Anuradha Roy: on writing An Atlas of Impossible Longing

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Anuradha Roy on serendipity and the difficult road to getting published

"An Atlas of Impossible Longing started in one of those 'dummy books'– blank pages, hardbound – that binderies used to make to establish accurately the spine width of books that they would bind for a publisher. The publishing house was one my partner and I had recently set up. It had no capital but our savings, no office, and the only books as yet were dummies with blank pages. 

Because I still have that notebook, I know I wrote the first section of Atlas in pencil, in a non-stop scrawl that poured out without warning. It went on for a few pages and then came to a stop, after which the notebook went into hibernation. I did not know I had written a part of a novel. I had written stories ever since I learned the alphabet and was a journalist before I migrated to publishing, but I had never thought to write a novel.

Many weeks after the first scrawl, I pulled the dummy from its hiding place and showed it to my partner, Rukun, who said there was something there. It was only then that I started constructing a world for Bakul, the girl at the centre of the scrawl.

I have often wondered where the name, Bakul, came from. Unlike the names of many other characters since, which I mulled over or changed, she arrived named. When I think of her now, I wonder if her name came from the Indian medlar (bakul) sapling my father planted on the footpath in front of our house when I was about sixteen. It was a lacklustre, limp creature that he watered with great determination, seeing in it the beautiful tree nobody else could. His care of the plant and his sorrow over leaves mauled by feral cows became a standing joke in our family. He died two years after its planting, when it had reached waist height. Today its upper branches are level with the fourth floor of the house, it is covered every year in sweetly scented flowers and birds come for its berries.

Like many first books, mine too had autobiographical beginnings. It was a way for me to remember my father. The one character in the book who is deliberately autobiographical, an archaeologist, is modelled on him. The imagined town much of the novel takes place in, Songarh, has a landscape similar to one of the small towns of my childhood. I grew up in a joint family as well, and know domestic politics and power games from up close. 

But the book outgrew its beginnings swiftly. As soon as I started writing it, and the formal puzzles of creating a narrative took over, I realised autobiography is no more than the compost from which something completely different from manure appears. A lily. Or even a bakul tree. As my book progressed it began to inhabit a realm very distant from anything I was familiar with and I began to see how the texture of individual lives could provide me with a way of looking at history from a different, lived perspective.

Atlas grew slowly, between other things: a stray puppy we adopted, the work for our new press, a cottage we were building in the mountains, the freelance writing we had to do as we waited to move from red to black. (We had optimistically named our press Permanent Black.) Nobody other than Rukun knew I was writing it. For three years, it was an alternative, secret universe in which I lived, awake or asleep.

After the book was done, I thought the easy, happy part was ahead: publication. I wanted it to be published not only in India but also in the U.K.: that was what you did in the days before e-books, if you wanted a book written in English to have the widest possible reach. The nasty surprise came when it was rejected over the next two years by sixteen British agents and publishers.

There must a point in the universe where parallel lines meet, because that is the only way I can explain how Christopher MacLehose came to publish Atlas. He too had recently left his old publishing house in unhappy circumstances and set up his own press. I listened to him at a seminar on publishing in London where, unlike almost every other publishing professional who focused on the 'market' and 'positioning', he talked about books and authors. It made me think there was a chance – a tiny, slim chance – that he would agree to look at the thirty pages from my novel that I was carrying around in my bag (just in case). I told him every agent I had sent it to had turned it down. 

'In that case,” he said, “I will certainly look at it.'"

 

Anuradha Roy's novel third novel Sleeping on Jupiter was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and won the D.S.C. prize for South Asian Literature. She won the Economist Crossword Prize, India's premier award for fiction, for her novel The Folded Earth, which was nominated for several other prizes including the Man Asia, the D.S.C., and the Hindu Literary Award. Her first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, has been widely translated and was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and the Seattle Times.

YOARElise Williams