Author and former journalist Nilanjana S. Roy talks to Kunzum about the many facets of Delhi, her latest book, the biggest literary influences on her craft, reading habits of the current generation, and her next novel! By Paridhi Badgotri
Nilanjana S. Roy’s latest novel, Black River, has raised the bar for crime fiction in India. The novel deals with the aftermath of a terrible murder in Teetarpur—amid a brutal class divide, religious polarisation, and widespread violence against women, but also love and friendship. Roy has earlier written two award-winning fantasy novels: The Wildings (2012) and The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013). Apart from editing various anthologies on Indian writing, she has penned her musings as a bibliophile in The Girl Who Ate Books, a book that analyses her own book consumption while also exploring Indian writing in English. Excited to learn more about her work and inspirations, we sat down with Roy for a candid chat.
A Conversation with Nilanjana S. Roy
Kunzum: What made you set your novel in a nondescript place like Teetarpur, which “is not known to have inspired a line in a film song or even a mithai, has never produced so much as a celebrity or a famous politician”?
Nilanjana S. Roy: I have a weakness for villages or small towns or cities that are not famous but where all the drama and heartbreak of life unfolds anyway — if you go deeper. As a journalist, I spent a little time in many places like Teetarpur, and people would tell you, “Nothing ever happens here”, but behind the “nothing”, so much was hidden. Secrets, the grimmest of crimes, corruption, ruthlessness, heartache. And also love—ordinary, everyday, miraculous love.
Kunzum: Why did you choose Yamuna as the thread connecting the characters?
Nilanjana S. Roy: A sprawling metropolis like Delhi is more than its palatial government buildings, the closely-clustered colonies of today or the historical monuments from the past. The land and the water have their own histories, their own claim to make on the city, even if people refuse to acknowledge that. I began to walk along parts of the Yamuna just before I wrote Black River, curious about this great Himalayan river that most Delhi citizens ignore (or covet for “development” purposes). I met some astonishing people. I stumbled into places of extraordinary beauty despite the pollution that has almost killed the life of its waters. The Yamuna in our city, like many rivers, baolis, tanks, and canals in other Indian cities, is a place that carries the refuse and debris of our lives. But it is also a space of surprising shelter, where friendship might flourish between outsiders and migrants like Chand, Khalid, and Rabia, three of the main characters in Black River.
Kunzum: You have earlier emphasised the complex nature of Delhi—you used the lens of animals in Wildings to explore this complexity. Does the murder mystery in Black River make it simpler to represent the city or does it further add to its complexity?
Nilanjana S. Roy: The murder at the heart of Black River was hard to write. It felt like a personal loss. And it came out of a sense of helpless anguish at the number of women and young girls whose lives are brutally truncated by violence, familial, communal, religious, or sometimes killed just because they are in someone’s way. But murder in fiction is like a bright, unsparing light that illuminates a part of a city or village—often in ways that are disturbing—and casts other parts deeper into shadow.
Kunzum: When Westland shut down, how did it affect you and your novel? Did you consider going to any other publisher?
Nilanjana S. Roy: The announcement was a shock all around. But I know and have faith in the Westland team, from Gautam Padmanabhan, who grew up in the book business, to Karthika VK and Ajitha, two of the most dedicated publishers in this profession. I remain grateful to other editors—many who are brilliant in their own right—for offering to take on Black River at that time. However, Karthika made sure to address the concerns of writers like myself, patiently and with total honesty, even though she was in the eye of the hurricane.
My agent and friend, David Godwin, felt that we should wait. I was absolutely certain that Karthika was the right publisher for Black River. She understood its world and saw what I was trying to do, hanging out somewhere between noir and literary fiction. It was the best decision I could have made, for Black River and future books. Westland has found a business partner in a fully Indian company, Pratilipi, with multilingual interests in storytelling across platforms. Karthika, Ajitha, Amrita, and their team combine a passion for books with an understanding of the industry, and their enthusiasm is matched by a strong sense of values.
Kunzum: In a blogpost, you say that a novel is finished when you let go of the characters and the landscape—and when another story quietly enters your mind. What kind of story is taking shape now that Black River is out?
Nilanjana S. Roy: This one is murkier. It’s come alive, but I only hope I can shape it right. One of the characters from Black River returns in this book, and it explores the power and charisma of a certain kind of evil. At least—I hope it will, if I can develop the craft to pull that off!
Kunzum: Does your journalism play any role in your creative writing or vice-versa?
Nilanjana S. Roy: Fiction has its own reality, no matter what genre you’re working in—fantasy, crime, romance, straight-up literary fiction. Journalism helps with research, as you might guess, but its greatest gift to me was that it helped me break through shyness and learn to talk to, and more importantly, listen to, a wide range of people. But as a writer, you have to let journalism go at some point, and allow the imagination free rein. I’m still learning. I have a long road ahead.
Kunzum: If you were to recommend five books to our reading community, which would they be?
Nilanjana S. Roy: If we’re sticking with noir and mystery—The Inspector Gowda novels (Cut Like Wound, Chain of Custody) by Anita Nair, Hellfire by Leesa Gazi, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino, The Cutting Room by Louise Welch.
Kunzum: Which writers and books have influenced your craft most?
Nilanjana S. Roy: I turn to Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Keigo Higashino, Tana French, and Stephen King to understand plot, structure, time, the rapid and smooth construction of characters, pace, all the good and fiendishly tricky stuff. And if you really want to know how to pull off an ambitious plot with tales-within-tales, incredible twists, breathtaking battle scenes, read The Mahabharata.
Annie Proulx, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elizabeth Strout, Michael Ondaatje, and Toni Morrison will teach you everything you need to know about voice, character and a sense of place, except how to write like them. And I have a special love for the fabulists, from Salman Rushdie (I hope he will make a strong recovery by next year) to Angela Carter, Carmen Maria Machado, Edgar Allan Poe, and Naiyer Masud. I’m leaving out the poets because that’s a whole chapter, but five who’ve been deep influences: Agha Shahid Ali (he was a friend and is missed), Mary Oliver, Jeet Thayil, Karthika Naïr, and Pascale Petit.
Kunzum: The Girl Who Ate Books charts your personal adventures with ‘book love’ but it also captures the reading habits of your time. In what ways do you think has the book consumption of this generation changed from yours?
Nilanjana S. Roy: This generation reads on a variety of screens. Text is their lifeblood, and they share their opinions and book recommendations across social media. A strength: today’s readers read across genre divides, are not snobbish at all, and relish romances as much as literary fiction. A weakness: they read perhaps too much in the here and now, too little of the timeless writing of previous centuries. But it’s this generation of readers who kept bookshops and booksellers going through the pandemic, especially through the BookTok phenomenon, and they are changing publishing as well as writing itself.
Kunzum: What is your definition of an ideal bookshop?
Nilanjana S. Roy: Endless shelves of books from across the world, sparking curiosity and endless possibilities; comfortable chairs for book-browsers; coffee; no racks of merchandise; a touch of magic in the air; bookstore owners who, like many of the indies in India, know what you didn’t know you wanted to read; and a friendly bookstore cat. Or three.
Related: “I’ve written a crime novel because I wanted to read a specific kind in India and wasn’t able to find it”: Tanuj Solanki on his new book