Category Archives: Journal

Journal: The elsewhere rains

IMAG0115

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever become a) less absent-minded b) more practical and when I put this question out to the Universe, all I get back is a belly laugh. Unlike almost everyone who’s in Delhi this summer, I haven’t minded the heat, because I was absent-mindedly waiting for the monsoons to roll in from the Arabian Sea. That would be the Arabian Sea off Goa, where I moved for three months in 2012 and then again for ten months in 2014, not the Arabian Sea off Delhi (because there isn’t a Sea off Delhi, as we who are roasting here this week are fully aware).

I grew very attached to the monsoons, unlike real Goans, who grumble quite rightly about the humidity and the fungus that grows on everything and the constant splashing around in raincoats and rubber chappals. But it was quiet and peaceful in Calvim and Bastora during the monsoon months, and everything was stained in emerald green or malachite green. There was time to meet old friends, the restaurants that were open in off-season were placid and not crowded, and one beautiful day, my neighbour gladdened my heart by calling across, “So nice it is when it’s only us, no tourists?”

At the end of ten absurdly happy months in Bastora, we decided with some regret not to move to Goa after all for mostly practical reasons. And that word, ‘practical’, reminds me of another thing. There’s so much talk of how hard it is to make a living from fiction writing and how you should save what you get when it comes in for a rainy day, and of course I meant to put my advances and royalties from The Wildings into practical things. Like Fixed Deposits or Bonds or at the very least, Bank Accounts. On reflection, though, there’s practical spending and there’s magical spending.

The Goa years were magic. We’d visited and holidayed in the state on and off for several years, but it was only when Margaret Mascarenhas (dazzling poet, writer, curator of the Prison Art project among many other things) offered me a writing retreat in Calvim that I found out what it was like to live there. I had wonderfully kind neighbours, visiting egrets, a stunning view across the paddy fields down to the river, and remarkably friendly kitchen frogs — and in 2012, Calvim could only be approached by ferry. Crossing the river took just ten minutes, but in that crossing, you placed a wide margin between yourself and the wider world. Every time I got on that ferryboat, I felt as though I’d dropped most of my fears and anxieties about writing on one bank, and picked up a small backpack of ideas and inspiration on the other side. Most of The Hundred Names of Darkness took shape in those three months.

A year or so later, the advances for Hundred Names gave me the courage to do something as impractical as rent a house for almost a year in the village of Bastora, from Anjali Puri, who, like Margaret, turned out to be one of the world’s nicest landladies. The thing about practical spending is that it’s excellent for buying you practical stuff. But magical spending is what you want to do if you’re interested in the accumulation of magical experiences.

There are a lot of goals I’ve ticked off my bucket list over the decades, including driving on the world’s highest road, meeting baby (and grown) elephants, and watching the King of Bhutan score big in an archery tournament. Spending two monsoons in Goa is fairly high on that bucket list.

These are photos from 2012, when I reached Calvim just in time to see the monsoons come in, and spent weeks out on the river on the ferry and other boats, getting to know Goa in the rains.

Magical spending may be massively impractical, but it’s priceless. Meanwhile, I guess we’ll have to head off to the hills soon, seeing as the Arabian Sea and the monsoons are just the tiniest bit of a distance from Delhi.

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

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?”‘

©NilanjanaRoy
©NilanjanaRoy

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!)

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 Interspecies.com 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

finis

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.
bengalienglishverse
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.

Softspeakers

(Wrote Softspeakers for Antiserious, an online magazine run by Sumana Roy from Siliguri: “Antiserious is anti-spotlight: it aims to democratise serious attention from a handful of issues of ‘inter/national importance’ to everything that constitutes our dailiness, the gun and the gum.”)

cal-gramophone

Softspeakers

Those who lived in that city woke up late, not knowing why they felt so rested or what had brought them such an unusual sense of peace. Some woke to a sound they remembered from their childhoods, before the city had expanded and grown clamorous: the morning chorus of birdsong. Some woke to the sound of traffic, as they had for years, but the wheels of the trucks were hushed, and the car horns honked quietly, as though from a long distance away.

It was only in the evening that the citizens began to realise how great the change was in their circumstances. In the markets, a great lament rose from the tent-houses. Priests, politicians, devotees, celebrants, wedding guests (and happy couples, and their importantly busy families) found themselves baffled: none of the mikes or the loudspeakers in the city worked correctly any more.

The mikes appeared to be completely worthless, from the imported velvety-furred, red-lit mikes of the major TV channels to the humble, steel-grey versions available for hire for all kinds of functions, celebrations, festivals and meetings. The more loudly speakers shouted, the more raucously singers raised their voices, the less audible they became over even the most expensive fully-guaranteed Japanese and Korean mikes. Haranguers, demagogues, jaagaran and wedding singers, tambola announcers, campaigning candidates, preachers, teachers, all kinds of creatures: no matter how much they yelled, screamed, roared and threatened, the mikes were on strike.

By evening, a few clever and more patient speakers had discovered a workaround: if they lowered their voices, and spoke in reasonable tones, or even in whispers, they were audible. Well, they were audible as long as they held the interest of their audiences. A bored audience could drown out a tedious speaker without needing to raise its collective voice – just a general hum of rising chatter was enough to drown out the voices of rabble-rousers who weren’t rousing their rabble enough. As for the loudspeakers, they had turned into softspeakers. Though the mechanics and the electricians did their best, none of them could find a way to turn up the volume again.

In a few weeks, most of the citizens had adapted to their changed circumstances. Wedding songs continued to play, but instead of blaring the latest dance numbers across a sleepless neighbourhood, the playlists became more seductive, more lilting, vying to lure the attention of passers-by with melody instead of volume. Those who loved dancing found, to their astonishment, that their enjoyment was not curtailed.

The softspeakers did not amplify bands and singers in the same way as before, but they did, in a gentle rumbling way, make bass lines and beats more distinct, as though you were listening to the conversations of friendly dinosaurs. People flocked to discos to dance, but also to stand in long queues until their turn came to curl up against the softspeakers, where the low rumbles soothed them to sleep. It was like spa music, only less annoying.

Politicians and priests alike adjusted – grumbling – to the new order. The priests and the imams grumbled the most because they could no longer shout the word of God, and they had to hold more interesting prayers in order to bring in the devout. Politicians wondered in despair how they would hold rallies without yelling at the masses, but to their surprise, they discovered that far more crowds flocked to see them once they had shut up.

People liked watching politicians more than they liked listening to them, and the more cunning strategists put on beautiful light-and-soundless-firecracker shows, filling the city with their images picked out in glowing, gaudy, brilliant but mercifully silent holograms and billboards.

Festivals changed, too, but only a little; though pandals could no longer grab the attention of the city by its ears, they became more and more sprawling, attempting to cast giant shamianas across as much ground as possible. And they spent more on flowers and on food stalls than ever before, to attract followers, and so even though they still took up a great deal of space and time, no one minded because of the fragrance and the tasty food.

Gradually, the city’s natives grew to love their softspeakers and their whispering mikes. Many found that they were saying what they wanted to say far more often, now that they didn’t have to raise their voices or speak with force in order to be heard. Many found that their speech had lost none of its edge or wit, but that it seemed to be easier to listen as well as speak, in this city where everyone could be heard.

The only ones who hated the new order were the permanently angry and those who were full of hate. The haters had tried to start whispering campaigns, but these had been only moderately successful – you could only listen to those insidious and poisonous voices for about half an hour without wanting some diversion, and in the absence of blaring noise, other, quieter forms of entertainment had returned, from puppet shows to street singers to bioscopewallas.

Those who loved the softspeakers felt sorry for their angrier brethren, but provision was made for those who missed raising their voices. They could gather at spots outside the city limits and shout, “I hate softspeakers! I miss noise!” to their heart’s content. They could clang and clatter and quarrel, and make a ruckus, and create pandemonium for as long as they wanted, and many did, for hours and hours, and sometimes for days and days.

But every so often, one of them would stutter into silence in mid-rant, or would find himself turning down the volume on his loud, loud mike. And then when darkness fell and they thought no one was watching, they would go back to the city of softspeakers, missing the hush, the peace, the million murmuring conversations.