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Photo credit:Gauri Gill

An interview with journalist and author, 
Nilanjana S Roy

By Divya Ravindranath

29 February 2024

Roy is the author of award winning fantasy novels The Wildings (2012) and The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). Her latest book Black River (2022), a Delhi noir fiction, was named one of the best crime novels of 2023 by The Guardian. She has also edited three anthologies: A Matter of Taste (2004), Patriots, Poets, and Prisoners (2016) and Our Freedoms (2021), and published a collection of essays The Girl Who Ate Books (2016), on her lifelong love of reading.

In this interview, she shares with us stories of resistance, courage, and friendships that thrive, like weed, in the most inhospitable of earth; the abundant non-human lives that co-exist with us in the sprawling megapolises; how mainstream news is like the pretty, froth like, toxic clouds over Yamuna; the dangers of creating a society where success becomes the last, and perhaps most dangerous, of your pantheon of godsauthors who have held the torch high for others; and the role of slow absorption, conversations and walking around in the city in her writing.

1. At the writing desk, is Nilanjana the journalist a different person from Nilanjana the fiction writer? What are her ideas, ambitions and motivations for both these forms of writing?

Two different beasts. As a journalist on the gender, books and food beats, my job is to report, to offer a snapshot, to capture shifts in the culture while they’re happening, and (I hope) provide some perspective. Fiction is becoming a place of freedom. Even though I lean on the teachings from journalism in all three of my novels, The Wildings, The Hundred Names of Darkness and Black River, I’m learning to trust my intuition and imagination more. Ambitions: it’s a constant engagement with the writing itself, trying to do justice to what you feel so deeply, or to what your characters care about. 

I became a novelist late, at 37, and haven’t fully explored fiction’s possibilities yet, but it is such a joy to start that journey. 


2. In your previous book The Wildings you built an introspective narration of the city from the point of view of cats. It is a strong metaphor for how humans inhabit the city with love, fear, insecurity, control, power. How did the idea of this book come to you?


I began by befriending — and being befriended by — all kinds of strays: cats, but also dogs, pigs, cheels, the abundant non-human lives who inhabit most Indian cities. You’re right about the allegorical sides to both The Wildings novels, but I have also begun to understand that there is no such thing as a purely human world.

We live alongside a million other lives, often creatures who are harsly persecuted, pushed to the margins, forced to battle for survival — and yet, to my astonishment, the animals I grew to know and respect also found space for inter-species friendship, truces, and had a great capacity for curiosity and love. Our human stories are not the only kinds of stories about life in sprawling megalopolises like Delhi or New York; it’s only that we hold the pen.


3. Your recent book, ‘Black River’ is a vastly different exploration of the city. What set this book into motion?

I walked a lot as a journalist, sometimes to meet people who had suffered unimaginable, but everyday, tragedies; sometimes more contemplatively, on my own, curious about what Delhi, Haryana and parts of UP felt like to those who lived very different lives from mine.

And three strands came together. The first was an immense, still present, anger and grief at the casual violence that often ended the lives of young girls and women. I saw too many broken bodies, mourned, raged, and finally wrote about the grief left behind, about those who shoulder that sorrow and try to find some way to carry their cracked hearts. The second was a growing understanding that we were poisoning the rivers, the earth, the air around us, and also polluting our most personal relationships with an equally toxic fog of hate. The third was an astonishment at the resilience and courage of the most unexpected kind — often found among the most vulnerable of our citizens — and the ability of love and friendship to thrive, like weeds, in the most inhospitable of earth. 


4. The central plot of Black River unravels in Teetarpur, a fictionalized village on the edge of Delhi-Haryana border. What does the fictionalization of the village imply? 


I had several places in mind, all on the outskirts, the edgelands, invisible to much of Delhi once you cross that border and very real to its inhabitants, but Teetarpur felt much more real to me and gave me more freedom as a fictionalised place.

Part of this was prudence; offence laws have narrowed all of our freedoms, and many have filed lawsuits because they feel their caste name has been “insulted” or their village or region has been portrayed unflatteringly. But the imagination can be liberating, and the fictional Teetarpur with its homes laid out in apparent amity, but carefully segregated by religion and caste, developed an identity of its own. 


5. Teetarpur is on the edge of a big city, but within Teetarpur agriculture is now a fringe activity with land being consolidated for real estate projects. A character suggests that Teetarpur is the next Gurugram. It is about the politics of location - smaller villages aspiring to emulate larger urban centres, mirroring how cities themselves are trying to become global hubs like Hong Kong or Singapore…When you set a story in the backdrop of larger development praxis and geographical transformations, how do you hold together the writing of the plot and the writing of context? There is so much to unpack.

We’re living through a bulldozer age in India: development used to be a small god, but now it is a revered and powerful deity, and most Indians prefer not to see, to turn away from the rubble. You can’t write about a city like Delhi without including its aspirations, or about a village like Teetarpur without addressing its own ambitions and the arrival of greed, another god of our times.

For many writers — Garcia Marquez writing about the whirlwind caused by banana companies in his fictional Macondo, Deepti Kapoor on the ambitions of the rich for development in Age of Vice — fiction is the natural home for everything you see. And you can’t write about the powerful in Black River without including the ruthlessness of those who see land only as a means to wealth, not as landscape, not as earth to be tended and nurtured. In this country, in this time, so much happens over land: displacement, aspiration, riots, murders, all over this business of converting the living earth into a fatter bank balance, greater power.

You pay a high price for creating a society where success becomes the last, and perhaps most dangerous, of your pantheon of gods: if you’re successful, saat khoon maaf. 

6. Several episodes in the book seem to be inspired from real incidents. Can you reflect on the role fiction serves as a method for archiving our present? 

When much of the media refuses to archive or even acknowledge the present, when the most powerful editors bend to the mightiest and distort the times we’re living through, they have given a magnificent gift to novelists. Their extremely elastic spines keep us fiction writers busy. And through the ages novels, as well as newspapers, have also kept the true record.

Fiction keeps the accounts either way, regardless of the author’s intention or political leanings: I re-read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind recently, and thought it was a truthful, stomach-turning, account by an unabashed proponent of slavery — she gives you a ringside view of how the dehumanization of slaves, the valorisation of the Ku Klux Klan, actually worked. And then you read Toni Morrison on the same history, written in a far more shattering and emphathetic key, or Perumal Murugan’s novels, laying bare the prejudices and hatred that those who believe in love receive when they dare to cross caste, class or religious borders; so many writers, unlike Mitchell, choose to hold their torches high, telling it true as they light the way for you and others. 


7. Though there is a central plot - a terrible act of violence against a young girl and a police investigation, you don’t give the reader a single definitive story. There are so many strands that are interlaced together, pivoting into much larger themes of human experience, social hierarchies, migration and urban life, corruption and personal journeys. Tell us more about this type of world building. 

Black River is about grief and the aftermath of crime, the ripple effects spreading out across time and landscape; it is probably not a classic crime novel, but thankfully the crime genre is a capacious and welcoming one. It has often held space for books that like mine, stray beyond the limits of a police procedural, and hope to look more closely at the humanity behind all of it.

I couldn’t offer a single story, because it is all connected — the greed and the abuse of power, the sparks of decency and stubborn courage in someone who belongs to a corrupt world, the question that haunts the father, Chand — what does real justice look like? Who will answer? — and at the same time, the extraordinary possibilities that a big city provides for friendship, even caring and love, across all barriers.

It is never one thing. Everything is connected, and it can take a murder to expose those apparently separate, snaking roots. It’s also the only way I seem to be able to write; I have a weakness for messy, ambiguous, sprawling stories, and I’m very grateful to my editors at Westland, Karthika and Ajitha, and my agent David Godwin, for setting me free to write what I want to. 


8. In the book, there is a scene where reporters are hustling to get a news bite from Chand who is grieving his daughter’s death. The reporters are focused on the incident, Chand’s desperation, and agony; everything else is a blur. This is what we see in the news in real life. According to me this is why we need fiction, because it allows us to tell us a story with empathy; what does it do for you?


If you walk along the Yamuna, you see a toxic foam that builds up from the high level of pollution. It’s pretty, like frothy clouds, and it is damaging. The news, here and elsewhere, has become toxic foam that millions wade through every day. I don’t mean the few courageous independents who still hold the line. The hunger for clicks, for speed, to please the powerful, has dehumanized many in the mainstream media; empathy is an old-world concern, it doesn’t fit into the new.

Good fiction, along with films, music and art at their best, persuades readers to linger a little, to stay immersed in a healthy, flowing river, in clear contrast to that toxic foam. Some writers, like Claire Keegan, Devika Rege or Janice Pariat, create such a depth of engagement, such reflection and immersion, that you start to feel and think, and empathise, again, like recovering a limb atrophied from lack of use. For me, it comes down to two elements: empathy, yes, but also richness. Fiction — writing it, reading it — is an act of discovery and reclamation, and it is thanks to books that I have led a richer life than I might have on my own. 


9. You know Delhi intimately. How important is this familiarity to you for writing a story considering that our cities are so full of contradictions. For instance, Yamuna is the Black River - it is polluted and a marker of loss. And yet in its neglect, it paradoxically provides refuge to many and holds promise of space and life. Similarly, the characters Rabia, Khalid, and Chand are looking to build a life in the city despite the experience of violence and loss. One cannot write these stories if you don’t know the city beyond malls and parks. 

Thank you — I’m touched by your understanding and your words. Perhaps some of us become writers because we like to wander, to explore, whether it’s in your own imagination or in an actual city.

Malls and parks: don’t knock them, a sensitive writer could make a beautiful novel out of malls and parks. But what happened to me was that by walking around the city, first reporting and then just wandering, I found friends, and had conversations over years with people whose experiences of Delhi were vivid and deeply felt. None of them directly inspired my characters, but I could not have written a Rabia or an Ombir without those years of slow absorption and conversations that led you down unexpected paths. 


10. In a Delhi noir fiction, you have shown us possibilities of friendship, hope and solidarity.  I am reminded of a poem titled ‘The City’, in which C.P. Cavafy writes: You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere…

One of the saddest aspects of the new India we’re living through is that friendship and love are being banned, policed, legally circumscribed. Far from shaking off the segregation of the past, our politicians have deliberately chosen to widen fault lines, to teach hatred rather than fraternity.  The borders are harsher, the penalties for crossing the bounds are brutal and chilling. 

But Delhi also showed me that people find ways across the highest fences. I met many who choose to register their dissent quietly, away from the limelight, through friendship, through love, through a thousand tiny and rebellious acts of solidarity. I think they always will, even if these prohibitions become harsher. 

11. Fiction writing is also about re-discovering a place. What new things did you learn about Delhi while researching for your fiction books?

The Yamuna; the first time I actually walked along the river, it caught my heart, the silver, surging waters despite the many dead stretches, the teeming life on the banks and in the skies above, the migrants finding a foothold despite growing gentrification, the wildness of it, the way it refused to fully die, despite all that this river has been made to bear.

And I learned to try, perhaps to fail but at least to try in fiction, to give the city back to the people who built it, brick by brick, who believe it belongs to them. Even though they have the most precarious of footholds in this massive, sprawling city, a place of knives, barriers, violence and harshness, but also a place of freedom, and the possibility of sweetness. 


12. Is writing about the city in English different from that in other languages? Have you explored this theme in other languages as well?

Black River could not be written only in English. I had to find a language that could do some justice to Ombir’s Hindi, which comes from Haryana, Chand’s Hindi, a hybrid of Teetarpur but also citified by his decades in Delhi, and Rabia and Khalid’s way of speaking, which swings into Hindi via Bengali. English has been in India for three hundred years, and it has become an Indian possession, the ripples of all of our other languages never too far from the surface. 


13. If you had to draw up a list of your favourite Cities in Fiction books, what would they be?

Too many, but a small sample:

Delhi: Twilight in Delhi, Ahmed Ali; Dil-O-Danish, Krishna Sobti; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie (Bombay and Delhi); Age of Vice, Deepti Kapoor.

Benares: Kashi Ka Assi, Kashinath Singh; Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer

Kolkata: Kalikatha via Bypass, Alka Saraogi; A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth (Kolkata and Lucknow), Chowringhee, Sankar.

Boats on Land, Janice Pariat (Shillong and Cherrapunji); The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy (Ayamenem), Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, Tanuj Solanki, Tales from Firozsha Baag, Rohinton Mistry (Mumbai); Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil (Mumbai); Lunatic in my Head, Anjum Hasan (Shillong). 

Asian cities in fiction: Pachinko, Min Jin Lee (set in Yeongdo, Osaka and other parts of Japan); Lust, Caution, Eileen Chang (set in Shanghai and Hong Kong); A Golden Age, Tahmima Anam (set in Dhaka); A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam (set in Colombo and the Northern Province). 


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