The book of margins

In Provincials, writer Sumana Roy pushes up unaired histories and cultures to argue that the provinces and the provincial style are key to much of the arts that we bracket as ‘metropolitan’
Siliguri, Roy’s city
Siliguri, Roy’s city

Many years ago, when someone called Sumana Roy a “provincial”, she had a sudden realisation about her relationship to the world. Born and brought up in Siliguri, a small city in northern West Bengal that connects the Northeastern states to the Indian mainland, she had never really seen herself in that way and the word carried a tinge of condescension, a built-in hierarchy where the metropolitan reigned supreme.

Provincials (Aleph), rightly subtitled “Postcards from the Peripheries”, grew out of a desire to celebrate the margins, the small towns and the ruralscapes that hold breathtaking diversity. She says, “I wanted to rescue people stereotyped for their smallness from a pejorative, to inaugurate an affectionate manner of looking at an ignored people waiting in the modern world’s “background.””

Hers is a decentred approach, spanning space-time as she moves across centuries and continents to “find a family for herself”, kindred spirits and fellow provincials. “I didn’t go about selecting them any more than one can go about selecting one’s parents,” she explains. “The idea of research has become so associated with the idea of control, of knowing what one wants and where to find it, that it feels a bit intimidating to me. It also feels alien to living, or at least how I understand living – that not all actions can be premeditated. Most of these people – these writers, artists, filmmakers, my friends and neighbours – have come to my life in various ways: some from sitting beside each other in school, some from books, some from listening to stories about them, some from eavesdropping.”

Kindred spirits

In Provincials, a long section on Derrida is followed by musings on Kishore Kumar, a recounting of experiences with pronunciation makes way for a critical reading of Annie Ernaux. Heidegger to Bhuwaneshwar, Rabindranath Tagore to DH Lawrence, John Clare to Jacinta Kerketta—Roy weaves an expansive tapestry of people united by their provincial origins, and both a sense of place and placelessness. Some of these figures were already popular in their day, many are enshrined in the canon now. Yet, they have not been examined as provincials. Roy asserts: “My reason for writing this book was to inaugurate a field of inquiry that would allow us to see how the province and what has been often characterised as a ‘provincial’ style are responsible for so much of the arts that we associate with the ‘metropolitan’.”

Sumana Roy
Sumana Roy

Language plays a big role when it comes to making this distinction, especially in the context of India, where after Independence and post liberalisation, English became a marker of class and status. Literary continuity and an understanding of the history of ideas were also important factors when it came to who was taken seriously and who was not. While people in the provinces might lack access to resources, they made up for it with zeal and curiosity. Time and again, Roy emphasises how these individuals were autodidacts, who took the weight of learning on their shoulders and taught themselves through disparate sources. It is a distinct cosmopolitanism constructed with the help of books, films, and other forms of media. Even sight-seeing was conducive in engendering a mind open to growth.

Origin story

For Roy, Siliguri, set against the fabric of a wider world, seems so small at times: “One of my earliest memories of writing came from the need to write about the place I lived in—as if writing about it would conjure it into existence again.” Unlike How I Became a Tree, Roy’s previous work of memoiristic non-fiction, the longer personal sections in Provincials do not come until later, and initially autobiography is just used to frame her other explorations. However, she contends that the two actually come from the same place: “In both books, it is a quest to find a family, emotional and intellectual, across time and geography. The ‘I’ in How I Became a Tree is as much an ‘eye’ as it is in Provincials. The books are not about my life but about a community related by temperament and histories. My interest in the ‘memoir’ is not to tell my story or history but to use it as a genre that allows an investigation of lives such as mine.”

At the close of the book, Roy considers what she wanted to achieve: “As I’ve groped and gathered, collected and scavenged through cultures and continents looking for provincials, those with whom I shared something invisible, I have wondered about the form of this emotional and intellectual history…. Writing this book, putting together these unaired histories…in the hope that more secret histories of provincials will follow.” This is definitely a dense book, not least because it aims to shatter the illusion of simplicity that shrouds provinciality. It mirrors the ambition of its subjects, their intuition and imagination, the dazzling burn of astonishment at what is deemed ‘unimportant’. It demands careful attention as it slowly sublimates and shifts one’s perceptions. To end with Roy’s own words: “When a leaf begins to dry, it is the edges that start curling first. Provincials is a history of those curls.”

Areeb Ahmad is a Delhi-based writer, critic and translator

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