Nilanjana Roy talks to Vikram Kapur on her latest book and why she chose to use multiple perspectives in her narration.
Nilanjana Roy has been a journalist, an editor and a literary critic. She was the chairperson of the jury for The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2011. Her first novel The Wildings, which will be followed by a sequel, has just been published by Aleph.
How did the idea of The Wildings come about?
It actually occurred to me while sitting on the floor with one of my cats. The cat had been ill and needed some comforting. That was the time I looked at the world from her point of view. For a long time, however, I did nothing much with it. It was the arrival of a new kitten that made me start writing.
Was there a special reason to set it in Delhi, and that too in Nizamuddin?
I guess, as a writer, you always end up writing a love letter to your city. I am originally from Kolkata. I came to Delhi for college and have come to appreciate it over time. Nizamuddin, for me, defines Delhi. I have been living in its orbit for years. It has its roots in history with its monuments. Then it has the dargah, the canal, the abandoned houses… Furthermore, since it was my first novel, I was keen to set it in a small space.
You have a monograph from Neil Gaiman’s ‘A Dream of a Thousand Cats’ from The Sandman comic series. Was that some sort of starting point? Did the idea to illustrate the book come from there?
It is more like Gaiman gave me the permission to write. I read that story when I was halfway through writing. Some writers open up a portal for you, and that was what Gaiman did for me. As for the illustrations, I always wanted it to be illustrated. But I have no knack for drawing, and I wasn’t sure whether the publishers would pay for an illustrator. Luckily, my publisher David Davidar agreed that this needed to be illustrated. That was how Prabha (illustrator Prabha Mallya) came on board. The two of us worked together rather than in isolation. So the whole process felt collaborative.
You have chosen to use multiple perspectives in your narration which is always risky for a writer. What made you decide on this mode of storytelling?
Actually, I first tried to tell it in the kitten Mara’s voice. But the first-person, Black Beauty voice felt dead on the page. The story was just far too layered to work that way. Ultimately, it came down to picking the mode of narration that was best for the book.
The story is not just told from the points of view of a number of cats. It is told from the perspectives of cheels, dogs, and even tigers. As a result, an entire urban animal world comes to life. Did you set out to do that?
It just grew that way. For instance, one time I remember seeing a cheel going after some cats and I could see that he didn’t want to hurt them. He just wanted to play with them and I could almost see him laughing as he pulled out of a dive. So the characters just proliferated and there came a point where I could no longer restrict the novel to cats. That said, a lot of characters that did not quite fit in got thrown out as well.
The cats are not too different from humans in many ways. They are possessive about their turf. They fight and brawl. Were you trying to create some kind of allegory there?
I didn’t see the allegory when I was writing. At the time, I was more interested in mimicking what I was seeing. But I can see how it could have come in unconsciously. India, at the time, was going through an argumentative phase, and I am sure some of that leaked in.
Indian writing in English often gets a bad rap for being too loud, for using the kind of prose that calls attention to itself by employing linguistic tricks. Your writing, however, is nothing like that. Is that something you have deliberately set out to avoid?
I like reading the jugglers. But that’s not my style. As a journalist, I have always employed a more minimal style. Style, for me, is driven by both story and character, and I disapprove of self-indulgence in writing. For instance, there were some puns that were taken out because they did not suit the book.
Have you started the sequel?
I am about six chapters into it. I hope to have a draft by the middle of next year.