November 22, 2011 by markstani
Anuradha Roy’s The Folded Earth (pub. Quercus/MacLehose) has been longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize. Following is an exclusive Q&A with the author. Scroll down or click here for the review, and here for an excerpt.
To what extent, if any, is Maya, the novel’s central character, autobiographical, and are the other significant characters drawn from real-life?
Maya and I share nothing other than a fondness for long walks and the place we live. Those who know the kind of anarchic, individualistic, amateur scholar not uncommon in the hills here till a generation ago will glimpse him in Diwan Sahib, especially as Corbett’s biographer did live in Ranikhet and was somewhat similar to Diwan Sahib temperamentally.
Some of my characters come out of nowhere; for a few I use real people as line drawings from which to begin, but they tend to move further and further away from the real with their every new line in the fictional world.
There is an inherent fragility about the Ranikhet of your novel; the sense that political or religious forces could irrevocably alter its landscape at any time: does this threat still exist in real-life Ranikhet today?
Ranikhet has been protected so far by its relative remoteness. But this makes it even more vulnerable to the rampaging greed for more land, more power, more everything today.
That fragility is also reflected in its nature, which is a big part of your book: in particular the images of leopards slinking the undergrowth. To what extent is your Ranikhet at risk from environmental change?
Compared to other hill towns, parts of Ranikhet are still densely wooded, but human need is constantly gnawing at it. But I’ve been reading Sebald’s Rings of Satan and one cataclysmic storm he describes towards the end of the book in which whole forests in England are flattened like cornfields makes me wonder if there’s much point losing sleep over any of this.
India’s crumbling Raj era is obviously still extremely popular among prospective tourists and, by extension, readers, seeking out the so-called ‘real India’. One of the successes of your novel seems to be how, rather than striving to avoid the cliches associated with that era, you actively embrace them: the pickle factory, the ageing aristocrat, etc. Was this a conscious decision?
I don’t know that too much in the way I write is made up of conscious decisions. I’m trying to create a coherent fictional world, and what goes into it, not too consciously, is a mix of what I see around me and what I want to add to that. In my first book, a town I made up had a ruined fort with a banyan tree, and a knot in its trunk appeared to suggest the face of the Buddha – I’ve no idea why I felt the town had to have that ruin and that tree, but that was how the town came to me.
A few months after the book comes out I have to try being analytical about it — and I could say that I put in the Nehru-Edwina/ aristocrat tropes alongside leopards and deers to show how all of this is irrelevant to the new, present-day India — to describe change etc – but that wasn’t how it happened during the writing process.
As editor at a publishing house – and also a MAN Asian Prize longlistee! – you are in a unique position to assess the state of Indian literature today. How is it, and which authors from the sub-continent have particularly inspired you?
South Asian history and social sciences are packed with sophisticated, internationally renowned scholars and writers; the regional languages have great writers who are now becoming accessible across India via translations. Fiction and poetry in English has a reasonable readership and plenty of interesting writers.
One of my own Indian favourites is the Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay whose book The Song of the Little Road, about the life of a wretchedly poor family in rural Bengal, I first encountered as a film by Satyajit Ray. What I’m looking for in a novel is its ability to move me — and its ability to suggest a larger world that is somehow just beyond my grasp—vividly alive but only partly fathomable — and the last book which did that for me was not an Indian novel but a Japanese one, by Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain.
Have you read, or do you intend to read, any of the other novels on the MAN Asian Prize longlist?
I’ve got some of the books on the list — the Murakami because I am a fan of his, and a couple of others. Haven’t read any yet.
Are you planning a third novel, and if so, is there the temptation to pick up again with any of the characters from The Folded Earth?
I know – Maya has been left in a temptingly sequelish place – but I don’t think so, not even if there is a third novel.