A novel is a conjuror’s trick, a spell cast by words. The illusionist is the writer, for whom the imaginary is as real as the ground she stands on. She can hear her characters speak, the voices growing more distinct as she enters deeper into this world. For some writers, as important as the arc of a character’s life is place — the heave and fall of hills, the unsettling rush of the sea, or the broken light in a neighbourhood going to seed. Till it is no longer a map of words but a place with its own geography.
Anuradha Roy, in whose novels the landscape is a vital presence, is one such writer. “When you are writing a novel, you are sort of living in that place for a long time. Unless it is absolutely real, I can’t function in the world of the novel,” says the author who lives in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand.
A large, lonely house in Songarh, a fictional town in pre-Independence Bengal, lush with rare plants and the ruins of the past, was at the heart of her first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. In her next, The Folded Earth, a motley cast of characters came alive in a hill town nestled in the Himalayas. In her newest novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, the 47-year-old steps away from solitary settings and embraces the teeming crowd. Many journeys intersect in Jarmuli, a temple town by the sea, which could well be Puri: Nomi, an Indian girl adopted by a Norwegian parent, returns here looking for a few shreds of her traumatised past; a group of elderly women are on a holiday, away from the demands of family; and Badal, the unlikeable temple priest, who has lived all his life here, suddenly finds himself adrift. “Quite a lot of it is about friendship, about the complexity of friendship, the sort of tensions and betrayals in it,” says Roy. We are in her apartment in east Delhi, where she spends a few months every year.
It is a novel of elusiveness, drawing its charge from the sea that is never still, “its endlessness a thing [the] mind could not come to grips with”. “I like made-up places partly because it gives you freedom. Even when I was writing about Ranikhet in The Folded Earth, I started to make it up,” she says. After a point, though, the imaginary place becomes more defined. “It is clear in your head…and then you don’t change it around. You cannot bring a house 200 m closer to the beach, because it is convenient,” she says.
Roy learnt to be attentive to the lie of the land early on in life. Her father was a field geologist and she remembers an infancy spent in tents set up for families at camping sites. “My father was extremely interested in rocks and fossils, he was also a great gardener,” she says. Her mukhe-bhaat, a ceremony that initiates a Bengali child into the flavours of adult food, was held in a tent. It was a childhood spent in many places, Ranchi, Hyderabad, Calcutta and Sikkim.
Seeing that the little girl was unhappy at having been left at home when her elder brother had gone off to school, Roy’s mother had handed her a black book. “This is for you to write,” she said. Write she did, filling it up with one-line stories such as: “Bear sat on a chair”. She kept writing through her childhood, “imitative garbage”, she says with a laugh.
She was 14 when her first short stories were published in The Indian Express, Hyderabad. But it would be many, many years later that Roy would resume writing. While in college and, later, while working at the Oxford University Press, she hardly wrote. “I had never told myself that I was going to write a novel,” she says. In 2000, her husband Rukun Advani and she started their own publishing house, Permanent Black. It was soon after, during a particularly fallow time, that fiction reclaimed her. “What made me go back to writing was just being at home, the time to do nothing, to daydream. I can’t precisely explain what started it, but one day soon after we had started Permanent Black, I wrote down this 15-page long passage, which came out of nowhere, which made no sense, but which was very vivid. After quite a while, I showed it to Rukun, who thought it was very well-written,” she says. That passage featured Bakul, one of the central characters in The Atlas of Impossible Longing.
Life in Ranikhet gives her a perspective on temporality and change that was so much a part of The Folded Earth. “I think people got distracted by the romance in the novel; it was really about the natural world and its eventual destruction. When you live in the hills, you see so much of it — the cutting off trees, the killing of animals. Earlier, there was a particular hill cuckoo, called the kaafal paako, its cry a soft sound. But now we hear less and less of it, and more of the plains cuckoo. The other bird which was never seen in the hills earlier was the aggressive rock pigeon, which drove out our whistling thrush,” she says.
The hallmark of her fiction is language that is poetic but precise, stripped of excess. Her sentences are pitch-perfect; it is as if the rhythms of the natural world move through them. If her novels falter, it is on the rocky ground of plot and coincidence. She has a talent for the oddball character, whether it is Diwan Sahib in The Folded Earth or Johnny Toppo in Sleeping on Jupiter. She is not a writer who immerses herself in research while writing. “I find that in my case my characters come out of my imagination,” she says.
Roy’s work is elegiac in tone, and her protagonists often remain within the confines of their loneliness. “I think people are lonely. This January, it was a painful time for both of us because our old dog died. Watching her in the last few moments, I felt that I just couldn’t go with her. And yet, in the books, my characters do try and forge friendships or relationships. Some succeed, others don’t. It is the human condition,” she says.
And while she has never revisited any of her older characters, she is sure that they have an afterlife. “They are on some different planet, which is spinning on its own, but they are there. It’s just that I have stopped watching them closely,” she says.