Writers on their books

Ten years of Anuradha Roy’s ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’: What the writer and publisher remember

‘For three years, it was an alternative, secret universe in which I lived, awake or asleep.’

On serendipity and the difficult road to getting published: Anuradha Roy, writer

An Atlas of Impossible Longing started in one of those “dummy books” – blank pages, hardbound – that binderies used to make to establish accurately the spine width of books that they would bind for a publisher. The publishing house was one my partner and I had recently set up. It had no capital but our savings, no office, and the only books as yet were dummies with blank pages.

Because I still have that notebook, I know I wrote the first section of Atlas in pencil, in a non-stop scrawl that poured out without warning. It went on for a few pages and then came to a stop, after which the notebook went into hibernation. I did not know I had written a part of a novel. I had written stories ever since I learned the alphabet and was a journalist before I migrated to publishing, but I had never thought to write a novel.

Many weeks after the first scrawl, I pulled the dummy from its hiding place and showed it to my partner, Rukun, who said there was something there. It was only then that I started constructing a world for Bakul, the girl at the centre of the scrawl.

I have often wondered where the name, Bakul, came from. Unlike the names of many other characters since, which I mulled over or changed, she arrived named. When I think of her now, I wonder if her name came from the Indian medlar (bakul) sapling my father planted on the footpath in front of our house when I was about sixteen. It was a lacklustre, limp creature that he watered with great determination, seeing in it the beautiful tree nobody else could. His care of the plant and his sorrow over leaves mauled by feral cows became a standing joke in our family. He died two years after its planting, when it had reached waist height. Today its upper branches are level with the fourth floor of the house, it is covered every year in sweetly scented flowers and birds come for its berries.

Like many first books, mine too had autobiographical beginnings. It was a way for me to remember my father. The one character in the book who is deliberately autobiographical, an archaeologist, is modelled on him. The imagined town much of the novel takes place in, Songarh, has a landscape similar to one of the small towns of my childhood. I grew up in a joint family as well, and know domestic politics and power games from up close.

But the book outgrew its beginnings swiftly. As soon as I started writing it, and the formal puzzles of creating a narrative took over, I realised autobiography is no more than the compost from which something completely different from manure appears. A lily. Or even a bakul tree. As my book progressed it began to inhabit a realm very distant from anything I was familiar with and I began to see how the texture of individual lives could provide me with a way of looking at history from a different, lived perspective.

Atlas grew slowly, between other things: a stray puppy we adopted, the work for our new press, a cottage we were building in the mountains, the freelance writing we had to do as we waited to move from red to black. (We had optimistically named our press Permanent Black.) Nobody other than Rukun knew I was writing it. For three years, it was an alternative, secret universe in which I lived, awake or asleep.

After the book was done, I thought the easy, happy part was ahead: publication. I wanted it to be published not only in India but also in the UK: that was what you did in the days before e-books, if you wanted a book written in English to have the widest possible reach. The nasty surprise came when it was rejected over the next two years by sixteen British agents and publishers.

There must a point in the universe where parallel lines meet, because that is the only way I can explain how Christopher MacLehose came to publish Atlas. He too had recently left his old publishing house in unhappy circumstances and set up his own press. I listened to him at a seminar on publishing in London where, unlike almost every other publishing professional who focused on the “market” and “positioning”, he talked about books and authors. It made me think there was a chance – a tiny, slim chance – that he would agree to look at the thirty pages from my novel that I was carrying around in my bag (just in case). I told him every agent I had sent it to had turned it down.

“In that case,” he said, “I will certainly look at it.’”

On publishing An Atlas of Impossible Longing: Christopher MacLehose, publisher, MacLehose Press

This very small publisher, then a mere embryo of a publishing imprint which has remained ever since devoted to publishing very good books in translation, will always be grateful and proud that Anuradha Roy’s An Atlas of Impossible Longing was our very first English-language book. That was in the summer of 2008. In January of that year we published our first three titles. One was a brilliant novel about a landscape gardener (who would fit seamlessly into Atlas...) by Andrea Canobbio, the eminent Italian publisher at Einaudi. One was the collected unpublished essays of Marguerite Duras. And the third was a novel by a Swedish journalist which had also been rejected by eighteen editors in Britain and in America. That was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

It is true, as Anuradha Roy says, that we met at a seminar. She doesn’t mention that she was there in the capacity of having been chosen the previous year by the British Council as one of a dozen outstanding young publishers from all over the world.* The seminar took place on a Saturday just before the London Book Fair and I was there as I was involved in the selection of the following year’s most outstanding candidate. It is also true that when she offered me her typescript, all 350 pages of it, with the instruction that I read it before the fair opened on the Tuesday, she did recite the names of all the editors and agents who had turned it down, and she kindly warned me that two more agents were to be reading it over the weekend. Churlishly I agreed to take only thirty pages.

I did read them, of course, and when she told me on the Tuesday that the final two agents had also turned it down I remember thinking that they must all be half-witted, and perhaps I told her as much and anyway asked her for the whole typescript. Anyone who actually or, as they say in the trade, personally read those opening pages would have seen at once that this was the work of a writer. And not only an exceptional writer, also a storyteller.

What is this atlas of impossible longing? It is – quite late in the book – what an astrologer sees in the palm of a young man whose fortunes we follow:

“‘A veritable atlas,’ he said, his fingers tracing the longer lines on my palm. ‘What rivers of desire, what mountains of ambition...Your palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings.’”

The fate of this boy is one of nine distinct narrative strands that make up a tapestry of stories which are so beautifully written and so very cleverly told that the reader will be blissfully immersed in a never-before-experienced world, enchanted as to every sense, compelled to care about what will become of every character. The story is set in Bengal between the 1920s and the 1950s. Turbulent times. The power of the book is miraculous in a first novel.

Anuradha Roy has written three more novels – the most recent, All the Lives We Never Lived, will be published in June of this year. I would urge readers new to her work to begin with this, her first novel, and to read them all and thereby to be reminded, as the critic of the Washington Post said, “why you read fiction at all”.

* Anuradha Roy was for some years an editor at the Oxford University Press in Delhi. When she and her husband, who was the editor-in-chief, left the firm, seventy authors followed them as they established their own publishing house, Permanent Black, one of the most distinguished academic presses in India.

"All The Lives We Never Lived" will be published by Hachette India in June 2018. Cover photo and design: Monica Reyes

Anuradha Roy’s third novel Sleeping on Jupiter was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and won the DSC prize for South Asian Literature. She won the Economist Crossword Prize, India’s premier award for fiction, for her novel The Folded Earth, which was nominated for several other prizes including the Man Booker Asia, the DSC Prize, and the Hindu Literary Award. Her first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, has been widely translated and was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and the Seattle Times.

These articles first appeared on MacLehose Press

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The ordeal of choosing the right data pack for your connectivity needs

"Your data has been activated." <10 seconds later> "You have crossed your data limit."

The internet is an amazing space where you can watch a donkey playing football while simultaneously looking up whether the mole on your elbow is a symptom of a terminal diseases. It’s as busy as it’s big with at least 2.96 billion pages in the indexed web and over 40,000 Google search queries processed every second. If you have access to this vast expanse of information through your mobile, then you’re probably on something known as a data plan.

However, data plans or data packs are a lot like prescription pills. You need to go through a barrage of perplexing words to understand what they really do. Not to mention the call from the telecom company rattling on at 400 words per minute about a life-changing data pack which is as undecipherable as reading a doctor’s handwriting on the prescription. On top of it all, most data packs expect you to solve complex algorithms on permutations to figure out which one is the right one.

Source: giphy.com
Source: giphy.com

Even the most sophisticated and evolved beings of the digital era would agree that choosing a data pack is a lot like getting stuck on a seesaw, struggling to find the right balance between getting the most out of your data and not paying for more than you need. Running out of data is frustrating, but losing the data that you paid for but couldn’t use during a busy month is outright infuriating. Shouldn’t your unused data be rolled over to the next month?

You peruse the advice available online on how to go about choosing the right data pack, most of which talks about understanding your own data usage. Armed with wisdom, you escape to your mind palace, Sherlock style, and review your access to Wifi zones, the size of the websites you regularly visit, the number of emails you send and receive, even the number of cat videos you watch. You somehow manage to figure out your daily usage which you multiply by 30 and there it is. All you need to do now is find the appropriate data pack.

Promptly ignoring the above calculations, you fall for unlimited data plans with an “all you can eat” buffet style data offering. You immediately text a code to the telecom company to activate this portal to unlimited video calls, selfies, instastories, snapchats – sky is the limit. You tell all your friends and colleagues about the genius new plan you have and how you’ve been watching funny sloth videos on YouTube all day, well, because you CAN!

Source: giphy.com
Source: giphy.com

Alas, after a day of reign, you realise that your phone has run out of data. Anyone who has suffered the terms and conditions of unlimited data packs knows the importance of reading the fine print before committing yourself to one. Some plans place limits on video quality to 480p on mobile phones, some limit the speed after reaching a mark mentioned in the fine print. Is it too much to ask for a plan that lets us binge on our favourite shows on Amazon Prime, unconditionally?

You find yourself stuck in an endless loop of estimating your data usage, figuring out how you crossed your data limit and arguing with customer care about your sky-high phone bill. Exasperated, you somehow muster up the strength to do it all over again and decide to browse for more data packs. Regrettably, the website wont load on your mobile because of expired data.

Source: giphy.com
Source: giphy.com

Getting the right data plan shouldn’t be this complicated a decision. Instead of getting confused by the numerous offers, focus on your usage and guide yourself out of the maze by having a clear idea of what you want. And if all you want is to enjoy unlimited calls with friends and uninterrupted Snapchat, then you know exactly what to look for in a plan.

Source: giphy.com
Source: giphy.com

The Airtel Postpaid at Rs. 499 comes closest to a plan that is up front with its offerings, making it easy to choose exactly what you need. One of the best-selling Airtel Postpaid plans, the Rs. 499 pack offers 40 GB 3G/4G data that you can carry forward to the next bill cycle if unused. The pack also offers a one year subscription to Amazon Prime on the Airtel TV app.

So, next time, don’t let your frustration get the better of you. Click here to find a plan that’s right for you.

Source: giphy.com
Source: giphy.com

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel and not by the Scroll editorial team.