By: Abhijit Gupta
Book: The Girl Who Ate Books: Adventures in Reading
Author: Nilanjana Roy
Price: Rs 499
This is indeed a book about a girl who ate books — literally and metaphorically. One thinks of the Portuguese writer Rui Zink’s novella O Anibaleitor — the title a pun on Hannibal Lecter and yielding the name of a monster who ate books, and occasionally human beings. Roy’s book-eater is a four-year-old whose first tentative lick of a page of Walter de la Mare leads quickly to the nibbling of a corner and then the surreptitious devouring of an entire page. We are also informed that “Bengali books seldom tasted good, paperbacks were dry and crumbly, and that exercise books were watery and disappointing”.
One must feel thankful, I suppose, that the young Roy’s library did not include a copy of Aristotle’s lost poetics on laughter, the consumption of whose poison-coated pages led to the death of the Venerable Jorge in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
But jokes apart, The Girl Who Ate Books is a book about books, ramifying over a nearly two-century history of writing in India, primarily in the English language. Culled from Roy’s columns for over two decades, the essays constitute a virtual Who’s Who of the world of Indian English letters. Seven sections, mixed and shaken with personal reminiscences of reading and book-love, deliver a book infused with delicate remembrances of books and readings past.
The first section, ‘Early days’, is historical in scope, following the trail of Dean Mohammad, Mutiny novels, and a host of “pioneers” such as Behramji Malabari, Dhan Gopal Mukherjee, and Raja Rao among others. In the chapter, ‘How to Read in Indian’, Roy revisits the “argument between English versus the Rest of India”. While acknowledging that over the last 30 years, “Indian writing in the Western world is defined largely as Indian writing in English”, Roy, surprisingly, does little to dispel that notion despite the bilingualism of her early reading. While Roy dwells at length on the history of the pas-de-deux between English and “mother and other tongues”, one looks in vain for adventures in raiding the Bengali section of the library on Rowland Road.
But that in no way diminishes the offerings which follow. The second section, titled ‘Poets at Work’, features brief lives of five poets while the third, titled ‘Writers at Work’, features 14 prose writers. Most of the articles are tête-à-têtes with the writers, partaking heavily of the conversational and the first name. What we carry away is not so much a sense of their work as a sense of bodies at work, in their respective habitats, a peek behind the scenes to which the reading public is usually not privy. One senses a journalistic compulsion behind these columns, the sign of a time when it is as important for the writer to be seen as well as read, at the endlessly recursive gatherings of the tribe at launches, book fairs, and the literary festival.
The most rewarding section of the book for me was the fourth, titled ‘Booklove’. Ghosts of College Street and Daryaganj pavement booksellers whisper from the pages, while orphaned libraries are weighted on rusting metal scales: “along with the heavy stone weights, the memories of readers and their collective booklove swings the balance down on the other side”. From another article, we learn that Daryganj’s booksellers sourced their stock from Simla’s secondhand bookshops, which in turn acquired theirs from British Indian publishers, or from old private Delhi libraries. Book historians — a tribe to which the current reviewer admits membership — would do well to pay more attention to the commerce of books along the informal channels of the second-hand and remaindered markets. Towards the end, there is an intriguing section on plagiarism, disquieting, but also a reminder of the less savoury aspects of the writer’s vocation.
It is not easy to convert one’s journalism into one coherent volume. Nilanjana Roy has been able to stitch a rich and colourful patchwork out of bits and pieces. It is a testament to her enviable skills as a writer that these pieces appear as fresh as they were at the time they were first written.
Abhijit Gupta teaches English literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata and and is director, Jadavpur University Press