In Moral Science classes, as they used to be called in those days, we used to be taught proverbs that we would go on to use in many clichéd ways later on in life. Things like how you should never judge a book by its cover, old is gold, and such like. Sticking to the literal meaning of the former, and not its application to humankind, I have to say that you really need to judge Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books by its cover. It is a book as delightful as its beautiful cover.
It is a collection of essays, interviews and reviews, most culled out from Roy’s well-known and much-read columns and freshly updated, and marks over two decades of her writing on books, readers and related adventures. Beginning with memories of growing up reading in Kolkata in homes that “were furnished in books”, one that had “a wrought-iron staircase like rusted lace…”, Roy’s early memories of reading are what might well be the early memories of most ardent readers, who took refuge in books and stories from a young age.
The first part of the book extends a fascinating peek into the history and development of Indian Writing in English (IWE). The story of Dean Mahomet, “an enterprising young man” who becomes “the first Indian writer to attempt a full-fledged book in English”, founder of a coffee-house, and then an Orientalist spa in the 1800s, is interjected with the author’s first visit to London and the anecdotes that make her visit so memorable. Chapters on ‘How to Read in Indian’, pioneering English writers after the First War of Independence and the following essays are laden with references to lesser-known books, their history, the country’s history and the author’s own, all well meshed together. There is a leaning towards Bengali literature, certainly not a fault, for this book is about the books this girl ate through life.
Roy eats, finding, “through a process of trial and error, that Bengali books seldom tasted good, that paperbacks are dry and crumbly, and that exercise books are watery and disappointing”. This one time, she is forced to eat an entire page, corner to corner, to ride a perceptibly ragged edge on the page she unfittingly made. Her conscience troubles her, and so does her stomach, but she says, “…this would hardly be the last time I would find the printed word difficult to digest.”
A large part of the book contains short interviews with some of the country’s well-known writers and poets, and publishers/booksellers/booklovers; to be consumed, Roy writes, “like samosas or paapri chaat”. These are more like “old black-and-white snapshots.” Dom Moraes, Kamala Das, Jeet Thayil, Khushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy, Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Rohinton Mistry and possibly every major Indian writer in English any common reader could name is included. In writing of the things they ate, their quirks, their eccentricities and their normalness, these essays introduce the person behind the big fancy writer in an easy, conversational manner.
There are meditations on the death of Kolkata’s libraries when fortunes fall and houses have to be sold and on the curious cases of some the most well-known instances of plagiarism. Finally, from neatly contextualise it all with contemporary issues, writings on the freedom of speech and expression that look at everything from the myth of Vac, the goddess of speech and the deeply personal, Roy crosses over and the reader in her becomes the writer, the author.
On account of having reworked on columns that span some twenty years, there are stray repetitions here and there that a reader does notice. But this is just nit-picking in a book that is otherwise a wonderful journey into reading in English in India. In her personal account of a lifetime of reading, the book is representative of an entire generation’s reading habits honed, through trial and error and instinct, over long summer days, in old bungalows and with pavement booksellers.