Sunil Gavaskar’s square drive and the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland cohabit with stories of land grabs and black magic in Anuradha Roy’s new novel The Earthspinner. But it is a potter, whose inspiration comes from ancient myths and wards, who work hard on clay that holds fort amid violence and uncertainty. The author, longlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize for her third novel Sleeping on Jupiter (winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2016), goes back in time to recreate a world of dreams and possibilities threatened by hatred and suspicion. Roy, who lives in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, tells Faizal Khan in an email interview that nothing much has changed. Edited excerpts:
Your new novel, The Earthspinner, alternates between some of the most challenging times in modern India’s history during the ’70s and ’80s.
The stories of Elango, the potter, Zohra, the library assistant, and Tashi, the dog, however, have a strong resonance with contemporary India.
The central question in The Earthspinner is creativity and how you have to battle constraints in order to assert its absolute importance. In the book, one night, a potter dreams of a horse on fire and when he wakes and tries to make sense of it, he realises that in his mind it is tied inextricably to his forbidden love—forbidden because he is Hindu and the woman he loves is Muslim. Art, relationships, food, names, clothes—all of this is policed in our society and we are asked to repress our individuality and humanity at the altar of state diktat and religion. Indians are being actively herded and corralled into separate community identities via hatred and violence.
This is the polar opposite of everything that Gandhi and Tagore and Ambedkar stand for. I tried to dramatise this as the central conflict in my previous novel All the Lives We Never Lived, and now the same dilemma has surfaced with different contours and shapes in this new book. I can’t think of any period when this problem that every Indian now faces so starkly would not have been a struggle— therefore, the resonance you perceive with contemporary times.
When did you start writing The Earthspinner? What was the point of departure for the novel?
I think I’ve been making my way towards this novel for years by writing shorter pieces. Some have been published and the rest functioned as notes. I was probably taking small, experimental steps because I wanted to knit together several themes that meant a great deal to me: how does great loss, such as that of a parent, affect a young person? What is our relationship with animals? What does it mean, practically and intellectually speaking, to live by making art; how does malice and hatred destroy communities?
As the world of my potter came together, a dog came into the potter’s life. There have always been dogs in my novels, but never as a major character. In this book, the dog more or less walked in and settled down, not in a corner, but right at the centre of the book. And that was that. Once the dog was there, a student of the potter came into the dog’s life. This student grew more prominent, sometimes taking over as the narrator. Ultimately, this became a book about the potter’s life, the girl’s life, and their dog’s life.
Are you a lot into pottery as a passion? Did you require much research about the potters’ community?
My research has been by doing. Though I acquired a very basic, simple workspace only recently, I have been learning and making pots since I was a college student. Right from then, whenever I could, I would spend time with both traditional potters and studio potters here, as well as abroad. What I’ve found very striking about traditional potters is how generous they are with their enormous knowledge. In Kumartuli in Kolkata, which is a potter’s settlement, they showed me how to mould clay sculpture, though they did not know me at all. In Rajasthan, village potters have shown me how to “throw” in one of those metal basins you use for mixing cement. Somehow, the knowledge that you both work with clay and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty creates an instant bond. Naturally, for the book, I had to read up various things too—that is just a condition of writing anything new.
All the mainly female characters of the novel, narrated by a fiercely independent woman, are strong individuals, who follow their hearts and minds in a spirited manner. Are you holding a mirror to our society that is witnessing growing incidents of violence against women and children by employing a distinctly different storytelling process? We also witness a horrifying incident of a gangrape of a woman in the beginning of the book.
Some central characters in my past books have been women, but not so much in this book. Here, the central character in this novel is a man—the potter called Elango. There are several female characters, including Elango’s student Sara, who is one of the narrators. But unlike my earlier book, Sleeping on Jupiter, this one is not centrally about violence against women and children, even though there is a violent incident in it. That incident does cast a long shadow, setting off a chain of events that lead to a set of people united by its ramifications. The mirror that is held to our society in this book has more to do with religious hatred and the suffocating strictures surrounding art.
Please tell us about the terracotta horse being built by Elango that occupies a central space in the novel. There are very interesting references to the burning horse from ancient mythology in the book.
The book began with the potter and his horse. I had come across clay horses in my childhood—they are made in Bankura in Bengal, which is famous for terracotta pottery. Later, I discovered clay horses were also made in parts of south India. These were huge horses, which were constructed by groups of potters and were taken around the villages in a procession to protect the village from evil. When I read about the horse in Hindu vedic mythology, I encountered a rich set of myths about a “submarine horse”, a repository for Shiva’s fury, that roams the ocean floor breathing fire. In mythology, the horse is powerful, political and symbolic in an elusive and ever-changing fashion. In my book, the myth of the sacred horse is turned on its head, into a symbol of secularism and of love.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer