Imaginary places: The Wildings map

© NilanjanaRoy

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!)

Booklove: The Sound of Things Falling


Screenshot 2014-06-24 12.13.56

(Published in the Business Standard, June 16, 2014)

It is only once in a while that animal tragedies impinge on human consciousness: the pathos of their suffering has to be extreme in order to jump the queue of human misery.

Some weeks ago, a Copenhagen zoo culled Marius, a giraffe with the soft nose and friendly air of a plush toy, to worldwide anger and indignation. Marius was fed to other zoo animals. The only reason for executing the giraffe was that he had undesirable genes; the zoo refused to listen to pleas from others who offered Marius a home.

That demonstration of dominion – man’s absolute authority, even unto life and death, over the animals in his keeping – came in the same week that a friend sent me Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling. His story of human tragedies – disappearances, assasinations, the evocative sense of a country where violence sweeps like malarial fevers through people’s everyday lives – starts with the death of an animal.

A hippopotamus escapes from Pablo Escobar’s zoo and spends his freedom recklessly, taking what he wants from the Colombian countryside. When he is finally shot, his death comes as tragedy: he had escaped with his mate and their baby, and it is the debate over what should be done with the lost hippos that brings back the narrator’s memory of more human losses.

The Sound of Things Falling is richly moving despite the atmosphere of menace and despair that surrounds its characters, and it came as no surprise when it won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award recently.

Mr Vasquez has a voice entirely his own, not in debt to any previous Colombian writer, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “In the darkness of the bedroom I thought of that, although thinking in the darkness is not advisable: things seem bigger or more serious in the darkness, illnesses more destructive, the presence of evil closer, indifference more intense, solitude more profound.”

The Sound of Things Falling solved a problem that the Indian writer, in and out of English, grapples with: how to write without ignoring the electric thrum of violence in India, but without turning fiction into an autopsy report.

In an essay, “The shiver of the real”, Amitava Kumar sets out a manifesto for Indian writing. He writes: “I hereby call for a literature that engages with ‘the real’: not just the depiction of blood on the streets, or, for that matter, the cold air of the morgue, but also the warm, somewhat moist atmosphere of unwanted intimacy in the waiting room in which we have left behind a little bit of our past.”

Later, Mr Kumar writes – bringing to mind the way Mr Vasquez chronicles the noisy, chattering, relentless debate around the future of his fictional lost hippos – of the “news careening about on social media”, almost all of it bloodspattered, grim or grimy. “A writer’s task today, more than ever before, has become one of making sense of violence,” Mr Kumar writes, before gently pointing out that a writer’s task is also to see that what is around him or her is real and worth examining.

You don’t read novels as prescriptions, and I read The Sound of Things Falling for the most basic of reasons: because I liked Mr Vasquez’s storytelling, and I liked the sound of his sentences. But some weeks after events in India had swept Colombia from my mind, Mr Vasquez’s words kept coming back to me. He deals squarely with the missing parts of his country’s history, casually telling all the stories that many in Colombia today insist are unimportant or not useful; he remembers everything that has disappeared.

Julio Cortazar – another writer who, like Mr Vasquez, saw his own country more clearly when he was some distance away and did not have to breathe the air of violence and intrigue – divided the reception to his work into two segments. One kind of reader loved literature and books, and shared his need to struggle. The other kind did not like Cortazar’s writing. “The bourgeois readers in Latin America who are indifferent to politics, or those who align themselves with the right wing, well, they don’t worry about the problems that worry me – the problems of exploitation, of oppression, and so on. Those people regret that my stories often take a political turn,” Cortazar said.

He could have been speaking of Indian readers in this time. The demand made of writers here is that either they become reporters of the violence around them, recording each massacre like history’s clerks, or they produce pleasing books that allow people to stay in their comfort zones.

Some weeks after I finished The Sound of Things Falling, I looked for interviews by Mr Vasquez. In one, he speaks of following “the unofficial Latin American tradition, which said that you had to leave your country in order to be a writer”. The atmosphere in Colombia – violence, fear, corruption – kicked him out, but then he returned to Bogota, where he lives now. When I think of the generation of Indians in their twenties, many of whom hope to be writers, I think of his words: “I’ve always believed,” he says to The Huffington Post, “that one of the things that literature can do is open your eyes when most people want to close them.”

The Hundred Names of Darkness

The cat and the egrets: illustration ©Prabha Mallya and AlephBookCompany.
Copyright: Prabha Mallya/ Aleph Book Company

The Hundred Names of Darkness is the sequel to The Wildings, and the second book in the Dilli billi trilogy. The Wildings won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award in 2013. Previous winners include:

Naresh Fernandes, Taj Mahal Foxtrot (2012)

Jamil Ahmad, The Wandering Falcon (2011)

Samanth Subramanian, Following Fish (2010)

Mridula Koshy, If It Is Sweet (2009)

Mohammed Hanif, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008)

(Author’s note: It should be clear that the Shakti Bhatt is heavily biased towards four-footed the most animal-friendly literary prize of all time; it’s been awarded to fish, falcons, foxes and now a bunch of wildings.)

From The Shakti Bhatt First Book Award website:

“The judges read 74 books from across India before making their decision. They were unanimous in their verdict, jury member Niven Govinden saying, “We all felt that this was an incredibly strong shortlist in an incredibly strong publishing year. The confidence and ambition of each of these first books was wonderful: stories and voices to lose yourself in, to learn from, to feel.”

Jury member Meena Kandasamy added: “If the purpose of awarding a debut novel is, among other things, for pushing the boundaries of what a novel can do, then The Wildings deserves great applause from the Big Feet. Somewhere along the way, we have appropriated and internalised the idea that feelings/emotions/drama belong to the realm of human beings, and The Wildings, by throwing light on a world that we do not bother visiting even in our thoughts, alerts us to existences that are not acknowledged merely because they speak a language that we do not comprehend, because they do not alter our convenient rigmaroles of everyday life.

“I did not read The Wildings until the very, very end. I told myself a hundred times—oh no, not a cat book, not a book that could carry me away with Prabha Mallya’s illustrations of cute cats, what an unkind punishment to a professed dog lover—and when I did get myself into reading it, I felt it was brilliant. It banished my skepticism. Madly paraphrasing Anne Sexton—if falling is love is because your belief undoes your disbelief—then, The Wildings had that kind of effect. I resisted reading it, and when I ventured into it, I found it beautiful, enchanting, and persuasive enough to lure me into a very private universe.”

14_orientationRead an excerpt:

“But how do you make friends with the night?” said Mara miserably. The damp had made her whiskers feel soggy, and her fur felt as though it would never know what it was to be warm again.

Beraal purred at her kitten, who splayed out his paws at the sound of her voice and purred back sleepily. Ruff scrambled over Mara’s neck, walked across her protesting head, balanced on one of her ears and successfully made the leap across to land on his mother’s belly. He bounced once, and snuggled into her fur.

“By learning its names,” she said.


The reviews for The Hundred Names of Darkness have welcomed the cats back. A few selections:

The Hundred Names of Darkness similarly suspends the enthralled reader between two worlds. By the time you finish the book, the boundaries between these worlds seem porous like never before. It is an astounding achievement — that rare book which marries high art with what is already becoming a feverish, cult-like following.

(The Sunday Guardian:

“It is not an enchanted landscape that Roy offers, but a familiar one, viewed through the lens of an ancient tribe, keen-eyed, sure-footed, immaculately aligned between autonomy and interdependence, territoriality and mutuality. It is a wild world but not a lawless one. On this level, it is a morality tale. It is the dharma of cats to make their peace with the night, the dharma of birds to fly, the dharma of all animals to know their place in the ecosystem. Humans are the ones whose dharma is unfathomable…. The local turns legendary, Dilli becomes Duniya, and the wilderness swivels suddenly into the world.”

Arundhati Subramaniam, The Hindustan Times:

The most celebrated cats in India live in Delhi. Don’t mistake, they are not the black cats who guard India’s political elite. The days of black cats are any way numbered since Aam Aadmi Party has formed the government in Delhi and its leader Arvind Kejriwal has promised to end the VIP culture. If the VIP culture ends, the black cats have to look for someplace else.

Or they can send an SMS through their whiskers to the most celebrated cats, the Nizamuddin cats, seeking support. They are the ones with more than nine lives and colourful tails.

The Times of India blog:

With healthy characterization and occasional touches of seriousness, this novel is an eye-opener to the big feet through the whiskers and the colorful tails of our friendly cats.

The brilliance of her writing brings the ignored to the limelight. A light-hearted yet, a thought provoking novel for the cats are not just for kids, they have a lot more to say.

Between The Lines (blog):

The Hundred Names of Darkness is a delightful menagerie, with other animals who are as cute, cuckoo and charismatic as Mara and the cats. Adding their barks and squawks are, among others, Doginder Singh, an abandoned Alsatian who has dubbed himself Ferocious Attack Dog (with a tail on the fluffy side, if you please); Thomas Mor, whose grand peacock family has been patrolling Delhi Golf Course for generations; the cheels Tooth and Hatch, who is Tooth’s son and prefers waddling on the ground to flying. We’ve also got a soft spot for the Viceroys, a bunch of crazy goats who are mentioned too briefly for our satisfaction.

Read more at:

There is no doubt Roy really feels for her characters and even a dog-person might be willing to gives cats a chance after reading this book! Her affection for and enjoyment of cats is transmitted lyrically and effortlessly and this is the perfect book to curl up with (perhaps with a cat in your lap!) on a foggy winter morning.

The New Indian Express:

The curiosity about cats aroused with Roy’s first book, has been sustained in this sequel too. When Mara gets a “sending” from her young one, Monsoon, telling her where she is, one wonders if Monsoon’s story will be as engrossing as Mara’s. Only time will tell.

The Tribune:


Reviews from foreign editions of The Wildings


I Gatti Di Nizamuddin (Italian edition, published by Neri Pozza)

Peraltro nello stile denso della Roy il ritmo è proprio quello ideale per apprendere perché arriva un poco alla volta, sbuca fuori dalle pieghe, fa le fusa e si manifesta con miagolii inequivocabili.

Un bel libro. Scoprirete quante domande possono farsi i gatti e, soprattutto, quante risposte sanno darsi. Saggezza e dolcezza.

Queste sono solo alcune delle belle frasi che ho trovato nel libro. Tutta la storia mi è piaciuta molto e se amate i gatti ve lo consiglio caldamente, magari per festeggiare con loro. Una lettura piacevole e rilassante che in molti punti fa emozionare davvero molto.

Quindi, visto che oggi è la Giornata Mondiale del Gatto, un saluto speciale a tutti i felini e ai loro amici e, con giuramento gattesco, vi consiglio “felinamente” questa lettura!:)

Si potrebbe pensare che l’autrice abbia deciso di guardare il mondo attraverso gli occhi lucenti dei felini per promuovere fermamente il diritto alla libertà; il gatto, infatti, non concede facilmente il suo sguardo e, sebbene possa acconsentire di diventare nostro amico, mai accetterà di essere nostro schiavo. «Se si potesse incrociare un uomo con un gatto», diceva Mark Twain, «l’essere umano ne risulterebbe migliorato, ma il gatto peggiorato».
Il gatto, con o senza stivali, è stato spesso protagonista, sin dai tempi più antichi, di storie e favole: è astuto, veloce nell’azione, capace di sfruttare ogni situazione per portare a buon fine il proprio obiettivo, senza mai venire a patti troppo stretti con gli umani e senza mai perdere la propria identità felina.

Los Indomitos (the Spanish edition, Plataforma)

Los indómitos es otra sorpresa más para mis sentidos. Es original, imaginativo, plasma los animales salvajes y reales, con necesidades y objetivos, con maldad y bondad, pero también es una exquisita plasmación del mundo animal, de la cultura india y, en esencia, de la vida felina. Si adoráis los felinos, os hará estremecer, ¿pero sino? pues también.

El libro es precioso y ya no solo por la historia, sino por las bellísimas ilustraciones que acompañan al texto. En ellas podemos reconocer a nuestros protagonistas y algunas escenas que acontecen a lo largo de la narración.

Es un libro que os recomendaría, tanto si sois amantes de los gatos como si no, porque su historia está muy bien elaborada y resulta una lectura diferente e interesante.

Der Clan Der Wildkatzen (Random House, the German edition)

Als ich das Buch gesehen hatte, habe ich zuerst gedacht “Och nööööö – versucht da jemand etwa auf der Warrior-Cats-Schiene mitzufahren????”
Denn Katzen und Clans…… es klang so sehr nach meinen (immer wieder gern gelesenen) Warrior Cats……… ich war also sehr skeptisch.

Doch ich kann nur sagen: da lag ich ABSOLUT falsch. Denn “Der Clan der Wildkatzen” ist eine völlig eigene Geschichte – und zwar eine wirklich toll erzählte.
Ich fand die Welt der “Wildkatzen” sehr “lebendig” geschildert und sehr liebevoll detailliert noch dazu.
Die Figuren haben “Herz und Seele” und man kann sie richtig vor sich sehen.
Die kleine Katze Mara zum Beispiel wird so liebevoll detailliert und lebendig beschrieben, das man regelrecht das Gehüpfe und Gehopse des Katzenbabies vor sich sieht.

Die Autorin zeichnet uns mit diesem Buch ein spannendes Katzenabenteuer mit einer lockeren Rangstruktur, einem Grundverständnis um Gebiete und Regeln unter den Katzen und den Irrwegen der Katzenkultur. Auch lernen wir, das alle Tiere sich untereinander verständigen können und auf eine Grundsprache aufbauen. Das Leben wird von Regeln und Pflichten bestimmt und Harmonisiert somit. Eine Störung in diesem Gefüge kann nicht geduldet werden. Ein Buch das ich persönlich nicht aus der Hand legen konnte und durch seine Einfachheit überzeugt.

Speaking Volumes: Stoner and the tyranny of now


 (Published in the Business Standard, January 7, 2013)

Towards the end of 2013, I found an old interview with Mahmood Farooqui, the historian and story-teller. Many things that year had reminded me of his words: “We’re living with a loss of our sense of history… We live in a contemporary present where what happened two years ago is retro, so who are the takers for history?”

2013 had brought many good books with it, 2014 promised more, and yet there is such a danger to reading only in the present. Television will be 100 years old in the 2020s; nostalgia can take TV buffs back only as far as a century. Film goes back a little further, to the 1890s for the earliest moving pictures: you can travel a century and then a bit.

Books have a longer lineage. The Epic of Gilgamesh can be dated back to 2000 BC or before; the Rigveda is composed around 1700 BC or so; the Egyptian Book of the Dead goes back to roughly 1550 BC. If you choose to watch only contemporary films, you risk missing a mere hundred years or so. Read only books published in this year or in the last few years, and you turn your back on centuries of human story-telling. It is a chastening thought.

The curse of living in the permanent present extends to much shorter spans of time than complete centuries. Shorten the span to just one language—English—and just a few decades, and it is hard to see why anyone would limit their reading to only the latest, shiniest books. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines came out in 1988; Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in 1998. Both explored “history-shaped holes in the universe”. Arundhati’s Love Laws, defining who was allowed to love whom, are always relevant in a time of honour killings, the casual acceptance of dowry deaths and Dalit rapes conducted to teach the community a lesson. Ghosh’s Shadow Lines signalled his determination to explore the missing or forgotten slivers of history, and it contains one of the most accurate snapshots of a city caught in the grip of a riot ever written.


Running through the year was also the memory of Ruchir Joshi’s exuberantly inventive 2001 novel, The Last Jet Engine Laugh. In an interview, Ruchir talked of the legacies left behind by Subhash Chandra Bose and Gandhi, arguing that Bose was at the other end of the spectrum from Gandhi’s non-violence. “If you look at independent India, there’s a fetishism of militancy and nationalism. In the end, Bose won: Nehru lost, Gandhi lost,” Ruchir had said. In these aggressive, abusive political times, it is hard to ignore the Indian adoration of fascists and strong men, the order they enforce with obedient mobs at their command. We don’t mind the boot in the face, so long as it’s not grinding down on our jawbones.

There are so many useful classics from Indian English fiction. Rummaging among just the best-known: in Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, embedded games of power, surveillance and the smashing of the idea of private histories occupies both the upholders of the law and the underworld, until it’s hard to tell one from another. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy chronicles the decline of a certain kind of instinctive Indian secularism, the disappearance of the names of Muslim or non-Hindu judges from the annals of the courts, for instance, and remains a useful reckoner of the hierarchies of prejudice on grounds of religion, class, language, among Indians.

‘Schoolgirls’, © Manjula Padmanabhan

Manjula Padmanabhan’s Getting There (2000) and Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables (1990) are being rediscovered by a generation of women who find personal freedom as slippery a beast as Manjula’s protagonist did in the 1970s, and who find equality as elusive as it was for Namjoshi’s readers in 1990. I could go on listing books, but it’s enough to say that reading these again in 2013 gave me a way to better understand what was happening all through the year of protests, riots and seething anger.


Postscript: This is a fairy tale, except that it is true. In 1965, John Williams published Stoner, a moving novel about an obscure protagonist; the novel died long before its author did. Williams died in 1994, little known. He’d been awarded for one of his four novels (Augustus, not Stoner) and seen his best work disappear into the special hell of indifference. “Why isn’t this book famous?” CP Snow wrote plaintively when Stoner came out in England in the 1970s. It was loved by its readers; and it was forgotten in the wave of bestsellers. It seemed that each decade, another reader would discover Stoner and try to convince everyone he or she knew to read the book; and few did.


Then the NYRB reprinted Stoner in 2006, and what has happened since is phenomenal. Among the writers who love Stoner and will metaphorically grab you by your collar to tell you to read it are Ruth Rendell and Julian Barnes. Everyone who reads Stoner, which is only after all about an obscure professor negotiating the multiple disappointments of a once-promising life, gets personal about it, as though it was our discovery rather than the NYRB’s or rather than any reviewer’s find.

There was a curious link between John Williams and India, one that he rarely talked about or wrote about in his lifetime: he had spent two-and-a-half years flying the Hump, a radio dispatcher on planes that carried supplies to the troops in Burma. The route over the Hump was legendary for its difficulty; Williams, a radio expert, directed an air-raid warning “net” of ground observers linked by telephone and radio. He crashed once; he must have had other stories, but he didn’t share those.

Instead, he placed the biggest and most significant battles in the mind and heart of a shuffling academic who did no more than try to teach indifferent students the love of reading, and language, and the crackle of experience that books promise. I read Stoner over and over last year. The best novel of the 2000s shad been written in 1965, just a small reminder of the rewards of reading out of time.

The Hundred Names of Darkness



“The night hides more than predators until we know it so well that we can speak its many names without fear; and yet, we live most keenly under the wing of darkness.” ~ Kirri

The Hundred Names of Darkness, Aleph Book Company

“But how do you make friends with the night?”

From the branches of a distant tree, a nightjar called: “Did you see it? Did you see it?” The bird’s call was harsh, splitting the night, and two others joined in, from further away: “The dark is deep! The dark is deep!” “Did you see it? Did you see it?” The dark is deep! The dark is deep!”

Mara felt the fur on her paws prickle, and slowly, as sleep left her and her eyes became more accustomed to the low lighting, she became more aware of the night around them. There was scant shelter for Beraal and her kittens: a patch of tarpaulin hid them from the prying eyes of the Bigfeet, but the sheet of tin that covered part of their home was rusted and pitted with holes. The dark poured in through the holes, and came stealing in past the edge of the makeshift roof.


“Mara?” said Beraal’s calm voice. “Is it the darkness that troubles you, Mara? That must be new and strange for you, to have no roofs between you and the night?”

She felt the sender’s flanks relax, felt the little cat’s breathing start to slow down and come back to normal.

“Yes,” said Mara. Her green eyes were fixed on the blackness of the night, and her mew was as small as Ruff’s might have been. “My whiskers reach up and there’s nothing between them and the clouds; it feels as though the night rushes down them and seeps into my fur. Kirri said that the night contains more than predators; she says that we live most keenly in the dark.”

“That is true,” said Beraal. “The day is mostly for Bigfeet, but the night belongs to us.”

Mara leaned against her teacher, feeling Beraal’s thin fur rise up and down. Ruff mewed in his sleep and turned, his paws cycling at some dream.

“But how do you make friends with the night?” said Mara miserably. The damp had made her whiskers feel soggy, and her fur felt as though it would never know what it was to be warm again.

Beraal purred at her kitten, who splayed out his paws at the sound of her voice and purred back sleepily. Ruff scrambled over Mara’s neck, walked across her protesting head, balanced on one of her ears and successfully made the leap across to land on his mother’s belly. He bounced once, and snuggled into her fur.

“By learning its names,” she said.

She caught the question on Mara’s whiskers. Ruff squeaked.

“He likes stories,” Beraal explained.

Mara’s tail flicked in interest. “So do I,” she said hopefully.

“This one,” said Beraal, “has a long history. It was told to me by Miao, and Miao said it was told to her by Tigris—” Mara raised her whiskers at the mention of the name of Nizamuddin’s last Sender—“and Tigris said it had been passed down to her by other Senders.”

Ruff kneaded his small paws against Beraal’s belly, his skinny belly rising and falling against her black-and-white fur. Beraal curled around Mara, and using her whiskers as much as her voice, she began her tale.

From The Hundred Names of Darkness; illustration © Prabha Mallya/ Aleph Book Company


Once, there lived a cat who liked to follow her whiskers: when they twitched at the breeze, when the scent of something new and strange murmured to them from the back of the east wind, her paws would twitch too, and she would go where her whiskers and paws carried her.

When the spring winds spoke to her of fish with silver mouths and fat juicy bellies to be found in the frog-speckled silt of the mangrove forests, her paws took her to a river boat, a light, lean craft, whose planks she warmed for the length of the summer.

When the summer sun of the river deltas walked its fingers through her fur, whispering to her of the rains that drummed on the red tile roofs of Goa, the plump crabs and frogs that swelled the paddy fields with their croaking, the cat listened to the sun’s whispers. Soon, she was stowed safely in the back of a truck, perched high on its bales, sleeping snugly in the thick knotted coils of the ropes that trussed its cargo, sharing the truck drivers’ milk and meat until they had reached the other coast, where the skies roared and the dark clouds lay their full bellies pressed against the green land.

When the monsoon rains slowed, the last of the rain and the wind caressed her ears, and she heard about the friendly house-stoves in the mountains, where there was always room for another cat or three. And her paws twitched and stirred, and though the owner of the shack by the beach would have gladly fed her fish curry and rice for many seasons more, she thanked him, purring as she rubbed her head along his sturdy legs. She found a berth in a train whose wheels clacked along, singing of the high hills and the birds soaring in those great empty skies. The bearers on the train made her a pillow from some old torn sheets, and let her curl up to warm her belly on the flasks of tea when they reached the colder slopes of the hills.

Her whiskers rested for many moons, and she found a village nestled in the high ranges, where there was always place for her and the friends she made around the curve of the potbellied clay stoves. And so it went for many years; the cat’s whiskers would twitch after the turning of the seasons, and the winds would rustle the names of far-away places until it had smoothed them into her fur, and her paws would uncurl and take her where she needed to go.

Sometimes, the tortoiseshell—for she was a torty, Mara, they have twice as much curiosity in their paws as the rest of us—thought she had come home. She settled for a long space in a fishing village that nestled like a sleeping kitten alongside the broad curved back of the ocean, and learned to climb coconut trees and hunt the slippery fish who darted in and out of the stalks of the emerald green rice paddy fields. But then the wind changed, and curiosity set her moving again. In a large city, she found a place near the racecourse, loving the comfortable smells and warmth of the stables, making friends with the fastest horses, hunting the mice and rats who were lured there by the perfume from the straw, the carrots, the sweat of the thoroughbreds themselves. But the wind changed again, and she moved on, and so it went for many years.

The cat and the egrets: illustration ©Prabha Mallya and AlephBookCompany.
The cat and the egrets: illustration ©Prabha Mallya and AlephBookCompany.

One spring, when the winds came dancing joyously across the muddy banks of the river where she lived as a ghat cat, she padded out to greet them, as she always did. But she hobbled a fraction, and perhaps her fur seemed a little thinner than usual, and it is possible that her whiskers had the smallest of droops to them.

The east wind, scented with mogra flowers, murmured of other villages and towns on the banks of rivers she had not splashed her paws in yet; the west wind, heavy with mango blossom, brought her news of ships that travelled up and down the coastline. But though the tortoiseshell thanked the east wind and the west wind, she padded quietly back to her home, which was an upturned, abandoned boat that kept her snug on the riverbanks. She slept that night, and her paws did not twitch, nor did her whiskers point the direction she should take.

The north wind came swooping down the next day, carrying the last of the chill from the distant mountains in its hands, and it spoke to the cat of roaming with flocks of bharal, in places where only the marmots popped their heads out to gaze at strangers in wonder. The cat thanked the north wind, and padded back to her boat.

The south wind stirred her fur the next day with stories of golden sands, tipped with black rocks, where the fishermen’s nets were anchored by sleeping cats, their stomachs rounded with the catch of the day. And the cat put her whiskers up, a little sadly, and she thanked the south wind, but she went back to her boat.

When the white egrets who had become her friends came curving out of the skies that evening, one cried to the tortoiseshell: “Where are you off to this year? Which of the great winds will you follow these next few moons? Will you be back?”

“I don’t know,” said the cat slowly. “The winds spoke of many beautiful places, but my whiskers have not stirred, nor do my paws twitch.”

The egrets looked at each other, and they flapped their beautiful shell-like wings, landing on the edge of the cat’s boat. Their thin long legs held them easily in the river mud, so that they walked with grace through its thick ooze, unlike the other birds.

“It is the sickness,” one said to the other.

“What sickness?” said the tortoiseshell.

“It happens to some of us birds, after too many migrations,” said the egrets. “Our hearts do not soar any more as the weather changes, and when the chill sets in, we do not want to ride the high winds, to set sail for the lands across the oceans and the rivers, because the wings in our heart will not beat as fast at the thought of the journey as they once did.”

The cat’s whiskers rose in recognition. “Yes,” she said, “yes, that is it. My tail does not quiver in excitement; the fur on my neck does not rise in hopeful anticipation any more. I am tired; perhaps I am old.”

“Oh no,” they said, “you are not yet so old, your eyes are not rheumy, your joints are not yet stiff and aching. All you need is another kind of journey.”

“Another kind of journey?” said the tortoiseshell in wonderment, her nose quickening. “But my paws can only go left or right, up or down; what other kind of journey is there?”

The egrets rose into the skies again. “We will ask the winds for you,” they said. And they flapped their wings, and like unfurled sails, they skimmed high above the river, calling out to the four winds.

She watched the two egrets as they rose higher and higher, until they flew so high that there was nothing between them and the sun. They made dazzling white shapes against the gentle azure of the sky, and then the sun’s rays shone even brighter, and the egrets in all their brightness seemed to shimmer and vanish into the sun.

For two nights, there was no word from the egrets, and though the tortoiseshell heard the soft songs of the other river birds, the calls of the ferrymen bringing their passengers to and fro across the river’s broad back, she did not hear their high, wild cries.

On the evening of the third day, the egrets came home. They flew slowly, but they flew straight, and gradually, their beautiful shapes emerged from the deep blue. Soon they were flying so close overhead that the tortoiseshell could see their white, dappled feathers, their thin black legs glistening in the evening light, the way slender black driftwood branches gleamed in the river water.

“It was a long journey,” said the egrets, dropping down to rest on the welcoming curve of the boat. “The winds had travelled further, and we had such a time of it, trying to catch the north wind.”

The tortoiseshell brought out some fish for them, and the egrets fed gratefully, cracking the bones but leaving the tails for her out of politeness. By the time they were done eating and preening their feathers, the sun was almost setting, its fading reflection casting intricate nets of flaming oranges and reds across the river. The familiar sticky scents of marsh and mud, wood and rotting leaves and water, wrapped its comforting hands around the three friends.

The cat settled, stretching her bones, wrapping her tail around her paws.

“We spoke to all the winds,” said the egrets, “and this is what they said. The south wind whispered that you might want to follow your nose to land’s end and settle by the last black rock, letting the sea lap your worries away. The east wind lifted us and spun us around, and she said that the rabbit in the moon would show you where to go, if only you would follow the moonbeams where they fell. The west wind grew slow and still, and said that he didn’t know where you were going, but that you should follow the rain and the rainbows back home. And—oh, the north wind! She had rushed off, and what a trail she left behind her! The tempests! The gales!”

One of the egrets raised his wings involuntarily, remembering what it had taken to sail those choppy high seas, to ride out the storms.

“But we found her, resting in between a cyclone and a bitter freezing spell, caught in the cleft between two of the low hills. And when she heard what we had to say, she stopped blustering and blowing; there was a lull, a quietness. She let out her breath, and she said, ‘Tell your friend that she must go in search of the cat who lives on the other side of the night.’”

The egrets stopped, shuffling uncomfortably on their twig-like legs.

“We are sorry,” they said. “She said no more than that. We asked, but where must she start? And we asked, how will she recognise the cat? And we even asked, but how do you cross to the other side of the night? But though she sent us back on a floating bed of clouds, minding that we were safe from the lightning and the thunderstorms, she said no more—but where are you going?”

The tortoiseshell’s tail was raised in glad enquiry, and her whiskers were held high as she sniffed at the twilight sky.

“Thank you, my friends!” she cried. “There is such a tingling in my whiskers, it’s as though the skies themselves are tugging on the line! And my paws are itching, and dancing, and eager to be off! Wait, here is something for you—the fish I had caught and cached, thinking we would share it in the days to come. Please take it, with my gratitude. Now I must go.”

And, brushing her head tentatively against each egret’s slender neck—for they were birds, after all, and she a cat, and it was wise to remember that, no matter how many moons they had been friends—the tortoiseshell hurried away. Her eyes had lost their tired gleam. Her paws had the spring of a young kitten’s bounce and the eagerness of a young cat’s first explorations. She did not know, any more than the egrets did, what the north wind had meant, but her whiskers called to her urgently to come along, and she followed.

Booklove: Munro’s Ordinary People



(Published in the Business Standard, Tuesday, October 15, 2013)

You don’t have to be a woman to love Alice Munro’s writing, but it helps not to be an obnoxious, pompous, and usually male, twit. Exhibit A: Bret Easton Ellis, who grumbled that Munro was “always an over-rated” writer and that her Nobel literature win proved that the Prize was a joke.


Bret Easton Ellis is hard to take seriously. He’s more than a little faded at the edges, remembered chiefly for a novel where his women characters were either senile or earmarked for corpsehood. Even his complaint lacked originality: Munro, unassailable on grounds of technique, has dealt with accusations that her writing is too domestic, too narrow, too ordinary, for years.  But if you need one reason to read Munro, or to return to her short-story collections, start with ordinariness.


“There should be a soundtrack for our lives,” an old Internet slogan goes. Without the badabooms and the brass bands, the violins and the tarshenais in the background, the Timeline Events on Facebook and the Instagram photos, how else will we know what’s important?


Some years ago, Munro spoke about the challenge of investigating the apparently mundane, of looking beneath and beyond what seems to be familiar. And she said, of her characters, “Well, it’s important that they’re ordinary.”


I was reading The Progress of Love at the time, trying to make some sense not of stories but of the complex, tangled lives of ordinary people. People lived in messy first drafts or in blurred overlapping versions, nothing like the neat epiphanies or cleanly told tragedies that you found in even the best of books. Fiction, even apparently messy novels, had all the sutures in, the hems turned.


Munro’s characters, orbiting that apparently narrow slice of territory in Canada, understood the secret messiness of the world. Munro’s characters, like the couple negotiating the spaces between Azheimer’s and love in The Bear Came Over The Mountain, stay away from easy epiphanies. As Trudy thinks in A Circle of Prayer: “What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life—what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces. Is that all?”


A certain kind of reader doesn’t understand what they think of as domestic fiction or women’s writing—Richard Dawkins and VS Naipaul are cases in point. Dawkins dismissed all of Jane Austen because he couldn’t get excited about who was going to marry whom, and how rich they were. He missed the desperate life-and-death grimness of marriage in Austen’s time, when it determined all of a woman’s happiness, most of her wealth, all of her free time.


Naipaul, who felt that all women writers were unequal to him because of their “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” was merely being annoying as usual. But too many writers see the domestic world as a narrow, confined space, forgetting that this where you have the most primal of events, from love (licit and illicit) to births and deaths, to struggles for position, place and power. Such blindness ignores the many male writers from Chekhov to Cheever to Philip Roth and Marcel Proust who’re obsessed with families, marriages, the social world, the rich and endlessly mined territory of domesticity


“This does puzzle me a bit, though,” said Munro in the NYT podcast on the subject of ordinary people. “I know lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, and none of them seem ordinary to me. They are capable of quite unexpected things, sometimes.”


There are many other reasons to read Munro, not least because she freed herself from the tyranny of the novel, choosing the dense, compact, juicy form of the short story instead. There’s also the reasons of craft, the fact that she helps you make some sense of the muddle that is humanity. But I read her for an elemental reason: my friends and the people I meet don’t seem ordinary to me, either. Deep down inside, none of us believes that we’re ordinary, and Munro confirms that we might be right.



Oscar Hijuelos, 1951-2013: Hijuelos juddered through his thirties as a writer. The IRS was after Hijuelos to pay back taxes, and he couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in his world: “Who, after all, published Latinos?” He tried to write a “literary” novel instead, going out of the way not to write about his Cuban-ness. “My prose took on a delicacy and fineness of language…”


It was about a group of terminally ill children temporarily saved by magic, and when his agent confirmed that it was terrible, Hijuelos felt tremendous relief: he had “suspected it was a piece of treacle”.  He went back to a book he’d been writing, about two brothers who were musicians. “Somehow, so many little bits I’d written, with so casual a freedom—and therefore brimming happily with tons of life—fit together so perfectly that, at a certain moment, I understood how jazz musicians feel when all their crazy-shit riffing falls into place, to make something you’ve never heard before.”


Years later, when he won the Pulizter for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Gabriel Garcia Marquez said to him, “That’s a book I wish I had written.”


Hijuelos, RIP. As you said to Garcia Marquez, “God bless you, maestro.”

Booklove: The Booker’s New Imperium

(Published in the Business Standard, September 24, 2013)


It was in 1899 that Rudyard Kipling beseeched the US to “take up the White Man’s burden”, in an infamous poem. Kipling was thinking of conquering “new-caught, sullen peoples”, not extending the dominion of the United States across the Man Booker Prize when he suggested that America might want to “send forth the best ye breed”.

And yet his lines hold true for a swiftly changing Prize. “Have done with childish days,” he wrote, urging those imperialists across the ocean to eschew “the lightly proffered laurel/ the easy, ungrudged praise”.

The change in the rules of the Man Booker, announced this week, makes all English-language writers eligible for the influential prize, rather than restricting entry only to writers from Britain, Ireland and the countries of the Commonwealth. Most commentators assume that this will mean a new age of American domination. Here’s a cheat sheet to the many debates over the rule changes.

Does this change the Man Booker?

Yes, drastically; though the Prize’s identity has evolved over the decades. It was a chiefly British prize through the 1970s, with a smattering of Commonwealth authors, and became far more international in the 1980s. By the 2000s, the Booker had become the most influential prize for almost all writers in English. Since it was defined by the geographical spread of the former British Empire, it covered most of the countries where English was spoken—except for America.

So if the Booker’s opening up to America, the Pulitzer…?

Has no such plans and nor does the NBA. There’s no reciprocity, but then the Americans didn’t, technically, conquer other countries or establish a Commonwealth. For British and Commonwealth authors, this means that they have less chance of being shortlisted for the Booker, but they don’t have the trade-off of, say, being shortlisted for the Pulitzer.

This is UNFAIR!

Actually, no. The intellectual justification for a Commonwealth prize is shaky, given that the sun set over the Empire a while back. British writers in this decade have access to far more prizes than before, from the IMPAC (compiled by librarians, includes translations), to the Guardian First Book Award, the Orange Prize (for women writers, nationality blind) and the new Folio Prize (also open to writers in English from all countries). The Commonwealth Prize recently put an end to its flagship book prize, keeping only the short story prize alive, so yes, it’s a bad year for Commonwealth writers.

What happens to Indian/ subcontinental/ African/ other Commonwealth writers in English?

Good question. But except for publishers and a few dedicated, slightly musty readers, Indians care about the Booker Prize the way we care about Miss World, or Miss Universe or Miss Tourism International. We like winning stuff, and we like knowing that every so often, a Salman Rushdie or a Kiran Desai or an Aravind Adiga will bring the prize back home. We wouldn’t care if it wasn’t all about us.

With heightened competition for those six places on the Booker shortlist, it’s not just Australian, or Indian, or Commonwealth writers who will lose out—it’s any first-time or fledgling writer. You’ll see a lot less in the way of talented debutants or unknown authors, and probably more epic shortlists featuring established authors. It’ll be that much harder for everyone.

But this is a tragedy!

Only as much as it is for Indian writers who don’t write in English and haven’t been available in the global marketplace. Perhaps writers from the former colonies have to hope that their own countries develop equally influential prizes. It took the Booker ten years to establish its name, which it did chiefly by producing shortlists that appealed to a wide cross-section of readers. We haven’t had an equally long-playing Asian or African prize yet; though it should be noted that both the Cervantes for Spanish writers and the Goncourt for French writers are formidably influential.

Also, the most interesting prize shortlists in recent years have come from prizes, like the IMPAC and the Orange, that are nationality-blind; or the ones, like the Aventis prize for science writing or the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, that focus on genre rather than territory.

What exactly do the rules say?

What might have the biggest effect on their shortlists is the new Booker’s method of handicapping publishers. It’s complicated, but publishers whose authors have been shortlisted for a Booker in the last five years can send in more nominations than those who haven’t. This could cause major skews, especially for large trade publishers who have many established authors on their lists. As with horse races, calculating odds just got a lot more complicated.

Forget the Americans. What does this mean for us?

Indian writers will have to compete more fiercely for a place on the shortlist, just like everyone else. But a) most of India’s bestselling authors aren’t seen as “literary” enough for the Booker, and they’re doing just fine without it and b) we have an embarassment of new and old prizes for Indian writers in English at this point.

More facetiously, don’t forget the rapidly expanding Indian NRI writer contingent. They could, like Miss America, infiltrate this Brit-American conspiracy from within.

The Wildings

“I came to care for these wildings more than I have cared in a very long time for people in a novel.” ~ Pradeep Sebastian, in The Hindu

Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize (2013), the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award (2013)
and the Tata First Book Literary Award (2012)

“You’re a Sender,” she remembered her mother telling her, the day she had opened her eyes for the first time. Mara had been curled up, a tiny comma against her mother’s warm flank, listening to the giant purr of traffic on the bridge over the canal. Her mother’s blue eyes had been wary, almost sad as the cat washed her tiny kitten’s whiskers, making them tingle.

“What is a Sender?” Mara had asked. And her mother had answered slowly: “Senders are very unusual, Mara, there’s never more than one in a clan and most of the Delhi clans haven’t seen a Sender in more than three generations. Being a Sender means you can travel without using your paws–your whiskers will take you everywhere. And you can see and hear more than most cats can.”

About The Wildings:

In the labyrinthine alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighbourhood in Delhi, lives a small band of cats. Miao, the clan elder, a wise, grave Siamese; Katar, loved by his followers and feared by his enemies; Hulo, the great warrior tom; Beraal, the beautiful queen, swift and deadly when challenged; Southpaw, the kitten whose curiosity can always be counted on to get him into trouble… Unfettered and wild, these and the other members of the tribe, fear no one, go where they will, and do as they please. Until, one day, a terrified orange-coloured kitten with monsoon green eyes and remarkable powers, lands in their midst—the first in a series of extraordinary events that threatens to annihilate them and everything they hold dear.

Read An Excerpt:

“The tomcat watched the pair as they left, the old queen and the young half-grown kitten, their silhouettes fading away into the darkness. He felt a small pang as he remembered his first hunt, and he hoped Miao would be kind to Southpaw.

The night was humid, the air scented with raat ki rani and mogra blossoms. There was a half moon, partly obscured by clouds. As they slipped away, Southpaw felt his fur tremble with excitement. “Miao, where are we-?”

The older cat turned sinuously and cuffed him, her claws out just enough to leave a thin red line on his neck. “The first rule,” she said. “No mewing. No whisker linking unless I say so, because your prey is small enough to pick it up. And smart enough to make a run for it.” She cuffed him again, this time slamming his head to the right and holding it down so that he could see a frightened gray musk shrew scutter away, into the safety of the lantana bushes.”


Reviews, in Junglee (or, what The Bigfeet said about the cats):

“You’ll wish you had whiskers and could mew.” ~ Deepanjana Pal, in DNA

“By the book’s end I wanted to “link” into the author’s head so I could read the sequel in advance.” ~ Jai Arjun Singh, in Tehelka.

“Mara captures the heart; the other wildings seize the imagination.” Sharanya Mannivannan, in the Sunday Guardian.

“Wildly engaging and foxy… I already think that when I go to Nizamuddin next, I will see Southpaw hanging from a tree or Beraal quietly walking past, trying not to be seen!” ~ Fancy That Manxcat.

“A novel for all seasons and for all ages. Nilanjana Roy has created a savage, dangerous world… a world that seems tangibly real…” ~ Gillian Wright, in India Today

Questions for book clubs:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Cats: If you’re reading The Wildings in a group, a list of suggestions for discussions.

Mara’s story:

“She was an orange kitten with deep green eyes, no bigger than the palm of my partner’s hand. Mara had been rescued from a drain in Sujan Singh Park by my cousin, and was temporarily living with them and their three dogs.”

Drawing The Wildings: Prabha Mallya:

“There were so many scrumptiously described scenes that absolutely demanded to be illustrated. The idea was to heighten the sense of drama at these key points, to make the story practically leap off the page and wrap itself around you.”

The Wildings: Mara’s story


Mara’s story

She was an orange kitten with deep green eyes, no bigger than the palm of my partner’s hand. Mara had been rescued from a drain in Sujan Singh Park by my cousin, and was temporarily living with them and their three dogs.

“We have to find someone to adopt her!” said Kamini.

“Yes,” I said sympathetically. “She won’t be safe with the dogs around.”

“It’s the other way around,” said Kamini with some feeling. Mara had discovered a wonderful game—she would hide on the top of the bookcase, waiting for an unsuspecting dog to pass by, scoot down, smack him on his nose and scoot back up before he’d even seen his tiny attacker. So we rescued the dogs from Mara by adopting her.

I’d never lived with animals before; a close family member had asthma, and though I smuggled pigeons, kittens and puppies in, they all had to be relocated in short order. Except for a brief stint babysitting a mongoose, I’d spent much less time with animal companions than my husband had—his impressive credentials included looking after a pig, a monkey, a very gentle python and a carnivorous rabbit who liked hamburgers.

Mara, inquisitive, intelligent and fearless, opened up a parallel universe. She was a friendly kitten, unwilling to share the two of us but otherwise curious about the strays—cats, dogs, monkeys, birds—who lived in most Delhi colonies. In time, other cats joined our family; and our indoor cats attracted a horde of visiting strays who had designs on their food bowls.

The inside cats and the outside cats watched each other with avid curiosity. If we picked up Mara and cuddled her, the eyes of the visiting strays would widen in incredulity. But if we were lucky, they were more inclined to trust us, even let us cuddle them, once they’d seen us with the inside cats.

Seen from a foot off the ground, Delhi is a different city, Nizamuddin a richly alien neighbourhood. Books on cat behaviour confirmed what I’d begun to suspect: cats were extremely social loners, extrovert-introverts if you like. Most cats lived in loose but protective clans. The queens—the female cats—dominated the clan, but there was always an alpha tomcat or two backing up their reign.


The toms swaggered across the neighbourhood, brawling, yowling, always in trouble; the queens were often ferocious hunters, and both toms and queens were surprisingly caring parents. If there were too many kittens in any given season, the toms would cull them ruthlessly, but otherwise the toms were endlessly patient with the kittens who tumbled around in their wake, and the queens were stern but loving mothers.

I learned other things: cats seemed so often to be silent, not mewing or purring except in occasional bursts of conversation, but they were constantly chatting. Their whiskers and their noses brought them all the news of the world they needed. I began to wonder: what if there was a cat who had longer, more sensitive whiskers than usual? What if she could roam wider and further than any of the other cats, just using her whiskers? Would the clan love and protect a cat like that, or would she be cast out for being different?

In 2007, I wrote a short story about a kitten with deep green eyes who lived indoors with humans because the outside world felt too large and scary for her. It was fun to write. I began to write another story, set in the same world, and two cats strolled into its pages. One was a wise Siamese whose blue eyes told me she had stories to tell that I couldn’t even imagine, the other was an alpha tom, loved and respected by the other cats of his clan.

Halfway through telling those stories, Mara got sick. The vet told us she had feline diabetes. Over the next few months, our little orange warrior lost weight until she was down to fur and bone, but she took her illness stoically, not protesting the visits to the vet, the many injections, the drips, the pain. Our second cat, Tiglath, watched for her to come back from the vet; we’d find him at the head of the stairs, mewing. Mara had groomed and washed him when he’d come to us as a tiny kitten. Now he spent his evenings grooming her ears, her tail, her fur, washing her as gently as she had once washed him.

At night, Mara curled up between us, her thin ribs rising and falling in shallow breaths; but every morning, she wanted to be on the verandah, and her eyes would follow the cheels, the sparrows, our other two cats. She died in my arms, shortly after. She took a calm, slow breath, her green eyes closed, and though I listened for a long while, she did not take another. I put the stories aside until 2010.

When I read them again, it seemed that I had captured only the tiniest corner of Mara’s world. Where were the cheels who seemed to have arrived at an interesting and complex truce with the cats we knew in Nizamuddin? Who was responsible for the brawls we heard at night on the rooftops at the dargah, those dark dramas of yowl-and-counteryowl? I waited impatiently for someone else, a real writer, to write the book I wanted to read, until it began to dawn on me that there might not be too many writers out there fascinated by the secret life of cats. Aliens, yes, vampires, yes, daemons and demons, absolutely. But cats had few champions. This seemed grossly unfair.

Though I read everything I could find on cats and feline behaviour, the real research required getting out of the house and walking for as long as I could. The more I walked around Nizamuddin’s grand sprawl, the more cats I met, hurrying to the dargah, taking their kittens for a walk on the canal road, gingerly sidestepping us humans or the stray dogs.

But the book didn’t really start until the winter of 2010, when the driver from the house downstairs handed us a bucket. In the bucket was a white kitten, smaller than the palm of your hand, with the well-travelled air of a seasoned explorer. Young Bathsheba Balti was the only survivor of a tragic massacre, and had strayed, mewing, into the driver’s empty car-wash bucket. She could eat her weight in fish, had the manners of a thug and the swagger of a professional goonda. One day, I came back to my desk to find that Bathsheba had walked across the keyboard. This is what she had typed: “ggggbbb,,,,????????????????”

I looked at the line of question marks. “What happens next?” they asked me. So I sat down at the computer, and did my best over the next two years to come up with an answer. That became The Wildings; and two years after that, in 2013, the fictional Mara grew up. You can read what happened to her in The Hundred Names of Darkness.

(A version of this was carried by Elle in its August 2012 issue)

Booklove: All About Hatterji (50 Writers, 50 Books)

H. Hatterr cover

(From 50 Writers, 50 Books, edited by Pradeep Sebastian and Chandra Siddan, HarperCollins. I wrote this for Pradeep back in 2010, when he called very excited about the idea of an anthology where writers from across (and outside) the country would talk about their favourite books, characters, landscapes. He and Chandra Siddan looked for books in as many Indian languages as possible, and in 50 Writers, Harbart talks to Bama, Vikram Seth and Indira Goswami have something to say to each other, and Vijayan’s Khasak meets Sobti’s Chandni Chowk. This was my char-anna tribute to Hatterji.)


GV Desani: All About H Hatterr

There are literate, widely-read booklovers in this world who have not read All About H Hatterr. I know of their existence; I have even met some, but the thought that they exist is chilling. It’s like meeting people who have never read Tristram Shandy, or Gormenghast, or found themselves hallucinating, as Hatterr fans do, about swamis and multiple exclamation marks.

This has nothing to do with literary snobbery. GV Desani’s 1948 classic appears with dreary regularity on lists of books you must absolutely, positively read in order to be considered truly literary, and his astonishing hero has influenced writers from I Allan Sealy to Salman Rushdie. But the real reason for anyone to read Hatterr has to do with a quality rarely cited in critical texts—never again will anyone write a book with so much exuberance.

Desani, for instance, didn’t. His next work was the mystic Hali; and then he retreated into the comfortable life of the author-recluse. And in 2000, in the blurred newsprint of the obituary section of an Indian newspaper, next to the Antim Ardas and In Fond Remembrance notices, a brief postage stamp sized picture of a blurred, young Desani alongside two brief lines informed us of his death. By then, the image of Desani the writer had blurred along the edges as well, and All About H Hatterr had plunged into the obscurity of the remainder bin from which it would need (and receive) repeated rescues from its fans in the publishing and literary world.

Hatterr fans are a lonely breed today. We know not just the famous lines—“Damme, this is the Oriental scene for you!” “Sir, I identify it (the novel) as a gesture. Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.”—but all the lovely obscure bits about swamis who trade in secondhand clothes stolen off their disciples and the fact that Desani managed to fit 13 exclamation marks into one paragraph. There is something slightly deranged about us, and a tendency (as you will have noticed) to digress, that we share with H Hatterr Esquire.

“The Issue: The following answers the question: Who is H Hatterr?” unleashes Desani’s torrential prose, and his unmatched ability to beguile you into trickster territory, holding your attention for three pages until he answers the question—sort of—on the fourth. Hatterr, born a year after Independence, was an early example of the only kind of Indian protagonist the Indian novel in English could possibly have: a man on the margins, a hero who belonged to two worlds and to neither. “Biologically, I am fifty-fifty of the species,” writes Hatterr, introducing us to his European, Christian father and his Malay, Oriental mother and swiftly kicking them offstage as he does so.

H. Hatterr cover

So there you have it: our first bona-fide homegrown, school-of-Indian-writing-in-English literary character was not Indian at all. Decades later, writing in partial homage to Desani, Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children would also be half-caste—Anglo-Indian, in his case. Hatterr belonged to the same no-man’s-land—territory claimed by three of India’s greatest writers, Rushdie, Desani and Saadat Hasan Manto, in works spurred by or written about Independence. And Hatterr, with his permanent logorrhea, his rapidfire, utterly Indian English patter, his frantic capering around a world that includes pukka British clubs and ash-coated fakirs, could belong to Manto’s lonely lunatic asylum. In Manto’s iconic short story, Toba Tek Singh, the lunatics occupy the no-man’s-land between India and the newly created Pakistan; Hatterr’s no-man’s-land, between the Orient and the Occident, is wider, but no less lonely.

Readers tend to miss the isolation of Hatterr on first reading: the man proceeds from swami to circus act to charlatan fakir with a frenetic speed and an unstoppable energy calculated to shortcircuit introspection. But it’s there in All About…, Desani’s introduction, showcased as the familiar loneliness of a writer without an audience, a voice rendered loquacious by the fear that he might be talking only to himself.

“Planning a rest, I submitted the manuscript to a typist place, to be typed, three copies please. It came back the same week. The rejection slip pronounced it ‘Nonsense’. Besides, the lady said, it wasn’t the sort of nonsense young girls in the office ought to see. I apologized, postscripting me a mere slave of the critics. Then I passed it elsewhere. And he referred it to a well-known psychiatrist friend of his (at a clinic) The doctor posted it, with an invitation to me to meet him—professionally. It was hawked around, three copies please, and finally kept by a very kind person. She typed a quarter and returned it. Her brother, a clergyman, was coming to stay in the house. Chance might lead him to the manuscript. I apologized again…”

This is still the voice of Desani, in character as Desani-the-author, not the voice of Hatterr himself. “In all my experience,” T S Eliot wrote famously of the book, “I have not quite met anything like it.” (The closest parallel to Hatterr’s voice might come not from Eliot, Burgess, or Joyce, or even Laurence Sterne, but from John Kennedy O’Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.)

Here is a small sample, from a conversation between Baw Saw and The Sheikh: “I learnt of the ways of the Occidental people from my master Angus…. And I possess the Etiquette-Garter, the Honi! Soot quay Malay-pence! Soot quay Malay-pence! I am the Sheik of the London County Council, the ‘Ell See See! Behold, I am wearing my ‘Ell See See! Know, this is the source, the device and the secret of my prosperity! With this neck-wear, this mystic material, I am a burrasahib! A man! I am Eaten! I am Westmoreland! I am Shrewsbury! I am ‘Arrow! I am Charter’s House! I am Rugby-Football! I am Gun Co. Winchester! I am all-in-all! And CLC besides! With the aid of this neck-wear, I have helped others, given countless concrete lessons of pukka Occidental wisdom to the needy, as I myself once was! Verily, O beloved, I am a burrasahib! Listen to me and fathom the world! Pay the fees, and see the world! Ek dum, och aye! Och aye!”

Exactly ten years before Hatterr, Raja Rao had published Kanthapura, struggling, as he wrote in the Introduction: “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own.” In the same decade, Mulk Raj Anand had struggled with the “unleavened bread” dilemma in his work, from Untouchable to Across The Black Waters: the complexities of conveying Indian speech, Indian ways of thought, in a language that was at once ours and alien. (Anand often came off sounding like Kipling in reverse, but he did try.) RK Narayan, from 1935 when Swami and Friends was published to 1948 when Mr Sampath came out, had found an easy Indian English that still seems neither forced nor dated. But even in the 1940s, after more than a century of writing in English, most Indian writers struggled to loosen their tongues, to find their own voice. Hatterr invented his own: a mongrel hybrid that transliterated Indian phrases, borrowed and mauled Greek and Latin tags, mocked English-English, and turned language into a three-ring circus, shifting from juggler to trapeze artist to clown.

It’s been over six decades, and All About H Hatterr has dated—in exactly the same way that Tristram Shandy or Burgess’ Enderby quartet has dated, the way any great classic should date. Desani resisted literary ossification—in a brief encounter with a Betty Bloomsbohemia (“the Virtuosa with knobs on”) in his introduction, he writes: “As for the arbitrary choice of words and constructions you mentioned. Not intended by me to invite analysis. They are there because, I think, they are natural to H. Hatterr. But, Madam! Whoever asked a cultivated mind such as yours to submit your intellectual acumen or emotions to this H. Hatterr mind? Suppose you quote me as saying, the book’s simple laughing matter? Jot this down, too. I never was involved in the struggle for newer forms of expression, Neo-morality, or any such thing! What do you take me for? A busybody?”

But despite his (and Hatterr’s) best efforts, the book invited analysis. Saul Bellow found that Desani was one of the few writers he could read while he worked on his own novel. Allan Sealy’s Trotternama—another classic that bounces dangerously in and out of existence, like Hatterr, revived by one generation, forgotten by the next—romps down the yellow brick road Desani had built for Indian writers back in 1948. “I learnt a trick or two from him,” Rushdie said once of Desani, and perhaps, more than the linguistic exuberance, what Indian writers received from Hatterr was permission. The book opens with a Warning! and a conversation between an Indian middle-man and the Author. “Sir,” says the middle-man, “if you do not identify your composition a novel, how then do we itemize it? Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.” “Sir,” says the Author, “I identify it as a gesture. Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.” But there is, the middle-man explains, no immediate demand for gestures. There is, however, immediate demand for novels, and the Author gives in.

Or perhaps not. Desani’s “novel” is really a breathless, joyful performance, a gesture stretched across 316 pages, and perhaps that’s why it remains unforgettable, despite its periodic descents into oblivion. Over the last few decades, Hatterr revivals have depended on the largesse of Western critics and publishers rather than the growing maturity and changing tastes of the Indian reader. And since the West has its own set of classics, and India is reluctant to claim any story that is not a success story, All About H Hatterr remains not so much lost as not yet quite found. Damme, that’s the Occidental-Orientale scene for you.

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