Books

“Isolation Appears Ideal for Writing But It Isn’t So. You Feed Off the World” – Anuradha Roy

Anuradha Roy, whose latest novel is shortlisted for the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award 2020, talks to us about women's choices, writing and life during lockdown.

By Neha Kirpal

Ranikhet-based novelist, journalist and editor Anuradha Roy’s work of historical fiction All the Lives We Never Lived (Hachette, 2018) about a rebellious Indian homemaker who breaks social convention in order to seek personal happiness has been shortlisted for the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award this year. With an award money of €100,000 (approximately ₹87 lakh), it is one of the world’s most valuable literary prizes.

It’s yet another accolade for the author, whose earlier three novels have been translated to several languages and won awards in India and worldwide.
We asked Anuradha about the inspiration behind the book and how the pandemic will change the publishing industry.

Your latest book All the Lives We Never Lived is set in World War II India and centres around themes of freedom, love and loyalty. What sparked off this idea, or what was the inspiration behind its story?

It was the boy at the centre of the book who started it off – an intensely lonely boy who found an imagined world through paintings. Everything else, even the era in which the book is set, came from this starting point. When I thought about which paintings the boy would be immersed in, I came upon Walter Spies, a German artist who lived in Bali in the 1920s and ’30s and who had met Tagore. From all of this the novel grew into an exploration of the themes you mention, as well as the parallels between past and present.

Coming to your book’s theme, do you think the traditional roles of wife and mother can sometimes be stifling for women? Do women today still have to defy social rules to find personal fulfillment?

Gayatri, the central woman in the book, came to me complete: a sparkling, gifted, sometimes abrasive, sometimes contradictory woman. Motherhood and nationhood are intertwined in our country, and Gayatri’s husband wants her to be both – the woman who will fight for her country on the street, and also stay home and look after her child. Her own needs and desires are dismissed by him as trivial.

I wanted to explore the pain and exultation in the life of a woman for whom family and motherhood is not the end and start of everything – Gayatri has an inner core that is hers alone, it is a flame that lights her up and has nothing to do with her family, not even her child. I think these battles are fought today as well, though they may take other forms.

The men in her life define Gayatri – her father triggers her dreams and ambitions, her husband imprisons her in a conservative role, and her son narrates her story from his own perspective. Do you think most women, even today, end up being unwittingly defined by the men in our lives?

I don’t think so. I think women have a certain autonomy no amount of defining by others can take away. There is a minor character in the book, a frail, steely old woman who calls herself Mukti Devi. Like Gayatri, she has chosen her own path. In her case, it is to fight for the country’s freedom. It is just that each version of freedom is different. When Gayatri runs away with a gay man, Spies, it is not for love. Both she and Spies are driven by the need for freedom to live as they please, and to be true to their gifts.

How does it feel for the book to be one of the 10 shortlisted for the prestigious International Dublin Literary Awards 2020 after two years of publication?

Looking at the 156 books on the longlist, many by authors I love and revere, it feels unreal to be in a shortlist culled out of that, of just 10. It feels doubly unreal from where I live, in a tiny town in the Kumaon hills, with no bookshop or library. Actually, when I look at one of my books, I often wonder how I managed to write it at all – each time the next one feels so impossible.

There are eight women authors in the shortlist of 10 for the Awards. After decades of having only male names on the shortlists of prestigious awards, do you think women writers are finally getting their due?

It’s a start. I know that statistics tell discouraging stories about the number of women who actually win or are reviewed and so on. Sometimes these things can get to you, but as a writer, you need to shut out most of this noise and focus on words and sentences.

What is the best part of the day for you to write? And what’s the biggest challenge you face in the writing process?

I write best in the mornings or early evenings. The first draft is the exhilarating part, when I am forming a whole world. But when that is done, to go back to it again and again over a long period of time, to revise, polish, perfect – that is the hard time when I need to convince myself that finishing a piece of writing –even though nobody is waiting for it – must be done.

At what age did you start writing, where did you live at the time, and who was your role model or the person who most motivated you to be a writer?

I started writing with a pencil into a notebook my mother gave me when I was an infant. I can see from the notebooks she has preserved for all these years that I never stopped. At that time, we lived in tents mainly in Sikkim, because for half the year we lived wherever my father’s field postings took him. He was a geologist.

Later at school in Hyderabad, my inspiring English teacher, Chandra Dorai, turned our language classes into writing sessions that opened up possibilities for all of us.

Apart from being a novelist, you are also an avid potter. Tell us how this passion for pottery started, and how you divide your time between writing and pottery.

I started making pots in my twenties. At first I taught myself, at a studio at my university. After that, I learned formally at various places. Now, I have a small studio of my own where I live. The dividing of time is a struggle because writing and pottery are both intensely involving, and it’s hard to leave one for the other.

I find the whole materiality of making pots wakes up some other part of me. You have to be imaginative, of course, but you also have to be methodical, and technically good to make functional pots that are alive as well as good to use. A water jug has to pour well, a teapot lid must fit, a handle must be strong.

Which are some of the other activities and interests that you have been pursuing during the lockdown? How has the lockdown changed things in your life?

I am fortunate to live in the mountains, so our daily life has not been badly affected but all else is changed quite profoundly, as for everyone in the world. In some ways, even as the pandemic has made inequality worse, it has also been a leveller. Everyone is experiencing all-pervasive anxiety and the cruelty of being separated from those they love.

How do you think the pandemic will change the publishing industry and the lives of writers moving forward?

Our publishing work at the press my partner and I run, Permanent Black, has taken a hit because sales and printing were stopped for so long. The economy being in a shambles, and most libraries becoming even more moribund than they were, is not a help.

As for writing, it may seem like work for which isolation is ideal but that isn’t so. You feed off the world. You need travel, you need the energy and inspiration you get from new experiences and people. On a mundane level, a research trip I need to do is impossible now. Right now, the sense of uncertainty about the future – and even about the present – is almost unbearable, but I am trying to hold on to a routine and write my way through it. I am lucky to be able to – many people’s lives have been changed irrevocably.

First published in eShe’s October 2020 issue

Syndicated to Money Control

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