Have you ever been strong-armed into attending a party? Have you, despite a magnificent display of resistance and reluctance, found yourself obliged to drive over to a colleague/friend’s house, gift and graces in tow, to mingle with fellow humans? On such occasions, when small talk has petered out and lots of awkward accidental eye contact has been made, have you found yourself seeking out a quiet balcony? Out in the blessed dark, away from the dhin-chak-dhin-chak of dance music, have you found yourself longing for the company of a book? A book that gets you; a book that is at once a billet-doux to the quiet readerly life and an account of the mad adventures and passion that lurk within pages and souls? Reader, meet The Girl Who Ate Books.
Nilanjana Roy is one of our most widely read journalists, with over fifteen years of writing, reviewing and many, many more years of reading behind her. Her loyal readership, born out of weekly column in Business Standard and regular contributions to other magazines and journals of note, swelled considerably with the publication of her first novel The Wildings (2012) and its sequel The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). The Girl Who Ate Books, published in January 2016, is her third and most autobiographical offering yet: an eclectic collection of essays that range from tales of her bookish Kolkata childhood to conversations with the who’s who of Indian literature to meditations on plagiarism and freedom of expression.
The book, divided into seven sections, flouts the mathematical logic of linear progression, choosing instead to meander through geography, history and personal memory; it’s almost as if we are following Roy through the meandering library of her life, stopping with her as she bends down to touch a book here, flick dust off a memory there. The most personal, and perhaps the loveliest part, is the first section titled ‘Early Days’ where Roy gives us a glimpse into her childhood, spent in her grandmother’s sprawling haveli, relic of a way of life that has disappeared into the pages of history. Here, a newly literate Roy sits with a tome underneath a dining table, wondering what the words she is beginning to so love taste like. She takes a bite – the near-erotic description reminds us how physically pleasurable reading is, a thing we are too apt to forget – and is hooked forever. The adult Roy intercedes into this moment of wonder and discovery with a sober reflection on history & privilege:
“The past is an inheritance, and how it reaches you depends on many things; how conscientious your family is, the presence or absence of public libraries, what they teach in schools, whether you’re from a caste whose privileges include owning their history or from a caste low on the totem pole, deprived of its own history along with so much else.”
The tone of the rest of her reminescences and reflections is much the same; the immediacy of experience is tempered with a sharp awareness of social context. Bibliophiles will find echoes of their own life and joys in Roy’s adventures- trawling through second-hand bookshops looking for hidden gems, the agony of parting with a beloved collection, the thrill of sharing shelves and stories with your significant other, the excitement of visiting landmarks where literary history was made.
From the attic of private memory, Roy glides in the next sections towards the socio-historical dimension of Indian literature. This, if you are largely ignorant about Indian writing in English, is a positive treasure trove of information. Here, you will find the eccentric tale of Sake Dean Mahomed and how he came to publish the first Indian book in English in 1793. Turn a few pages and Roy will tell you about the sudden influx of Russian literature in India and how it shaped an entire generation of writers. A series of extremely interesting conversation with literary luminaries follow, and we are treated to titbits of juicy gossip as well.
Perhaps the best feature of The Girl Who Ate Books is that it doesn’t quite finish on the last page. At the end of this too-short journey are multiple forks in the road, each leading towards a greater familiarity with a book or writer that Roy has unearthed from near-obscurity and presented to you. If you are on a constant lookout for recommendations, your search stops here.
The Girl Who Ate Books is one of the best things to happen to any booklover in 2016. Often, immersed in our books, lost in our own worlds, we forget what a powerful community this is. We ask questions and seek adventures and long for connection and conversation in a way few other communities do, and this is a book that celebrates that aspect of book-love. So the best way to come to it, in my humble opinion, is through a friend you share stories and memories and your shelf with. In the coming days, I hope you give it to someone who means much to you, and that you receive it in turn from someone too.
Image credit: Nilanjana Roy/Twitter