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Updated: October 10, 2012 18:08 IST

Of whiskers and purrs

Liza George
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Journalist and literary critic Nilanjana S. Roy. Photo: Liza George
The Hindu
Journalist and literary critic Nilanjana S. Roy. Photo: Liza George

Meet Nilanjana S. Roy, the author of The Wildings, a book on cats

When journalist and literary critic Nilanjana S. Roy took in a stray kitten, little did she realise that the feline would introduce her to her world; one that would lead Nilanjana to pen her debut novel – The Wildings.

Says Nilanjana: “Mara, my cat introduced me to her friends, cats from around the neighbourhood. They had such different and distinct characters. One of them was a tomcat who loved lying on the stairs and look up women’s skirts. Another was an elderly cat who was very maternal and groomed all of the neighbourhood kittens.”

Finding the lives of these cats intriguing, Nilajana began writing a few stories based on the lives of cats and other neighbourhood animals. She stopped writing in 2007 when Mara died.

But then Bathsheba entered her life. “She is a stray like Mara. She is called Bathsheba because she was found in a bucket and needed a bath. She sees my computer as her domain and feels free to change the names of files on it. One day, she opened Mara’s file, entered question marks and sat there with a smirk on her face. That was it, I had to complete Mara’s tale.”

She adds: The various stories on the cats led to the novel. They grew and demanded grooming, feeding and my undivided attention. In that sense, writing’s a bit like having cats; once you’ve brought it into the house, it takes up as much of your time as it can.”

Nilanjana reads up to 40 books a week as part of her job, a reason why she had never attempted more conventional literary fiction before. “For years, I didn’t write in part, because I was happy with my journalism, but also, because of the fear that I wouldn’t be able to write as well as my favourite authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Annie Proulx. I started writing The Wildings only after I realised I didn’t have to write as well as them. I only had to write as well as I was capable of, to tell a story that mattered to me.”

Mara, says Nilanjana, was her first real pet. “My sister was allergic to several things, so pets were forbidden in our house. I used to smuggle in a few though and would play dumb when they stumbled out from under the bed or closets.”

Mara who spent 12 years with Nilanjana and her husband, Devangshu Datta, opened up the world of not just cats but that of dogs and langurs as well. “I realised that the cities we think of as ‘human’ are inhabited by other species.”

In The Wildings, Nilanjana has created a clan of ‘telepathic’ cats living in Nizamuddin, Delhi. They are a peaceful bunch until another bunch led by a Tom cat with evil intentions creates a threat to their lives. A young orange kitten, Mara, a strong ‘sender’, comes to the rescue.

Apart from cats, food is another thing Nilanjana is fond of. “I grew up in a household where people cooked well and I ate well.” While travelling, Nilanjana enjoys trying out local dishes. “I like exploring the local markets. The goods sold are a hint of the kind of food you will find at the restaurants,” says the author, who is also a wanderlust. She goes on to say: “The best food comes from countries that have been open to travellers. The amalgamation of ingredients makes it a treat.”

Although she loves dining on various cuisines, her comfort food is kichidi, fried brinjal and Bengali style mutton curry. So, does this foodie cook? “I do. However, my dishes rarely come out the same way twice. I like experimenting with dishes and recently experimented with dal by adding shrimp fried in mustard oil.” Nilanjana was in Thiruvananthapuram as part of the Kovalam Literary Festival.

The affable author with a terrific sense of humour is currently working on a sequel to The Wildings. “The response to my debut novel has been heartening. I was touched when I received a two paragraph fan-fiction on Beraal, one of the cats in my novel from a 13-year-old girl. In the sequel you will find Mara in conflict. She has to decide whether her loyalties lie with her Bigfeet [humans] or with the clan. Nizamuddin is not the gentle neighbourhood it used to be. The book will be out soon,” says the author as she signs off.

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