As if the book title wasn’t intriguing enough, the cover illustration (by Kriti Monga) floors one with its quaint charm. The Girl Who Ate Books by journalist, columnist and literary critic Nilanjana Roy is an exhaustive collection of published essays, author interviews, conversations with poets and historical facts surrounding Indian writing; the book also analyses the perils of plagiarism and the concept of creative freedom in recent times. Cut through all the verbiage and at its core the book is an intense love story — it’s the story of a child who fell in love with the written word, stayed firmly in love and discovered en route that books could evoke various emotions: greed, passion, bliss, lust and, umm, gluttony. No spoilers here as to why the book has the name it has!
Keeping in sync with the cover, the book begins on a (deceptively) languid note with the author taking the reader on a guided tour down the bylanes of her childhood. Childhood is in Kolkata and the city, viewed through the rosy lens of nostalgia, is brought alive vibrantly. One can almost visualise the spiral wrought-iron stairways, the sharp smell of mustard oil and graffiti swooping down on every wall that dares to stand untouched. We are introduced to Roy’s grandmother’s cosy red-brick house on Rowland Road which appears to be made entirely of books. Book shelves and cupboards have been fitted into every conceivable nook and cranny — books written by Sarat Chandra, Mahasweta and Bankim Chandra among other luminaries (this reviewer was delighted to find her grandfather, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, among them); only the first names of the writers are used, emphasising the kinship between Roy and these books.
The books are in various stages of decay and along with the magic of the written word, silverfish wriggle out to greet the young book-lover. Roy etches her illustrious lineage with minimal fuss, adding just the right touch of wry humour (present all through the book in heartening doses) and effectively captures her idyllic years spent munching sandesh and jam tarts and pestering relatives for stories.
Just as one is lulled into a sense of bliss by the first chapter, from the very next one the author unleashes volley after volley of historical facts revolving around the genesis and evolution of Indians writing in English. Readers would have easily buckled under the tsunami of information had it not been presented with such exquisite finesse. Thus, we learn about pioneer Dean Mahomet’s colourful foray into writing in English, followed by others. Of these, a few crossed over from regional language writing to writing in English successfully, some floundered and a majority drifted into the no-man’s land between failure and success. Roy explores the early writers’ eternal struggle between the congenital urge to think in one’s mother-tongue while attempting to write in the language of the colonists, and simultaneously trying to forge a fragile compatibility between the two.
Pioneers like Romesh Chunder Dutt and Bankim Chandra are feted for their pluck in attempting to write in English and although they may not have attained spectacular success (or quality, according to the author), they paved the way for future writers, freeing them from the bondage of their native language.
Section one also features Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein — one of the early feminist writers who wrote about a feminist utopia as early as 1904 — and traces the works of other gender-specific writers like Kamala Das and the contemporary creator of alternate worlds, Manjula Padmanabhan. The author’s long running infatuation with G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr and Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri inspire entire passages of writing while the Bengali bhadralok’s obsession with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and cloth-bound tomes makes for other entertaining bits. There is an interesting part devoted to magazines — Time, National Geographic, Amar Chitra Katha comics, Desh and that flamboyant magazine that the bell-bottom generation can never forget, Illustrated Weekly of India — and their place in the middle-class Indian’s life.
The second section features the author’s meeting with poets Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Jeet Thayil, Agha Shahid Ali and Kamala Das. Freewheeling in nature and of varying lengths, the pieces provide insightful peeks into the lives of the iconic five.
The author’s conversations with Khushwant Singh, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth and others follow, and though these authors have been interviewed to death, Roy succeeds in sneaking in riveting nuggets of information. We learn that Khushwant Singh replied to every single letter that was ever written to him, that Jeet Thayil wasted crucial years of his life wrapped in a pink haze of addictions and that Kiran Nagarkar prefers Thai cuisine to all else.
The interview with Arundhati Roy is played out to the drumming of rain on window panes while the Booker winning author summarises her iconic debut novel as being, ultimately, about power and powerlessness; Ruchir Joshi dips abstractedly into the bread basket while indulging in an analysis of (his own) creative complexities. There is a delightful mention of food in every other interview — lunch at I. Allan Sealy’s consisted of steamed vegetables and baked fish, Vikram Seth tucked into meen moily and Vikram Chandra opted for spicy chicken while discussing the shaping of his defining novel, Sacred Games. Readers will avidly lap up the culinary tastes of the authors as organic extensions of their exalted personas.
The Girl Who Ate Books is meticulously researched and dense with historical data. It follows the recent norm of columnists/bloggers/journalists bringing together their selected works in a book form, a surefire shot at posterity. The thrust of this book is primarily on literary writing and showcases celebrated writers; one wishes the author had been adventurous enough to feature a few less famous talents.
Towards the end the author sinks into unexpected sentimentalism as she captures a city on the cusp of change. The sprawling and gracious abodes of Kolkata are being demolished to make place for snazzy, multi-storey buildings. And though chandeliers, sideboards and other beloved bric-a-bracs are being sold off by the impoverished aristocracy, it is the disposal of precious books to second hand book-sellers that pains the author the most. Flitting between Kolkata and Delhi, Roy draws parallels between the reading habits of the residents of both cities, while comparing the hidden wealth of their second-hand book shops.
Roy chooses to write about a handful of visionary book lovers — publisher Ravi Dayal, editor Sham Lal and others — who shaped the reading tastes of the country. The literary world has always been rife with cases of “subconscious inspiration” and matters of plagiarism and its inevitable aftermath are handled sensitively. Though the author is vocal about most things, she comes across as surprisingly non-judgmental, even compassionate in her encounter with a well-known columnist accused of plagiarism. Recalling another case, of Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, Roy chillingly etches the infamy, embarrassment and ostracism that followed in the trail of plagiarism.
Certain omissions stare out from the fabric of this work but by Roy’s own admission she has skipped writing about reading Indian writers in translation, food writing and dalit writers. A pity, because coming out at the time it has, the articulate voices of the likes of Meena Kandasamy and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar would have added an extra dimension to the book.
Swinging between scholarly outpourings, keen appraisals, nostalgic musings, anecdotes and sprightly conversations with writers, the book is an eclectic mix. Blatantly opinionated, Roy is remorseless in her condemnation of certain works of writing, describing Toru Dutt’s verses as “agonisingly laboured” and Walter de la Mare’s Silver as “terrible” (though she concedes the poem’s powerful imagery). A smattering of youthful voices — Annie Zaidi, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan — pulls it to the immediate present momentarily but by and large the book is content to bob around its dated moorings.
In the penultimate section, the author releases a personal demon from her closet startling the reader considerably. There is a palpable sense of catharsis as the book ends amidst the scenic charms of Goa, with the author, very successfully, mapping out the silhouette of her maiden novel.
Informative, interesting and amusing in turns, and covering vast ground besides, The Girl Who Ate Books could well go on to become the Bible of Indian writing. As for books — touch them, smell them, caress them, read them and hang on to them for life (and never mind the presence of Kindle). Or better still, eat them, like the author.
Kankana Basu is a Mumbai-based writer. Her published works of fiction include a collection of short stories, Vinegar Sunday, and a novel,