IFTIKHAR DADI: Hello, everyone. And welcome on this beautiful sunny day to this very special event that we have once every year, which is the Tagore lecture series on literature. Before I announce our distinguished author, I wanted to just mention the programs-- just give an introduction, and also talk about some programs of the South Asia Program. My name is Iftikhar Dadi. I'm the director of the South Asia Program.
We have a very full and active calendar of events, which is-- there's a lot of flyers outside, which please pick up. We have a lot of events next week. Next week is unusually busy-- something like five or six events, which includes a talk by TG Suresh, who is in the audience here, who's at JMU. And he's visiting Fulbright Scholar. And his talk is on Conscripting Kinsmen-- Labor Contractors and Peasant Workers in India and China.
Then we have another talk by Benjamin Schonthal, which is called Pyrrhic Constitutionalism? Buddhism, Secularism and the Limits of the Law in Sri Lanka. Yet another talk on Developing Climate Resilient Migrant Friendly Towns in Bangladesh to Tackle Climate Migration by Saleemul Huq.
And a Hindustani flute concert, which is here. And also, a talk by a visiting artist and filmmaker, Shaina Anand, who belongs to a group called CAMP, which is an activist artist collective in Mumbai. And the talk is called Cinema at the Time of More Cameras Than People. And she's also giving-- we're also screening one of her films and in one of my classes on Tuesday. And she will come in to class on Thursday and talk about this film called from Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, which is really a story of globalization from below-- from Kutch and the Indian Ocean world today.
So please join in any of these events that you are interested in. Please take the flyers and follow our program. There is also a sign up sheet. OK. OK. So our bulletin will also be-- we have an annual bulletin, which should be out shortly. Daniel, do we have a date for that? Next week. OK. OK.
And I want to mention, also, that after the talk we will have a reception, which is right next door. And also, Buffalo Street Books has brought a number of copies of Anuradha Roy's latest novel-- All the Lives We Never Lived. There is only a limited number, OK? And so we' have a book signing, as well, at the reception.
Now on behalf of the Cornell South Asia Program, it's my very great pleasure to welcome you to the AD White House today for this annual lecture series. This is one of our favorite events, typically scheduled early in the fourth term in order to brighten our return to campus. In the late 1990s, Cornell professor emeritus of operations and industrial research, Narahari Prabhu and his wife Mrs. Suman Prabhu initiated a generous gift to Columbia University, establishing the Rabindranath Tagore endowment in modern Indian literature.
The Rabindranath Tagore endowment was created in order to honor Rabindranath Tagore, a celebrated literatus and musician, and one of the great luminaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to that endowment, professor and Mrs. Prabhu sought to quote "project a strongly positive image of South Asian literature," including non-fiction prose, poetry, and fiction from India and other locations in both national and-- languages and in English.
As our former program director, professor Alaka Basu and her husband professor Kaushik Basu have noted, and I quote, "Professor and Mrs. Prabhu deserve deep appreciation and thanks from the Cornell community for this generous gesture of the yearly Tagore lecture. We are very fortunate that they have decided to share their near obsessive love of literature in general, and Tagore in particular, by endowing this lecture series. For those of us who know them personally, how they were, the lecture is just one thing.
"What we have got to appreciate and enjoy over the years is long discussions on art, culture, and literature that they are always eager to begin and keep going. And it is particularly striking how this love of literature has made them good human beings in the best sense of the word-- open to their world views, tolerant of other points of view, interested in other people and other people's stories. In these times of intolerance and violence, it is wonderful to find in [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE] this eagerness to law and to understand a variety of human experience."
This was written a few years ago. [INAUDIBLE] passed away a few years ago, and Professor Prabhu is well, but he is 94 years old, and is too frail to be able to come. And so this is this is all 11th Tagore lecture. And this is the first time that nobody from the Prabhu family has been able to attend. And I really want to express my appreciation on behalf of all of us to their vision and to their commitment in continuing to endow this series.
Now the impressive list of Tagore lecturers from previous years have been very distinguished, which includes Sunil Gangopadhyay, Kiran Nagarkar, Tahmima Anam, Mohammed Hanif, Ranjit Hoskote, Shyam Selvadurai, and Neel Mukherjee, who was last year. I know that professor Prabhu and his family are deeply pleasure to make possible today's lecture by Anuradha Roy, our 11th speaker.
Anuradha Roy is the author of four acclaimed novels. Her first novel was An Atlas of Impossible Longings, which was published in 2008. It was recognized as one of the best books of the year by Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Seattle Times. This was followed by The Folded Earth, published in 2011. The [INAUDIBLE] review noted that this, and I quote, "This understated, finely observed book expresses a haunting vision." End quote. It was awarded the Economist Crossword prize and was also long listed for the Man Asian prize.
The next novel was Sleeping on Jupiter, published in 2015-- her third book. According to the New York Times review, and I quote, "This compulsively readable novel," end quote, and goes on to say, manifests the radiance of Roy's accomplishment. The world she creates is ambiguously-- ambitiously imagined, her characters possessed of an inner verity. They remind us on how strongly our identities are forged by our experience, how difficult it is to counter the gravitational pull of our own lives, and to escape to new realms.
And writing in The Guardian, the author Meena Kandasamy observed that, and I quote, "Roy has used the most potent weapon in a writer's arsenal-- the fun of the novel, with its ability to simultaneously be universal and particular." End quote. Sleeping on Jupiter was also very well received. It was awarded the DSC prize for fiction in 2016 and was long listed for the Man Booker prize in 2015.
The latest novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, was published worldwide last year and has won the Tata Book of the Year award. It has been nominated for the Walter Scott prize, the DSC prize, the [INAUDIBLE] prize, and the Hindu Literary award. Kamila Shamsie's review in The Guardian notes that this novel is, and I quote, "A beautifully written amalgam of fictional and famous lives grappling with love and loss." End quote.
According to Shamsie, "In its portrayal of power structures, it is part of those very contemporary political conversations. It is also a beautifully written and compelling story of how families fall apart and what remains of them-- what remains in the aftermath." End quote. Roy's works have been translated in over 15 languages, including French, Italian, Russian, German, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Portuguese. She lives in Ranikhet, India, and somehow also finds time to work at Permanent Black, adventure she started with Rukun Advani.
Permanent Black has become a leading publisher of scholarly work related to South Asia. And all of us in the academia who work on the region know of the tremendous contribution it has made to engaged scholarship and to our shared intellectual and cultural life. Please join me in welcoming Anuradha Roy.
ANURADHA ROY: Thank you, Iftikhar, for that incredibly generous introduction. And thank you for inviting me. And I'm very grateful to Daniel Bass and Gloria Lemus-Chavez for everything they did to make it easier for me to be here. And of course, to Professor Prabhu for setting this whole thing up in the first place.
It's a huge, huge honor for me to be here to talk to this very distinguished and scholarly gathering. I'm not a scholar. I did once consider doing a PhD, but some wise angel murmured a timely warning in my ear that maybe I was not cut out for academia. So here I am. I write and I design.
And my day job is at the scholarly press Iftikhar just talked about, but my work there is not scholarship. It's actually book design. I speak to you as a person who makes things. I make designs for books. I make clay pots and I make novels. I have been thinking in this makerly rather than scholarly way about what it is to be a writer in the world today. And I'll take you some of the distance my thoughts have gone.
All of it is not clear or conclusive to me, but I will try. One evening in 2007, just as I was sitting down to dinner in Delhi, my then brand new publisher phoned from London. In the marvelously parenthetical, elliptical manner he has of speaking, he began to talk of symphonies. Meanwhile, my food was going cold.
Had I considered, he wanted to know, how symphonies are structured? Not really. When? As it happens. And after around 10 minutes of this apparently aimless lecture on music, my interrupted dinner stone cold, the penny dropped that on the brink of publication, he wanted me to change the opening chapter, because he didn't think that it went with the closing chapter.
This was An Atlas of Impossible Longing, which was to be published in a few months time after that. So I hung up. I went back to my plate of congealed food. My husband and I got to drive up to our Ranikhet home at dawn. It was a holiday to celebrate the end of my endless novel. And at the 11th hour, there was this bombshell about the opening chapter. And even a novice who never plans to write a novel knows that an opening chapter is different from closing chapter, because it means having to look again at the entire book.
And I could refuse to make the changes. And my publisher, Christopher MacLehose, in the utmost civility, had said this was merely something he was planting in my mind, and I was free to ignore him. And I had never done a creative writing program. I had never been edited before. In fact, the boot was on the other foot, because at that time I was still editing books for Permanent Black.
And I had-- my partner and I run Permanent Black. And he read my first draft. And I had just about got used to all his acerbic little notes in the margins. But criticism from a relative stranger, even if it was disguised as a suggestion-- it made me feel completely powerless to do anything. So once I reached Ranikhet, I just started going on long walks trying to think it through.
And at some point, I started thinking about old-- my very first pottery teacher, who was called Bonnie [INAUDIBLE]. And she was a student of the very great potter Shoji Hamada of Japan. And by that time I had met her, she was in her 70s, and she had a studio in [INAUDIBLE] park in Delhi. She was very, very stern. She spoke very little. She moved slowly. She had a kind of steel bun that was tied tightly at the back of her head.
And she insisted in just practice, practice, and practice. And for two months, or however long it took to get it perfect, she would allow us to make nothing but cylinders. And we had joined this class, a few of us, fired up by visions of bowls and platters and vases which would flow out of our fingers. But if you tried doing anything but a cylinder, then that room in hot Delhi would just turn freezing cold, somehow.
And cylinders, for those who don't know it, are in ceramics are like the alphabet is when you're writing, because the cylinder is where all creating begins. It's a straight sided pot, neither bulging nor tapering as it grows taller. It's the most basic shape. It's a tumbler, of sorts. And once you've made a cylinder, you can blow it out into a bowl, or you can close it up into an urn, or you can make a rim on it for a lid.
You can go with it very ever your imagination takes you and however far your control of the clay lets you go, which appeared to be a breeze. But for weeks, we were struggling with this mess of the clay turning messier and messier. Finally, something appeared that looked like a cylinder. And I thought Bonnie would be impressed, but she just gave it a little look and said, throw it out and start again.
So when I was thinking about my opening chapter, and as these hillsides fell away under my feet, it became clear to me that what Christopher was saying was that if your first chapter is a pot, then you need to throw it out and start again, because you didn't start right. And that whole experience really transformed my view of how I looked at writing. And I now look at fiction, including my own, as a kind of flowing water that just happened to be still where the editor said, that's it. Now you stop with that revising and give me the manuscript.
And if the picture of that water was taken a little bit later, even a day later, it would have been a little bit different. And this fluidity-- you know, just before coming to Cornell, I went to a potter-- a master potter to West Virginia called Jeff Diehl, who runs a pottery called Lockbridge. And he had a completely different way of teaching from Bonnie.
But it was the same idea that you-- he was talking much more about not controlling the clay so much as getting all the life you could out of it-- as going with the clay and drawing from its energy to make what you were making. So all these ideas, I feel, feed into the writing, as well, because I know that when I write a first draft, like the clay, it has to be fresh and you have to do it fast, or else it becomes just a tired old rag.
And potters really learn from very hard experience that nothing they make will please them. You have to improvise constantly. All kinds of things end up forcing you to alter what you had in mind. The clay has its own ideas. The firing takes this uncertainty to a whole new level, where minerals, oxides, gases, air, heat currents-- they're all involved in a intricate dance inside a red hot kiln.
And you add to this the power cuts that happen in the hills. So when the kiln opened, what you thought would be a flawless teapot looks like a warped watering can. And the disappointment can be quite crushing. And you swear you'll never make anything again. But as time passes, and ideas crowd your head, and your muscles remember what you did with the clay, and you prepare again for imperfection, for criticism, for hundreds of visions and revisions.
And this is how I feel it is with making anything, whether it's pots, or plots, or pictures, or stories. And one of the things I made a few years ago were micro stories, which was a commission. It was a very odd commission. It was to write three or four very short stories of a few words only for a company that sold fine teas. It was based in Singapore.
And the idea was that the stories would be printed in invisible ink on heat sensitive paper, which was part of a wrapping for each individual tea bag. And when your tea was soaking, if you held that paper over the steam from the cup, then the words of the story would emerge by degrees. And you would have time to read them, but as the paper cooled or dried, the words would fade away again. And the story would be lost.
And there was something really attractive to me about the impermanence of it, and this magical appearing and disappearing of a story, as if you had dreamed a dream and woken up trying to collect the wisps, and you couldn't find them again. And this is how storytelling feels often.
One of the stories I wrote for this tea bag was called "Dancing Girl," and I never published it elsewhere, nor looked at it since. But when I chanced upon it the other day, I realized how it prefigured certain motifs in my recent book, as well as what it means for me to be a writer. And I'll read out that story. It's extremely short.
"After her husband left, she made jasmine tea--" Of course, the stories had to be about tea. So-- "After her husband left, she made jasmine tea that she drank out of an old white cup sitting before the Matisse print in the kitchen. In it, five burnt sienna figures-- one man and four women-- dancing naked on viridian green against cobalt-- no, ultramarine. Just three colors.
Only she knew that the brown smelled of fresh sweat, the blue was the dark before rain and music, and the green had the scent of damp grass. The grass was spiky. Her feet got sore from it, and her skin was clammy in the end. Evenings, her husband came back and always found her stirring a bubbling pot on the stove, whistling a tune.
What's that strange tune, he'd ask her. And she'd kiss him for an answer. One day, he got back too early. She saw him look around for her, then go past the picture calling her name. He never noticed pictures. He didn't see the Matisse had six naked figures now-- one man and five women. He kept calling. She could hear his voice across the house and in the garden. She lay panting quietly into the spiky green, green blue sky above her, arm around another dancer's waist, brown bodies breathing out sweet."
What writing means to me most of all is this parallel universe that is endlessly fluid, involving, and secret, and the struggle to translate it into a language and form that is right for it. And I think this very short story came to me as an illustration of the work of a writer, or painter, or poet the parallel modes of existence we habitually occupy and the way we put our double life to use.
It is also a metaphor for reading, because the ideal reader for any writer is one who can completely surrender to a fictional universe, and for whom it becomes an alternate universe. It is several other things, this short story, and that is probably why it stayed with me, buried in my subconscious, for quite a few years. But how did this snippet of a story, which is more an image than a story, emerge again and develop into a novel that combines very different but connected concerns?
"At some moment in the novel's unfolding, a question is posed." This is the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas in his book The Blind Spot, which is about the novel. "The rest of the book," he says, "consists in a more or less visible or secret way an attempt to answer this question, until finally the answer-- that there is no answer. Cercas quotes Faulkner, who says that literature ultimately lights a match in the middle of the absolute darkness that surrounds us.
We might say the match does not let us see anything, says Cercas, but that is not true. It makes us see the darkness. The question that is at the center of All the Lives We Never Lived is the question of freedom. Many different and opposing ideas of freedom are confronted in the novel. And although no overall resolution is possible, the novel shows how some ideas of freedom can be [INAUDIBLE] at the cost of others or can mean another person's oppression.
This is the match that is lit in the novel to reveal the surrounding darkness. Of course, there can be no answers to these questions, but it's important to place the questions at the center. In the beginning, as I said, there was this image in my evaporating story of a wife, apparently very domesticated, but one who has a parallel life. Every day when she is alone, she enters a Matisse painting that hangs in her house and joins the men and women dancing naked in the grass.
By the time her husband returns, she has come back from the void of the picture and as instead innocuously stirring a pot on the stove. And when I started thinking of All the Lives We Never Lived, and sensing and feeling my way towards it, there was no woman at the center. Instead, there was a little boy so lonely that he lived his life inside pictures. And there was, in a shadowy way, his elusive and largely absent mother.
I think now that in my earlier day any story with the Matisse, this boy and his mother were fused. And in writing the novel, I separated them out into two characters. And the husband who walks past the picture, oblivious, was to become the third major character. But I didn't know this at the time-- not clearly.
The process of writing is, for me, a way of understanding and finding the characters and their world. And through the writing, to find a way to articulate the things that had been troubling me for a while about my political and social surroundings. Most of us know that India is at this time a deeply divided country in which many people, particularly people from minority communities and lower casts, are made to feel intimidated, oppressed, and terrified.
I have no little new theories on how or why this has happened. But it is a situation I live in daily, as do many others. And when you do, you ask yourself, how do you respond to it? How can you possibly respond to it as a solitary writer? How do you articulate in fictional form your own deep sense of unease at the growth of fundamentalism, extreme nationalism, and brutal patriarchy in your country? To what extent do the conditions oblige you to write about what is happening around you?
And when the political atmosphere is poisonous, when horrific things are happening around you all the time, how do you allow yourself to sit still and write at all? For a long time, I told myself that my usefulness lay in doing my own work. But is this true, or merely a way of legitimizing my desire somehow to carry on living as I know how to?
Through the writing of All the Lives We Never Lived, I tried to find answers to some of these questions, or at least to ask the questions. And for me, a series of lives seemed to be showing the way ahead. When I found myself before the paintings of the German artist Walter Spies at the Agung Rai museum in Bali. This is Walter Spies.
Fictionally speaking, Walter Spies's life is extremely dramatic and a symbol of both humanism and the waste and destruction brought about by war, hatred, and prejudice. He was a fascinating character-- a genius of a kind, an equally brilliant musician, painter, pianist, linguist who had made a name for himself as an artist, and who lived a privileged life in wealthy aristocratic circles in Germany. He'd met Rachmaninov, [INAUDIBLE], he knew Gorky, he was a friend of Otto Dix. He painted sets for the films of Murnau.
But he began to feel increasingly at odds in the post first World War Germany in the '20s, and decided to abandon the life he knew, and got into a ship to Java as a ship hand. And future uncertain, he went from one thing to another for a few years, including playing the piano for Dutch people to dance to. He conducted the sultan's orchestra.
It was in Bali, though, that he found what he had been seeking. He was under the spell of its arts and the elegance, humanity, and artistic sense of its people from the minute he arrived there. This was the young Spies in Europe. He was always very fond of animals. He always had a couple of dogs, or-- he had many monkeys, and he had lizards in his pocket, and so on.
But then he reached Bali. This is the Agung volcano in front of which his house was in later years. And he was completely captivated by both the landscape and the people. And he began to paint in the style that he sort of saw. He developed that into his own style, but he painted these very detailed landscapes, as well as he did a series of these things for some anthropological survey type thing. He painted Balinese life for them. He was supposed to do different aspects of Bali.
He also painted portraits of people he saw around him. He built a house-- this house, which is still there as it was. And it became a nucleus for an international community of artists, and writers, and anthropologist-- Margaret Mead, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward. Many people came there.
So gradually he became a center of this artistic community, which included writers and painters from all over the world. And Spies had wanted to come to India. He'd wanted to learn Sanskrit, but that was never to be, because in 1942, during the Second World War, he found himself in Dutch territory as a German national. And therefore he was an enemy alien again.
So he was being sent as a Dutch prisoner of war to Dehradun in India on a ship. And this ship was bombed and he drowned. Most people on that ship died. By the time he died, he had spent six years of his life in jail for political reasons, including a witch hunt against gay men. It was never-- they accused him of being a pederast, but it was never proven. And yet, through it all, he remained spiritually creative.
He altered the cultural landscape of Bali working with local artisans. And his own brief and dazzling life give me the hope that times as grim as ours in India would pass and might even leave something good behind. And once it became clear to me that Walter Spies was going to be one of the characters in my book, the book began to take shape as one that could combine fictional and actual figures from history.
I wanted them to meet and mingle, and some of fit to take place in Bali of the 1930s. I know by now that a fiction writer's burden is to invent her job afresh for each book. And there's this fear of falling into a huge unknown space. And it always feels as if you're starting to write from scratch. You are learning to write each book afresh.
But even so, I was intimidated by this particular book, because I am not a historian. I am not even a scholar who enjoys archives. The last thing I wanted to do was to write a book that wore its research too obviously. I didn't want the historical material to turn into a cage for me. And at that time, I read a book by Janet Malcolm called-- what was-- I've forgotten. This is happening to me more and more. I've forgotten the title.
But Janet Malcolm, in that book-- in Examining the Ethics of Journalism-- wrote that the write of fiction is entitled to more privileges. He is the master of his own house and may do what he likes in it. The writer of non-fiction is only a rental who must abide by the conditions of his lease, which stipulates that he must leave the house, and its name is actuality, as he found it.
She goes on to say, the writer of non-fiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters. In fact, it is what makes his work so much less arduous. Where the novelist has to begin from scratch and endure the terrible labor of constructing a world, the nonfiction writer gets his world almost ready-made.
The hardest books I've written have been my earlier ones, especially sleeping on Jupiter, which takes place in a fictional town and where the research-- only research I could do was reading the Mahabharata and diaries and papers on sexual violence. With All the Lives We Never Lived, I had a whole load of travelogues, military histories, letters, biographies, memoirs, essays to seek and find.
My limitations were language. I read Bengali slowly. I don't read German at all. I had to rely on translations for the German, and I had to get better with my Bengali. Also despite the joy of discovery, I knew I must not drown myself or my book in a marsh land off tempting scholarly finds which I want to force into my narrative. I had to have the material inside me, but also disregard it and play with it.
When I knew one of my characters would go to Bali in the '30s, I began looking for-- because my character was going to be Indian, I began looking for Indian accounts of life in Bali at the time. This next slide is of Beryl de Zoete, one of the historical characters in my book who came to India to write on dance, and who was a friend of Spies, and wrote a book with him on dance. And this is Margaret Mead, who-- the two of them couldn't stand each other and called each other names all the time. But they were both there at the same time.
I'm trying to reach the next slide, which has-- this is Rabindranath Tagore, here. So my first find was Tagore's Letters From java. But from it, the treasure I stumbled upon via one of his asides-- because Tagore said in Letters From Java, I am not really looking at the food being cooked or the plants being tended, because Suniti is doing all that.
So this was a giant travelogue written by Suniti Chatterji, a scholar and linguist who had written about his travels with Tagore in that region in 1927. It was almost a day to day account, finely observed, richly-- you know, it's so rich and detailed. And someone who has the Bengali needs to get-- its 700 pages long. But I wish someone would translate some of that into [INAUDIBLE].
So I scoured the pages for references to something I had encountered when I had dug deeper into the life of Spies. I had read in various places that Spies and Tagore had actually met and had come to know each other. Suniti Chatterji does not mention this meeting. But after much searching, I found a letter that Spies had written to his mother in great excitement about Tagore's visit.
And he planned in that letter to go to-- someday-- to Santiniketan, the university for the cultivation of the arts that Tagore had founded in the '20s in Bengal. He had founded the university with the stated aim that it would be one nest for the world. It was planned as a world university where scholars from different nationalities would come together.
But why had Tagore gone to Bali? He had gone there partly to search out the ideas and philosophies of Indian origin that lay beyond its political boundaries, and which had taken new shape in new locations. It was known that Southeast Asia and India had deep historical and cultural roots because of an enormous Indian Diaspora that had originated in migrations to Cambodia, Malaysia, and Bali well before the 10th century.
But Tagore had also traveled the Southeast for a practical reason-- it was to raise funds for his university and to publicize it. According to an essay by the historian [INAUDIBLE] Tagore's visit to Indonesia was to encourage cultural exchange between the two countries to bring students from Southeast Asia to India. It was a privately organized visit. It was supported by a cultural organization in Batavia and by a few enlightened Indian businessmen.
In reply to Tagore's call for a meeting of East and West as he envisioned at Santiniketan, a young nationalist Javanese asked him whether such a union was possible given the imperial dominance and exploitation of the West. And Tagore replied that there could not be any worthwhile union along the path for universal competition for power and material goods, but that a meeting was possible on the intellectual and spiritual plane through an effort to understand one another.
And there's a very amusing illustration of this in Suniti Chatterji's journal, where he describes Tagore. In this earlier picture he, is with the raja of [INAUDIBLE]. And the raja of [INAUDIBLE] and he had to drive together a long distance. And neither of them had a language in common. And at some point, the raja saw the ocean. At certain points while driving up land in Bali, you can see the ocean below.
And he said, [INAUDIBLE]. And Tagore understood that, so he nodded. And then the raja was much enthused, being eager to communicate with his guest, who was really grand by then. He'd already won the Nobel Prize and everything. So he started rattling off every Balinese word for ocean. And those who know Bengali, Tagore writes [SPEAKING BENGALI].
So he kept babbling these names. And once he'd finished with the ocean, he went on to the gods and goddesses and started saying their names. But just this built up a kind of sense of communication between the two of them by the time they reached the destination, I suppose. And despite his great renown, Tagore must have found a kindred soul in Bali.
They shared a distrust for national boundaries. They shared the idea that humanity transcended nationalities. They certainly shared the idea that the imaginative exercise of the individual mind was a more urgent and important thing than warfare or nationalism. Despite his great renown-- he had won the Nobel Prize-- despite the fact that he had given up his knighthood to protest British atrocities in India, despite everything he had done for the anti-colonial cause, Tagore was being shunned and scorned during certain fears of the national movement in India.
He was being called a traitor, too, around the years in which a part of my book is set. This was a time when Gandhi urged the suspension of artistic activity and an absolute cutting off of connections with Britain for the nationalist cause, including its language and literature, and its goods, of course. And this commandment went completely against the grain for Tagore. Nationalism, he thought, could be benign as well as malignant.
And Tagore foresaw the malignant variety a long time ago. "Alien government in India is a chameleon," he said, at a lecture at Calcutta University in August 1921 titled The Call of Truth. "Today it comes in the disguise of an Englishman. The next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen."
I was telling you earlier about the moral and ethical dilemma that confronts writers and artists when their country appears to be in a crisis, when people around them are making great personal sacrifices. I asked how it was possible merely to go on writing and painting through it. I know now, though that is not how it began, that by writing my novel maybe one of the things I was trying to do was to answer this question. What would have happened if Tagore or Walter Spies had to live in the same house as Gandhi?
In my novel Gayatri, a passionately artistic young woman who wants nothing more than to go to Tagore's Santiniketan to learn to paint is married off to an ardent and puritanical nationalist called [INAUDIBLE]. Who's-- he is a principled and humane man in many ways. But his generalized compassion for humanity at large does not have the flexibility or the depth to transform itself into understanding the needs of those around him.
He sees his wife's single mindedness about her painting as nothing but the inability to grasp that there is a time for what he calls frivolity and hobbies, and another for what he believes are higher things. As Gandhi might have done, he wants her to suspend her art to turn into an activist. He is the archetypal patriarch, who opposes the notion of a dictatorship for his country, all the while oblivious that he is a dictator at home.
The universal does not translate into the particular for him. I think, or hope, that the novel does its work at several levels. At its most basic emotional level, it is the story of a family fragmented by the clashing needs of the people within it. But the moment we look closer at what [INAUDIBLE] and Gayatri are arguing about, we can see that the themes of their clashes are far reaching-- much more significant than ordinary domestic squabbles.
This part of the novel is set between the '20s and '30s. And the introduction of Spies and Tagore as characters in the book brings the world into their home and enlarges their private battle into one of a fight for principles-- a way to live in a politicized world of competing demands. At another level, the novel is about a battle against patriarchy. The woman who leaves the home and her child in the novel does not do so for love. She does it because the puritanical oppression at home stifles her imagination, creativity, and her whole idea of what existence means.
In this, she finds a comrade in the fictional Walter Spies whose historical reason for leaving Germany had been similar. He had felt out of place, constricted, surrounded by people he thought were regimented and without feeling. Both Gayatri and Spies, and for completely different reasons, Gayatri's son Myshkin need alternative realities to inhabit.
But did the fight for her country and family work for Gayatri? Does she succeed or fail? Perhaps we have no answer, even at the end of this book. Thinking about Gayatri makes me think of something Almodovar said once about Alice Monroe's writing. "The essence of her writing," he said, "is a great strangeness. What I like best about her is that it's impossible to translate to cinema her commentaries around the main incidents-- minor comments, but they become the most important thing in the story. At the end, I feel I know less about the character than at the beginning. For me, that is a positive thing."
In a sense, the very contradictory reactions I've had from readers makes me feel my characters do have a life outside the book's pages and they don't fully give themselves up. And this not knowing-- this possibility of looking at the same characters and incidents in different ways-- is unsatisfying for many people. But I've always maintained that certainty is nothing that literature offers us.
And books like Jacob's Room, which ends like that, can live for years in our mind because of the uncertainty in the end. And to return to all the lives we never lived, if I think of its final layer, the one that takes in on the others, it is the weaving in off the life and death of Walter Spies. The novel shows us how the forces of history can overwhelm individuals, however strong and principled there are.
Spies put a great physical distance between himself and Germany because of his unease with the country. Yet in the end, in a bitter irony, it was his German nationality that he had been trying to escape all his life that became his enemy. And he, to me, is the archetypal tragic character, crushed by distant events that are working inexorably to find him again.
And this is how war becomes a destiny for many of the characters in my book. And it is in this sense that situations and characters in the novel, despite it being set in the past, have striking parallels in the present, in which people find themselves-- people like me. We are trapped in baffling and violent political events that can and will destroy us.
Drawing on these historical parallels is a way for me to reflect on my present, to do one of the things I think a writer can effectively and truly do in a fraught political situation-- to merely-- to respond to it through her writing. All of this might make you think I write fiction that is directly political. I don't.
But as we know, writing is inevitably political. The whole shape and force of a narrative makes clear the politics within it. We also know that it is not only writing-- how we live is a political act, too. And what sustains us through complex political dilemmas is that we have a sense of mountains hidden by clouds. And when I see that, I'm thinking of the view from my window. In the mountains at home, you can see the lower green hills every day close up. But on some days, the further off blue ones reveal themselves. And on clear winter days, the white peaks appear, floating in the sky.
And there are many things for us, it reminds us, in India to rejoice in, even if they're often crowded out by urgent troubles. As anywhere, when we are hemmed in and harassed from all sides, we try to keep those other things in view. And we carve out a shell for ourselves, if that is at all possible, to keep the world at arm's length, even as we try and make a difference to it.
Myshkin Rozario, my narrator in All the Lives, creates his shell out of his trees and his dogs. He is a horticulturalist. For the millions of refugees coming during the partition of India, he plants flowering trees in the resettlement colonies in Delhi. In his own town, too, he plants public gardens and avenue trees. When construction and road wealth threatens those trees in his old age, he goes from door to door with a petition, trying to stop their destruction.
"At most houses, they bang the door in my face, taking me for a robber or a detergent salesman," he says. "At one house, the woman who opened the doors said, you've crossed over to the land of the crazies. But she made me sit under a fan, and brought me a glass of water, and signed my piece of paper."
I think the land of the crazies is their sanity and hope remains. And people like the woman bringing Myshkin water will make sure we never lose the sight of the distant mountains that often get lost in the clouds. To just come back to Tagore, I really do see myself more as a potter. And the cylinder looks to me like a sort of narrative in clay. And I wonder if this is the connection that Tagore, who was so good with both worlds and paint brushes, would have made, as well.
I can't see I know very much about Tagore, being the kind of Bengali who grew up outside Bengal and came to reading the language very late in life. But have I unknowingly been influenced by his thinking and writing in the way I live today? If you are a Bengali, you know that it's impossible to escape his illuminating schedule. And today, than I think of the connections between my pottery, my life, and my writing, I think back to the foundational principle for creating a university such as Santiniketan-- the perceived interconnectedness of the visual, plastic, and linguistic arts, and of a desire to show through the lived life in the university the impossibility of separating what you do as an artist from the morality and politics of your daily life.
When Cornell invited me-- I have to be frank, I thought it was a prank he made at first-- to do this talk, my first reaction was to be frightened out of my wits and decline, because scholars and academics, I thought at that time, are people who break things down into they're component parts and figure out in technical language how the machinery of a novel or a poem has managed to acquire a life.
And I, on the other hand, work entirely from the other side. And it is my job to shape, element by element, a living and breathing world. Could I have anything meaningful to say to a university audience outside of what I have in my books? Anyway, I am very glad that having to write this lecture down made me think about my life and my writing in a way I didn't before. I just hadn't done that before.
It made me discover and articulate the fact that Tagore is not merely the reason for this memorial lecture. He is also in a more spirited way the hidden hand that has shaped an important part my outlook and my new book. Thank you.
Is there a question?
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yeah [INAUDIBLE] question.
AUDIENCE: So as one of those characters [INAUDIBLE] as a scholar of literature you imagined as somebody who breaks [INAUDIBLE] First of all, thank you. This was beautiful. And [INAUDIBLE] literature [INAUDIBLE]. For me, it was very [INAUDIBLE], because I think that the same forces that you're talking about work out also in, you know, basically, all of the ways in which we relate literature to the world. Also, I think the tension between [INAUDIBLE] things that fit.
So being on that relationship myself in my discipline, I think that even your relationship to Tagore as you' describe it, which is mediated-- it's not like his [INAUDIBLE] I just love that, because so much that is interesting in the world is mediated, is second hand, is distant.
ANURADHA ROY: That's very interesting.
AUDIENCE: And this book seems to be the perfect embodiment of that. [INAUDIBLE] I wrote about Tagore for the first time in my life two years ago in the context of correspondence we had [INAUDIBLE]
ANURADHA ROY: Yeah. Yeah. Of course.
AUDIENCE: Yes. And it was published in the Journal Crisis, which was one of the newspapers that [INAUDIBLE]. Also [INAUDIBLE]. And I was thinking about how wide this network is that you are [INAUDIBLE]. I had a supplementary question. Is Myshkin from the [INAUDIBLE]?
ANURADHA ROY: Yes. In fact, it says so in the book, that his grandfather-- it's his grandfather's pet name for him. And the grandfather says that this is a boy in the idiot. And the little boy says, but I am not an idiot. And his grandfather says, idiots are what make the world human. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much for this. This beautifuly-- a beautiful lecture. I have spent a lot of time, actually, in Indonesia, actually in [INAUDIBLE] at that palace where that photograph was taken. And one of the things that Indonesians, and particularly Balinese in the royal family, say about Tagore's visit and the memory of his visit is that he repeatedly said to anyone who would listen, I see India everywhere, but I don't recognize her.
ANURADHA ROY: What he found, really-- what he would say, according to Suniti Chatterji, is that he found traces of an India that India had lost-- that these were like if you layered translucent people one on top of the other. Because in many parts of Bali, they would find actual physical buildings that were extremely old, or they would find Hinduism in a very different form, and Hindu rituals in a very different form. So all these things made them realize that in traveling to Southeast Asia, the whole-- all of Hinduism had altered, and yet kept something that India had lost.
AUDIENCE: So I love your connections to the letters. And I've been working, actually, with the letters between Claire Holt, who'd talk here at Cornell in the '50s. She was close friends with [INAUDIBLE] that are actually here right now. And also, the love letters between Claire and [INAUDIBLE], who is [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: So I would like to talk with you further on those letters, because I think that mediation, the way you are utilizing them, is something Spies would completely have embraced from everything that I've read.
ANURADHA ROY: Absolutely.
AUDIENCE: So thank you.
ANURADHA ROY: Thank you so much. Somebody there.
AUDIENCE: I'd like to ask about your discovery-- the emotion that you had in the world of these characters, how did you come upon [INAUDIBLE] like that. And what do you do with art and literature and [INAUDIBLE]
ANURADHA ROY: I think-- you know, I have not-- I was standing there in that museum, looking at the paintings of Spies with nothing particular in my head. I was not planning to go there thinking I would put him into my book. And it was a very odd and irrational thing that made me, apart from liking the paintings. I noticed that that was a year when, on the 19th of January, my dog died-- my very beloved dog had died at 13 and a half. And later in the year, I had gone to Bali.
And I discovered that Spies had died on the 19th of January, 1942. And this-- I don't know what it was, but these irrational things lodged in your head at times, and make you look further. So I started reading up on his life, more than just looking at the pictures. And then I discovered so many connections, and like little points of light just lighting up a hole way into the novel. That one thing really led to another, and this whole world of the '20s and '30s began to take shape for me, which included Percy Lancaster, who was a wonderful man.
He laid all of Delhi's gardens during the partition. And he planted [INAUDIBLE] of trees. He managed Gandhi's funeral. You don't think of these practicalities-- that Gandhi has died. And what happened is that Lancaster has to organize the flowers, because they've decided their helicopters will fly showering petals. And he has to figure it out in January what flowers, which nursery, how do we do this in a short time.
So all these sort of particulars of the life there and how it built up into this tapestry of politics, art, the way people connect with each other, that's what made this world happen.
AUDIENCE: Thank you very much. At the start of your lecture, you mentioned that before working with Christopher MacLehose, you had not been edited before, but you had edited others. And then you spoke so beautifully about comparing pottery and writing. I was wondering if you would also say more about working on other people's books and how that relates to your own writing and working with Permanent Black.
ANURADHA ROY: I actually-- I used to run a literature list, first at the Oxford University Press, and then at our own press. And I really loved working with authors quite deeply in the manuscript, because it's more than just changing words and structures. It's an exchange of ideas. And when you get on with an author intellectually, then it's very rich and satisfying.
But I found when I started writing my own fiction that because I tended to get very immersed in the book I was editing, I could not do the two things at the same time. So I stopped doing it, because I couldn't carry that. And I would invariably feel I was neglecting one or the other. So I now design the book covers for our press. I don't edit anymore.
But I know that I'm a very good author for my publishers, because I know exactly how hard it is for publishers. So I'm very well behaved with them.
AUDIENCE: No, I don't have a question [INAUDIBLE] for you. I have a question for [INAUDIBLE]
IFTIKHAR DADI: Yes. [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: You must put it up. You have so much to say that we need to think about [INAUDIBLE]
ANURADHA ROY: Thank you. That's very kind of you. Yes.
AUDIENCE: So this is not a question. This is just a comment. [INAUDIBLE] mesmerizingly beautiful and this intimacy that [INAUDIBLE]. So you brought to the public what happens in the very private space of your mind. And [INAUDIBLE] private question, in a sense. Do you really write on a typewriter or a laptop, or do you use pen and paper, because you're so connected to the material [INAUDIBLE]. And a question that I'd ask you [INAUDIBLE]
ANURADHA ROY: To answer the first part, when I'm just thinking about a book and random ideas that may or may not coalesce into anything are coming into my head, I have a notebook. I will keep making notes, and go on making notes, and writing little sections. Which-- yeah. Which may or may not ultimately be in the book. And I feel quite superstitious about starting a book on paper. So I always do the beginning like that.
And once I'm very sure what I'm writing And. I know it's going ahead, then I move to a computer. And the clay typewriter, I actually just-- I was going through. I thought it was about pottery and writing. And I learned to write on a typewriter, so I thought it might be nice one day to make a clay typewriter. But then, this West Virginia port I went to the other day, I spent a week there with him.
And he's in a family of potters. His grandfather was a potter, and he makes the most brilliant ceramic works. They're in the Smithsonian. They're in the Korean Museum of Art. And yet, he was the most modest and giving of teachers I'd come across-- Jeff Diehl. But he asked me when I went in, he said, oh, so what made your name it The Clay Typewriter, and do you like that work?
I said, what do you mean? And he said, there is an actual ceramic work called The Clay Typewriter. And he pulled it up on the internet. And it was a fired piece. It was a actual typewriter, except that instead of the keys, it had fingers with the nails painted like red talons. It was quite a striking thing. So I hadn't known that, but the title was already taken. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for an absolutely beautiful lecture.
ANURADHA ROY: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: And it was amazing-- when I think of you as a potter, as a graphic designer and also a writer. So I was wondering, do you design your own book covers. And if not, how do you feel about others designing them? Do you get to enter into a dialog?
ANURADHA ROY: Well, I tried designing the cover of my-- I did design the cover of my first book. And they accepted it-- the publisher. It was Picador India. It was a terrible cover. I don't know why I can't do it for my own books. So after that one really bad cover, I stopped completely. And my British-- the British designer is actually a Colombian woman who is an artist.
And by some wonderful miracle, she and I really relate to each other very well. And she has the ability-- she's called Monica Alvarez. And I don't know if she reads the books or only the blurbs, but she has this ability to capture the words into an image-- the words of the whole book into one image.
And for the British edition of this book-- you have a different cover here-- she had done a series of painted-- they are like paint pots, the whole palette. And in the center of it as a compass. And she had got to that image. She had asked me-- she went here and there. Nothing was working out. Then she asked me to send her things around the house that were precious to me-- objects.
So one of the things I sent was this compass. When she got the compass, something clicked in her head. And she said that's it, I've got the cover. And she made this extraordinary cover. Yeah. So I've been lucky with her. And she is the person who-- with the translation covers, I don't have-- the French always do really wonderful, striking covers. And they always check. But with the translations, they don't always check. It happens. But with the English books, yes they do enter into a dialogue.
AUDIENCE: In this country, every beginning writer is forced to look at the book agent as the pinnacle to their career. And in a previous interview, I read that you don't have a [INAUDIBLE]. And how do you get gracefully out of that kind of situation [INAUDIBLE]
ANURADHA ROY: Sorry. How do I?
AUDIENCE: How do you gracefully get out of that situation without having a book agent while publishing.
ANURADHA ROY: Well, I was rejected by all the agents I went to. And when I was going-- sending my first book around, 16 or so agents rejected it. And then I happened to be at the London book fair as a writer. Not as a writer, but as a publisher. And Christopher MacLehose was there as a speaker. And then I told him what had happened, because he-- when he spoke, what he-- he was the only one among all the publishers talking that day who spoke about books and list building and authors, rather than product placement and so on.
So I thought if anyone will listen to me, it will be Christopher. So I went and asked him whether he'd read my-- you know, just a few pages. And he did. And ever since then, he has been-- basically, he's been doing the work of both publisher and agent for me. He is the one who finds-- he and his colleagues at MacLehose press, they have a rights department.
So what an agent does is basically shop around for people for your book to find translations or other things. They do all that. So I have never felt the need to have an agent so far.
IFTIKHAR DADI: So please join us for a reception and for a book signing.
ANURADHA ROY: OK. Thank you.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
This lecture discusses how mud and words are connected in Anuradha Roy's work; how earth, water, air, and fire fusing to create pots is a metaphor for the way in which real and imagined archives can come together in a writer’s imagination and result in fictional worlds. She expands on this metaphor by talking about how one particular fictional world came about through her discovery of the German artist Walter Spies and his connections with Rabindranath Tagore, and how these and other historical figures entered her book and helped her to make sense of the political and moral place of the writer in today’s world. Roy delivered the annual Tagore Lecture in Modern Indian Literature at A. D. White House on September 20, 2019.