India's Elegant Literary Hermit

India's Elegant Literary Hermit

By Sanjena Sathian


Because this is a new literary celeb to watch.

By Sanjena Sathian

Anuradha Roy is like the popular girl you really want to hate. Everything about her is enviably mellifluous: the sentences that comprise each of her three award-winning novels; the flowing green dress she wears, pulling off the kind of cosmopolitan-ethnic flair that only a woman with brown skin, smokily lined eyes and gray-streaked hair can manage. Plus, there’s the fact that she’s the newest member of a club of Indian literary women at the top of their field, thanks to her novel Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year and hits the U.S. this summer.

Alas, she’s hard to hate. The gentle new darling of India’s book scene is, in person, compatible with what you find on the pages of her acclaimed books: beautiful, dreamy, enamored by words. Roy, 48, has eased into the literary celebrity that accompanies the mention of anything Booker, and, even as her novel does the rounds, she estimates she’s refused invitations to nine literary festivals this year — in favor of keeping to the “room of her own,” where she can write, read, spin pottery, care for a trio of dogs and manage the publishing outfit she runs with her husband, Rukun Advani.

The critics tell you Jupiter is about the “malaise of sexual abuse” in India, about exposing the “hypocrisies” of Indian religious society. Which excises from the description much of the soul of the work: The characters include three elderly women vacationing in a temple town together; a millennial sex-abuse survivor returning to this town, her former home, to film a documentary; and a temple tour guide harboring illicit homosexual feelings for his straight friend.

Roy waited “till they had the balls to sack me,” she says, with a rare crudeness. 

But it’s easy to see why we’re drawn to the Big Themes: Roy’s women are never quite safe, always harassed, aware of threatening male presences; and with India’s nation-shaking 2012 Delhi rape case fresh in the world’s memory, anything about Women in This Country is appealing. Roy’s French translator and friend Myriam Bellehigue calls Jupiter the most “political” of the author’s three works — her first two are full of houses and E.M. Forster–style appeal — but it’s not “overtly political fiction,” she adds.

And religion? It’s not all criticism, as one elderly women in Jupiter is extremely devout, while another covets such devotion. I ask Roy where she stands. In the second camp, she says: She respects, but does not feel it herself. While writing, she immersed herself in India’s bhakti poets. Her only spiritual act (“this bizarre thing I do”) comes when she leaves the village in the Himalayas where she lives: She looks out the window and thanks the mountains for awaiting her — they will be there, after the dusty Delhi streets.

It’s always been curious to be an Indian writer read abroad. The professors of postcolonial literature tell you the subcontinental voices are forced to accede to a Western readership that wants India explained to it, or that the English novel (think Forster, Graham Greene) cannot contain Indian complexity, its gods and distinct logics. Anita Singh, an English professor at Banaras Hindu University, cites writers like Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy, fellow Booker-accoladed types, whose work includes attention to both gender and politics, to the environment or caste. Yes, India is moving beyond “just the gender narrative,” Singh says, but politics seems to be a must.

Roy was raised in a distinctly postcolonial environment, moving around the country following her father’s geological work on atomic energy for the new nation. She sees it more as a “colossal waste” because of the toll it took on her father’s health — he died at 57, in part, Roy believes, because of the trips he had to take up 18,000 feet, collecting samples with no oxygen. The many homes shaped her: In Hyderabad in south India, Roy attended a tiny Muslim school because it was the only option for girls and which taught her that “books were not everything — you could just draw for months at a time.” At 14, thanks to a story written in response to a classroom writing prompt, she was published in The Indian Express and paid 40 rupees.

In college, she studied English at the University of Calcutta and then attended Cambridge, later joining Oxford University Press, where she touched the work of famous intellectuals like A.K. Ramanujan. Yet the connections didn’t guarantee her a publisher; the rejections rolled in on her first book until a respected publisher took a chance on her.

At OUP, Roy fell for Advani after reading the letters he wrote to his authors. “It’s such a loss that nobody will ever see those,” she says. Roy claims she and Advani were thrown out as their relationship developed and she was told to “move to the dictionaries group or leave.” Advani swiftly departed; Roy waited “till they had the balls to sack me,” she says, with a rare crudeness. The story was widely reported 16 years ago, though an OUP representative declined comment since the incident took place so long ago.

Roy says this was the worst thing to happen to her because of gender. It reminds me of something she said on a book panel a few days ago, that the experience of violence in India isn’t just about being attacked — it’s about the constant threat of it, the possibility that something small or large could happen to you, a woman, at any point.