A novelist who never wanted a career in writing

Traversing through the realms of writing, publishing and bookselling, Anuradha Roy has done them all. The celebrated author talks about keeping her distance from social media and the writings which have inspired her.

A writer, editor, publisher, bookstore manager, storekeeper… you name it and Anuradha Roy has done it all. She has also inspired thousands of others in the process and reminded us that the quality of writing can never be compromised on. Each of her books is not just amazing reads but pieces of literary art, to be part of a prized collection at home and read again and again. 

Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, has been translated into 18 languages. It was named one of the ‘60 Essential English Language Works of Modern Indian Literature’ by World Literature Today. Her second novel, The Folded Earth, won the Economist Crossword Prize and has been widely translated. Sleeping on Jupiter, her third novel, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize too. Her fourth novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, won the Tata Book of the Year Award for Fiction 2018 and was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018. It has now been shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award for 2020. 

The International Dublin Literary Award shortlist is drawn from a longlist of 156 novels submitted by library systems in 119 cities in 40 countries. The statement from the judges says: 

“Set in the 1930s, Anuradha Roy’s new novel is like an Indian raga that continues to resonate long after you have finished the last chapter. Myshkin is the nine year-old protagonist, and the central event in his life is revealed in the novel’s opening sentence: ‘I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.’ The Englishman turned out to be Walter, a German, who had to leave British India in a hurry, taking Myshkin’s beloved mother with him, triggering a memorable saga of love, memory, kindness, human frailty and the devastating loneliness of a boy.” 

Despite being such a celebrated writer, Anuradha Roy is not in the social media or literature festival race. It’s comforting to see that there is still a breed of writers who let their works speak for themselves. “Prizes are partly a matter of chance and I feel honoured and lucky when I do make it to shortlists or win anything. The euphoria lasts a day or two and then you have to get back to the real grind of revising and writing. Prizes do end up influencing perception. I try and limit the number of events and festivals because I need quiet time at home to be able to write. That way the whole business of prizes and reviews is kept at a distance. If you can’t disconnect once a book is out, it is crippling,” says Roy.

 Writing is a habit that one cultivates throughout their lives. However, when it comes to publishing, some begin early while some are late bloomers. Either way, publishing a book is serious business because a book stays forever, and one is often judged by the book written. Says Roy on her career as a writer and publisher, “I’ve written stories from my childhood but had never felt the need to write a novel. I never wanted a career in writing, only wanted one in publishing. It was only when we were struggling to set up Permanent Black and things were really tough that somehow the space opened up for a novel. And at that point it was something I just had to do. I wrote it over a period of two or three years and by the time it was published (which took ages), I was forty.”

 While Roy worked in book publishing, she was the acquisitions editor for literature at OUP, and then in 2000, together with her husband Rukun Advani, started Permanent Black. “Once I began writing fiction, I found it hard to edit, difficult to carry two or more books in my head simultaneously, so I stopped and focused on design, which is what I still do for our press. I do all our cover designs. I think working with visuals rather than words uses a totally different part of the brain, that is how it feels,” she says. Book production and selling have been a part of Anuradha’s life. The iconic Ram Advani Booksellers belonged to her late father-in-law where she did counter duty whenever she was in town, and when she was in college in Calcutta, she did a summer job with an independent press, Stree, where she was taught the ropes by her cousin, Mandira Sen, who runs it still. “The first thing she made me do was an inventory of all the books in the storeroom, just to show me publishing wasn’t a glamour job about meeting famous authors. Much of it is drudge work, and that was useful to know early on,” Roy says. 

Even though India is one of the biggest markets in the world, our reading population for literary novels remains dismally low. A big reason for that could be the way our education system has been, following Macaulayism, where we read only to answer questions. And it is a fact that good readers are often able to become great writers. Anuradha Roy has been inspired by many writings that she has read throughout her life. “The books I read as a child are still with me: Sukumar Roy’s Nonsense Verse, Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s The Golden Goblet, Gone with the Wind, books by Nevil Shute, Dickens, Hardy and Austen. Cheap translations of Dostoevsky and Chekhov used to be all over when I was growing up, and their writing had a huge impact on me. Later in life, I came to know Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhaya, a book I first read in translation and then relearned the Bengali script in order to read it in the original. I love the enigmatic, beautiful short stories of Alice Munro, the mingling of fact and fiction in the nonfiction of Ryszard Kapuscinski,” she adds. 

We may categorise books into several genres, but the truth remains that a majority of stories are taken from personal experiences and influences. In All The Lives We Never Lived, there are several historical characters, including Walter Spies, Rabindranath, Percy Lancaster, Beryl de Zoete and Begum Akhtar. Anuradha says, “The book began with a boy’s immersion in paintings — and the magical thing was how the historical interconnections became apparent to me during the research. I started out with a boy; then as I stood in a museum in Bali before the paintings of Walter Spies, I discovered he died on 19th January, the very day my beloved old dog had died, only a few months earlier. I know this sounds whimsical, but instantly it felt as if my life, the novel and one real life character were all connected. Spies became the painter who would enter the life of the boy. Slowly, these ripples of connectedness spread wider — via Tagore, writer Maitreyi Debi, Beryl de Zoete, who wrote a book with Spies — and it became even clearer that this world which we think of as the past is close to ours and very present even in mundane ways: travel, hopes and dreams, health, the discovery of new countries, unlikely friendships. Where there is a striving for happiness in hostile surroundings, and where overwhelming forces of history can sweep everything aside.”

 With so much acclaim and such brilliant works that are being read globally, one wonders why there have been no translations of her writings into Indian languages. Hopefully, with NEP 2020, the focus will be back on creativity and overall skill development, which will develop our interest in the rich and vast realm of Indian regional literatures, besides reading and writing in English. We hope to see this soon so that such a large and diverse market does not remain deprived of the best stories ever written.