As an adult, some foods have the ability to take me back to the past: biting into fresh filo pastry in some café in Europe once, I stopped mid-mouthful, as the papery taste of a particular favourite (Kids and Cubs, Olga Perevskoya) flooded back. Thin pasta will do it; rabri, with its blotting paper texture; grits; caramelized onion skins; zucchini blossoms; the first bite of a paper dosa. All of these distinct and different tastes bring back a rush of unreasonable book love, and the memories of what we read in the other city where I grew up, a Delhi so mellow, so village-like, so relatively small, compared to today’s megapolis, that it is a city of imagination, as fabulous and distant as Pataliputra, as distant as Mohenjodaro.— “The Girl Who Ate Books”
The Age of D...
Dissent, Downloading and Dystopia are all very fine and dandy, but the big Daddy of our generational zeitgeist, no doubt, is Distraction. There is no getting away from its magnetic pull.
The frequent birdsong on our phones and tabs communicate relentless updates on our various timelines, other people’s casual behalfism plays in our head on a loop, contrarian opinions on faraway forum pages darken our moods and divide our bedrooms, and the smells of unimaginative dinners in the lives of bored yuppies we went to school with waft into our parlours and leave odd aftertastes in our mouths.
And don’t even get me started on the severe life troubles unleashed upon the unblinking by unlimited piracy. Series after series after series – all to be downloaded in five minutes, if only you possess free wi-fi or an old-school boss. Afterwards, you can consume seasons, giddily, day in, day out, till one fine day your friends have to stage an intervention to get you to smash your computer and weep at the sight of dal-chawal and sunlight.
Mere shadows of former reading selves
Even those of us who (still) read for pleasure every day and keep library membership cards in our wallets (though it’s a bit like the gym membership cards that sit alongside – more for moral support than physical), those of us who gush over Kindles and independent bookstores and spend hours browsing on Amazon – even we, the snobby and the geeky, have been rendered defenceless in the face of the mindless addictions of this age. The day we gave in and got ourselves smartphones, we crossed over to the dark side.
Nowadays we constantly bear the burden of a dwindling attention span and dipping plot memories; our brain unconsciously breaks everything down to 140 characters; and there is no running away from the fact that though we have access to many more books than we ever did, we are now mere shadows of the readers we once were.
I think it was Tolstoy who’d said that every time he read a good book, his fingers twitched – to go and write one himself. Nowadays, every time I read a good book, my fingers twitch, just to grab that phone and check how many people liked the panda cartoon I shared on Facebook three minutes ago. Hey, don’t judge, the panda is critical of his relationship with his smartphone. That’s how self-reflexive and complicated it all is.
And, then, one day in this age of distractions, along comes a book like Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books.
On long road trips, I often dream of Kolkata, especially in the mountains when the air is thin enough to switch on the mind’s most vivid hallucinations. It is always the same dream. I am a child, young enough to be carried past the whitewashed walls where graffiti and political slogans ran from one end of a street to another, my eyes level with the spiky palm-frond tops of the letters. Sometimes I am in a car, looking out. But the feeling remains the same: of travelling through a city built in sentences and slogans, where rivers of words flowed through its lanes.
There were some constants. The political graffiti was punctuated by the jhalmuri sellers perching their grubby, spicy, irresistible paper packets of stomach-churning, mouth-tingling goodness on stork-legged wooden contraptions. And always, on the pavements and on the stoops, if you looked up, on the long low roofs, there were the silhouettes and shapes of men, reading.— “The Girl Who Ate Books”
Adventures in reading
The Girl Who Ate Books is a collection of pieces about books, reading, and bookish lives (“Booklove is a dangerous thing. Those of us who have it do not joke about it or take it lightly, because booklove is all-consuming. You move houses with an eye to wall space, and you covet other people’s bookshelves, especially if they had more skilful carpenters than you.”) It is also about the literary lives and reading cultures in and of two cities, Delhi and Kolkata (“I can only hope that readers incensed by this evidence of gross bias will redress the balance by writing their own memoirs of reading in other parts of India.”)
For me, a Calcutta girl who lives in Delhi, this makes the book particularly piquant. From the Russian books that my mother used to buy me by the dozen – Kids and Cubs by Olga Perevskoya was an especial favourite – to the bookshops on College Street and Mirza Ghalib Street where Saurav and I spent our combined pocket money while in college, buying each other books. But it is not just the provenance of memory that makes Girl Who Ate Books so special. It also contains Roy’s insightful – often insider – observations on that highly diffuse yet vibrant category, Indian Writing in English.
The author and the book
Nilanjana Roy is perhaps better known for her award-winning novels (The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness) and as an iconic influencer on social media, with a massive following on Twitter, but this book is drawn from her other life. For the last couple of decades, she has remained one of the most sensitive and curious readers, writing about books and culture in India.
It seems to me, ever since it was discovered extremely early on in her journalistic career “as a junior dogsbody at the Business Standard” that she was mildly dyslexic about numbers and thoroughly irreverent towards things like Economic Surveys or annual reports, she has successfully managed, much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, to invent for herself a career eating books.
Over the years, Roy has written widely and deeply, about, among other things, Indian literatures, especially IWE, and translations, and followed the careers of IWE’s most noted names. This book, divided into seven sections (“Early Days”, “Poets at Work”, “Writers at Work”, “Booklove”, “Booklovers – Five of the Best”, “Plagiarism – Three Unoriginal Stories” and “Expression”) takes the best of all that material, binds fine prose with memory, offers literary gossip as bait to drag in big ideas and combines long essays with little palate cleansers – woven around brief encounters with poets, writers and bibliophiles – to create a compendium that is eminently readable, and filled with humour, literary trivia and wisdom.
Most dangerously, you will find yourself totting up a list of authors and books you had always meant to get to but never did. As lines from poems make you reflect or chortle (sample this from Dom Moraes’s “Song” – “I sowed my wild oats/ Before I was twenty/ Drunkards and turncoats/ I knew in plenty.”) – you find your joy nudging you to Amazon, every chapter or so, and ordering books you’ve been claiming to have read all along.
The longer essays are wonderfully crafted. “Finding Dean”, for instance, is about Dean Mahomet, serial entrepreneur and first NRI writing to explain India to curious Britons. “The Baba Yaga in the Back Garden” reminds a whole generation of the influence of Soviet books upon our psyche, going back and forth in time, from Goa in the present where she’s attempting to tame her (first) novel to Delhi in the past, during the years of the Emergency, when she is obsessed with Perevskoya’s Kids and Cubs and is planning to smuggle in two wolf cubs, exactly like Dianka and Tomchik.
“How to Read in Indian” reminds us of the fundamental questions that concern “Indian” writing, but is studded with hilarious anecdotes from the ur literary festival in India, pre-Jaipur, that had been organised in Neemrana in 2003, and which saw the greatest stalwarts of Indian Writing in English (the bhashas were also represented by a few of the most famous names) skirmishing with one another.
Reading and long summer afternoons
This book is a perfect antidote to the age of distractions. In a fell sweep it reminds you of that distant country, the past, when hours were measured in books, and there was nothing – but nothing – in the long afternoons, between your sweaty school-returned self and the insinuations of adult futures, with worries and whatnots, only you, a book (sometimes, a Russian book with characters called Vasily or Ninochka; sometimes, Enid Blyton; sometimes, Saradindu Banerjee), and a very faint faraway mother voice that shouted somewhere in the distance, once or twice, but for the most part left you to your devices.
I would heartily recommend you eat this book. It will settle – if only temporarily – the distraction bug in your tummy that pushes you this way and that. And if you keep to the prescription, read and re-read all the books that this book leads you to – who knows? Maybe you will even turn back time and recapture the afternoons when you knew yourself with such clarity, while crying to the travails of strangers trapped between covers.
The Girl Who Ate Books, Nilanjana Roy, HarperCollins.