Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The India I grew up in has gone. These rapes show a damaged, divided nation.

(Published in The Guardian, 17th April 2018)


A chilling leitmotif of Nordic crime fiction is a child leaving home to play, never to return. Detectives search out trails pointing to sexual violence and murder, and by degrees it becomes clear that the crime is not isolated: it is the symptom of a damaged community. The abduction, gang-rape, and murder in India of eight-year-old Asifa Bano reveals such damage on a terrifying scale. It shows that the slow sectarian poison released into the country’s bloodstream by its Hindu nationalists has reached full toxicity.

Where government statistics say four rapes are reported across the country every hour, sexual assault is no longer news. Indian minds have been rearranged by the constant violence of their surroundings. Crimes against women, children and minority communities are normalised enough for only the most sensational to be reported. The reasons Asifa’s ordeal has shaken a nation exhausted by brutality are four. The victim was a little girl. She was picked because she was Muslim. The murder was not the act of isolated deviants but allegedly of well-organised Hindu zealots. And the men who are accused of raping her included a retired government official and two serving police officers.

When the police in Jammu (the Hindu-dominated part of Kashmir) tried to register a charge against the men they had arrested, a Hindu nationalist mob threatened the few honest policemen and lawyers who were trying to do their jobs. The was a mob with a difference: it included government ministers, lawyers and women waving the national flag in favour of the arrested men, as well as supporters of the two major Indian parties, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) – the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is in Britain this week to attend the Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

Nationalism can be benign as well as malignant: Tagore foresaw the malignant variant a century ago. “Alien government in India is a chameleon,” he wrote. “Today it comes in the guise of an Englishman … the next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen.” Given the right political conditions, virulent nationalism creeps into every bone, every thought process. When it leads to the calculated mutilation of a child, ethnic cleansing does not appear too far distant. If the world has understood fascism better through Anne Frank, its understanding of contemporary India will remain incomplete unless it recognises the political venom that killed Asifa.

Asifa belonged to a nomadic Muslim tribe that herds its cattle 300 miles twice a year in search of pasture. In January, when the snow lies deep in their alpine meadows, these shepherds walk down to Jammu. Here they graze their animals in the little land still available to them. Asifa went one evening to bring back grazing horses, and never returned.

Recently filed police investigations conclude that a group of men imprisoned her for a week, drugged her, starved her, and took turns to rape her in a Hindu shrine. It was well organised. The hiding place was agreed, and sedatives kept at hand. The motive was to strike terror among the Muslim nomads and drive them from Rasana, a largely Hindu village. Tribal Muslims make up a negligible percentage of the local population, perhaps 8%. Even so, the Hindus there fear “demographic change”, and have been fighting to drive them out.

Absolute darkness begins imperceptibly, as gathering dusk. Reading of 1930s Vienna in Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist some months ago, I began to feel an uneasy sense of familiarity. At first, only a few minor problems befall Seethaler’s Jewish tobacconist. His antisemitic neighbour, a butcher, contrives through a series of petty offences to make life difficult. After each act of vandalism, the tobacconist replaces broken glass, swabs away entrails, opens his shop again. The vandalism is a feeble precursor of what is to come. Anschluss is a few months away and it requires little conjecture to know how the novel and its tobacconist end. 

Even as the details of Asifa’s death emerged, another crime came to light, this time from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, also ruled by the BJP. The father of a teenage girl wanted merely to lodge a report with the police that his daughter had been raped over several days by a legislator and his brother. The father was arrested and died soon after in custody.

The thread that binds these crimes is the sense of invincibility that a majoritarian regime has granted its personnel and supporters. Manifestations of the newfound swagger include vandalising sprees after electoral victories, and the lynching of Muslims and Dalits (the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy). The general idea is to create a sense of terror and uncertainty, and in this the tacit support of the state pumps up the mobs – and they rampage with greater confidence. In swathes of rural north India, violating women to signal caste, religious and masculine supremacy is only an extension of such activity. The primeval divisions within Indian society have never been sharper. The BJP’s ruthless drive to consolidate patriarchal Hinduism has pressurised women about what they can wear, families about what they can eat, and young people about who they may marry. Parties in the opposition, envying the electoral success of the BJP, tend to speak out against this culture of sectarian hatred after first sniffing which way the wind is blowing, then gauging how strongly it is blowing.

In the India where I grew up, memories of Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru were strong; the necessity of secularism was drummed into us. We knew that our politicians were largely venal, but it was still a country in which morality and humanity mattered. Now, journalists and writers who speak up against the undeclared war on Dalits, Muslims, poor people and women are trolled by cyber-mobs. – if they’re lucky. The most publicised murder last year was of a dissenting journalist shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru, in south India.

Modi, renowned as a demagogue, is coming to be even better known for what he chooses to stay silent about. Sympathy for the suffering individual, many have noticed, is not among his most distinctive traits. When the student Jyoti Singh “Nirbhaya” was raped and killed in Delhi in 2012, it took several days of massive public outrage to stir Sonia Gandhi and her ruling Congress party, from their mansions. In the aftermath of Asifa, the current prime minister, perhaps quicker off the blocks, took a mere three days after the details of the eight-year-old’s killing were released to understand how much he stands to lose by saying nothing when the whole world is watching. The times are such that even so little so late from Modi has been seen as an acknowledgement, however reluctant, that India’s constitution requires him to ensure justice and equality for all its many communities.




No More Calmly Sailing By


Published in The Wire, 13th April 2018


Who among us today, if we were born Hindu, does not have at least one relative or acquaintance who hates Muslims? Who among us does not have friends – men and women thought to be moral and humane – that have closed their eyes to the brutal amorality of the ruling regime, seeing it instead as the political road to India’s salvation? Will they be able to carry on unchanged even now, after the people they voted in have sprung to the defence of the rapists and murderers of an eight-year-old? Will they fail even now to see that a girl of that age is neither Hindu nor Muslim but only a child?


The barbarism of victorious armies was meant to have been over and done with, and the founding of the League of Nations after the First World War came with the liberal belief – shattered by the Nazis – that civilised life was more or less inevitable. In the India where I grew up, the exploitative British regime was over, it was post-Nehru, a country peopled with liberal myths and socialist dreams. There were riots, the country did simmer and boil off and on, but in the end, it was agreed, the state and the judiciary would follow the Western institutions on which they were modelled. Until the early 1990s, when the Congress Party grew unbelievably corrupt and turned a blind eye to the Babri destruction, medieval brutality was, I thought, over: political enemies would no longer be poisoned, women and children would no longer be savaged as a matter of course to signal the conquest of a victorious army.

After their giant electoral victories, the new, democratically elected armies of the Hindu Right have proven the opposite.

I was about to catch a flight when the details on Asifa were published and as I tried functioning with the normalcy and efficiency airports demand, it became a steady drum beat inside me: when you were taking a train down from the hills, a voice inside me said, they shoved two pills down her throat to drug her; while you were making yourself toast, they shoved themselves into her: grown men took turns forcing themselves into a child; while you were walking into the airport, they bashed her head in with a stone; they raped her in a temple; they hid her under a bed; they strangled her with her own clothes.

After that, one of them joined the search for the missing girl. Because he was a policemen. Kashmir’s lawmakers then marched to save the policemen from being charged with rape. Women too marched to defend the rapists: because they are Hindu and the child who was gangraped and killed was the daughter of a Muslim goatherd. It is impossible, when this level of mental sickness and brutality have coalesced, to do anything more than fall into the silence of absolute despair. Until, that is, an overwhelming rage sweeps away the despair.

Around me, at the airport, a woman argued over why they had given her chicken noodles when she’d asked for veg noodles. A group of little girls were planning a movie outing on their first day of travel. I drank my lassi wondering why I had that strangely disjointed, disembodied feeling you have when someone close dies, as if there is a fuzzy glass between you and normal life. But nobody close to me had died. This was a child I had never known, a little girl who went out to bring back her family’s animals and then was drugged, imprisoned, raped, and tortured for a week before her head was battered with a stone.

A long-ago poem by Auden came back to me, sounding curiously anaemic now. “Everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster . . . and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” That poem is about obliviousness, not indifference. The dogs who “go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse [who] scratches its innocent behind on a tree” have no idea there is someone being tortured, a boy falling to his death.

But what of those who do know?

I remember the preternatural hush that hung over Delhi after the Nirbhaya rape and am old enough to remember the countrywide horror over the Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. There is no horror any longer. These things happen, they happen somewhere else, they happen to someone else. At the airport there was no inkling of a national crisis. If you are affluent enough to fly, if you are not Dalit or Muslim, you are forever in a bulletproof, air-conditioned cocoon. But what is it like not to have the cocoon?  

I went to a Muslim school in Hyderabad where most of my childhood friends were Muslim. At that age, I had nearly no awareness of my minority Hinduness, nor had my playmates much inkling of their Muslimness. I have a sense of where these friends are now: they are silent somewhere. They are feeling cornered somewhere, besieged by the sense of hunting dogs coming after them. This is not the country we grew up in together, the necessity of secularism drummed into us. The venality and cynicism of politicians was ordinary, normal, an unworrying aspect of how politics was done in our part of the world. It was still a country in which parents were more likely to teach you about morality and manners, not sheer human survival.

What can you do as an ordinary citizen trying to survive in a country run by criminal gangs? Mafias on a scale so large that they seem to exist beyond anyone’s reach. Mafias so clever at manipulating belief that millions believe their every lie? What can you do when you see your protectors turn into killers? And what can you possibly do as a solitary writer?

Everyone in wartime is not a soldier, nor can everyone in times such as these be a lawyer or activist. Masons, plumbers, teachers, doctors are still needed; there are still houses to be built, children to be taught, leaking taps to be fixed. For a long time I told myself my usefulness lay in doing my own work. Is this true or is it merely a way of legitimising my desire to somehow carry on living only as I know how to? I don’t have the answer.

Other writers say much the same: that the work of the writer is to write books that make people think, which alter their world even if for the few days they are reading that book. Writers are not investigative journalists, and for a writer of novels it is especially difficult to respond to events that are current, volatile. “It’s dangerous for novelists to point a plot at a moving target,” says Lionel Shriver. It is also true now that novelists are more usually valued when they write novels that are overtly political. They have always to bear the burden of being literary activists – how else, in this kind of country, can a writer remain relevant? Is it possible to construct perfect paragraphs while your house is burning?

In my small hill-town I teach spoken English to a girl of nine. She is a goatherd. She goes to a government school which teaches her quite little. She dreams of being an actress. After school, in the evening she sets off to bring back her family’s grazing cattle, waving a switch, walking into the deep forest with nothing but two dogs for protection. I walk with her for a part of the way and we talk, she in halting English, I correcting her pronunciation and tenses. Then I turn back and she carries on alone. Our town is safe, we say, she has only wildlife to fear.








Turning Seasons


(The Telegraph, Wednesday April 25th 2018)

On the morning of 24th January we woke to white: it must have snowed steadily through the night for the trees to be so laden and for our surroundings to acquire such a hushed stillness. From our windows we could see that every range between us and the Trishul and Nanda Devi had changed colour. It was the first snow of the season, and the first sign of any moisture in months.

Two days later, walking in the forest, I came upon a rhododendron scarlet with flowers. At the foot of the tree was a hollow with snow still ankle-deep, as were many sheltered parts of the forest that saw little sun through the day. To find rhododendron in flower in deep winter is as strange in these hills as sighting a peacock. Soon, reports began to appear about the early flowering of the Rhododendron arboretum all over the western Himalaya. It appeared that my tree-in-a-hurry was not the only one to bloom ahead of time, rising temperatures meant that trees were flowering prematurely in many places.


The first blossoming of the buransh, as rhododendron is called in the Kumaon, is followed by one of the more picturesque festivals of the hills, Phooldeyi. Children appear in the morning bearing steel plates with peach, plum, and buransh blossoms that they scatter on doorsteps, in the hope of a little pocket money. It is a festival that marks spring by saying, “Winter’s over”.

In rural areas the flutterings of climate change are swiftly apparent. Someone points out it has been a year since we saw the raven, which used to be a common sight. The pushy grey pigeon of the plains has been making determined moves to oust our whistling thrushes from their nooks and the thrushes are too elegant, too understated, too musical to win crude power games. From our windows, through December, we could see that as days passed without winter rain, the sides of the high peaks darkened: what we were looking at was not ice but black rock. There was a scattering of white only at the very tops of the peaks.

For most people in the plains, the hills come alive in summer. Many who live here – those who are not hoteliers or taxi-drivers – dread its arrival. Winter is a time of icy cold and utter calm, of walks through empty forests, trees laden with oranges -- and water in our taps. The bliss ends in summer, when pleasure-seekers thunder uphill in their four-wheel drives to hotels that will suck all the water out from the town systems to feed their flushes and showers.

Summer is for water wars. Not only is there less water to go around, it is an open secret that the hotels make offers to waterworks employees that they cannot refuse – and soon after, our supply dries up. Days can pass without water and every conversation begins with the words “Paani aya?” Around communal taps you can see a queue of assorted water-gathering vessels from plastic jerrycans to buckets and pitchers that are stand-ins for their human owners. The bucket queue, though inert, pulses with potential for wrecking the peace. Buckets that have somehow acquired life and gone up or down the queue illegally can ignite blood-feuds.

In Capetown, as they approach Day Zero when municipal water supplies cease and people are limited to 25 litres of water a day, the South African cabinet is drawing up plans to deploy police at the water collection points. This dystopian scenario does not seem too far-fetched in Indian hill stations. Squabbles and intrigues over water conjure up more conspiracy theories than bank frauds.

The spindly, alcoholic waterworks clerk charged with turning taps on and off becomes the most sought after man in town. Once, having searched for him fruitlessly for more than a week, I spotted his familiar bald head just below the dip in a slope and rushed towards him with a grovelling “Namaste” only to find that I had interrupted him at a critical point in his al fresco ablutions. We did not have water in our taps for several days after that.

Other than news of water, the bush network remains alive through the summer for news of fires. After a winter as dry as this one has been, the hills crackle like heaps of kindling waiting for one carelessly tossed match or cigarette -- or for arsonists involved in timber smuggling, as some allege.

Bush fires in California and Australia are fought aerially, with water and fire retardant sprayed from helicopters. Here the fires have to be beaten out and fire-lines created to prevent their spread. There are evenings when we stay up hypnotized by the slow approach of necklaces of flames that creep closer and closer. The air is dense with the smell of smoke. For the firefighters raking firelines across the slopes it is even harder to breathe than it is for us. Most terrifying of all is to see ridges covered with chir pine burst into flame. And down in the burning valleys around us, there are wild animals with no escape routes.

Ironically, one of the prized features of hill holidays for well-off metropolitan tourists is the “bonfire dinner”. Most hotels offer it as the cherry on the package tour cake, so that at the height of summer when the snow peaks -- or whatever remains of them – are hidden in a dust haze, people gather around blazing bonfires and sing and drink their stress away. Owls hoot and foxes call unheard as the antakshari competitions hit their high notes. It is unusual to find tourists in the hills who come here to walk or climb or birdwatch. Instead, we are often stopped by cars that pull up next to us, after which a window slides down and someone demands: “Yahaan Place-to-See Kya hai?”

Since Ranikhet is resolutely lacking in “Place-to-Sees”, the administration cleared away a substantial stretch of mixed oak and kaphal forest some years ago and created an artificial lake complete with duck-prowed boats and a nylon rope-bridge for “adventure tourism”. If Nainital and Bhimtal have famous lakes, could Ranikhet afford to be left behind – even if there were no water in the taps? This pond of brown, largely stagnant water is now featured in tourist brochures as “Rani Jheel”. Park benches circle it and signs lead the way to it, including one on a road above the lake that points to the “First View of Rani Jheel”.

And so the buses and 4X4s come and go, leaving trails of Lays and Bingo. I recently read about a Swedish way of exercising called Plogging, which simply involves picking up the trash while jogging. We have been doing this for years. Once a week every summer, when we walk, we leave home with large bin bags and carry on for as long as our energies last and our bags have space, picking up trash dumped by picnickers. I now have an intimate sense of the consumption patterns of metropolitan Indians. They love eating, specially junk that comes in foil packets; they love drinking alcohol, especially super-strong beer and Old Monk rum. They consume quantities of gutka. And they drink bottled water.


Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Ten years of Anuradha Roy’s ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’: What the writer and publisher remember

‘For three years, it was an alternative, secret universe in which I lived, awake or asleep.’ 

On serendipity and the difficult road to getting published: Anuradha Roy, writer 

Read this in Scroll.in

Christopher MacLehose and Anuradha Roy. Photograph by Rukun Advani
An Atlas of Impossible Longing started in one of those “dummy books” – blank pages, hardbound – that binderies used to make to establish accurately the spine width of books that they would bind for a publisher. The publishing house was one my partner and I had recently set up. It had no capital but our savings, no office, and the only books as yet were dummies with blank pages.

Because I still have that notebook, I know I wrote the first section of Atlas in pencil, in a non-stop scrawl that poured out without warning. It went on for a few pages and then came to a stop, after which the notebook went into hibernation. I did not know I had written a part of a novel. I had written stories ever since I learned the alphabet and was a journalist before I migrated to publishing, but I had never thought to write a novel.

Many weeks after the first scrawl, I pulled the dummy from its hiding place and showed it to my partner, Rukun, who said there was something there. It was only then that I started constructing a world for Bakul, the girl at the centre of the scrawl.

I have often wondered where the name, Bakul, came from. Unlike the names of many other characters since, which I mulled over or changed, she arrived named. When I think of her now, I wonder if her name came from the Indian medlar (bakul) sapling my father planted on the footpath in front of our house when I was about sixteen. It was a lacklustre, limp creature that he watered with great determination, seeing in it the beautiful tree nobody else could. His care of the plant and his sorrow over leaves mauled by feral cows became a standing joke in our family. He died two years after its planting, when it had reached waist height. Today its upper branches are level with the fourth floor of the house, it is covered every year in sweetly scented flowers and birds come for its berries.
Like many first books, mine too had autobiographical beginnings. It was a way for me to remember my father. The one character in the book who is deliberately autobiographical, an archaeologist, is modelled on him. The imagined town much of the novel takes place in, Songarh, has a landscape similar to one of the small towns of my childhood. I grew up in a joint family as well, and know domestic politics and power games from up close.

But the book outgrew its beginnings swiftly. As soon as I started writing it, and the formal puzzles of creating a narrative took over, I realised autobiography is no more than the compost from which something completely different from manure appears. A lily. Or even a bakul tree. As my book progressed it began to inhabit a realm very distant from anything I was familiar with and I began to see how the texture of individual lives could provide me with a way of looking at history from a different, lived perspective.

Atlas grew slowly, between other things: a stray puppy we adopted, the work for our new press, a cottage we were building in the mountains, the freelance writing we had to do as we waited to move from red to black. (We had optimistically named our press Permanent Black.) Nobody other than Rukun knew I was writing it. For three years, it was an alternative, secret universe in which I lived, awake or asleep.

After the book was done, I thought the easy, happy part was ahead: publication. I wanted it to be published not only in India but also in the UK: that was what you did in the days before e-books, if you wanted a book written in English to have the widest possible reach. The nasty surprise came when it was rejected over the next two years by sixteen British agents and publishers.

There must a point in the universe where parallel lines meet, because that is the only way I can explain how Christopher MacLehose came to publish Atlas. He too had recently left his old publishing house in unhappy circumstances and set up his own press. I listened to him at a seminar on publishing in London where, unlike almost every other publishing professional who focused on the “market” and “positioning”, he talked about books and authors. It made me think there was a chance – a tiny, slim chance – that he would agree to look at the thirty pages from my novel that I was carrying around in my bag (just in case). I told him every agent I had sent it to had turned it down.

“In that case,” he said, “I will certainly look at it.’”

 On publishing An Atlas of Impossible Longing: Christopher MacLehose, publisher, MacLehose Press

This very small publisher, then a mere embryo of a publishing imprint which has remained ever since devoted to publishing very good books in translation, will always be grateful and proud that Anuradha Roy’s An Atlas of Impossible Longing was our very first English-language book. That was in the summer of 2008. In January of that year we published our first three titles. One was a brilliant novel about a landscape gardener (who would fit seamlessly into Atlas...) by Andrea Canobbio, the eminent Italian publisher at Einaudi. One was the collected unpublished essays of Marguerite Duras. And the third was a novel by a Swedish journalist which had also been rejected by eighteen editors in Britain and in America. That was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It is true, as Anuradha Roy says, that we met at a seminar. She doesn’t mention that she was there in the capacity of having been chosen the previous year by the British Council as one of a dozen outstanding young publishers from all over the world.* The seminar took place on a Saturday just before the London Book Fair and I was there as I was involved in the selection of the following year’s most outstanding candidate. It is also true that when she offered me her typescript, all 350 pages of it, with the instruction that I read it before the fair opened on the Tuesday, she did recite the names of all the editors and agents who had turned it down, and she kindly warned me that two more agents were to be reading it over the weekend. Churlishly I agreed to take only thirty pages.
I did read them, of course, and when she told me on the Tuesday that the final two agents had also turned it down I remember thinking that they must all be half-witted, and perhaps I told her as much and anyway asked her for the whole typescript. Anyone who actually or, as they say in the trade, personally read those opening pages would have seen at once that this was the work of a writer. And not only an exceptional writer, also a storyteller.

What is this atlas of impossible longing? It is – quite late in the book – what an astrologer sees in the palm of a young man whose fortunes we follow:

“‘A veritable atlas,’ he said, his fingers tracing the longer lines on my palm. ‘What rivers of desire, what mountains of ambition...Your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.’”

The fate of this boy is one of nine distinct narrative strands that make up a tapestry of stories which are so beautifully written and so very cleverly told that the reader will be blissfully immersed in a never-before-experienced world, enchanted as to every sense, compelled to care about what will become of every character. The story is set in Bengal between the 1920s and the 1950s. Turbulent times. The power of the book is miraculous in a first novel.

Anuradha Roy has written three more novels – the most recent, All the Lives We Never Lived, will be published in June of this year. I would urge readers new to her work to begin with this, her first novel, and to read them all and thereby to be reminded, as the critic of the Washington Post said, “why you read fiction at all”.

* Anuradha Roy was for some years an editor at the Oxford University Press in Delhi. When she and her husband, who was the editor-in-chief, left the firm, seventy authors followed them as they established their own publishing house, Permanent Black, one of the most distinguished academic presses in India.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Through a Window, a Forest



One of the stories my mother often narrated in our childhood, my brother’s and mine, was that of Grandma Moses. In my mother’s telling, Grandma Moses grew up as a farm hand, became a farmer’s wife, raised a big family, faced the loneliness and difficulties of widowhood from her mid-sixties, renewed her interest in painting at that time, and was ‘discovered’ by the art world in her late-seventies.

The crucial part of the Moses story for my mother, I think, is that a self-taught, single, woman artist with no professional scaffolding found a life in the world of art at a very late age.

Married at 26, widowed at 49, my mother had found herself living a nomadic life after my father, a field geologist, entered her life. She gave up working. Moving from place to place with two children and a husband who developed a serious heart condition at just 37, it was never possible for her to cultivate anything like a career in painting. The story of Grandma Moses must have made my mother hope it was never too late.

For all our lives, when my brother and I were growing up, my mother drew or painted. Often she drew or painted for us – our school projects got a lot of help. Once we were gone, there were others: the number of neighbours’ and relatives’ children she has taught cannot be counted. All along, though, she kept making the pictures she herself wanted to make. There are even pictures she drew in charcoal dating from the sixties, done from the awning of a tent.

Moving house recently, I found her pictures in forgotten cupboard drawers and between the pages of long-unused drawing books. When the opportunities presented themselves, she painted covers for publishing houses; she illustrated books, designed block prints. It was all done on her own, in time she carved away from the people she had to look after.

Most formally trained artists bestow a gently patronising kindliness on the artistic efforts of people who lack a formal pat on the back from an institution in the form of a degree. Who, after all, doesn’t paint a few watercolours or draw a few pictures? They deserve encouragement (measured out in coffee spoons). My mother gratefully reported to me whatever praise came from “real artists”, as if she were not real enough. Of a compatriot at school who went on to become a “real” artist, she spoke in tones of unjealous admiration.

Of late, my mother has formed a community that is all her own: it is one made of picture framers. These are specialist framers, imposing gentlemen in black-framed spectacles and rin-white dhuti-panjabi, who frame the work of well-known artists. Over the many years that my mother has been going to them, they have been looking at her work, critiquing it, giving her the nerve to go on. Most artists need the opinion and affirmation of their peers but the self-taught artist has no community to fall back on. These art framers, who spend their days with the work of recognised painters, have become her community.

This year, my mother is exhibiting her work formally for the first time, and the art framers have become her constant friends and advisers through the preparation. Since she has never exhibited before, she did not know the basics: do you take the pictures to the gallery strung or unstrung? Do they hang them up or do you? Do they need captions? “Don’t muddy the waters putting up a picture you don’t like,” the framers told her. “Be ruthless, leave things out.” She took their advice to heart, the excision process began immediately.

The exercise of excavating all that she has painted has been an instructive one. We realised that her range is enormous. There were landscapes, still lives, portraits, studies of plants. There are different mediums too: she began with watercolours, but moved to pastels initially to tackle a tremor in her hands that came with age -- and found that she liked pastels better. She uses mixed media in many of her pictures, and has even experimented with collages.

Among my own favourites are the pastels she did in a small notebook sitting in a garden in the Kumaon hills: quick lines and dashes of pastel, squiggles of ink, smudges of charcoal. What is astonishing is that her strokes have become more fluid with age, her expression confident, the pastels and drawings atmospheric and sure.  At eighty, she is ready for a show.


On 14th April from 3 pm to 8 pm, at the Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts, 94, Ballygunje Place, Kolkata.
Get updates from The Sunil Madhav Sen Foundation, which is hosting the exhibition.



Wednesday, 14 February 2018

 Readers rarely come to know about one person who devotes the most obsessive care and attention to the book they are reading: the typesetter.
Michael Mitchell, the enormously gifted, sharp-tongued, impish, chain-smoking man who typeset all my books, ran the Libanus Press with one partner, Susan Wightman, and together they turned out book after elegant book. His views on type were strong. Once, asked to identify a typeface, he wrote back: "Awful font. We think all except capital I are Futura Extra bold – the slab seriffed cap I is probably drawn. Slabbed cap I's are a serious abomination."
His 'studio' for that is what it ought to be called, was in a beautiful house in Marlborough, Wiltshire. It had lovely huge rooms had an exquisitely groomed garden at the back, as perfect as a well-set page. The times I visited him, there was always lunch and wine and smoke and talk as well as work and always a book at the end as a gift.
He died in November, aged 78. 
Here is his obituary from The Guardian

Michael Mitchell obituary

Typographer and designer who aimed for perfection with his books


Michael Mitchell launched into his career as a printer and publisher in 1975. He founded Libanus Press and in 1979 moved to Marlborough, Wiltshire.
Michael Mitchell launched into his career as a printer and publisher in 1975. He founded Libanus Press and in 1979 moved to Marlborough, Wiltshire. Photograph: MacLehose Press
Michael Mitchell, who has died aged 78, was one of the leading typographers of his day. He combined the chief aspects of his craft, namely an intimate knowledge of type, a mastery of layout, a sound grasp of book design and skill as a printer, with a keen aesthetic sense and a feeling for words. He produced fine limited editions and also designed books and series for a commercial publisher.



Michael launched into his career as a printer and publisher in 1975. At a chance meeting with Richard Shirley Smith, the painter and wood engraver, Shirley Smith offered Mitchell his old press, a stalwart 1860 Albion, together with some Monotype type. With this Michael began typesetting and printing broadsides and small poetry books in his garage. He founded Libanus Press and in 1979 moved to Marlborough, Wiltshire. As professional printers were disencumbering themselves of their machinery with the advent of the digital era, he collected several other presses. He acquired greater quantities of lead type and then a Monotype caster. This considerably widened the range of his type styles.
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Saturday, 20 January 2018

A shop of one’s own

Every now and then, I am seized by the desire to have a small shop on Mall Road.

“Small” is a tautology when you know Ranikhet’s Mall Road, because the road is only a few feet wide and the shops along it are no bigger than half a garage. My shop would be a room about 6x10ft, with tall, hinged shutters that I would fold close and lock up every evening before I walked home.

Mall Road’s eastern flank has about seven shops: the paanwaala, Gullu Dhobi, the atta chakki (flour mill), the omelette-paratha place, a couple of tailors, and so on. Presiding over the middle is the glass-fronted eating room of Hotel Meghdoot, where all Mall Road’s fringe-tailed dogs take care to position themselves. Finally, there is Raju Taxi and Tour Service, which operates from an Alto. And then the market ends.

What will my shop sell? I am not sure. But in my head it is a warm, happy place where glass jars with freshly baked biscuits sit on shelves of sweet-smelling pinewood. In the corner is a bubbling coffee pot. Maybe my friends who actually have things to sell, such as hand-knitted sweaters and brinjal pickle, will use my shop. There will be books and dogs. Probably not for sale.

My desire for this shop has grown ever more intense after the emptiness that follows on the completion of any large piece of writing. 

At the end of the two or three years I spend writing a book, it is as if someone plunged an ice-cream scoop into me and took everything out. All that is left is a shell. This shell floats in a soothing sea of fantastical dreams.

 There is time to both sleep and dream after a novel is done. When I am writing, I don’t sleep much. I keep waking up, feverish with a thought I can’t let go of and don’t want to lose, and have to reach for a notebook to scribble things I can’t decipher in the morning. I go for walks with people who are as yet real only to me. It is an odd and exhausting way to live, and many in the same job describe writing as agonizing pain. I have never found it to be anything but exhilarating, even if in a fractious, defeated way sometimes. I would not do it if it were otherwise. 


But at the end of three years or so of all this staying awake and talking to people in my head come the deserts of vast eternity when I don’t know if I will ever write a book again. It’s the very last thing I want to do right now—and yet if I allow myself to dwell on it for a minute, the prospect of trekking through an arid, writing-bleached life brings about instant despair.

This is when it beckons: the never-never land of perpetual infancy rooted in a memory of my cousins and me selling boiled sweets to each other from borrowed pickle jars. I want a little shop from which I can observe a succession of sunsets and dooryards and sprinkled streets. Idleness acquires meaning this way. A shopkeeper isn’t just sitting there chatting; she can justifiably claim she is at work. What are literary festivals or book fairs but glorified shops where gossip is exchanged, wine drunk? Maybe some work happens too—nothing that would not get done without going to fairs and festivals.

Just around the time I finished my new novel last year, one of the two tailors on Mall Road—the junior one—threw in the towel. He gave up his shed and left. He had lost his battle with the older tailor known as Mamaji.

Mamaji is a dour man with steel-scrubber hair and black-framed spectacles. He has never been known to smile. He sits on the floor in a cascading mountain of half-cut fabric before an ancient Singer sewing machine and mainly does what is called oltrasun (alteration) whereby baggy old jeans are changed to trendy drainpipes. Mamaji’s secret, I am certain, is his ability to be absent from his shop more or less constantly because he prefers gambling at cards under a tree down the slope, where fortunes are made and lost every day. His tailoring skills have become mythical from being demonstrated so rarely. His unsmiling visage pre-empts questions about pending shirts and trousers. He is the artist who, like Johannes Vermeer, makes only 34 paintings in a lifetime of work. He is the author who writes one novel, then packs away his typewriter for the next 10 years.

My husband, who grew up a bookseller’s son, has no illusions about shops and warns me that the three conditions of a shopkeeper’s life that make it insupportable are that you have to be in the shop all day long; that you have no control over who walks in; and that you may not murder those who enter. You have to see people every single day and smile even at those you want to stick a harpoon into. You (and your wares) have to be available. This is my reclusive partner’s darkest nightmare.

But after several years of wilful misanthropy in the cause of listening to people I conjured up in my head, I think it’ll be a novelty to talk to some actual human beings. Which is why a shop sounds just the thing, and Mamaji’s way of keeping shop just the model to follow. I’ll be at work. I’ll be able to say I am busy. But I’ll open my shop when I want to and leave it to lounge on the western parapet across the road when the sunshine there looks tempting. My shop will let in every passing dog, but not every passing human. I might make an exception for Mamaji, provided he alters my trousers in return for a warm biscuit.

Anuradha Roy’s new book, All the Lives We Never Lived, will be published worldwide in June.

First Published in Live Mint: Fri, Jan 19 2018. 04 26 PM IST

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What happened one morning in Ranikhet

On a dewy morning in early May, a man named Jogi finished his taxi round dropping off children to schools in Ranikhet. He came home at about eight and resumed a quarrel he had been having with his parents. In minutes, the fight became uglier and louder. Nobody is clear when it took a disastrous turn, but all at once, Jogi dashed into the house, pulled out a sari belonging to his wife, and declared that he would hang himself from the nearby deodar tree. Go ahead, his parents said sarcastically, what are you waiting for.

Deodars, a variety of cedar, are massive. Their branches start high up on pillar-like trunks and grow parallel to the earth. They are extremely difficult to climb, but most people in the hills are used to cutting fodder from the upper reaches of trees. Jogi was thirty years old, a tall, athletic man. He clambered up the tree, fashioned a noose from the sari, and hanged himself even as neighbours and parents stared on. It was over in minutes. His parents swore to the police they had no idea he would take them at their word. Gossips observed that they did not shed a tear. His wife had left him a fortnight before, fed-up with his savage beatings. She refused to come for his cremation.

Jogi’s family is one of several that live in rooms they rent in a once-grand colonial bungalow that has become a set of tenements. The bungalow is located in the dip of a hillside next to a ravine and overlooks an arc of Himalayan snow peaks. On that absurdly beautiful day, as a man’s body hung from a deodar, the sky was a gaudy blue and the usual morning symphony of thrushes and barbets was on.

The news reached us minutes after the police arrived and people gathered. We are on the other side of the ravine and I often came across Jogi and his dark blue van. My last conversation with him was about his dog, a shaggy creature who came loping out from behind the van, barking at me. Jogi, who was cleaning the van, told his dog to lay off “Aunty” and assured me the dog’s bark was more sound than bite. We chatted for a few minutes before I walked on.

Most people later reported the same pleasantness from him – that is, when he was himself. But all hell broke loose when he went “crazy-type”, as the hill folk say, or “half-mind”. At such times, he ordered his dog to attack people and hurtled about in his car, almost driving into rockfaces. The day before he killed himself, he had crashed his car and broken its rear windscreen. After his wife left him, he began beating up his parents and threatened the neighbours. He picked fights with drivers in his taxi rank.


Jogi studied at a small Hindi-medium school called Sarasvati Vidya Mandir, which is perched above our one-street market. He did not progress beyond class eight. (This is how it is for most of Ranikhet’s boys; girls  do better at school.) After this, like his friends, he did daily-wage labour at times, or played alley-cricket. He built up a reputation for being helpful, but this was also when he started going “half-mind”. His parents bought him the van secondhand to drive as a taxi – an occupation -- and an income perhaps. They got him married. A wife would be a calming influence.

This is the template for most young men’s lives in the lower Himalayas, including Ranikhet, a densely forested cantonment town set up in the nineteenth century and dominated since then by army regiments. Army personnel live in their own boxes here, all needs catered for. The grand bungalows are owned by wealthy plains-people who come up for a few days of the year. The rest of the population is semi-rural, with no prospect of worthwhile employment. The area is free of industry. Businesses are a non-starter in a place so cut off. Rocky hillsides are interspersed with meagre terraced plots, good only for bare subsistence. People grow greens and tubers around their homes and have a couple of cows, goats, and a few hens: basic food and a little income. Women cut grass and collect deadwood for fuel and fodder. There is no severe poverty, but it is a relentless grind to overcome shortages of every kind.

My husband and I, running an independent publishing house from here, are an anomaly. In the early days we had job-seekers at our door because we were thought of as industrialists. It was hard to explain the economics of small publishing, to turn away from their crestfallen faces. The Indian finance minister recently brushed away economists’ gloom over “jobless growth”, but the relevant fact is that growth in employment nationally is close to zero and India’s impressive GDP growth figure is meaningless to people in the hinterland.

Every street corner in Ranikhet has knots of lounging men shooting the breeze because there is nothing else to do. Most haven’t finished school. They stare at mobile phone screens and dream of escape to Delhi, even to nearby towns like Rudrapur and Haldwani. A few find ill-paid odd-jobs locally as waiters and handymen. Those who make it to a city soon return defeated. They cadge money off relatives, buy a bottle or two, choose a lonely hillside, make a bonfire, drink. The empties they shatter against rocks, strewing forest stretches with broken glass. A way of screaming into the nothingness. The mountains are vast and free and stunning. But they can seem part of a cosmic rat trap.

Many drive taxis as Jogi used to, for want of other work. But tourism has dwindled. This is the idyllic town where Edmund Hillary and Frank Smythe started off on climbs. Small mountaineering companies, mostly branch offices of outfits in the West, have managed to retain something like a foothold. But they too report a drop in bookings and have laid off staff. It seems foreign hikers are no longer coming to India because it is considered unsafe for women. The pilgrim routes are beset by landslides, while the popularity of middle-class driving holidays means Indian tourists travel in their own cars. Taxi drivers idle in long, seething ranks, nowhere to go.

With such hopeless desperation, the impulse to violence is a hair’s breadth away. When he committed suicide, Jogi would have known of the tourist couple robbed and murdered by their taxi driver, Raju Das, in Dehradun during the Diwali holiday of 2014. Both Jogi and Raju Das were in the news for a few days. Many like them, suicidal or murderous, remain unnoticed.

Jogi’s taxi-van is still parked outside the house. The white shroud draped over its missing back windshield gives it a creepy air. The dog has disappeared. Jogi’s mother has taken to showing every visitor his wedding album. Obsessively. He towers over his tiny red-gold bride in the pictures, smiling and handsome and ready for life.

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