Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Girl Who Ate Books: book review

The Girl Who Ate Books: Nilanjana Roy
Review by Divya Dubey

[Published by Hindustan Times, June 25, 2016:]

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 Manishankar Aiyar, interviewed by Satish Padmanabhan. The panel was criticized and dismissed by a lay reader on social media (that later made some heads turn), who questioned the panelists’ credentials and authority. The reaction isn’t surprising from an outsider to the publishing industry, since people often think publishers/editors are simply tradesmen/women not on a par with academics when it comes to knowledge. The discontented gentleman in this case should read Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books. The sheer breadth of her reading and depth of her knowledge is mind-boggling.  Roy, as a non-academic, vindicates herself brilliantly with this collection and establishes beyond doubt how someone not from the academia can still be in a position to talk about books and reading with some 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 carried over several years and brought up to date. Though she states at the beginning of one of the sections that ‘this collection of essays is chiefly about the history of Indian Writing in English’, this statement is qualified in the prologue where the book is said to be about ‘the love of reading, and about a reading childhood in India’, which is indeed what most of the book focuses upon.

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 way 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 various nooks and crannies of the world, beginning from those available closest to her at her didima’s house in Calcutta.  Right from the beginning Roy has been aware of her privileged position, her ‘location’ as a writer, being born in a family of gifted storytellers.

Nilanjana S Roy
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 et al during her career. The second and third sections therefore come across as the most exciting and appealing,
for she has had the enviable opportunity to meet, speak to, know and form friendships with some of the best known names in India, a few of whom are alive no more and the memories are therefore even more cherished. Add to it the tantalizing 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). The foodie in her resurfaces unapologetically.

Right at the beginning she discusses what it means to be an Indian writer writing in English or who indeed is an Indian writer. In that context references to a writers’ festival of sorts at Neemrana organized by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in 2003 are recurrent in the book. In the process she brings in discussions and debates about India’s first truly Indian novel, whether it was indeed Bankimchandra’s Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) or not.

Her 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 IWE. 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 of course 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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment