Anuradha Roy’s new novel, The Earthspinner, is shot through with her trademark subtlety, elegance and lyricism. Its foremost concern, an echo from her previous novel, All The Lives We Never Lived, is creativity and how artists battle constraints to assert its absolute importance in their lives.
Elango, a potter, lives on the edge, like most of the finest craftspeople in India, and yet is driven by the need to make art, like Gayatri Sen Rosario, the carefree protagonist of All The Lives, who rebels against tradition and marital entrapment to pursue a career as an artist.
All Elango wants to do is translate his vision of a clay horse on fire into a terracotta sculpture and marry a Muslim woman he loves. “These are not impossible desires. But in our country, what you paint or write, who you marry, what you eat, what you name your child—all of it is a battleground. There is only one right way, and it is the one dictated by the majority; (George) Orwell saw it coming years ago, in Animal Farm,” says Roy in an email interview from Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, where she lives with her husband, author and publisher Rukun Advani, and their four dogs—Piku, Soda, Barauni and Biscoot. “We are being asked to dissolve our individuality and humanity into state-directed worship. I see this as the central conflict in my previous novel as much as in my latest.”
The Earthspinner shuttles between India and England, past and present, and unfolds over eight months. It is narrated in large parts by Sara, who is studying English literature on a scholarship in England and spends her free time in a pottery studio near her college, brushing up on the lessons imparted to her during her childhood by Elango, and finding herself having imaginary conversations with her deceased father. The past is not bygone, but exists alongside the present, and is outlined in recollections.
Elango’s life had been upended by petty violence engineered by a set of motivated individuals but the incident continues to reverberate through the present. The bond between Sara and Elango, which begins in her infancy, turns power and class privileges on its head: “And yet class is a slippery thing—Sara may idolise the potter but he has a sharper, more visceral awareness of difference. Even so, most centrally, the impulse to creativity is not class-bound or restricted to the rich,” says Roy.
Several of the novel’s concerns emerged from the soil of Roy’s own experiences: what creating means to the artist, in intellectual and practical terms; how great loss, such as that of a parent, affects a child; why animals rank so low in our hierarchies; and how hatred destroys lives. “Because all of this matters so much to me, I think I have been making my way towards it for many years by writing shorter pieces, some published and some not. Maybe I was trying to find the nerve to actually write it, by taking small, experimental steps.”
Chinna, a dog who is abandoned and rehabilitated many times over, is one of the novel’s main characters. “Like there is a dog in a great many of Gauguin’s paintings, there have always been dogs in my novels. But I had never dared place one at its centre though I have long wanted to write a novel about a dog that was not a ‘cute’ one,” says Roy. Chinna becomes an agent of change: He brings out tender, caring aspects Elango didn’t know he had; sharing the dog “knocks off-balance” the class divide between the potter and middle-class children, including Sara and her sister Tia, whom he ferries to school. “Animals have a way of melting barriers that humans don’t,” Roy says.
Though there are strands in the novel—including Roy’s love for lost pups and pottery, her other passion—that echo her life, it is no autofiction: “Fiction gives me room to move away from my own life even as it allows me to explore themes that are urgent and important for me.” Roy says she has always thought of writing as a kind of making, like pottery—all-consuming. “There are an infinite number of parallels you can draw between the transformation of a pail of slop into an elegant vase and the slow gathering of words from chaotic, half-formed ideas and images until there is a narrative. In a metaphorical sense, almost every stage of making a pot could be set against the writing process and a comparison derived. In concrete terms, I think both writing and pottery demand that you dig deep into your reserves of patience and persistence and the ability to live with failure,” says Roy.
As the dream of a clay horse on fire—which Roy links with myths about a “submarine horse” that roams the ocean floor—grows statuesque in Elango’s imagination, impelling him to make it a reality, many things obstruct his vision of the mythic horse, from mundane things such as clay supplies and the weather, to complex matters like the forces of hatred within his community. “What happens to the potter and the clay horse he makes are like a parable,” Roy says. “It is a story we have seen play out in many ways over the last decades and we will continue to.”
As with all her novels, Roy is as much attuned to the intricate workings of language and euphonies as she is to silence. “I treasure the unsaid in fiction—when reading as well as writing,” she says. “However, I don’t want the unsaid to build up to confusion or incoherence; I want it to make room for meaning, thought, and memory—the space created by the silences in the narrative must expand it, give it elasticity so readers can wander.”
There is a whole epistolary section in All the Lives We Never Lived. There are a few letters scattered through the narrative of The Earthspinner, too. “Letters have always interested me. You get such a vivid snatch of other people’s lives from reading their letters. This is why I like to use them in my fiction—they introduce a different voice, time period, tempo,” says Roy. When Sara, Elango’s student, goes abroad, letters from home make her realise how far she is drifting from the world she knew, even as Elango’s voice in her head anchors her to it: “The letters, and the shifts in time work together so that events are seen in several mirrors, from changed perspectives. I think—hope—interleaving past and present and several voices bring about a greater richness of texture in the narrative.”
The Earthspinner is steeped in many aspects of loss: places, people, animals, faith. Almost every character in the book experiences loss of some kind but the novel, says Roy, is about survival rather than mourning: “If I can borrow an image from ceramics—pots emerge stronger and their colours and shapes are fully realised only after they are put through fire.”
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based culture journalist.