Finding Light Amidst Shadows

Author Nilanjana Roy speaks with Reader’s Digest about writing Black River, her latest literary thriller, and facing the darkness of man with compassion and vulnerability

By Shreevatsa Nevatia Updated: Jan 25, 2023 18:47:48 IST
Finding Light Amidst Shadows Hardik Chhabra

I want to take your attention back to Sonia Faleiro’s blurb for Black River—“it feels completely true”. Her book The Good Girls starts memorably—with girls suddenly hanging from a tree. Given that your book begins in a similar manner, were you ever tempted to fictionalize fact? Did you keep at bay the horrors of Badaun or give them room?

This is an acute question because Sonia's book came out when I was already through about, I think, three drafts of what became Black River. I have a lot of respect for Sonia's journalism and her writing in general, and I remember reading it [The Good Girls] in a sort of panic. Had we come too close to the same territory? I didn't want to poach on another's author's preserves, but her perspective was so different. That left me with room for my truth. And when we imagine a writer leaning on the truth, we imagine the incidents that get into the newspapers, which become the subjects that everyone's talking about on television. The truth is, to some extent, here, but there's a difference between a book that's based on reality and a book that aims for a kind of truthfulness to what's happening in the world.

From 2009 to 2013, when I was working on gender for The New York Times, I spent a lot of time in places that would never make it to the newspapers because these were commonplace murders, murders that weren't sensational enough, you know, where the damage was not violent or egregious enough. But a family or a survivor was still left completely shattered. I felt like everywhere I went, I was seeing a collective absence; it was haunting. There were these missing girls, these missing women, who were knocked out of life because of the violence of their times. And Munia came out of that. She wasn't built on any one person. Munia and many of the other characters in this book, they're not composites. They have their own strange reality. I don't know where that comes from, but maybe it's the feeling behind it.

What I was seeing was the lasting agony of these absences, the lost potential, all these lives that were snatched away, that people wouldn't get to live, the little girls who never got to grow up. In an early version, I think there was a reference to files mouldering in the drawer of the police station, all the forgotten cases. I cut that out eventually because that was journalism and that had no place in this story. I was struck by being both an intruder on very private griefs and a witness to how deeply that grief would go, changing people's lives for years afterwards. You don't get over the death of a child. It's not something that just shifts. We keep searching for justice, and there is the justice of the courts, and then there is the justice of just knowing, or—as one of the characters in the book tries—of some kind of acknowledgement, of balance. Formal justice has nothing to do with the absence. And the absence was what I was writing into.

Are you saying that—after especially your own journalism—that the problem is not that there is one person getting away with many such crimes, but that there are many such crimes committed by many such persons that can't make it to the daily newspaper because they're not sensational enough?

This is disconcerting for us because as people who are journalists, we'll continue to write and report. We have a great belief in the power of the truth. And yes, sometimes that belief is well founded. There are so many journalists in your generation, who have done incredible work, and without them, there would have been no change, no justice. The reason that I wanted a home for this in fiction, you know, rather than to write another report, was not because I had lost my hope that things might change. I just thought that we were dividing these atrocities, these transgressions, the tearing apart of the childhood of so many Indians, into minor crimes and major crimes. The fact is that the losses we are talking about—represented by photos in that ledger—that leaves a mark, right? And I don't really write to change things. If things change, they change very quietly and internally for people. I also don't write to bear witness. I think I write because I can't help it; because you need a response. It's something that you carry within your body after a while—the knowledge of a country filled with compassion and friendship, accompanied by unspeakable sadness and with people turning away sometimes because it's too hard to commit acts of justice. That's all part of the weave of Black River. 

How much of journalism is, or rather you're reporting for NYT, and you're writing for it was an education, being a novelist?

I think it was before NYT; some of it years ago while with the Business Standard. But because at NYT I was working on gender, I had the great luck of many women trusting me with their stories when they were in a position to speak. You see the real challenge is not only in the act of listening. It's really finding that space where a woman is alone and can be private. And on the rare occasions when that happened—and usually it happened in little furtive snatches when the men stepped out to do something, or when we walked together in the fields or down a road or something like that—many women trusted me with the experience of their lives, or set me right. My perspective was certainly not the only one on board. And I think that just allowed me to see that when you try to write, you can't write about a class of people, or a group or collective. If I'd set out to write about rural India, I think I would have failed. If I'd set out to write about ‘the poor’ or 'migrants' or 'victims'—it doesn't work that way. One must understand that the people you're talking to are not just material for your story, you know. However compassionate you are as a reporter, you're going to have to write something and move on. And all of their experience, all of the many shades of it, are at some level going to be smoothed down into one paragraph or two. Your skill as a journalist, your integrity, I think, depends on how faithfully you can reflect everything that they've gone through in those three or four sentences that end up in the final copy.

Fiction gives you more room, not just to imagine, but to return to people the right to be full, complex individuals, which is exactly what they are. And that started to happen when I walked into Black River. You asked about the people whom I met during journalism ... believe me, these apparently fictional characters also taught me a great deal. Every now and then, the life of the story chokes off because you don't know enough. And to know enough, you have to be able to make yourself uncomfortable, but also to stay open to experiences that are very different from the comfort or certainty or security of the world you might come from. And then you can see the things that you have in common, and you realize, oh, it's all human, it's fine.

In such a novel, how hard does it become to manage darkness, especially the darkness of man?

How do I put it? I have a genuinely warm heart. I mean, that's one of the few things I can claim for myself as a writer. I'm not the most intellectual or the best at structure on the block. I'm very conventional in terms of form, though I love playing around within those conventions, stretching a form like the thriller as far as it can go. I have a warm heart, but I think I have a very cold eye. I mean the ability to feel with great intensity but at the same time, stand quietly in a corner of the room, and just observe. It’s a reflex. The darkness is not the only thing that's around us. In 2016, during one of the key drafts of Black River, many things were pulling people apart. People had learnt with great difficulty to live together, but that way of life was being disrupted. And I could feel it in my skin. When I finished the draft in 2016, a few of my friends who read the book then said, you know, you're worrying too much. Our country is never going to walk down this road. And it's eerie because three years down the road, when you've picked up the book, and you're working on another draft, it feels like you're just reporting what was already there.

I go by my instincts, and the darkness was never easy to write, but it was clarifying. My life has taken me into a lot of places, and some of it has been really joyous. The many friendships, places I've been able to travel is a great appetite for happiness. But at the same time, I grew up in Calcutta, and I moved to Delhi. I was one of the generation who saw the 1984 riots, and I was in Delhi after the Babri demolition in 1992. But in any country, you live against your own timeline, and you live against a timeline of grimness. I didn't want to write only about violence. But when you're doing justice to a place like Delhi, violence is part of the map of the city.

But I can’t retreat into cynicism, much as I would like to. You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable, so you write with the same vulnerability as your characters. When you start to feel what they’re feeling, it’s breaks your heart. But hopefully, if you can translate that to the reader, then you’ve done your job.

Despite the extent of violence, and especially violence against women, your book doesn't make either shame or guilt against him. Was that something you were doing consciously?

No. Again, this comes from expectations versus reality. There's a lot of anger behind those lines. There's a lot of anger behind the experiences that bring together three strangers, Chand, Rabia, and Khalid who meet, you know, when they're trying to make a living in the city, living on the banks of the Yamuna. In addition to the research that I did on the river, I spent a lot of time there first, just out of curiosity. I wanted to see what this river that we turn our backs on all the time is like, and on its banks, I saw this marvelous confluence of acceptance, deep acceptance, but also a steady beat of violence behind it. Sometimes that violence is just that you can live in the city, like Rabia does and Khalid does and Chand does for years in a semi-permanent house. It will be broken down. You'll rebuild again. And it would be a mistake to call that the spirit of the city or resilience. It is so horrible to be told that you're resilient when you're forced to be resilient.

The girls and women in your novel often suffer violence. Borrowing your phrase—“the life-giving surge of anger”—I wanted to ask, do you think it would help if we were more angry as a collective?

I think we are encouraged every moment as a collective society, and (breaks off—but that ‘we’ is sneaky, but let's just let it stand for a second). I think women are just not encouraged to be angry. If you notice, even the language of justice and restoration for women in this country is much more about “they must not suffer”. You know, their honour has been disturbed or their sense of self has been disturbed, at the most. You've managed to get to the point where you talk a little bit about agency, but if you notice none of the other women in this book, Rabia, Sanam and Chand’s wife, Bihida, none of them are victims. They're not suffering, if that makes sense. It's just that the violence that they experience is the city pushing at them to stay put and not to come out, and they shrug it off because that's how you deal with it, and they get on with their lives. It might leave a scar, but the real scar—there's a point in the book where Rabia and Sanam meet with a kind of offhand threatening violence from people they see as neighbours—that aches much more than the casual day to day disruptions. I think we should get angry about this, and I will say this. I don't think women are allowed to or encouraged to be angry. If the women of this country really gave in to their right to blaze into anger at what they experience, the country would be in flames. It would be reduced to ashes in a heartbeat, because there is so much to get angry about.

Chand’s love for Munia affords a rare hope, but the law at the start of the novel also looks at him as a suspect. In your mind, should the keepers of law be thorough or empathetic first?

That's a beautiful question. I incline towards empathy. We are so encouraged to look at things like empathy and kindness and generosity as somehow softer, more watery, weaker emotions. But it takes a tremendous amount of courage when you're faced with the day to day of life as a policeman and with a system that often wants you to commit a kind of policing that is very harsh and very unjust. If you can hold on to your empathy out there, that is not an act of weakness. All through I saw indifference among men in the police force, and then there were men (by and large men but some women as well) who had a free rein, and were given permission to give free rein, to their cruelty. And they did. They continue to do that. But I think the ones who managed to stay upright and the ones who are healthier all through their lives were the ones who didn't crusade, but who managed to hold on to some compassion, some caring, some empathy. Its a lot. The police are not distinct from us. I don't carry a torch for a force or for anyone in the government. But I will say that the police comes out of society, it comes out of our culture. It's a direct reflection at any given point of time of how healthy or sick that society is. So I would say, first, empathy. This whole thing about toughness. How many people are we going to send to jail if the jails are bursting at the seams with people who shouldn't be there in the first place? Are we looking to punish a criminal or are we looking to stop crime? The moment that we swing down these punishments, send them to the gallows, hang him high, put him behind bars for so many years, we're not looking at ourselves. We absolve ourselves, but we're not looking at the families, the communities, the villages, the cities, where people either look the other way or actually connive and participate in acts of evil because it's easier for them or because the person who is committing those acts is powerful or important in some way or the other. So, you know, this focus that we have on toughness and punishment, it's just a way of saying we are not going to look at ourselves, but that is where we will focus our disquiet and rage instead. These are all very intimate crimes, many of the crimes described in the book.

Tell me something, in a book populated with Hindi speakers, we barely hear any Hindi here. I’m sure the only words that come to my mind are jhol, haramzada and phoren. So, are you opposed to Hinglish at an aesthetic level, or do you believe that English is, after all, a universal language?

No. I like Hinglish a lot, but I'm not the kind of writer who can carry that off. It's a technical thing. There are some writers who can just fall peacefully and easily into Hinglish. For me, the challenge with Black River is that it is a little bit of an act of translation. And it made me respect those who are real translators. Everyone in the book except for, I think, a senior Delhi police officer, thinks in Hindi or Bengali. Khalid and Rabia come from Bengal. But many characters also think in their own particular flavour of Hindi. My own relationship with Hindi is neighbourly, respectful. I read in Hindi, but I certainly am not a natural Hindi speaker and I would never have the audacity to attempt writing in Hindi. So the thing that was technically difficult to do was to write this. I just told myself, I'm not going to condescend to the characters. So the translation and again, Karthika and Ajita, my editors, helped me with some bits and pieces that had gone in the wrong direction. Translations had to be not just respectful, but you had to make a mental shift. You're writing in English, but you're writing with Hindi and Bengali not excluded from the room.

I want to just press here once because I'm fascinated by this. There are two moments in the book that come to my mind just immediately. There is one moment where Chand is talking about belonging and there is another moment, I think it's in the morgue where Muniya's body has been taken, where the attendant says something like “laments”. They're not easily translatable words. And like when somebody with a working knowledge of him thinks about what would be the word in Hindi that would explain the 'belonging' or 'laments', it doesn't come very easily.

That’s because it’s not a direct translation. So what I was doing was translating the sense into an English that felt natural and authentic and comfortable. It was that. I was careful not to do one thing. When you write the kind of English in a book that is, I am going on this long road and I am thinking your character, what language are they thinking? If they're thinking in Hindi, then they're thinking with absolute fluency. So don't do that to them in English. I was very clear that I wasn’t going to do that.

To be honest with you, just, thank you for not writing it in Hinglish. I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much.

The reason I don't use Hinglish just because it's very difficult to pull it off. If you're listening to people on the street speaking in their variations of English, there's that flow and you keep moving from one language into another. That's what makes it difficult. So the reason I avoid it is simply because technically it's a challenge and it's difficult, but a good lesson for me was every time I was in love with a bit of writing or something, I used to just read it out for myself. You read it out and you know when your sentences are falling apart or something is falling flat or it's too ornate or too off key.

The pandemic made us realize that we are not good to migrants, our fellow citizens. At some many moments, your book drives that point home. In the end, is it just a failure of empathy?

People build very high walls and instead of reaching out, they stay behind those high walls. The moment somebody achieves something in large parts of this country, they turn their backs on the people who are still struggling. The more I spoke to women on other stories, whether it was homelessness or water crisis or health or whatever, I saw the determination to succeed. When you come into a city like Delhi as a migrant, in a sense, you're setting very distant goals for yourself. You're saying, I will be here no matter what, for 10 years. That is what carries people forward. The sense of possibility, the sense of being able to move, however slowly, one step up from a precarious existence into an existence with a little more certainty. But the way we are with migrants, comes from seeing “them” as outside of yourself. One of the big moments for me, even though I hope it doesn't show too obviously in the book, was when I had an understanding about why I wanted to write this Delhi — Chand, Rabia and Khalid’s Delhi and Ombir’s Delhi as well. We think of the city as a wealthy city, a powerful city, right? Who built it? Who made the roads? Who made the buildings? It is built by migrants. And migrants were the second wave of Delhi citizens after the Partition refugees. When you see that, then you realize you're writing about people who really own the city in the deepest sense of the word.

Your novel suggests that it is in friendship, not just acceptance, that our communal malice dies. Would that inference be anywhere close to true?

I think that's the one time that my authorial personal beliefs intrude deeply into the novel. In part, I was also reporting what I saw around me and what I've been seeing for about so many years. Think of the way that the entire country, not just Delhi, got over the wounds of Partition, in part because we had the generation that was engaged in the freedom struggle just telling us a simple thing—not that hatred is bad; they said, you can't afford hatred. You can't afford to be plunged into a permanent internal war, Indian against Indian. And for a while, I think the wounds of Partition went deep enough for people to call on a ceasefire, to start to move towards something else. Friendship is that part of the constitution where it says fraternity. It’s literally there in the founding promises for a reason, I think. Because after the years and centuries that it took to win freedom for India, everyone from Gandhi and Nehru, from Sarojini Naidu to Maulana Azad, and Sardar Patel and onwards understood that if they were going to bring this country together, you had to build it at least on being able to live side by side and at best, with actual friendship.

Rather than religious piety, the characters in your novel—Chand and Rabia, for instance—find relief in Naushad and Kishore Kumar. Can art, perhaps, deliver on some of religion’s promises?

I would say that a lot of things that hold us together in this country are tactile and textural—songs, music, whether they are contemporary singers or whether they are nostalgic songs. I should say that Rabia has faith for sure. Her faith is something that walks quietly by her side through the years. Ombir and Chand, have no faith or limited faith. Maybe a kind of okay, fine, we will observe the forms of prayer but not think about it too much. And the rest of what holds us together is culture. And whether it's popular culture, the culture of the streets or not, it's very powerful.

You previous two books were intended for young adults. Did you feel that you had to shed your writing of its innocence, of its freedom, in order to write for more fastidious adults?

You'd be surprised how demanding children are. I don't miss the playfulness of The Wildings, but there's a little thread of continuity slightly out there. Many of the characters in The Wildings, the cats, the dogs, are also struggling to hang on in the city. Strays live in the gaps and try to find friendships and dodge some dangers. So maybe a little bit of that emotion carried over. But the truth is, I think this book scared me when I started writing it. I have a lot of respect for literary fiction, and for thrillers, and I love reading across genre. And a good thriller is a delight. And I think the clockwork of this, the amount of attention you have to pay to time, to various things, was challenging. I knew right from the start it wasn't going to be a whodunnit, that it was more going to be about the aftermath of the murder than about the why and who did the murders. So writing a thriller was really challenging and writing for an adult audience—adults are more judgmental, sometimes, and more easily shocked than children. Children can be really gruesome. They can have an appetite for a lot of things that we consider beyond them. And adults can be squeamish and very narrow in their way of reading but I think ultimately I just wrote it for ... strange, but I wrote it for that world, the Black River world. I wrote it out of a love for Delhi to some extent, but I also wrote it for all the characters who became friends. It was hard to let them go.

What is it about the Delhi that won't, kind of, leave you be?

I don't know. It's a city that I hated passionately in the early years of coming to college here, after Calcutta. I always meant to leave it. But it's also the city where ultimately, whenever I have left, whether it's been for Goa or the mountains, I come back, because I think it made me, in a certain way. I fell in love here. I met artists and writers here. I became a writer here, after being a wide-eyed reader, just grabbing at everything I could in many languages. Delhi certainly doesn't have the global aspirational cosmopolitanism of a certain kind of European metro, even of Bombay or something. But it's got time on its side. Through the centuries, so much has happened out here. It's absorbed violence and found a way to be happy. It's seen bloodshed and famine and deep darkness. It's a city of violent contrasts. Also under the surface, people are warm, they are accepting, they make room for you. In a strange way, even though Delhi doesn't have this reputation, they watch out for one another. There's something about the city, stumbling with its gnarly edges, but making room over the centuries and in our time as well. So many different kinds of people who come here with one dream after another. That just caught my heart. But there's a reason why, as writers, we come here. There's so much. It’s endlessly rich and ... it's also grouchy. 

Oh, after reading this, I would say go to the outskirts. Tell us about the next book.

I admire literary novels, but I'm most at home with genre fiction, whether that's fantasy or noir fiction. Today's best crime fiction writers, from Scotland to Nigeria to Japan, set an extremely high bar. I may not be able to match them, but I'm staying with noir and crime fiction for a bit. It is an irresistible challenge, and you can say so much else, around the right (or wrong) kind of murder.





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