Updated: September 17, 2021 11:07:35 pm
There is a moment of premonitory awareness in Anuradha Roy’s new novel, The Earthspinner (Hachette, Rs 599), when the potter Elango, one of its central characters, despairs over his love for a Muslim woman, Zohra. “He wanted this sign to bring him the only message he yearned for, one that would tell him the unbridgeable crevasse between him and Zohra would one day close, the earth would heal itself, and he would be able to walk across to the other side where she was waiting for him…
He could not utter what she was, a Muslim. The space between the two was a charnel house of burnt and bloodied human flesh, a giant crack through the earth that was like an open mouth waiting to swallow him. He could not imagine a life without Zohra. That was unbearable. But he dared not imagine a life with her.”
In the novel, it is the late Seventies and Morarji Desai has just been elected the Prime Minister after the horrors of the Emergency, but it could well be a day in the life of India today. The legacy of communal distrust, inherited at the time of Partition, lies smouldering below the surface, awaiting a spark to bring it out in the open. Yet, galvanised by his passions — for his craft, for Zohra, and for Chinna, the abandoned dog who adopts him and his neighbourhood — Elango chooses love. Like countless others in this country, in the face of insurmountable opposition, he is ready to face its disproportionate consequences.
The perils to ordinary happiness has a deep history in the subcontinent that acquires new meaning in each retelling, serving as cautionary tales or, increasingly infrequently, as stories of hope. In the seven decades since Independence, the schisms driven by religion, caste or class have deepened to demand a homogenisation of identities. Roy’s tale is a multi-stranded narrative that examines the nature of our diversity and creative impulses; the shadow of grief in our lives and the redemptive joy of friendships, human or canine. “I think I’ve just been wanting to write this book for a very long time, without knowing exactly the shape it would take. I wanted it to approach various themes that are important to me, one of which was the place of creativity and the resistance it faces from outside forces.
The other was the place of animals in the hierarchy of life that we have in this country. And the third was to understand how bereavement affects someone very young. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about, because I lost my father when I was very young and it’s been something that affected me. I wanted pottery in it, because that was what was going to knit everything together, and because all these themes were very important to me, it took me quite a while to approach it,” says Roy, 54, over a video interview.
At the heart of Roy’s story lies a 8 foot clay horse that Elango creates, dredged from memories of his predecessors building one for the local temple, fired by his desire to create a tribute to his beloved, and whose destruction forms the pivot of the novel.
In her childhood, Roy had encountered the terracotta horses of West Bengal’s Bankura. Later, in the course of her own fascination with pottery, she would come to know of the Ayyanar horses, made as an offering to gods for the safekeeping of local communities. “The horse in South India that was worshipped is not the horse that Elango is making, in the sense that the actual horse was a sacred thing. It was related to a myth of Shiva — in which Lord Shiva’s fury is put into the mouth of a horse and it is sent underwater to cool off. Elango’s horse is a secular horse, because he is doing it as an offering to his beloved. It is not as though India was gloriously harmonious or secular before, but we aspired to be those things. The destruction of this horse was, to me, a kind of symbol of the way we have stopped aspiring to harmony. Instead, it’s now hatred that is the governing force,” says Roy.
In her 2018 Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award-winning novel, All The Lives We Never Lived, that was set in an India on the brink of Independence, Roy had drawn on the transformative potential of memory and history and the warnings it sounds out for the future. As a writer, how does she react to this time of rising majoritarianism? “You know, it just doesn’t seem possible somehow, to someone of my generation, how did we get here. Were we deluded all along? Were we completely out of step? When I was a much younger person, at that time, it seemed to us that everybody around us wanted the same things as us, which was to aspire to this kind of secular ideal that had been set in stone when we got Independence as a country, that we were taught non-stop as kids, that the cinema, art and books around us embodied when we grew up.
And we thought that this was what everyone around us felt, too. Now, it’s been a process of really feeling disillusioned and rather stupid that we are completely out of step with what most people seem to want. I think it is futile to keep blaming the government for everything. There are so many people you talk to, who seem to think everything is perfectly okay, what is going on, that is the part I find more alarming, even more than what leaders and politicians do,” she says.
But just like Elango’s horse represents syncretism, Roy says there is redemption in art. “For people who make art, it really is how they respond to the world, how they find refuge, solace, everything united in that one thing. In the case of Elango, that piece of art becomes something so representative of what is fragile in our society. I didn’t start out thinking he would make a horse with calligraphy on it. But as the book developed, I think what was playing in my mind was the beauty of all these Islamic monuments we see around us which have beautiful script all over the doorways and arches and so on, which I have never, of course, been able to read because I don’t read those languages. But I’ve always responded to it as a design, as art.
Yet, it has meaning for the person who can read it. So I wanted to have these two things together on that horse — this language that to some people is beautiful just as a design, to some it’s threatening as an alien religion rather than as script. Therefore, that horse becomes a kind of speaking horse to me, which says different things to different people,” she says.
Roy lives in Ranikhet with her husband Rukun Advani — with whom she runs the publishing house, Permanent Black — and her beloved coterie of strays. From the quiet of her surroundings, Roy trains her lens on small towns and cities, places of churn that become transformed under her thoughtful gaze. She can feel change creeping up on Ranikhet, too. “Many people who come back after 10, 15, 20 years say they feel as if nothing changes here. But I can see change all around me, among the young particularly.
First of all, they have huge access to information, they have higher levels of education. They are aware, well-informed, highly intelligent. And yet, there’s a huge sense of frustration because there’s gigantic unemployment. They really don’t know what they will do once they leave school and college here because their English skills are not that great, they are not equipped to compete in the way urban kids may be. So, you can feel a kind of seething turmoil among the young. There’s a lot more drug use now. Change is coming in not very good ways in that sense. In some eternal sense, of course, the mountains and trees are the same and life goes on as always,” she says.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.