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Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings is as much a modern fable as it is a floor-level point of view of cosmopolis, largely through the eyes of cats. Roy “spent most of her adult life writing about humans before realising that animals were much more fun”. The writing itself is cleverly feline and engaging. The tales’ strength and narrative drive urges the reader on, compelling one to go on with the shadowy hovering of cats tailing you to move forward, sure-footedly—and this at the arc-looped behest of a skilled writer’s cadenced baton. The dialogues are well handled and convincing, a task many novelists find hard to get pitch-perfect.
Here is an instance of Roy’s finely stylised phrase-making in the chapter, ‘Kirri’s Dance’: “The mongoose woke with the scent of copper in her pointed nose. She sniffed the air, her beautiful eyes wide and entirely awake; Kirri always went from sleep to alertness without stopping at the frontier between the two.” Or take another example from ‘The Summer of the Crows’: “All through that winter, Tigris saw dark visions. She dreamed of black clouds coming down from the sky until they became shrouds for the wildings”. Not only is Roy’s writing fluent and controlled, it is also exact, almost spare in parts, and understatedly beautiful.
The wonderful cast of characters, with wittily punning names, include “Miao, the clan elder; a wise, grave Siamese; Katar, a cat loved by his followers and feared by his enemies; Hulo, the great warrior tom; Beraal (‘cat’ in Bengali), the beautiful queen, swift and deadly when challenged; Southpaw, the kitten whose curiosity can always be counted on to get him into trouble”; and many others.
The art by Prabha Mallya that accompanies this book is of equal importance to the prose that binds the spine. The nuanced black-and-white charcoal-like sketches add a subtle but raw urban post-apocalyptic texture to the narrative, as does the growling-whiskered metallic finish of the hardback cover. In fact this book, because of the art that is seamlessly juxtaposed with the text, is part a traditional novel, part a graphic novel, part a literary narrative, and part a soft-focus, tightly framed slideshow of New Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighbourhood and its “labyrinthine alleys and ruins”.
I have admired and followed Roy’s non-fiction writing for many years, especially her literary journalism and commentary. Her column on books and reading for the Business Standard has run for over fifteen years; she also writes for the International Herald Tribune on gender. Her writing has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Caravan, Civil Lines 6, Guernica, The New York Times India blog, Biblio, and in this magazine. She is also the editor of the excellent A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Food Writing that I had picked years ago in 2004 in a bookshop in Dhaka’s old town. At one time, she used to blog as Hurree Babu at Kitabkhana, India’s first literary blog.
With The Wildings, Nilanjana Roy moves up yet another notch, embracing that final frontier—that of a writer in the finest imaginative tradition. With this novel, she makes a most impressive debut as a novelist. And with a promised sequel, I can’t wait to get my claws into what might follow in her second novel. The Wildings is an excellent and assured first novel.
(Sudeep Sen is the editor of the HarperCollins Book of English Poetry)