The calligraphy of the graffiti artists was superb, sometimes as beautiful as the brushstroked Bengali words that adorned posters and book covers. The hammer and sickle, the political symbol of the communist left parties, is the first punctuation mark I remember; also the bearded trio of Marx, Lenin and (fading into historical distance) Stalin. Sometimes the fragile framework of the Howrah Bridge, sketched in black and green paint sounded a more wistful note. In my reams, the walls and their words are alive and the black slashes and rounded stomachs of the Bengali letters undulate, pushing and shoving past me like crowds shouting worn, familiar slogans: ‘Amader daabi maantey hobe! Chobe na, chilbe na!’ (‘Our demands must be heard! This won’t do, this won’t do!’)
Later, as a student in the city, I grew used to the walls and took their chatter for granted; they were as verbal as the rest of Kolkata. You walked and drove among colourful and carefully calligraphed slogans, Bengali advertisements, as though the pages of magazines and flapping banners had been frozen in stone and brick, as if the city itself was a large, living, illustrated book.
That passage appears as early as page two of Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books. And it is a good example for why it can never be read at a sitting. It is not so much a book in the conventional sense, as an invitation by the author to dive into a pensieve, a magical device into which you tumble headlong and find yourself surrounded by thoughts, feelings, observations and ideas you never even realised you had.
I read that bit above, part of a section in the first essay that ‘hallucinates’ about Kokata as a city built of sentences and slogans, and it made me think of all the places I have lived in. Of Calicut, which I recall as a city that used its walls to warn of and invite people to strikes and hartals and demonstrations and meetings, all of it etched in martyr-red and punctuated by the uniquitous hammer and sickle. Of Chennai, a city that specialised in the varicoloured veneration of temporal deities – MG Ramachandran and Muthuvel Karunanidhi back in the day and Jayalalitha now, interspersed with the tin gods and goddesses of Tamil cinema, the poster art taking its creative cues from Dorian Gray. Of Bombay, an unabashedly seductive appeal to our acquisitive urges…
You read on, and a paragraph or two later, something on the printed pages gives you pause, tempts you to dive back into that pensieve: (The first book I ever ate was Samuel Shellabarger’s Prince of Foxes — and it gave me, literally, a taste for historical fiction that lingers to this day. But that is another story for another day).
If you are the kind who samples before buying, Scroll excerpts from an essay on reading books Russian literature in Delhi during the height of the Emergency; Caravan has another essay, this one on the multi-faceted Dean Mahomet, the first Indian to publish a book in English.
Tishani Doshi in The Hindu has a part-review, part-interview. Of the many resonant lines, this one in particular strikes a responsive chord:
The old classics and myths — “because the old texts are one of the few ways we have to listen to the dead”.
Its available on Amazon and soon to be found in Indian bookstores. And it is actually two books in one — the book Nilanjana writes, and the one you discover in your head.
PS: See you guys tomorrow; all this talk of books reminds me there are a few waiting for me…