In January 2015, Outlook published a piece on ‘100 books that can change your life’, based on selections by a panel comprising Nilanjana Roy, David Davidar, Mukul Kesavan, Sunil Sethi and Mani Shankar Aiyar, interviewed by Satish Padmanabhan. The panel was dismissed by a lay reader on social media, who questioned the panelists’ authority. The reaction isn’t surprising from an outsider to the publishing industry, since people often think publishers/editors are simply tradesmen not on a par with academics when it comes to knowledge. The gentleman in this case should read Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books. Roy, as a non-academic, vindicates herself brilliantly with this collection and establishes how someone not from academia can still be in a position to talk about books and reading with authority.
Readers familiar with Roy’s journalistic writings and reviews, her blog ‘Akhond of Swat’ or her novels, The Wildings and its sequel, The Hundred Names of Darkness, will instantly identify with The Girl Who Ate Books. Part memoir, part academic exercise, this book brings together the best of Roy’s work and analysis on Indian writing in English.
The Girl Who Ate Books
Nilanjana S Roy
Rs 499; PP372
The Girl in question is Roy herself who, as a young girl, loved to eat books (paper) quite literally. As she confesses in the book, ‘I would discover later, through a process of trial and errors that Bengali books seldom tasted good, that paperbacks were dry and crumbly, and that exercise books were watery and disappointing […] Close up, the paper smelt a little like cookies, or like the waxed paper frill around loaves of plain cake.’
Age apparently whetted Roy’s appetite for books, which extended beyond the physical page. She began to devour not just paper, but stories, drama, poetry, literature and philosophy; in fact art in all forms from across the world, beginning from those available closest to her at her didima’s house in Calcutta. From the beginning, Roy has been aware of her privileged position, her ‘location’ as a writer, being born in a family of gifted storytellers.
The book is divided into seven sections: Early Days, Poets at Work, Writers at Work, Booklove, Booklovers, Plagiarism, Expression, which draw upon Roy’s formal meetings and personal interactions with several poets, writers, publishers and booksellers. The second and third sections come across as the most exciting and appealing, for she has had the opportunity to meet some of the best known names in India, a few of whom are alive no more. The memories are therefore even more cherished. Add to this tantalising descriptions of the expensive hotels/restaurants where the meetings often took place and the exotic food ordered, and one cannot help but recall that she edited A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Writing on Food (Penguin India). Roy’s voice, as always, is distinct whether as a little girl wonder-struck at the stories books contain, a rookie journalist at the beginning of her career meeting and interviewing celebrity authors or as a seasoned columnist speaking of the more pressing issues in the industry such as plagiarism, free speech and censorship.
However, two omissions are rather conspicuous in the book. Perhaps they are deliberate exclusions, since Roy is fully aware of them. The first is current trends in the field of Indian Writing in English. For a book that explores its history, perhaps the arc would have been more complete had it charted out the entire trajectory. We have, for instance, the highly popular new renderings of old myths by writers such as Ashok Banker and Devdutt Pattanaik who perhaps begat the more experimental Samhita Arni, and these three collectively perhaps begat Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi and their more commercial spin-offs of the same mythological tales. On the other hand is Chetan Bhagat with his Bollywood-style romances and a host of other campus novels and novelists.
The second is Indian writing in translation that Roy has mentioned fleetingly at times. This is often the most ignored category and a significant one. Just as random examples, how about the history of translation of our myths and folktales – the Panchatantra, Jatakas, or the more adult Betal Pachisi by Somdev Bhatt (incidentally, Richard Burton’s version still seems to be the most popular); Abol Tabol or Goopy Bagha, besides the thousands of classic Indian authors? Certainly there is a wealth of material here for Roy to consider doing another book. If someone can do justice to the research and writing, she certainly can.
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal and the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle.