The 83th session of An Author’s Afternoon welcomed Kolkata Girl, author, Nilanjana Roy. Ex Martinian, Nilanjana’s professional life entails nearly 15 years as a columnist, travel writer blogger, reporter, journalist and the list goes on. She helped to set up the Indian publishing house, Westland Books, as its first chief editor; and is a founder member of PEN Delhi. Nilanjana is the author of two award-winning fantasy novels -The Wildings and The Hundred Names of Darkness, a collection of essays on reading -The Girl Who Ate Books. Black River, her third novel and her first for an adult audience, is all set to captivate readers. At the helm of the conversation was another Ehsaas Woman, Entrepreneur Malika Varma.
The conversation opened with a beautiful sojourn of Nilanjana’s life in Kolkata, a place she says that gave her the experience of cosmopolitanism, her teachers in school who helped her discover the world of books and an environment bereft of the ethos of hierarchy. She disclosed how she had intended to pursue a rather difficult Ph.D. degree in Literary Theory, Criticism and Subaltern Studies but was veered off track into MA in JNU where she would write for a publication house. She began writing at the age of 15 as an arts and books reporter for The Business Standard and covered Gender and Politics for the New York Times before taking a break to write her books. What drew her to writing was the temptation of being able to meet this huge spectrum of celebrated experts from different fields, to hear and share their stories. Nilanjana who continues to write for the Financial Times as a Book Columnist added that Kolkata is responsible for her being infected by the book loving virus like most of the people who live there.
Each generation bears its own preferences or empathy, she explained. In the 18 th century people were hollering that the ‘novels had killed literature’ while now we are moaning that the ‘Novel is dead.’ She elucidated that the incessant complains about the younger generation not reading enough is incorrect, adding that it’s just that their mode of reading is different from the previous generation. ‘Fan fiction’ or ‘Slash Fiction’ is more their genre as it allows them to translate it as per their imagery. Nilanjana lamented that not enough is done to satiate the younger people’s appetite for reading, the accessibility is not enough, and the marketing is also not enough. The author also commends the digital media and OTT platforms for converting books into films and web series giving storytelling a makeover that is the need of the time. Reading across genres and generations keeps her ticking she confessed. ‘I was built of them’ is how she described the significance of books in her life.
Nilanjana opined that India being a very young democracy is a nation that respects other people’s notions and beliefs as well as advocated fraternity. Hailing from a family that revered the freedom struggle she was taught to know about the years that have gone into it which made her vision more liberal; while her work that made her listen to hard core tales of life from various cross-section has added to her sensitivity. ‘You cannot be a citizen of democracy without being in a relationship with it,’ she stated. She spoke on the role of media in spreading hate and negative propaganda as per the ruling party. When the ‘Institutions of Democracy’ cracks and people are afraid to speak their mind, it is definitely time to do a rain-check on what is the expectation and need as a nation and reclaim it.
Speaking on her book, ‘The Wildings’, Nilanjana says that it reflects on her love hate relationship with the city of Delhi. She described the city as a melting pot with its aggressive weather and a city soaked in rich historical and cultural heritage and subtle kindness. She has mirrored the essence of the city through the eyes of cats and strays and as they see the city ebbing out from its cultural and environmental authenticity to transform into a concrete jungle similar to Kolkata. Nilanjana revealed that writing ‘The Wildings’ cured her of her apprehensions and gracefully uplifted her out of the comforts of her journalism zone and prolifically fitted her into writing fiction fearlessly. The award she received for this book has been special to her since children’s books do not get much recognition usually.
“I have a poly city amorous heart,’ Nilanjana quipped. The author discussed that the women in Kolkata are more forthright and know how to hold their own unlike the women in the North. Though some of the women she has met from the North are independent yet there seemed to be a strong sense of societal or family control lurking somewhere. Commenting on the lockdown situation she talks about how women are expected to excel in managing work from home as well as manage the home front singlehandedly and how the men stand to be haloed if they contribute to the household chores. She declared that she has felt the freest in the Northeast as the women there have a lot more agencies as to their identity. The author also shared her alarm over the number of women that have dropped out of the workforce and the masculine negative control that still exists.
Nilanjana confessed that she loves Delhi for its history and it’s where she became a journalist; whilst Kolkata for its feisty and extraordinary women from diverse backgrounds who have inspired her to ‘find her own ground.’ She advised aspiring journalists to read a lot and all kind of genres. Nilanjana also gives the attendees a sneak peak on her next book which is a fiction thriller. She called herself ‘old school’ and loves the feel of turning over pages and not scrolling the Kindle. Tagore remains a favourite with her because of the modernity his women reflect despite their poignant femininity. She admired him all the more for having questioned the fallouts of Nationalism and defined him as one of the first ‘Modern Public Intellectuals. ‘She rounded off the session by talking about the need of more English work being translated to regional languages in order to reach out to a bigger sphere of readers.