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'Cats and writers are both completely off their heads'

September 26, 2012 12:45 IST

'The cruelty to animals only reflects the modern, urban Indian contempt for any creatures -- animal or human -- who are voiceless and powerless and unable to fight back,' novelist Nilanjana Roy says, discussing her first book, the well-reviewed The Wildings, with Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

The Wildings, by Nilanjana Roy, with its eccentric, lovable characters, all billis with earthy desi names, is a well-paced, delightful novel, chiefly about felines, that will strike a chord with animal lovers of any age, even the very young.

The tale meanders into the complex, layered world of all the creatures that inhabit the feudal, sleepy bylanes and skies above Nizamuddin, Delhi – the brooding cheels, a megalomaniac mongoose, the knowledgeable pavam (deliberately acutely humble) mice.

The area clearly belongs to the beasts.

The humans -- picturesquely called Bigfeet -- though unfortunately present, are tolerated; awful organisms with their metal clap-trap locomotion machines, cell-block, sunless homes and weird preoccupations.

A passionate cat lover, Roy and her husband have kept generations of cats as well as nurtured neighbourhood strays. Many of them find their way into The Wildings, her first novel. Her knowledge of Delhi's Nizamuddin area is also firsthand.

Roy is a journalist, critic, writer of children's stories and contributor to Indian and international publications -- Business Standard, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times India blog.

In an interview with Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel, Roy discusses her love for cats, dogs and cheels; how her book almost became a 700-page cat epic, and why writing about animals, rather than humans, is more challenging.

How hard was it to move from someone who writes short stories and columns to becoming an author?

You probably knew you had a good book in you, but were not sure how you would do it.

It took a decade, but I don't know that it was hard work at all -- not in the sense that working 14-hour days as a chef or a domestic worker might be. The treadmill of freelance journalism was a factor -- doing eight to 10 pieces a month left little time for quiet, writerly reflection -- but I never forget that I chose the freelance life, over more corporate jobs.

When I finished the book, I had two exceptional pieces of luck -- David Godwin (the well-known British literary agent) read and loved a first draft of The Wildings, and he is such an amazing agent to sign up with; and David Davidar at Aleph was the best editor for the book.

Finding permission to write was the hardest part -- permission to step away from the journalism that I loved, but that was also too safe. And finding permission to write what I wanted, not to be straitjacketed into a certain kind of literary fiction.

I didn't know this when The Wildings began, but I was paying homage to the books I had really loved -- fantasy, children's literature, speculative fiction -- and by doing that, I was coming home.

How much more interesting is it to write about animals as opposed to humans?

Imagining yourself into anyone's skin -- furry, scaly, smooth -- is a challenge. Humans are relatively easy -- we might be bright little apes, essentially, but we know how each other's minds work.

The lever into the minds of other animals is partly science and research (feline instincts versus mongoose food habits, for instance) and partly imagination, and mostly an act of translation.

It was unsettling, trying to imagine myself into the minds and emotions of another species; but it was unsettling in the best way possible.

One hazard was that I'd finish writing, go to a party, and find myself thinking, 'Oh, that monkey's being very territorial, isn't he?' and 'That group is practicing primate social grooming.'

You seem to know the area of Nizamuddin intimately. That does not seem to have come from just living there. You seem to have really taken the time and curiosity to know your neighbourhood. How did that happen?

Also, was Nizamuddin a natural setting for this book?

Thank you! I thought I knew Nizamuddin well before The Wildings began, because we'd lived here for so many years. But what I knew was the human part -- the medieval colony that was also so contemporary, the timelessness of the dargah folding seamlessly into a thoroughly modern, ruthlessly aspirational South Delhi colony.

One of the joys of writing The Wildings was, literally, walking the novel into existence -- beginning to see things through the eyes of the cats, the dogs, the cheels, growing fascinated with the world that lies just beneath the skin of Delhi.

The dogs are easy to spot; the cats melt into the shadows, so you have to learn to see them, or to hang out on the canal bridge for a while before one will come up and say hello.

And perhaps that "learning to see" was useful, because it showed me an under-city, and taught me that no Indian city is strictly human. We share it with too many other species.

At one point, the book had sprawled out towards Old Delhi, West Delhi, Mehrauli, and I had to corral it back into Nizamuddin, because otherwise it would have become a 700-page cat epic. The War and Peace of cat books.

I love the way you write about animals. Do you feel you would like to continue in that genre? Become a sort of Indian Gerald Durrell (author of My Family and Other Animals).

Gerald Durrell was one of my favourite writers as a child, but he wrote so engagingly about animals because he lived with them and looked after them, and knew so much about them.

I have the greatest respect for writers like him, or James Herriot, or closer home, Billy Arjan Singh and M Krishnan.

There will be a Wildings sequel, but I couldn't dream of matching the experience and empathy that those writers and animal lovers have shown.

For you personally, what sets cats apart from dogs?

How important are cats to your life?

I can't be rude to dogs; the neighbourhood strays have been such good friends, wherever my husband and I have lived, and there's a lovely local Gang of Four who have learned how to jump on cars and set off their alarms, which they do every night at 3 am.

Photograph: Nilanjana Roy with her cat, Tiglath (better known, she says, as Tiggy or "Put that down!"). Photograph: Kavi Bhansali

But cats and writers have a well-known affinity. They are highly sensitive, highly territorial, intensely curious, social, but also mildly sociopathic, and completely off their heads.

I only started sharing my life with cats 16 years ago, shortly after I got married, but it's hard to imagine the BC -- Before Cats -- era. It must have been arid, empty, a vast wasteland of years.

I am not sentimental about animals -- you can't be if you live with them -- but what the cats brought into my life was the simple and priceless gift of friendship with another species.

Also, they have a killer sense of style. Unlike me, sadly.

Who do you expect will be the core audience for your book?

Cats, mostly, but perhaps a few dogs might like it. Cheels tend not to be big readers.

How has your book been received so far?

Surprisingly well, judging by the reviews and by some of the feedback; one reader sent me flowers and cat food, which was welcome, if a trifle unusual.

The Wildings is just a first novel; it will have to find its own way.

One meets every day people who cannot abide cats or dogs. What do you say to such people? Or do you not bother? Or to each his own...

You can't force change, or love, or empathy on anyone else.

Years ago, on a visit to Sri Lanka before the war changed that country, I was lucky enough to spend some time with the elephants at Pinnawala, and they completely changed my perspective on what haathis were like.

I had thought they were solemn, serious giants; instead, they had a sense of play and fun.

One of them spanked me -- not in a Fifty Shades of Grey way, he was just cross that I'd run out of bananas -- with his trunk, and I wouldn't have missed that experience for the world, any more than I would have missed any of the little moments with cats, dogs, local strays.

People who hate animals miss out on a lot, and live in denial of their own basically animal natures, but that's their choice. The rest of us, I guess we are all like "So many species, so little time."

I read an article of yours defending stray dogs. India has always prided itself on being vegetarian and non-violent. Our pantheon of gods includes so many animals, yet there is a mind-boggling amount of cruelty foisted on all kinds of creatures, including our revered cow.

Can you explain from your view why this is so? And what we can do about it?

I have stopped equating vegetarianism with a love for animals -- it doesn't go together, at least not here.

There's a historical sense of kinship with animals, from Jatayu and Hanuman in the Ramayana to references in, say, Premchand's stories, and perhaps we haven't lost that entirely.

Perhaps the cruelty to animals only reflects the modern, urban Indian contempt for any creatures -- animal or human -- who are voiceless and powerless and unable to fight back.

We are very territorial, very aggressive about our rights; but that co-exists with a kind of quiet, unfussy but very widespread sense of caring.

You'll find shopkeepers who feed and look after local strays, slum dwellers who'll share space and rotis with them -- there's a lot of kindness out there, too.

I am not an animal rights activist, though I respect those who have fought that battle for years, but perhaps all that's needed is a little empathy.

Just the understanding that grief, love, pain, loss, joy, friendship and trust are not exclusive to humans -- just the willingness to extend a little practical compassion.

And most important, the understanding that animals are not intruders on human cities and spaces; they belong here as much as we do, even if they don't have voter's ID cards.

You have been watching the Indian literary scene for a long time. What are some of the most interesting observations you would like to make about it?

In some ways, we are heading in the same direction as China and Turkey.

There's an explosion of writing activity, and in India, a claiming of English as a local language by a much wider range of writers.

But your bestsellers are becoming more insular and much less intellectually or artistically challenging, much less questioning, let alone revolutionary.

We have variety without depth; perhaps in another ten years, we will have the range of today, but with more quality and more anarchy.

The new bestsellers, in particular, reflect urban India, which is very welcome; but they are so safe, so tame, so narrow in their interests.

Where is the next generation of fiery, politically angry young men and women?

Where is the sense of conscience, of engagement with the wider world?