Literary Review

Books for breakfast

Author Nilanjana Roy. Photo:Kavi Bhansali   | Photo Credit: mail pic grdcv

A four-year-old girl sits under a dining table with a copy of Walter de la Mare’s Silver. She has just learned to read, and wonders whether the newly minted words will taste as good as they sound. She has already licked the page, which smells of the wax paper frill around cakes. Now she tears into a corner and chews. The taste is less spectacular — of unsweetened porridge. But she keeps chewing until the entire page is inside her. Later, as an adult in Delhi, this same bibliophagist looks at the shredded pages in her library and wonders why and when she stopped devouring books. Thin pasta, rabri, grits, caramelised onion skins, zucchini blossoms, the first bite of a paper dosa — all these remind her of a book-eating past. She remembers how biting into a filo pastry in a European café was like biting into Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs.

Meet Nilanjana Roy, author of The Girl Who Ate Books, a book so delicious it might make future bibliophagists of us all. Think of it as a guide to book lust, a compendium of Indian writing, an ABC of sorts where A stands for auction houses and Bibhutibhushan’s Apu; B for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (“the caste mark of the newly Anglicised Indian”) and the Bengali obsession for the Nobel Prize in Literature; D for Dean Mahomet and Daryaganj pavement booksellers; I for that ugly acronym IWE (Indian Writing in English); M for memsahib writing and mutiny novels; V for Vac, the Goddess of Speech. Think of it as a seven-course feast with meaty essays on ‘How to Write in Indian’ and ‘The Baba Yaga in the Back Garden’ (which explores among other things, the impact of Soviet literature on a generation of Indian writers), interspersed with shorter essays that act as palate-cleansers — encounters with individual writers, editors and poets, and a series on free speech: (how not to) ‘Hold your Tongue’ and ‘Empty Chairs’. Finish off with something khatta-meetha — a portrait of a nameless tormented writer, whose sofa is constructed out of books, and a dash of something properly sour — brief histories of a trio of plagiarisers.

The Girl Who Ate Books begins in a house with heaving bookshelves in Kolkata, a “city built in sentences and slogans,” and charts the author’s journey into a lifelong obsession with reading, spinning backwards and forwards from a personal history to a wider history. In her prologue, Roy asks us to consider the book chiefly as an account of a reading childhood in India. She admits a bias towards Kolkata and Delhi, and encourages readers across India to write their own memoirs of reading. (This reader certainly longed to hear odes to Higginbotham’s). She offers literary gossip (there’s a great story involving Dom Moraes, Ved Mehta and a Maharana’s tiger, which may or may not have been real), writes about literary friendships and feuds (where V.S. Naipaul recurs and recurs), and about her own journey from junior dogsbody at a newspaper to the writer of novels. Whether she’s talking of pioneer literature, the arrival of the printing press in Tharangambadi, or Agha Shahid Ali crowing about a canzone, she remains an indefatigable guide through the minefields of Indian writing in English — funny, erudite and endlessly curious.

Written over a period of 20 years, these essays don’t make for even reading. They vary in intent, heft and bite, but arranged as they are, they offer necessary diversions, feeding stations to satisfy appetites of a different nature. For those of us who grew up in a time when there were only three viaducts for the world to arrive at our doorstep — All India Radio, visiting relatives, and books — Roy’s childhood evocations will resurrect a longing for a time of blue aerogrammes and peeling leather spines. She writes not about the inheritance of loss but the inheritance of bookshelves — how this helped her to connect certain ancestral dots. And she writes about the real magic of reading, how it can alter geography, making it so that Tuntuni, the gossipy Bengali bird, can make her nest in Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, how Boo Radley can live across the road from you.

‘Crossing Over’, the final essay in the book, is dedicated to everyone who secretly wants to be a writer. In a house in Goa, Roy weeds the garden with maniacal fervour, observes civets and squirrels, extracts mackerel recipes from a woman on the local bus. It’s where she finally gives herself permission to write what she wants to write — not a serious literary story about a butcher from Bangladesh but a fantasy involving imaginary cat clans.

“Before I wrote my own books,” Roy tells me, “I read writers I admired with respect and delight, but not with the kind of concentration I do now. There’s a shift in the quality of my attention. As a reader, you’re glad for the magic of the story; as a writer, you want to know how the magician pulled it off.”

While Roy might have stopped stuffing pages down her mouth, she remains voracious, reading on average 10-12 books a week. “Fifteen a week is my cut-off point,” she says. “If I start a book, I feel it would be disrespectful to the author not to finish it.” To clear the cache, she takes bookless vacations every few months. Does she return to books? Again and again. Poetry — because it’s an antidote to the profuse, careless, clichéd speech of social and conventional media. The old classics and myths — “because the old texts are one of the few ways we have to listen to the dead”.

For all her book love though, Roy never falls into full-fledged nostalgia. True, she calls the bookshops of a previous era “cathedrals, hymns to the ordered world of literature,” while the new mall bookstores are “places where indifferent staff sell kitsch merchandise and bestsellers, like prophylactic inoculations against the love of books.” For her, it’s not the book as an object that is sacred but the act of reading, whether on paper or screen. She prefers physical books but uses the Kindle with gratitude when she travels. “I’ve tried to imagine what my life or my world would be like without books and it’s impossible. It’s like asking a fish to imagine rivers without water — I’ve always been a reader.”

So, can reading really save your life? Roy would venture to make the claim, and to remind you while she’s at it, that you can’t eat a Wiki page.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 7:00:48 AM |

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