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In conversation with Devapriya Roy: On Self-Definition, Settings, Surprises (and of course, A Suitab

Pratiti, Undergraduate Batch of 2020

Devapriya Roy is the author of three best-selling novels, one travel-memoir and one graphic biography, and many of the newbies should know that she has been a former Professor for Critical Thinking and Creative Writing courses at Ashoka not too long ago (yes, we keep asking her to come back every chance we get!).

Earlier this week, she was on campus to deliver two talks “Bag, Bharta, Bhasha” organised by Sandhi and “With the Romantic of College Street” organised by Epigraph: The Literary Society. In-between, thanks to Pratiti (Undergraduate Batch of 2020), The Edict got the chance to talk to the Devapriya Roy about a host of things.

We hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as we enjoyed the conversation!

How much of your work is autobiographical? My first novel, The Vague Woman’s Handbook, was quite autobiographical. It is, I think, the case with many novelists. I read a very interesting reference to this in Doris Lessing’s autobiography (the second volume of her autobiography, in fact) Walking in the Shade. She said that, the first book, chiefly by woman writers, is mostly an act of self-definition. So, apparently not only was I writing an autobiographical book, I was also defining myself as a vague woman, whatever that means. I like to say that having got the autobiographical stuff out of the way, early on, I write about other people. (But then again maybe I am going to come to more autobiographical writing again!)

What are the factors that affect the setting of your narrative? Well, you know how in writing class one of the central things we highlight is “write what you know.” Calcutta is a city that I grew up in, that I have a visceral relationship to, and it keeps drawing me back. It’s also the guilt of the exile – I don’t live in Calcutta anymore. In fact, I don’t even visit it as much as I should. (I mean I do and get very quickly wracked about how intensely I get drawn into the city immediately.) Therefore, I write about it. That’s why in two of my novels, Calcutta is not just a setting but also a character.

Devapriya Roy in conversation with Vignesh H J (UG 20) | Credits: Teesta Rawal (UG 20)

Do you have an intended audience in mind and have they sometimes surprised you? I never usually keep an audience in mind. Probably, now, the person I write for is my editor and publisher, Karthika. She’s the one I think of when I think about who’s going to read the book because she is going to read the manuscript. I never try to think about the intended audience, but for example, when The Vague Woman’s Handbook was published, a lot of people thought that my intended audience was women. I was pleasantly surprised when a lot of men picked it up, read it and wrote to me telling me how much they enjoyed the book. In the West, the boundaries within fiction and their intended audiences are more black-and-white perhaps; in India, I think, they are still somewhat muddled.

When were you absolutely convinced that you wanted to be a writer and what would be your advice to any budding writers? This is a really difficult question because I don’t know when I wanted to become a writer. I can now think of a time in Class 3 or so, when I had fallen in love with a borrowed Enid Blyton, and which I then started physically copying out in longhand, so as not to lose the words. Maybe that was an early mimicking of the form, the copying out of favourite words. Later, when I was in Class 5 or 6, I started writing these intense stories for The Statesman. (I mean, the stories never had children in them but adults with fanciful names, Abhiruchi, Mrittika, Aashna, and so on.) In my MA days in JNU, I thought that, for a lark, I should write a campus novel. But I never would have thought about the publishing part of it then. Later, when I started writing The Handbook, I was quite lucky because I got my first break rather early on. It was picked up when I had only written the first three chapters and a proposal. I found a publisher. So, I was very fortunate, in that instance, and I continued to write, seriously, giving up the job I had at the time. I have never cared about how many copies of my books were sold, what people think I should write, or what categories sell more. I just write. Sometimes, I like to think that I don’t have a ‘Plan B’, simply because a Plan B would take me away from writing. It would be my excuse for not writing.

Your admiration for Vikram Seth’s book, A Suitable Boy is a well-known fact. What does it mean to you? Has it influenced your writing in any way? Are there any other such novels that you would like to recommend? I think I have learned everything there is to know about the novel form from it. I never took any creative writing classes, you must remember there weren’t any during my time. Perhaps I am being a tad dramatic, but everything that I know about the novel, that I enjoy in a novel, comes from that book – A Suitable Boy. I have read it in many different stages of my life. I first read it when I was 13 or so, and I preferred certain strands of the story to the others. (I must have skipped the Rudhia/Debaria bits entirely.) In A Suitable Boy, the character Amit Chatterjee is a stand-in for Vikram Seth himself. Chatterjee is writing a novel – about the Bengal famine if you will – that he likes to talk about at gatherings and parties and so on, and it is very interesting to observe the vocabulary he employs when he talks about that novel and, in general, about how a novel works. There is one place where he says a novel is as organic as a tree and there are some branches which would grow and bear fruit and some branches, which might have initially seemed strong and sturdy, end up dying and are simply forgotten by the writer. A Suitable Boy is like that- a many-branched tree. But he also compares it to how a raga works; how the note unfolds. Amit Chatterjee says, “First you take one note and explore it for a while, then another to discover the possibilities, then perhaps you get to the dominant, and pause for a bit, and it’s only gradually that the phrases begin to form and the table joins in with the beat … and then the more brilliant improvisations and diversions begin, with the main theme returning from time to time, and finally, it all speeds up, and the excitement increases to a climax.” A great novel does all this. And each reading reveals a new depth to the music, it doesn’t get dated. I read it for the first time when I was in school and then in college. Now I have made a habit of reading at least once every two years. Every time I finish writing a book, I read A Suitable Boy and it continues to teach me things. I think it’s a great work of art, in realistic fiction, in the Tolstoy school of writing. I don’t think there has been any other novel like A Suitable Boy in terms of the scope and sheer grandeur.

What inspired The Heat and Dust Project (co-written with partner, Saurav Jha)? I think as writers we wanted to be more than what we were at that time. Like I said before, you write what you know. So I would have ended up writing, in my fiction, about a certain kind of urban life anyway. I am not saying that – that urban life is not worth writing about. But it’s important for a writer to step out of her comfort zone and see life differently. The Heat and Dust Project was an epic effort of that kind, like a foolish, idealistic effort at a grand transformation. In a comic vein, I must tell you that. I am always trying to transform myself, turn over a new leaf, become a better version of myself. This was also an attempt of that sort to literarily push ourselves to a different plane.

Why is Indira a graphic novel? The idea of Indira as a graphic novel is actually not mine. It was my publisher’s idea. When 2017 came up and it was Mrs. Gandhi’s centenary year, I think she wanted to publish a book which would connect with millennials, for whom Indira Gandhi is a remote figure, seen only through the lens of big moments, the Emergency, 1971, Bluestar. A graphic novel or a graphic biography was thought to be just that kind of a medium that might appeal to them – a clever yet sophisticated retelling. As I keep saying, Priya Kuriyan and I had an arranged marriage if you will, as we were brought together to create the book by Karthika again. Artist and writer, it could have gone terribly wrong! But thankfully it did not and we both loved making it super-meta.

Will your time at Ashoka be part of any future work? Did it inspire you in any way? I think it inspired me hugely because I learned so many things from my students. They refreshed my world view, they taught me something new every day. In a sense, even Friends from College is a book that I wrote as something about my generation to, sort of, explain ourselves to yours. So, no doubt that the influence of my students has been massive and yes, maybe one day, I would write about a campus like this one.

Devapriya Roy in conversation with Pratiti (UG 20) | Credits: Swati Singh (UG 21)

Considering that recently many books have been adapted into movies or television series, do you ever imagine that to happen to any of your books? Especially Friends from College? And of course, you must tell us your dream cast! I would certainly hope so but I am not holding my breath. In fact, it has come to a stage where there are many people who don’t read, who come up to a writer ask, “anything I have seen?” I find this very irritating. Ultimately, I would be very happy if it was adapted on screen but that is not my medium. As for the cast, well, I know that the actor Swastika Mukherjee really liked the book. She told me that, “listen, if it is ever becoming a movie or a TV show, I am happy to do anything, from Lata to Aaduri, even Nimki”. She liked the book that much. I do think she would be a great Lata.

Who do you think are the new authors that everyone should look out for? I really enjoyed reading Amrita Mahale’s book Milk Teeth and in non-fiction, Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation is beautifully written.

What is the next book that you are working on? The next book is a sequel to The Heat and Dust Project. It’s called Man. Woman. Road. (And it’s way past the deadline so we’d better get cracking!)

Pratiti is a third year History major, with an avid interest in Environmental Studies and Creative Writing. While in Sonipat she dreams about all things Calcutta and fantasises about the strong smell that archives offer.

The interview was transcribed by Gitika Naik, Junior Editor at the Arts and Culture section of The Edict.

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