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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Sumana Roy

By Aminah Sheikh

Sumana Roy photo

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

If I knew the answer to that I probably wouldn’t be able to write. It’s a question as difficult to answer as “Why do you love me so much?” I came very late to writing, and because this was after my divorce from standardised academic writing, I decided, almost moodily, that the reason for this would be cathartic. Soon after, fortunately, I realised that writing wasn’t therapeutic in the way I’d heard it was. Or at least that it wasn’t a painkiller. I write to make sense of my relationship with the world, I suppose.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recent book is my first. It’s called How I Became a Tree (Aleph Book Company). It’s a work of non-fiction, something between the essay, memoir, and meditation, and it’s a reflection on what constitutes the difference between human and non-human experience. I look at people like myself, writers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, lovers, thinkers, who felt the desire to become a tree. What does it mean to live to what I call “tree time”? Or what is so special about sitting under a tree, or to live in a forest or make love to a tree? Is it true that the childless or childfree feel closer to plant life? My book gives a home to such speculations and investigations.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

This is a really difficult question. As an apprentice one is evolving and looking for a home – or homes – in genres. I find that I am repulsed by genres that have solidified into something readymade. I like the fluidity between genres, so that one can never say whether this is fiction or nonfiction, a poem or a found text. I gravitate towards the shorter forms, the poem, the essay, the novella. In subject matter too, the more neo-bureaucratic models of seriousness bore me. There are very few things I know about myself, but this I certainly do – I find the seemingly non-serious immensely interesting (my interest in plant life comes from that space too) and everything that is declared to be conventionally useless occupies my thought and attention.

Who are your favourite authors?

Amit Chaudhuri opened up the possibility of unusual – unconventional – ways of seeing the world. His novels challenged the way I’d allowed myself to become conditioned to the 19th-century novel and the various hand-me-down versions that have become the only way we understand the novel today. His essays, with their unique voice and the fluidity of movement between the personal and the political or aesthetic, allowed people like me to write a book such as the one I’ve written, with its meanderings and digressions and halts at different kinds of philosophies and their interactions with life. Not to forget that he is one of the best prose stylists in the English language. I was recently introduced to James Salter and I like the prose in a couple of his books. George Eliot’s prose style remains a go-to from my university days. I rarely read fiction now. I read a lot of poetry in Bangla – Shakti Chattopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Rabindranath Tagore, the usual suspects, but also a lot of young poets in the little magazines.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

I find it difficult to reproduce – report? – the neighbourhood of everyday sounds that I meet every day: the shrill announcement of the pressure cooker, the whirr of the ceiling fan, vegetables scalding in burning oil, the sound of wet sand screeching from a slipper brushing against the floor, the creaking of a door, a growling stomach, the sound of leaves in the wind, and so on. It’s not onomatopoeia that I’m aiming for. I’d like these sounds to be the poem, without the crutch of adjectives. I’ve failed.

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Excerpts: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

treePORTRAIT OF A  TREE

Like many, I too once desired a painter as lover.The alchemy of love— adolescence pampers the notion of love as chemistry—would rid me of my imperfections and his portrait of me would make me beautiful to him and to myself.When I began drawing leaves I began to wonder whether such an impulse would attend this love. If I were a tree— and I hoped and believed I was turning into one—would a painter lover feel the urge, or even the need, to  turn  me  into  something else, someone  else?  For  what  is  beauty  and  perfection  in  trees? I turned to the man I had married. He had been an amateur painter once. Only three drawings survived from that period in his life: two were portraits of women,copied,as he explained to me,from a magazine that was common in Bengali households: Soviet Nari. He had been taken by the beauty of two women in those hormone-rushed teenage years and thought this the only way to create a relationship with them. The other painting still hangs on a wall in our living room. In it is a tree trunk with many branches. From a distance it might look like a many-handed goddess, as it first did to me when I visited this house for the first time one winter afternoon more than two decades ago. This rectangular canvas has less tree and more shadows in it. One must guess the shape of the branches above from the shadows scattered on the ground. It has the likeness of a game. Before we got married, in one of those moments in which we tried to act like the adults we wanted to be in the future, I asked him about the painting. I did not consider it special, but it was his way of looking at something I loved, and I wanted to be made aware of how he looked at it. It was one of the most difficult portraits he had drawn, he said, and when I asked him  why, his answer made me look at the painting in a completely different way. It had taken him days to get the correct proportion of shadows of the branches of the tree. From those shadows a viewer could guess the time of the day, perhaps even the season. But it wasn’t that which interested me. In my future husband’s gaze at the tree I wanted to find a clue to his way of looking at the world. He might as well have been looking at a woman, and in that gaze I wanted to find an estimate of his world view. All I wanted to know was whether he thought the tree an equal. And so his use of the word ‘portrait’ came as a happy surprise to me. For who had ever heard of tree portraits? Weren’t they reserved for men?

***

Excerpted from ‘How I Became a Tree’ written by Sumana Roy, published by Aleph Book Company.

***

Increasingly disturbed by the violence, hate, insincerity, greed and selfishness of her kind, the author is drawn to the idea of becoming a tree. ‘I was tired of speed’, she writes, ‘I wanted to live to tree time.’ Besides wanting to emulate the spacious, relaxed rhythm of trees, she is drawn to their non-violent ways of being, how they tread lightly upon the earth, their ability to cope with loneliness and pain, the unselfishness with which they give freely of themselves and much more. She gives us new readings of the works of writers, painters, photographers and poets (Rabindranath Tagore and D. H. Lawrence among them) to show how trees and plants have always fascinated us. She studies the work of remarkable scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose and key spiritual figures like the Buddha to gain even deeper insights into the world of trees. She writes of those who have wondered what it would be like to have sex with a tree, looks into why people marry trees, explores the death and rebirth of trees, and tells us why a tree was thought by forest-dwellers to be equal to ten sons.

Mixing memoir, literary history, nature studies, spiritual philosophies, and botanical research, How I Became a Tree is a book that will prompt readers to think of themselves, and the natural world that they are an intrinsic part of, in fresh ways.

About the Author: 

Taken with Lumia Selfie

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. Her first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, is published in India in February 2017. Her poems and essays have appeared in GrantaGuernicaDrunken Boat, the Prairie SchoonerCaravan, and other journals.

Her website: http://sumanaroy.in/

 

 


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New Release: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

treeIn this remarkable and often unsettling book, author Sumana Roy gives us a new vision of what it means to be human in the natural world in How I Became a Tree, published by Aleph Book Company.

Increasingly disturbed by the violence, hate, insincerity, greed and selfishness of her kind, the author is drawn to the idea of becoming a tree. ‘I was tired of speed’, she writes, ‘I wanted to live to tree time.’ Besides wanting to emulate the spacious, relaxed rhythm of trees, she is drawn to their non-violent ways of being, how they tread lightly upon the earth, their ability to cope with loneliness and pain, the unselfishness with which they give freely of themselves and much more. She gives us new readings of the works of writers, painters, photographers and poets (Rabindranath Tagore and D. H. Lawrence among them) to show how trees and plants have always fascinated us. She studies the work of remarkable scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose and key spiritual figures like the Buddha to gain even deeper insights into the world of trees. She writes of those who have wondered what it would be like to have sex with a tree, looks into why people marry trees, explores the death and rebirth of trees, and tells us why a tree was thought by forest-dwellers to be equal to ten sons.

Mixing memoir, literary history, nature studies, spiritual philosophies, and botanical research, How I Became a Tree is a book that will prompt readers to think of themselves, and the natural world that they are an intrinsic part of, in fresh ways.

About the Author:

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.


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What to read in 2017

By Palash Krishna Mehrotra

Is any year a good year for books? Despite doomsday predictions, the book is alive and kicking. Here’s a list of titles to look out for in 2017, from all God’s publishers, big and small.

The God of Small Things came out in my last year of college in 1997. Two decades later, as I sit perched on the cusp of middle-age, Arundhati Roy returns with her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Has she changed; have we changed? We shall find out soon.

Among other novels from Penguin Random House India, there’s Nadeem Aslam’s The Golden Legend, set in contemporary Pakistan; Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West,a love story set against the backdrop of the international refugee crisis; and Perumal Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm, the story of a young untouchable farmhand. In his novel, Friend of My Youth, a meditation on the passage of time, Amit Chaudhuri treads the fine line between fiction and non-fiction and emerges with a sensitive commemoration of Bombay and an unusual friendship. Read more

Source: DailyO


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Excerpts: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

an-era-of-darkness-the-british-empire-in-india

By the end of the nineteenth century, India was Britain’s biggest source of revenue, the world’s biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and soldiers all at India’s own expense. We literally paid for our own oppression.

Taxation remained onerous. Agricultural taxes amounted at a minimum to half the gross produce and often more, leaving the cultivator less food than he needed to support himself and his family; British estimates conceded that taxation was two or three times higher than it had ever been under non-British rule, and unarguably higher than in any other country in the world. Each of the British ‘presidencies’ remitted vast sums of ‘savings’ to England, as of course did English civil servants, merchants and soldiers employed in India. (After a mere twenty-four years of service, punctuated by and including four years of ‘home leave’ furloughs, the British civil servant was entitled to retire at home on a generous pension paid for by Indian taxpayers: Ramsay MacDonald estimated in the late 1920s that some 7,500 Englishmen were receiving some twenty million pounds annually from India as pension.)

While British revenues soared, the national debt of   India multiplied exponentially. Half of India’s revenues went out of India, mainly to England. Indian taxes paid not only for the British Indian Army in India, which was ostensibly maintaining India’s security, but also for a wide variety of foreign colonial expeditions in furtherance of the greater glory of the British empire, from Burma to Mesopotamia. In 1922, for instance, 64 per cent of the total revenue of the Government of India was devoted to paying for British Indian troops despatched abroad. No other army in the world, as Durant observed at the time, consumed so large a proportion of public revenues.

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New release: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

an-era-of-darkness

Revealing the ugly truth about the British rule in India is Shashi Tharoor’s latest book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. The book published by Aleph Book Company is slated to launch on 1st November.

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India originated from a speech made by Shashi Tharoor at the Oxford Union in 2015, that went viral across digital platforms clocking 3.5 million hits.

In this explosive book, the author reveals with acuity, impeccable research, and trademark wit, just how disastrous British rule was for India. Besides examining the many ways in which the colonizers exploited India, ranging from the drain of national resources to Britain, the destruction of the Indian textile, steel-making and shipping industries, and the negative transformation of agriculture, he demolishes the arguments of Western and Indian apologists for Empire on the supposed benefits of British rule, including democracy and political freedom, the rule of law, and the railways. The few unarguable benefits—the English language, tea, and cricket—were never actually intended for the benefit of the colonized but introduced to serve the interests of the colonizers. An Era of Darkness will serve to correct many misconceptions about one of the most contested periods of Indian history.

 

About the author:

Shashi Tharoor is the bestselling author of fifteen previous books, both fiction and non-fiction, besides being a noted critic and columnist. His books include the path-breaking satire The Great Indian Novel (1989), the classic India: From Midnight to the Millennium (1997), and most recently, India Shastra: Reflections on the Nation in Our Time (2015). He was a former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and a former Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs in the Government of India. He is a two-time member of the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram and chairs Parliament’s External Affairs Committee. He has won numerous literary awards, including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and was honoured as New Age Politician of the Year (2010) by NDTV. He was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, India’s highest honour for overseas Indians.

 

 

 


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All I’ve done is to listen and tell the stories faithfully: Salil Tripathi

By Zafar Anjum

Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi was born in Bombay, India, and lives in London. He is a contributing editor at Mint and at Caravan in India. In the UK, he was board member of English PEN from 2009 to 2013, and co-chaired PEN’s Writers-at-Risk Committee. In May 2015, he received the Red Ink award from the Mumbai Press Club for human rights journalism. In November 2011, he won a Bastiat Award in New York, and in 1994 in Hong Kong, he received a Citibank Pan Asia Journalism Awards for economic journalism. Salil has written for major newspapers around the world.

He studied at the New Era School and later Sydenham College at the University of Bombay. In 1985 he obtained his Masters in Business Administration from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth College in the United States. His books include Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009), The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Aleph Book Company, 2014, and Yale University Press, 2016), and Detours: Songs of the Open Road (Westland, 2015). He is working on a book about Gujaratis. He has written several papers in academic journals and contributed chapters in books about business and human rights.

Initially, we approached him for a Lounge Chair interview where we ask ten questions. But this interview took on a life of its own and became a longer piece. So, we decided to run it as a Kitaab interview. Here it is:

Why do you write?

I write because I like telling stories. If you ask the girls and boys who went to school with me of their oldest memories of me, they will probably tell you how I would tell stories to the class during times when a teacher was absent, when coursework was complete and there was spare–free–time, or on days when it rained outside and we weren’t able to go to the grounds to play. There was one particular story which I began in my fifth grade and completed it sometime at the end of the seventh grade. No I don’t remember much of it, except that it dealt with an androgynous James Bond who sometimes fooled villains by calling himself “Maria Rosenberg”. Alas, I don’t remember much else!

But more seriously, I want to make sense of the world around us, and write about it clearly and simply, to understand the story, and to tell the story to others. If in the process it changes people’s minds, that would be great. Continue reading


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Modi effect: One publisher quits, other spikes

Ravi Singh of Aleph ‘quits’ over decision to put Doniger on hold, publish Modi verse.

Ravi Singh, co-publisher of Aleph Book Company, has quit apparently in protest against the manner in which Aleph seemed to have yielded to those calling for a ban on Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism. Sources said he also questioned the decision by Rupa — Aleph’s publishing partner — to publish a translation of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi’s poetry during the election campaign. Continue reading


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India: Ravi Singh, Co-Publisher of Aleph Book Company, resigns

Aleph Book Company’s co-publisher Ravi Singh has parted ways with the company.

“It is with regret that I would like to announce the resignation of Ravi Singh as Co-Publisher, Aleph Book Company,” said David Davidar, publisher and co-founder of the premium publishing company on the official website of the company. “He has decided to strike out on his own as an independent publishing consultant, something he has been wanting to do for a while now. Ravi is a publisher and literary editor of great gifts and was instrumental in getting the firm off to a flying start. I would like to thank him for everything he has done for us and, on behalf of everyone at Aleph, wish him the very best for the future.” Continue reading


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It’s a women’s world in my novel: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Monideepa Sahu, fiction editor of Kitaab, interviews Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, the author of The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (Aleph) 

HansaHansda Sowvendra Shekhar is a medical officer with the government of Jharkhand, India. When he is not busy treating patients, he reads, and writes. His stories and articles have been published in The Statesman, is stories H Indian Literature, The Times of India, The Four Quarters Magazine and elsewhere. His short fiction is included in the anthology, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II.

His novel, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (Aleph) takes us into the little-known and fascinating world of the Santhal tribals of eastern India. The Santhals live in small villages surrounded by forests, and follow their own lore and rituals. Eating, drinking and merrymaking, rituals and festivities, are an integral part of the social life of these poor, uncomplicated and lively people. The author, who has first-hand knowledge of this culture, brings this world to vivid life. Continue reading