Monday, 18 May 2015

Mango Republics


Yesterday Suman, a friend who lives down the stairs, handed me a mango. It was one of the few she in turn had been gifted by her brother who in turn had been gifted by…. Well, this was no ordinary mango: it was an Alphonso, and therefore it was an act of real generosity for her to part with one. I had never tasted the fabled Alphonso, could hardly believe I had one in my hand. She shrugged that she thought it overrated, but ok, an Alphonso, is an Alphonso, she said, why not taste it and decide.

I realised,  going up the stairs holding my precious Alphonso, that I had actually tasted one, not a month ago, in London. Only, I had clean forgotten it. To those of us used to the Benishaan, the Chausa, the Langra and the Sindoori,  the vital thing is that lovely tangy twist that gives mangoes character. Their tastes unroll on the tongue layer by layer. I had forgotten eating the Alphonso because it was merely nice: sweet, pleasant, uncomplicated.
photo courtesy: enjoyingindia.com

Yet Bombaywallas regard every other mango with contempt.  My view is that the international fame the Alphonso has grabbed is no more than a marketing coup, maybe in-product selling via Bollywood. Why is it almost the only Indian mango known by name outside India?

At the London shop where my friend Munni was buying the Alphonsos I ate last month, a polite, very Angrez disagreement took place because the chit of a till-girl, hardly twenty and not even desi, flicked her blonde hair and informed us that she thought Pakistani mangoes were better. My friend smiled and corrected her. The young woman stood by her views, she even sneered a bit. My blood frothed immediately with what Shivam Vij calls mango nationalism: how dare she!

He’s written about it so entertainingly I won’t even try:
“I am telling nothing but the truth when I tell you that Indian mangoes are better than Pakistani mangoes. It infuriates me when Pakistanis don't agree. That makes mangoes an India-Pakistan dispute just like Kashmir. … What annoys me further is that there are Pakistanis who claimed to have tasted Indian mangoes and still think Pakistani mangoes are better. The problem with such Pakistani mango lovers is that they are Pakistanis first and mango lovers second. Which is not to say I have tasted Pakistani mangoes. Why would I do that when I get to eat the world's best mangoes? India has over 1,200 varieties of mangoes, Pakistan only 400.” (Read the rest here)

The sudden Indo-Pak rivalry via a Western mediator at a London grocery reminded me of Maulvi Sahab, protagonist of  Joginder Paul’s, Khwabrau [The Sleepwalkers, transl. Sukrita Paul Kumar]. Exiled to Karachi at Partition, Maulvi Sahab is haunted by all he has lost, and decides he still lives in Lucknow, not Karachi. One of his greatest griefs in his makebelieve world is that he can no longer eat Lucknow’s Malihabadi mangoes: “Don’t you find it strange that we eat the mangoes grown here but our hearts can be satisfied only by the clay imitations of Malihabadi mangoes?” Hakim Sahab, another character in this novel is obsessed with creating a chemically engineered replica of the Malihabadi mango in Karachi. It doesn’t work of course. Lucknow’s mangoes can grow only in Lucknow.

I feel helpless outrage abroad as Europeans eating giant, shapeless, tasteless pretenders from South America inform me that they think mangoes are overrated, Indians needlessly rhapsodise over them. What do they know of mangoes who have never been in India in summer and allowed a chilled mouthful to slide down their throats when the air is shimmering outside at 45 degrees and the hot wind is crisping up leaves into papad? You can only pity them.

There is a reason why Mirza Ghalib (1797 – 1869) mourned at 60 that he could no longer eat “more than ten or twelve at a sitting... and if they are large ones, then a mere six or seven. Alas, the days of youth have come to an end, indeed, the days of life itself have come to an end." (Read the article from which this quote is taken.)

He was talking about Indian mangoes. Probably not Alphonsos though, since he lived in north India and there was no DHL mango-post then.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

From the Reviews

"The themes of innocence stolen, the refuge of the imagination, and the inclination to look away are handled with sensitivity and subtlety in some of the best prose of recent years encountered by this reader. Roy brings a painterly eye, her choice of detail bringing scenes to sensual life, while eschewing floridness: a masterclass rather in the art of restraint, the pared-back style enabling violence close to the surface to glint of its own accord."
 Rebecca K. Morrison, The Independent

"Anuradha Roy’s brilliant new novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, is a riveting and poignant read...There’s a whole tapestry out there: lost innocence, displacement, violence, friendship, survival, unconventional love, rejection, and pain...all penned with excellent craft. The opening chapters are violent but etched in delicate, detached prose."
Suneetha Balakrishnana, The Hindu

"Both incredibly timely and extremely brave."
Lucy Scholes, The National

"Playing hopscotch with narrative energy and moving with pointed fingers like one does in a whodunit, Sleeping on Jupiter is that nearly utopian beast – a literary page-turner....If you’ve ever lost something, you must read this novel. If you’ve ever found something you lost, you must read this novel too."
Sumana Roy, Scroll.in

"Took my breath away ... Magnificently disturbing storytelling" Jaya Bhattacharjee Rose

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

OUT AT LAST!

Sleeping on Jupiter was released in April in India (published by Hachette India) and in Britain (published by Maclehose Press).

The formal "launch" was at Asia House London. A complete account, including an audio link here, from the Asia House site.

Spunky, feisty older Indian women are central characters in new book

Indian author Anuradha Roy, left with the Guardian and Observer books editor Claire Armitstead
Indian author Anuradha Roy, left, the Guardian and Observer books 
editor Claire Armitstead, right, at the launch of 'Sleeping on Jupiter', which was held at Asia House

01/05/15
By Naomi Canton
A book portraying older Indian women – not the typical centres of Indian fiction – as spunky, strong, rebellious and flirtatious and no longer simply living their lives for others, was launched at Asia House.
Sleeping on Jupiter by Indian author Anuradha Roy, was launched as part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2015 and was the first pre-Festival event.

In the same way that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) film gave older people a new lease of life as central characters of a popular movie, this book gives older Indian women the unusual role of being the main characters of an Indian fiction book as they set off on holiday together – without any children, or men. Whilst the book also shows a dark side of India by portraying child abuse in ashrams by godmen, through these three women’s feisty spirits and slight rebelliousness, the book also challenges the negative stereotyping of Indian women as oppressed.

“The book is set over five days with flashbacks,” Roy said in conversation with Claire Armitstead, books editor for the Guardian and Observer. “It is essentially about people facing completely unexpected situations in their lives by being in a different setting. Sometimes they have planned to be there and at other times they have found themselves there, but they are at a crossroads in their lives where they have to face things they haven’t before and this often brings them to some form of crisis.”

The book is about people who have reached a point in their lives where they need to find a different reality. One of the characters finds that in another planet that has 16 moons – thus the title of the novel, she explained.

Roy’s third novel is set in an imaginary Hindu pilgrimage town by the sea called Jarmuli: a deeply Hindu town full of temples, some ruined and some still in use. “The town is frequented by pilgrims who are there because they are religious or they are coping with questions of belief and faith; some have been scarred by religion and some enriched by it, but they are all there because of their religion,” she said.

Roy added: “It’s a town which brings together religion and sexuality in a very odd sort of way.”
The three old ladies, all good friends from Kolkata, are sitting together on a train going on a pilgrimage holiday. “They have lived a life of looking after their children and working but never before been on holiday like this as women on their own,” Roy explained. “They know inside themselves this is their first and last chance to have a really good time. A young woman gets off the train and does not get back on,” she added. “If there is any part of the novel that is autobiographical then that is it. I once was on my way to Dehradun to the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival in Uttarkhand and I got off the train to get something to eat and I saw this train set off before I got back on and it had my luggage on it! So I ran to get on this running train. My heart was exploding my terror,” Roy recalled.

“Older people are often seen as irrelevant in Indian fiction, but in my book the older women are constantly thinking about their relationships with their children and their husbands and lives they have lived,” she said. “They don’t always feel that maternal or good about their children always demanding things from them and one of them still feels tugs of flirtatiousness. I wanted them to be just fully-fledged human,” she said.

Whilst on the one hand these women are quite feisty, at the same time “you feel they have had a lifetime of having to cope and having a hard time in India as every time you take a bus you have to think about how you can protect your front, back and side,” Roy continued.

“There is a hint one of the women is suffering from dementia and by the end of it you don’t know what’s going to happen to them, she added. “There are shadows over their lives,” she said. “I think any book has to have – right to the end and even for years afterwards – some areas of mystery and ‘unknownness’ that make you think about the book,” she added.

This novel started as a ‘long short story’ based on these three older women and Roy’s publisher told her to either cut it in half or expand it. “The short story was their holiday and they have an encounter with a girl on the beach during this holiday that leaves them extremely disturbed,” she explained.
A young refugee child called Nomi is another central character of the book who is searching for where she grew up.

“You don’t start out saying ‘child abuse is really important; I must put it into my novel.’ The character comes first. When I thought about her she turned out like this,” Roy said.

In the same way that the Aamir Khan record-breaking movie PK questions and  exposes the practises of a godman (guru or holy men who often claim to have paranormal powers) in a Hindu Temple, the book also questions the practises of some Hindu godmen.

“In the book there are godmen using religion to abuse women or children. All the Brahmin patriarchal Hindu religious infrastructure is bent on crushing all the oppressed which are women, the underclass and Dalits. There are still Hindu temples in India that women are not allowed to enter. It was a very difficult book for me to write because it made me physically sick at times to read about it and write about these things,” she said.

The book is not all darkness; it has moments of comedy. Apart from the comic old Bengali ladies, the chai (Indian tea with spices) vendor who often fills people’s glasses with froth rather than tea is a favourite character of Roy’s.

Roy, a former books editor at The Hindu, now runs a small publishing house with her husband in India.
“Ever since The Satanic Verses both from fatwas to the Hindu right, liberals in India are embattled everywhere and people will always try to silence you. The problem with India is that if someone objects to a book there is no one to defend you and if it gets a stay order in a court in any part of India then you can’t sell it. What we really fear as publishers is that someone somewhere will object and it will go out of circulation,” she said.

She said there was a lot of competitiveness in India between those who write in English and those who write in vernacular languages because the books by the latter do not get translated enough and there is a perception that those who write in English get more readers and money, whilst those who do not may have extraordinary talent but can’t access the same number of readers.
 “My Bengali is not good enough. I read Bengali but could not write in Bengali. In a natural way I write in English,” she said.

Sleeping on Jupiter was published in India a week ago, but has not been translated into local languages. “The Indian Government very rarely supports any kind of literary work by giving you grants. So only those novels that are expected to make really big sales will get translated like Salman Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh,” she said. “Publishing is not a rich industry in India. My Indian publisher might do some kind of launch if he can. You do as many festivals as you can. People won’t pay to come and listen to you talking about a book and there are no longer these champagne launches. I am going to some festivals in Bali and Sri Lanka but those are just to see nice places!” she said laughing.

The book switches between the first person and third person depending on what she is describing, she explained.  “I feel certain parts of the books work better in the first person and I want the intimacy of the first person in those bits but in the rest of the book I want both, I want to sit and look at everything on high and also have the first person.  I also worked very hard on the language the child speaks. My mother is very disturbed by the fact there is an orphan in each of my books,” Roy added laughing.
“All I want is for people to read it and think well of it. I don’t need it to start a social movement,” she said. “There are such huge inequalities that exist in India that it’s almost systematic to ignore the oppressed who are the poor, children and animals. But people in India prefer you to portray a happy picture of India. It happened years ago even when Satyajit Ray made his films. The Hindi movie world found it unpatriotic when he made a film which showed very poor village life,” she added.

“I don’t feel like a woman writer, I just feel like a writer. The joys of being a writer are if someone read it and likes it,” she said.

She denies the book portrays men in a negative light. “There are women in the book aiding and abetting the godmen in the ashram who know what’s going on and that is quite a normal scenario,” she said, adding she was fond of the male “temple guide and the tea seller” characters. “People might find it surprising I deal with religion as it’s not usually a topic in Indian fiction.  Religion often enters Indian fiction by our mythology.”

But she insists the book is not anti-Hindu. “It has characters who are believers and looks at their problems of belief but does not, at all, run down the religion. But it sees this religious feeling as something that gives their life meaning.

“This is really about the feeling inside people of devotion, how it might make some people feel fulfilled and is a release them or for others it might oppress them. It is about religious feeling than a particular religion,” she said.

The book also shows there are many kinds of realities for women in India and they are not all suffering and repressed. She points out even in Indian villages women are becoming more independent. “Even very poor village women in the hills are talking outside more than the men and young people from the hinterland are making their way in the cities in the workplace,” she said.

(For the audio link, please click on the hyperlink at the start of this piece and go to the end of the page that opens)