Knowledge alters things forever: A conversation with Anuradha Roy

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Acclaimed novelist Anuradha Roy recently released her fifth novel, The Earthspinner (HarperCollins, 2022), a layered story about a terracotta horse, the artist who creates him, and the young woman narrator who bears the story.

Set in the 1980s, The Earthspinner is narrated by Sarayu, or Sara, an Indian student at an English university caught between two worlds. The first lines of the novel convey Sara’s loneliness and displacement: “It is autumn and I am at university in England. I’ve never known autumn.” A gifted yet isolated soul, Sara finds comfort in a church basement that doubles as a pottery studio, where her artistic expression and agency returns: “I place a ball of clay on it, I cover the clay with both my hands, and if I close my eyes I have the planet spinning in my palms to the hum of a motor.” At the potter’s wheel Sara remembers a terracotta horse created by her former pottery teacher, Elango, a Hindu man from her home village. Elango’s horse is an elaborate tribute of love for Zohra, the Muslim granddaughter of a blind calligrapher. Decorated with Urdu poetry originally written by Zohra’s grandfather, Elango’s finished horse doesn’t inspire the reaction he thought it would. Religious animosity causes Elango and Zohra to flee, leaving behind a beloved dog, Chinna. The dog becomes part of Sara’s family, eventually bringing the village to a place of healing. The book itself evolves on a potter’s wheel, changing shape and becoming fettled as we read.

Roy’s previous novels have been best sellers and critical successes, received by critics and her loyal audience as enduring works of art. Her most recent novels, Sleeping on Jupiter (Graywolf 2015), longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and All the Lives We Never Lived (Simon and Schuster, 2018), winner of the Tata Book of the Year Award for Fiction 2018 and longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, also contain themes of grief, change, and loss. Roy’s epic narratives are often held together by a strong narrator, one with whom we can relate, despite socioeconomic or geographic differences. These works prove Roy to be a writer of note, especially as readers in the United States begin to broaden their palates to include international literature.

Over a series of letters, Roy and I discussed her new book, how the Booker nomination changed her life, how the world and relationships are constantly re-negotiated, and why dogs must never die in a narrative because they “function as a barometer for good and evil.”

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The Rumpus: My daughter-in-law bought me All the Lives We Never Lived for Christmas in 2019, which was my introduction to you and your work. I thought it was a stunning, enduring work of art.

Anuradha Roy: I love people who gift books; and thank you for your kind words about it.

Rumpus: Later, I read Sleeping on Jupiter, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. How did this award change your life? 

Roy: Any prize nomination is affirmation from peers, which means a great deal to most writers, and I think the Booker nomination made me feel less diffident about my work. I’ve always been filled with self-doubt. Also, because this prize is known worldwide, it makes a difference to how publishers, booksellers, and readers perceive me as a writer.

Rumpus: Your words are so elegant, I am sure you write poetry . . .

Roy: I don’t write poetry, actually! I have never been able to, but I have always read poetry.

Rumpus: If someone were to ask me how to describe The Earthspinner, I would struggle. Would you call it literary fiction? Women’s fiction? International? Historical?

Roy: I’ve found that books get categorized by their readers depending on what they are looking for. For myself, I start out with an idea or a character or an image, and as I write, the whole thing acquires more layers because I discover the complexity of the idea or image through the process of writing. Ultimately, they probably fit some, or all of those categories simultaneously.

Rumpus: Regardless of how you categorize the book, The Earthspinner is a deeply gorgeous work of fiction. I found it to be filled, like your other books, with themes of identity and loss. Why do you think these show up in your writing?

Roy: A poem I used to know almost line for line was Elisabeth Bishop’s witty and wise “One Art” where she goes from the loss of inconsequential objects to the great, irreparable loss, of someone she loves. The fear of loss, the inevitability of loss—it’s a universal theme. As for identity, this has become so politically charged for most of us in the world these last few years that it’s difficult to escape addressing it.

Rumpus: I found Sara’s descriptions of village life in India to be intriguing, as if her own sense of identity has been reinforced by her community. She later learns how to trust the process of becoming herself, even through self-doubt, at Elango’s studio. When she tries to make a ball of clay become a cup on the potter’s wheel, she thinks, “Maybe every substance knew what it wanted to be, and my clay had doubts about becoming a cup even as I was experiencing strong misgivings about being a potter.” How did you decide to use the backdrop of the Indian village as a plumbline for Sara?

Roy: The book is set in the 1970s and ‘80s, and at that time the intersection of rural and urban was quite common: when cities were growing outward towards nearby villages or around them. These social worlds were a very interesting mix of modern and medieval, primitive superstition and science. From her growing up years, Sara has her feet grounded in these different eras, and then she goes abroad and experiences a completely new reality. She is constantly observing one against the other. Her background places the conflicts in the book in sharper relief. Also, quite simply, this was where I saw Sara. It was where she felt natural.

Rumpus: Sarayu, or Sara, is a college student in England, but as an Indian woman, she seems trapped in a liminal space between those places. She even struggles to identify home: “Where I come from. I thought I knew where I come from, what constitutes home.” When she catches sight of her reflection in a window, she says, “ . . . it is as if my face is outside, asking to be let in. I don’t know this face. I need to work out how to reassemble myself.” For an ex-pat, Sara seems less driven and more vulnerable, and this made me like her and empathize with her as a narrator. Why is this important?

Roy: To me, Sara’s blend of bewilderment, guilt, and pain, along with her need to live the life any girl her age would, echoes the predicament we find ourselves in, though we are so much older. People are finding it very hard to come to grips with the violent political changes over the last decade or so in many parts of the world, including India. To understand individual responsibility in these situations can be difficult. Yet we carry on, even as this complex baggage of emotions grows heavier in us. I’ve always approached larger historical or political themes through individuals, and Sara is another instance of that.

Rumpus: Sara remembers the time of this violent upheaval as the same time she learns how to spin pottery. In her small village, a Hindu man named Elango, the local artisan potter, agrees to mentor her. Elango is in love with a Muslim woman, Zohra, which is another politically charged issue. There’s a Romeo and Juliet quality in Elango and Zohra, isn’t there? They almost don’t understand the danger of their union, do they?

Roy: Everyone who lives in India is aware of the extreme danger of loving across the religious divide, and yet people do it. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed since Shakespearean times. Elango knows the dangers in relation to Zohra but carries on anyway. It is in relation to his horse that he has an innocence common to most artists: His passionate need to create the horse he has seen in his dream makes him blind to the real-world consequences.

Rumpus: Most readers can relate to the long-warring sides of extremists from both sides, which seem to be in every culture, right?

Roy: Unfortunately, that is absolutely right.

Rumpus: Sara’s relationship with her family, especially her sister, Tia, seems wounded? Why?

Roy: Fiction thrives on complicated relationships, doesn’t it? The sibling relationship is so rich and complex, I could go on exploring its layers of love, blame, guilt, dependence, irritation, shared memory. I don’t think it is a living grief for Sara, to me it feels more like a relationship-in-motion, that will go on evolving.

Rumpus: Has the concept of home been lost for Sara, or for Tia? Why does this matter to their story? How has a more global world changed the idea of setting?

Roy: Sara has arrived in England soon after a seismic set of events in her life and being in an alien environment gives her a means to re-evaluate everything she has known. I wouldn’t say the concept of home has been lost for her. In fact there is a deep homesickness in Sara and a longing for lost times. What she has lost is home as she knew it, and she and Tia are going through one of those times when certainties dissolve and you have to re-imagine your world.

Rumpus: We don’t fully know the story behind the cover, or the title, Elango’s pottery horse, until page 136 (it seemed the perfect time to reveal). Only then, does Sara reveal how she had kept the horse inside her, a secret she couldn’t reveal until Elango revealed the horse. The horrible scene that follows is heartbreaking. The mixing of two warring cultures, even in a piece of art, is considered profane. What inspired this scene?

Roy: The scene has its origins in the ruins of many medieval monuments in India—dating from as far back as the thirteenth century—where you can see both Islamic and Hindu motifs and designs. Rather than viewing this as mutual enrichment by two kinds of civilization, fanatical believers see it as heresy and there are constant efforts to destroy such monuments, a few of which have been violent, horrifying, and successful. This was the inspiration behind the syncretic sculpture Elango creates.

Rumpus: Why is it so important that the old ways of the potter are preserved in the story?

Roy: Artisanal pottery in India can’t be dissociated from its deep and close relationship with religion and myth, and this makes one part of the whole business of pottery very rooted in its ancient traditions, while another is utilitarian and practical. The potter in the book wants to be faithful to some of these traditions, but he is an iconoclast. He makes the sacred horse his forefathers made, but he makes it in his own way, as a secular object, an offering to a beloved.

Rumpus: I loved how Zohra’s grandfather, the blind calligrapher, “ran his fingers over the lines of the horse and exclaimed that the words in Urdu were so beautiful they had flowed onto the horse straight from Persia . . . ”

Why do you think art is the first thing to be destroyed in civil wars like these? How does it represent the heart of a people?

Roy: What is art to one person is blasphemy to another. These are colliding belief systems, and at heart maybe the world is still a primitive place dominated by tribal wars and loyalties. Maybe people fear art, knowing it has power. Banning or destroying it is usually a symbolically powerful thing. Why else would people burn books and pictures, or shatter sculptures or throw artists in jail? I don’t think I have the answer.

Rumpus: Elango has a dog, Chinna, and it’s Chinna who brings everything together in the book, isn’t it? I know you’re a dog lover (your author photo even shows you with a dog). How did you decide to write Chinna into the story, as a bonding agent, so to speak?

Roy: I’ve had dogs since I was seven, and right now my husband and I have four dogs. I have some favorite books about dogs, or books with dogs in them. By far the best I’ve read is My Dog Tulip, by J. R. Ackerley, and I long wanted to write a book with a dog at its center. The dog and the potter’s horse were what started off Earthspinner. But it was clear in my head that the dog in the book would not die, that he would bring people together, and also function as a kind of barometer for good and evil because, in my experience, that is how dogs are.

Rumpus: How much of you is in the character of Sara? She’s from a small village in India, emigrates to England, is very smart, vulnerable, loves dogs… Should I go on?

Roy: I think quite a lot of me was in Sara to begin with, particularly the pottery. I am a potter too. And then as the novel developed, as it invariably happens, the direction of the narrative took her further away from me. I certainly drew on my own experiences of university in England as well as my growing up years in South India to create her character, but the actual events in her life, the way she responds to them, the person those events mold her into, all of these are her own.

Rumpus: New friends and new places for each character in the story present hope and unfamiliarity at the same time. Why is this important?

Roy: Much of what I think of as “action” in novels—the action that really matters—is about inner transformations, so that the characters are altered by the end. In this book, the early part of the story takes place in an urban village; for the characters, their world is small and familiar. It is important for them to leave it to be able to see more clearly, to make sense of all that has happened in their lives, and also, perhaps, to heal—this is where the hope and unfamiliarity you mention comes in.

Rumpus: As Sara transcribes Elango’s interviews, she says, “I’m not sure I want the playful, bright-eyed fixture of my childhood to be changed for me. Knowledge alters things forever . . . ”

Roy: When Sara is interviewing Elango, she is an adult who is well aware that both of them harbor the same terrible trauma. She has been changed by it and has carried a burden of guilt about it all her life. Knowing this, she can also work out that Elango must have been even more profoundly changed by it; he lost his home, his livelihood, and his beloved dog because of it. More than nostalgia, what she has is fear that the person she knew and cared for might have been altered forever.

Rumpus: I don’t think I’m giving anything away by asking this question, but one part, near the end of the story, is incredibly brilliant. Sara’s friends invite her out for a movie: Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, a 1983 Soviet-Italian drama film that explores themes surrounding the untranslatability of art and culture in one’s home country. Your book does the same thing! I have to admit, I smiled at the parallel, but this also made me wonder: Why do we live in places where our home culture is lost or unappreciated?

Roy: That’s an interesting question but I don’t have an answer except to say that few of us have the luxury to choose where we stay. So many live away from their home cultures because they have been driven out by poverty or violence. Many others feel they don’t truly belong anywhere.

As for Nostalghia—it opens with an exquisite, dreamlike scene with a horse and a dog (a German Shepherd) and that was partly my reason for making that film the one they ask Sara to watch.

Rumpus: Each time you write a book, there is such authenticity in the voice of the narrator. Is there a secret to this?

Roy: I have to find the narrator’s voice anew for each book, and sometimes it’s a struggle; I make a lot of false starts. But at some point I can “hear” it, and when that happens, I know I have to, and want to, write the novel.

 

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Author photo by Rukun Advani


Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of Making an American Family: A Recipe in Five Generations (Prickly Pear Press, 2022), a family memoir. In the United States, her work has appeared in Hobart, Pangyrus, Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. She is the winner of the Bazanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Literary Insight for Work in Translation Award, both from CSUS Sacramento in 2017. Her short stories, essays, and poetry usually deal with themes involving morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is currently Assistant Editor of Interviews at The Rumpus . Follow her on Twitter at @brazenprincess. More from this author →