony Shadid had been visiting the Renaissance Bookstore since 2003; he commemorated Hayawi in a grieving, thoughtful piece for The Washington Post. “Life goes on,” Hayawwi had said. “We are in the middle of the war and we still smoke the hookah.” Before the bombing, Mutanabbi Street had been filled with booksellers and intellectuals who, like Hayawi, had “tried to make sense of a country that doesn’t make sense any more”.

In Karachi, two days ago, gunmen followed Sabeen Mahmud back from a talk on “Unsilencing Balochistan”, that she’d hosted at T2F, a buzzing hub for citizens who wanted change, and also for music workshops, open mike nights, children’s storytelling sessions. Mahmud was driving home with her mother. When she stopped at a green light, the men with the guns opened fire on either side. She died in hospital; her mother sustained severe injuries. Mahmud was just 40; in the spate of tributes that came up everywhere, one featured the T2F director in a T-shirt that said, “I think therefore I am dangerous.”

(Kamila Shamsie’s tribute to Sabeen Mahmud in The Guardian)

For writers and the creative community from any country going through times when violence reigns along with its fellow thug, the muzzler of dissent, the choice seems stark. They could leave and face the pain (and sometimes the guilt) of self-chosen exile, or stay and face imprisonment, silencing or death. But what is less clear is how you should live if you decide not to leave. Despite all the risks attached to speaking out or creating an open community that might make you a target, the alternative – to remain silent, abandoning all that you love – is unthinkable to many.

There’s a phrase we often employ, in all sorts of circumstances, that is both banal and meaningful: “Stay safe.” It seems like good advice, until you start asking what is safe and what is unsafe. Since when was bookselling a dangerous profession? In what kind of world does hosting a group discussion in a small community centre become an invitation to murder?

Last month, another blogger was killed in Bangladesh. Washiqur Rahman, just 27, used to write on atheism and critique Muslim majoritarianism under the pseudonym “The Ugly Duckling”. Two of his attackers were taken into custody; they had hacked Rahman down on a busy street with meat cleavers, just as the blogger Avijit Roy had been killed a month or so ago. Roy and Rahman had both been outspoken in their critique of religion and had received death threats previously.

The murders of these two bloggers come at a time when a war crimes tribunal in Dhaka has initiated contempt of court proceedings against 23 Bangladeshi writers, journalists, musicians and activists, including Ziaur Rahman, Masud Khan, Bina D’Costa, Shahidul Alam, Anusheh Anadil and others. Their supposed crime is that they expressed concern in a joint statement over the sentencing of the journalist David Bergman. The tribunal’s actions go beyond criminalising critical journalism – they make even expressing dissent or disagreement a crime.

Bookselling and the existence of books, cafes, intellectuals and writers discussing the most pressing issues of their times are a threat indeed: the existence of such a community threatens hardline fundamentalism, because that fundamentalism cannot flourish in an open community.

Bloggers and rationalists who flourish their atheism and question the tenets of religious fanatics, from Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman to Narendra Dabholkar or the exiled Sanal Edamaruku, are seen as a threat because of the fear that their disbelief and scepticism might spread to the mainstream.

Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down not just for one talk, addressing one of the many taboo subjects in Pakistan today, but because the liberal community and space she fostered is a direct challenge to those who would like to see the country descend further into a regime of brutal intolerance. And the Bangladesh writers, historians and creative artists who questioned the tribunal’s decision are now being put under pressure because their dissent could spark wider questioning of how the state and its instruments function.

Beyond the present grief for Mahmud and for others who have died in this escalating war between fundamentalist intolerance and basic human rights, there are lessons for India.

It would be unwise to take the free spaces and the right to dissent that we have had so far for granted. This last year has seen rising clashes between religious and cultural majoritarians and liberal Indians, a takeover of many educational and cultural institutions by ideologues. Ominously, this government has already signalled and acted on its dislike of dissenting voices from non-governmental organisations and the media.

And yet, despite these troubling signs, it is worth remembering that those who stay on in a country going through upheaval often find ways to thrive and survive even the worst attacks on their spirit.

In 2008, Mutanabbi Street reopened in Baghdad. It was a shadow of its former self, but there were books out on the pavements again; reports said that the Friday curfew was lifted shortly after. In 2014, Al-Akhbar carried a report on Mutanabbi Street: the bookstores had not fully returned, but the pavement vendors were thriving, and the cafes were open once again.

If only they could talk


The Interspecies Internet interests me a lot more than the Internet of Things: it’s such a beautiful, simple idea at its core, even though it would take a lot to get it to work.

Peter Gabriel on animal-human animal communication: “What was amazing to me was that [the animals] seemed a lot more adept at getting a handle on our language than we were at getting a handle on theirs,” says Gabriel.’

The Interspecies Internet: Diana Reise, Peter Gabriel, Neil Gershenfeld, Vince Cerf

In the 1980s, Jim Nollman experimented with making music with the help of animals:

Smithsonian Folkways: Playing Music With Animals (Jim Nollman with 300 Turkeys, 12 Wolves and 30 Orcas)

(I like The Lesson a lot. So do my cats, who sit near the speaker with their ears cocked, though they’re not so fond of Cello and
Wolf Pack.)

The most frustrating part of writing The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness was having to translate cat communications (or what I guessed were cat communications) from whisker, scent and touch to speech. I did the best I could, but it was like a more frustrating version of translating from Bengali to English (that’s still speech-to-speech); you’re trying to convey vibrational language (whiskers) or complex scent communications (spraying, scent-marking) into English. It’s clunky, though one way around it is to take the liberty of going inside an animal’s mind, and writing about that interior dialogue. (Tania James does this brilliantly in The Tusk That Did The Damage.)

I don’t know much about animal language, but the research on it is fascinating — from Jim Nollman’s page on four whale species and communication:

“Other cetacean calls, including most of the toothed whales (i.e. odontocetes) are seldom used by composers. and even less less seldom heard by the general public. Orca calls are jazzy, edgy, and strident. Beluga calls are often dense and otherworldly, produced by a species with more discrete kinds of calls than any other animal. Dolphins are as high pitched as the hearing tests we all took as kids. The great whales — the blues, fins, bowheads, etc — sing low and monotone.”

The idea that animals might have language, thought, empathy, consciousness, a sense of self is unsurprising to anyone who lives with companion animals, or who has observed animals in the wild for however short a length of time. But Brandom Keim wrote a thoughtful essay in Aeon on why humans find it difficult when trying to comprehend animal consciousness:

“I was walking in Jamaica Bay on a bitterly cold and cloudless day when I saw semipalmated sandpipers again, running ahead of a pounding surf that caught the afternoon sun and sprayed their retreats with prisms. As Elizabeth Bishop observed in her poem ‘Sandpiper’ (1955): ‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted,/and that every so often the world is bound to shake.’ I wondered what it would be like to be one of them, to run with the flock and feed in the surf, to experience life at their scale and society. Simply put, did they enjoy it? Were they cold? Did they remember their journeys, feel a connection to individuals with whom they’d flown, a concern for compatriots and mates?

Asking those questions made me appreciate just how deeply I’d internalised the taxonomic system against which Prosek strained, as well as the habit of explaining animal behaviour in mechanical terms. I’d regarded the sandpipers as embodiments of their species and life history, but not as individuals, much less as selves. This oversight was not coincidental. The very history of taxonomy and attendant studies of animal behaviour is intertwined with a denial of individual animal consciousness.”

I’m curious about what would happen if animals could communicate with humans. What would they think of us, and our predatory, planet-dominating ways? Would they find us amusing, as we find some of them? Would we have to dissolve the idea that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’? Probably, because one of the first things we’d learn if animals could talk is that we’re just another animal; a strange, blundering, destructive, cruel, creative, curious species, inventors of bizarre and interesting devices.

Nervous Throat-Clearing


Much to my own surprise, I have finished writing a book. Perhaps some people’s surprise is greater than mine, and that would be the very patient editors at HarperCollins India who suggested some five years ago that I should make a collection of my book columns.

From Bankimchandra's Bengali magazine, Bangadarshan.
From Bankimchandra’s Bengali magazine, Bangadarshan.

I started to collect my book columns and got side-tracked when hard disks (and floppy disks — remember them?) from eons past yielded other things that had been forgotten. Columns on the Internet back when we treated it as a strange new toy and thought Usenet groups and Lycos were so advanced; columns on random subjects that were blatantly written for the cheque back in the days when the partner and I had just started freelancing; columns on food (mostly on eating) from the time our food columnist disappeared and I was pressganged into doing this on the grounds that a) someone in my family had written a cookbook b) I read encylopaedias on food for fun c) I was the most efficient tiffin-raider in the office.

Rokeya Begum, author of Sultana's Dream
Rokeya Begum, author of Sultana’s Dream

So instead of taking six months to riffle through the files, what was then called The Collected Columns or Adventures in Reading or some such anodyne title took about two years to compile. My editor had stopped asking for a date of delivery and was instead anxiously asking whether I was still doing something — anything! — on the book.

Olga Perovskaya's Kids and Cubs, a Russian children's classic
Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs, a Russian children’s classic

Then I read the columns and realised they couldn’t go into print after all. Newspaper writing is supposed to be for the moment, and is supposed to contain some news, which means they don’t usually read very well six months or two or four years after they were printed. Discouraged, I abandoned How To Read In Indian — it had been retitled, after this essay in Caravan —  and went off and wrote a couple of cat sagas instead. That was a lot of fun. My editor came to the book launch and manfully, through gritted teeth, congratulated me on finishing a book, any book. Even if it wasn’t his. I like to think The Wildings gave him hope, and he was really very patient.

Dean Mahomet, shampooing surgeon, traveller & the first Indian writer to publish a full-length work in English.
Dean Mahomet, shampooing surgeon, traveller & the first Indian writer to publish a full-length work in English.

Once in a while, I’d run into Alok Rai, whom I’d discussed the book with back in 200– never mind when. I’d said exuberantly that I thought I’d finish in maybe a year, since the columns were already done. He laughed, wolfishly, and said, “You wait. Just you wait. It’ll take two years if you’re lucky.” Meanwhile, we were discovering that no one could pronounce How To Read in Indian. It was the “in Indian” bit that was tricky. Someone asked me how my reading nuns book was getting along, and that was the end of that title. My editor found himself a new cardiologist.
Then last December, a friend gave me excellent advice. I couldn’t decide whether the book with no title was a collection of vaguely literary journalism, or whether it should be a literary history of Indian authors and their relationship with English in the 18th and 19th century. Which was a) another terrible title and b) would have taken another four years to research and write. She said, “What do you think it’s about right now?”

I said, “It’s about how much fun it is reading books. And writing books. And eating books.” (That last bit is explained in the book, though I have to admit that the title’s a bit of a giveaway.)

She said, “Well then. Leave it be what it is.”

So I wrote a few more love letters to reading, trying to explain why anyone would spend most of their adult life doing this, and sent The Girl Who Ate Books off to my editors. This came as something of a shock to them, but they’re out of the emergency ward now and the doctors say they’re doing fine. As for the book, it is a hodgepodge, a mishmash, a salmagundi, and it should be out around December 2015.