The world of books

Last Updated 16 April 2016, 18:58 IST

You always remember the first book you read. And that first book sets you possibly on a never-ending journey of reading in which you discover your own comfort zones in genres, subjects and styles of writing.

For author and journalist Nilanjana Roy, that journey began very early, and literally. The Girl Who Ate Books, her latest book, begins with her own story of how she chose to devour the pages of Walter de la Mare’s Silver and thus commencing her journey not only into reading, but writing as well.

Not only is the title of the book interesting, but has a catchy tagline saying “Adventures in Reading”. The author believes that every book must also find a good reader. Books should always be certain of a warm welcome wherever they go next, says Roy.

Roy has curated and segmented her adventures in reading in 7 parts — Early Days, Poets at Work, Writers at Work, Book Love, Five of the Best Book Lovers, Plagiarism and Expression. Most of these are her own collection of published writings including interviews and interesting anecdotes of writers and poets. Many of these have been tweaked or rewritten to make them relevant and more current for the readers. Arguments about languages have been happening in India for centuries, says Roy in her chapter ‘English, Vinglish’. Quoting Shankar Gopal Tulpule, the historian of Indian literature and compiler of a dictionary of Old Marathi, she says that about 7 to 8 centuries Mukundaraja prefaced his work Vivekasindhu with a “defiant excuse for using Marathi instead of Sanskrit”.

Today, when language wars break out, one has to be reminded that these clashes date back to several years, says Roy. In current times, language arguments largely focus on English and Hindi.
For her section on ‘Poets at Work’, Roy chooses to look at the works of Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar, Jeet Thayil, Agha Shahid Ali and Kamala Das.

Kamala Das, Roy says, stood for certain things in public imagination. She was the short-story writer, the woman who wrote of sexuality with a freedom unthinkable for the times, and then retreated into purdah, “an apostate-turned-convert who rejected Krishna for Islam”.

The book then moves on to ‘Writers as Work’, where we are introduced to Alan Sealy, Kiran Nagarkar, Manjula Padmanabhan, Khushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Ruchir Joshi, Kiran Desai, Vikram Chandra, V S Naipaul, Ved Mehta, Nayantara Sahgal, Pico Iyer and Rohinton Mistry. The reader is introduced to interesting anecdotes about authors, many of them probably known only to the venerable circle of writers. Now, when it comes to Khushwant Singh, there is enough to write about the man. Stories about him have often been eminently interesting, and so it is in this book here. Quoting Suketu Mehta, Roy says, he read Singh’s novels for the dirty bits and goes on to add that the rustic Punjabi sex in Train to Pakistan must have gotten an entire generation through college.

The 5th segment is on ‘Book Lovers’, and the author has chosen to present 5 of the best — Ravi Dayal, publisher, Meenakshi Mukherjee, critic, Sham Lal, editor of Biblio, P Lal, man behind Writer’s workshop, and K D Singh, book seller.

Plagiarism is one aspect of writing that is the most intriguing. What drives writers to plagiarise others’ works is a question that cannot be answered in a simple way. According to Roy, genuine acts of plagiarism force us to see things such as the “despair and hubris” of a talented mind spiralling into its own darkness. “In the brand new world of publishing even plagiarism has become a simulacrum, a pale imitation for the real thing,” she says.

Free speech is an equally riveting subject that finds mention in her book. But, are we really free to speak our minds or speak about events, incidents or choices. The author puts before the reader this poignant aspect of free speech towards the end of her book. And in doing that she opens up about her own silenced experience from her childhood days. Free speech is not an academic abstraction that concerns only intellectuals and artists. At its core, free speech is about how honest we can be with ourselves and how fearless we can be when expressing our beliefs and intuitions, she says.

The Girl Who Ate Books has offered much more than a glimpse into various facets of reading and writing. For someone who has an insatiable appetite for reading, Roy has probably not been able to accommodate many other facets and aspects of books and reading. The Girl who Ate Books is an interesting book, with each of the chapters written quite eloquently. Here’s a book that one can always go back several times, read any bits of it and yet feel so satisfied.

(Published 16 April 2016, 17:16 IST)

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