Nilanjana Roy on writing, English and telepathic cats

October 2, 2012

From Ahmed Ali’s “Twilight in Delhi” to William Dalrymple’s “City of Djinns”, many books have tried to unravel the layers of Delhi’s history. First-time fiction writer Nilanjana Roy took a less-trodden path in her novel “The Wildings,” which came out in August in India — and which might come out in the United States as soon as next year. She wrote of life in the alleys of Delhi, but chose to do it from the perspective of cats in her novel.

“The advantage of writing about animals is that you can make it all up,” she said. Walking around Delhi, the journalist and literary critic took a fancy to the secret lives of cats, got a kitten, and a couple of years later, wrote about them.

“I started noticing cats and dogs and all these subterranean creatures, and I stopped thinking of the city as a human space,” she said. “And at some point it occurred to me that there was something interesting going on in here.”

Roy created a clan of “telepathic” cats living in Nizamuddin, one of Delhi’s oldest neighbourhoods. They are a peaceful bunch, killing rats and connecting with each other by “sending” in a network much like the Internet, until one day when another bunch of cats find their way out of a “shuttered house”, led by a tom with evil intentions.

A wave of “quivers” moves across whiskers in Nizamuddin, and a young orange kitten, the monsoon-eyed Mara, a strong “sender”, comes to the rescue.

She weaves a mythology of cats, their history, fears, inhibitions and a dramatic friction between “tame” inside cats and the free-willed outside ones. The cats jump roofs across labyrinthine alleys, meet at the ‘Baoli’, often use hybridized phrases and deal with “bigfeet,” or people.

“I am not saying these are real cats and dogs at all, but most of it comes out of just the Indian condition,” said Roy, who is working on a sequel.

Animals have long featured in the Indian literary tradition, but not so much in contemporary Indian writing in English, which mostly revolves around the lives of the educated, urban, English-speaking elite.

“I think the challenge was from the writer’s perspective… to say this is the space that I think I know… and how much does it change when you see it through the eyes of the species that are not human, and it was different depending on who you were looking at and from whose perspective,” she said. “Mice have a completely different view of Nizammuddin from the ‘cheel’ (vulture) for example. And it’s not just the sky and earth. It’s also about whether you are a predator or prey.”

Three decades after Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight Children,” she said, “English is no longer an elite language, and there’s no getting away from it.”

“Twenty years ago, if you had access to English, you were either middle or upper class, you were privileged in one way or the other,” said Roy, who herself grew up in an urban, middle class, slightly anglicized family herself.

Roy exhibits none of the fears that you might expect a first-time fiction writer to have. Having written columns and reviewed books herself, she is used to criticism.

“My fear was more like the fear of not being able to write like some of the people I admire,” said Roy, citing Japanese author Haruki Murakami and Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro.

“I think ultimately if people like your story and if they think they have it, readers will work. It’s as simple as that,” she said. “I would say that no matter what your job is, giving yourself permission to write is not easy.”

Roy does have a flair for the unconventional, judging by a story idea brewing in her mind.

“I want to write about butchers… They are among most interesting people that I ended up meeting on the way…” she said.

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