An Interview with Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

The Storyteller of Marrakesh

Each year the storyteller Hassan gathers listeners to the city square to share their recollections of a young foreign couple who mysteriously disappeared some time ago. As various witnesses describe their encounters with the couple – their tales overlapping, confirming and contradicting each other – Hassan hopes to light upon details that will explain what happened to them, and clear his own brother of any involvement in their disappearance.

As testimonies circle an elusive truth, the couple take on an air as enigmatic as their fate. But is this annual storytelling ritual a genuine attempt to uncover the truth, or is it intended instead to weave an ambiguous mythology around a crime?

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya was born in Jamshedpur, India, and lives in New York. His first novel, The Gabriel Club, was published to great acclaim in over fifteen countries.

You were formally trained in philosophy. Why the turn to fiction?

Passionate love of reading, love of writing, love of unfettered spaces, the mind, for instance.

And you didn’t get that with philosophy?

Philosophy opened the door to fiction. I studied German philosophy, the Idealists and then the Romantics. Vast imagined spaces. The Kantian critiques, Hegelian phenomenology, Nietzsche. After that, what follows in philosophy, barring Wittgenstein, is a lost cause. The turn to fiction was inevitable. Besides, there’s quite a bit of philosophy — and politics — in what I write. Choice of milieu and topics, for instance. But I suppose that, at a certain point, I did succumb to the desire for a “narrative of life” that was distinct from the desire for philosophical understanding.

Very different mental spaces, one would think.

Not so different. Basho wrote: every day is a journey, and the journey is the home. And I think that applies to both fiction and philosophy. For me, every page is a journey, and my home is on the page.

You were born in India, but have lived for long periods in Europe and are now in the US. Has India had any formative influence on your writing?

I carry India in my heart wherever I may be.

As for India’s influence on my writing, certainly. Sense of place. Sensory immediacy. The magic of the tactile. I love getting under the skin of things — animate and inanimate — and conveying their sensory impressions. I like to immerse in colours, smells, textures. So I like writing from the inside, so to speak, and I enjoy it. I don’t describe rain: you’re in the downpour getting soaked. I think one needs to have experienced the full force of an Indian monsoon to know what that really means: “soaked”. Then one attempts to capture the sensation in words so that it comes alive, has independence of spirit. Everything in my books enjoys that kind of autonomy — the autonomy that I demand of myself. Without it, the writing would be dead.

Growing up in India contributed to this?

Immensely. But not in a self-conscious way. Remember that I came to writing very late, in my thirties, when I’d literally tried my hand at everything else. But my formative influences were the green river valleys of southern Bihar, just the thing for a child’s imagination to run rampant.

Where were you educated in India?

Loyola High School, Jamshedpur; The Assembly of God Church School, Calcutta; and Presidency College, Calcutta. So eleven years of Jesuit school, followed by two years with Protestant evangelicals, and then three years in a very left-wing college. A well-rounded education, wouldn’t you agree?

You mention the “magic of the tactile.” Do you find this more present in non-Western countries?

I don’t think I’d put it quite as starkly, but I have wondered whether there’s been some degree of diminishment in such sensory pleasures in industrial, technology-driven societies. I also see it gradually affecting the non-Western world as technology spreads, by the way. Does one find the same joy and wonder in the feel of an i-Pad as someone might with, say, their Persian rug? I don’t know, but I think it’s a valid question in terms of where we are today, and where we’re headed.

Which of these cities is most your city – Calcutta, London, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Philadelphia, and New York City?

All these cities belong to my past. At present I am writing this in a remote mountain valley in western New York state where my nearest neighbour is 17 miles away and the nearest town (population: 63) is 23 miles distant. It’s a rough neighbourhood with eagles, hawks, deer, foxes, coyotes, the occasional bear. One goes through phases in life, but if I were to live in a city again, I’d try Barcelona.

Was there a particular Eureka moment when you realized that you were to the manner born where fiction was concerned, so to speak?

More like a Eureka year, actually. After witnessing the 1989 Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe at close quarters, I kept a journal, but it wasn’t satisfying enough to recapitulate memories, thoughts, questions. Fiction turned out to be the natural outlet: the journal morphed into a novel.

And you’d never tried your hand at fiction earlier?

No, as a matter of fact. I’d always been a voracious reader, but writing was something other people did, the privileged ones.

Were you an avid reader growing up?

Oh yes. Picture an eleven year-old boy bicycling four miles each way to a grocery store in a small town in eastern India where the owner has the dastardly habit of taking apart and renting out parts of in-demand books to young readers. In other words, one might expect to rent the first fifty pages of a book for a few days and then return to find that the next fifty pages have been borrowed by someone else, but pp 100- 150 are available, and so on. In this manner, I read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard and much of Tolstoy and Dostoievsky out of order, and I think that that early formative trauma, if you will, eventually convinced me, many years later, when I’d exhausted the list of books that I really, really wanted to read, to extend my mental library by writing my own.

Who are the Indian-born writers whose works you admire?

I have tremendous admiration for what Arundhati Roy has done with her life since the success of The God of Small Things. The manner in which she’s channelled her fame into laudable social and political causes ought to be a source of lasting inspiration for all Indian writers and a necessary antidote to self-absorbed late-imperial relics like Vidya Naipaul and their acolytes.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies cycle is an overdue corrective to the happy myths in the West concerning India’s bitter experience under British overlordship — and I’m so glad he’s taken it on.

And every time I find myself getting cocky about my own work, I read Premchand or Chandradhar Sharma Guleri or Yashpal to remind myself of what real writing is.

What about non-Indian writers?

I would be perfectly content on an island with the collected works of Tolstoy and Dostoievsky – but I would need both to maintain a sense of balance. Of contemporaries or near-contemporaries, I would have to say Julien Gracq, Jean Giono, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Sándor Márai, Andrea Giovene, Claudio Magris, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Peter Matthiessen, James Salter.

You were born a Hindu and are agnostic by choice. Why these novels set in the Islamic world?

The political history of the Muslim umma over the last three hundred years has been tragic. More recently, every Muslim dictator has stood in the shadow of amoral Western puppet-masters. As a result, brave home-grown experiments in representative democracy, such as Mossadegh in Iran, were swiftly dealt with. The contemporary blowback – irate fundamentalists, both Shia and Sunni, are the stepchildren of the West’s persistent and cynical interference. The on-going revolt of the youth in places like Tunisia and Egypt is a cry of freedom that every moral person should heed. That is why, as a writer, and especially as a non-Muslim writer, I feel an obligation to stand by my Muslim brethren and help expose my readership to the cultural glories of Islam, and our own indebtedness to that heritage. For instance, imagine yourself for a moment as accompanying me down the steps of an immense state library named the House of Wisdom, then down the length of an entire street block, before turning left and entering a one square mile art district filled with bookstores, fashionable indoor and outdoor cafes, art galleries, and large and small hotels. One of the most popular meeting places in this area is a gallery where, in return for endless free cups of tea, contemporary poets spontaneously chisel verses on broken potsherds and autograph them. Some of these sherds are then sold at enormous prices at auctions. I am describing 10th and 11th century Baghdad at the height of the caliphate.

Now for a different example.

The oldest continuously running academic degree granting university in the world was established in 859 by a Tunisian noblewoman grateful for the hospitality shown to her by the city’s inhabitants. It remains one of the major educational centres of the world, with a long history of producing Muslim and Jewish scholars. I am referring to al-Qarawiyin in Fes.

In the last decade in the West, we’ve witnessed a seamless transition from a Cold War era where fanatical communists were held up as an existential threat to the present time where fanatical Muslim fundamentalists have taken their place. Without going into the political simplifications involved, I think that, as individuals, each one of us has the ethical responsibility to fight these caricatures. In my case, the humble result is these novels that seek to enlighten, through the medium of fiction, the positive cultural aspects of the Muslim world.

With this in mind, the first book in the first (Norton) cycle, The Storyteller of Marrakesh, has the Muslim tradition of communal oral storytelling as its focus. The second book, The Book of Baghdad, traces the long history of the Muslim caliphate and its patronage of books and the book trade, and uses that as the backdrop to its story — derived from al-Ma’arri and Dante — of two contemporary writers’ travels in the afterlife. And the third book, Like a Perfect Circle Drawn on Water is a love story set in Isfahan that centers around Persian calligraphy and poetry (Rumi, Hafiz, Jami, Saadi, etc.). Each book is a distinct entity, with distinct characters and plots, which is why we’re calling it a ‘cycle’. All three books, however, emphasize the historically dominant moderate stream in Islam (its many Sufi offshoots) rather than the current extremist minority highlighted in the West.

There are hundreds of Sufi shrines in India where people from all religions worship. What I am trying to do with my books is to replicate their welcoming space. And this is the sort of thing one can do in fiction without being strident and shrill.

Why Marrakesh?

Ah well, that’s a love story. Here’s a medieval city with one of the largest market squares in Africa that then transforms into a different world at night, the ultimate performing space, a veritable Cirque du Soleil, if you will, but one that’s hundreds of years old and has managed to remain more or less unchanged. So the combination of history, Africa, magic, the Sahara, timelessness: I admit it, I didn’t have a chance, it was love at first sight, and I don’t think I’ve really recovered from that encounter. Marrakesh and the Jemaa el Fna opened a portal in my mind and my heart to the Muslim world and I’ve been traveling there ever since.

Hence the Jemaa el Fna as the woman described in The Storyteller?

Precisely. A woman of inexhaustible enchantment.

Is there a resolution to the core mystery in the book?

Oh absolutely. I’m pretty old-fashioned where that’s concerned. But you have to read carefully to find it. And the resolution is different from what you’d expect according to the strictly Western definition of the term. Remember that the novel takes a traditional art form as its narrative template.

Why the “Storyteller” of Marrakesh?

I’m fascinated by the centrality of orality (as opposed to literacy) in traditional (tribal) cultures. The theme of orality has topical significance in our world where we are now dealing with a paradigm shift from literacy to a visual web-dominated culture, just as 2500 years ago there was a shift from orality to literacy, as recorded, for instance, by Plato, one of the foremost cheerleaders of the new writing culture as evidenced by his Republic. What’s relevant here is that all civilizations began with oral epic cultures, but the Muslim countries are some of the last bastions where fragments of living orality survive, as in the few remaining traditional storytellers of Marrakesh, Fes, Timbuktu, Damascus, Anatolia, Kandahar, Tabriz, Samarqand, etc.

What is the difference between oral and written traditions of storytelling?

There are at least two dominant traditions of oral storytelling. The first, and older, has the storytellers making up the story as they go with the help of a few framing themes or phrases. This is the practice of the oral storytellers in tribal Muslim societies. The second comprises of recitations that follow a fixed frame of reference and are exercises in memory, handing down narratives that combine culture and history. In the context of the latter, the American ethnographer Milman Parry witnessed Balkan rhapsodes in the 1930s engaging in recitations that went on for days on end. It gave him an inkling of what it must have been like to listen to the rhapsodes who recited the Homeric epics. Similarly, pre-Islamic Jahiliya poets in the Arabian peninsula recited from memory the odes they’d composed.

Writing introduces, almost immediately, the impulse to amend, refine, edit. Every story births multiple commentaries; every storyteller many more scholiasts. Soon the scholarship smothers the imagination and fetters it. Was it Plato again, in a different context, or more precisely, Socrates in the Phaedrus, who is a critic of writing and accuses it of training / draining the imagination?

Why do you think the oral traditions are dying out all over the world?

The onslaught of new media forms, of television primarily, and before that, radio and film. And now there’s the internet, the bane of focused concentration. Consider this. The ethnologist Aisha Ahmad, in her wonderfully evocative Pashtun Tales, tells the story of searching for the last living Pashtun storyteller for months on end before finally tracking him down. His name, appropriately enough, is Qissa Mar, or Story Maker. His memorized repertory of some five hundred stories then forms the spine of the book that follows, but he’s the last of his kind, and it’s a sadly familiar refrain across much of the Muslim heartland.

Or to give another example, consider The Guardian of the Word, by Camara Laye, about West African griots. Then there’s the case of Jewish tradition, where it was considered a tragedy when the oral law had to be written down because human memory was failing; also, the Icelandic Sagas and characters like Egil Skallagrimsson, who weren’t exactly storytellers, but whose lives sometimes depended on their poetry.

So is The Storyteller of Marrakesh an elegy for a dying tradition?

Hmm, not so much an elegy as a reminder of what’s being lost, a commemoration, and a call to arms to save that tradition.

Will readers learn anything new about Marrakesh after reading your book?

They’re certainly going to know it better, and I’m hoping it will prompt them to visit. It’s an extraordinary place.