Interview with Nilanjana Roy

We have heard of multiple personalities in real life but have you heard of it in the Blogosphere? One of them started Kitabkhana in 2003, and the other started Akhond of Swat in 2004 by technically the same person. According to her only one of them was created by Kipling. 🙂 We are extremely happy to welcome the super talented Nilanjana Roy at your Adda for this interview where she speaks about Hurree Babu, KitabKhana, Akhond of Swat and muchly more.

Q: When and why did you start blogging?

A: This will sound slightly schizophrenic. Hurree Babu started Kitabkhana in 2003, and I started Akhond of Swat in 2004. I’m using both names because while we’re technically the same person, only one of us was created by Kipling. Both Hurree Babu and I began blogging about books and Indian writing with very noble purposes, but we’ve forgotten what they were now.

Q: What topics do you generally blog about?

A: Chiefly books and Indian writing. And food. And gender. And books about food and gender. We aim to cover all possible bases.

Q: Do you ever get stuck when writing an entry? What do you do then?

A: Yoga. It works marvels for back pain.

Ok, more seriously. Creative bloggers and journal-bloggers probably have a bigger issue with bloggers’ block, and it’s best just to remember the old writer’s dictum: you don’t have to do this, it’s supposed to be fun. Litbloggers can cheat: if you don’t feel like writing, link.

Q: Rights, responsibilities and restrictions of an individual has been a question of debate since a long time. According to you, should it be governed by law or should it rest with an individual’s decision?

A: There’s a distinction between values and ethics—which every human being must discover for themselves, and most thinkers would say that the only true purpose of your life is to find out exactly what principles to live by, and why—and rights and responsibilities. You can’t know what to do about the latter until you understand and are prepared to live by your own values, whatever those might be.

If you go only by individual decision, you’re back with the ancient Greek’s understanding of an idiot as the person who knows only his own world, who is trapped and blinded by his own limited interest in private rather than public affairs.

Going by the law is an excellent principle, but to adhere to it, you need to know whether the law is made by a just or an unjust state—anyone who followed the law blindly in Stalin’s Russia was actually wrong to do so.

Ursula K Le Guin asked a version of this question many years ago, and answered it in the same story:

Q: How different is your blog from the articles that you write for Business Standard or any other publication? Do you enjoy the freedom of writing on your own blog?

A: At this point, there’s not much difference between the two. I’m free to comment on my own blog just as I do on my Twitter account but I write for several places: the BS, the Herald Tribune, etc. There isn’t the time or the space to give over to a personal voice. The blog tends to archive my journalism; perhaps when I have more time it’ll go back to slightly more personal posts.

Q: You have been blogging since 2004 consistently and are one of the earlier bloggers. 🙂 The year 2008 has not seen you blog enough. What were the reasons for this? How has blogging evolved for you personally in 7 years?

A: What a polite way of putting it, and here’s how to tell that I’m one of the old-timers on the Internet: I remember when everyone called it the “information superhighway” and the really geeky alt. everything forums back in 1997-1998, and when you thought a really fast connection was when a page with pictures took only 15 minutes to load.

The simple answer to why blogging slowed/ died in 2008: Hurree Babu was offered gainful employment in publishing and shut down Kitabkhana, because it was like running two jobs. Akhond continued, but more as a resource for my assorted journalism. But looking back, perhaps 2008-2009 was also a time when blogging itself was evolving—social networks were catching on, you’d have microblogging soon via Twitter, and there were many other pre-Tumblr forums. Like many others, I didn’t stop blogging so much as spread out—the kind of time one would spend on a blog post was instead parceled out on different forums and social networks.

Q: A Matter of Taste is a food book edited by you in 2004. Share few special things of this book, and your insights about food writing in India. After 2004, are you working on your new book? When can we expect it and what will its subject be?

A: I loved working on A Matter of Taste because it was like being allowed to listen to and read so many wonderful writers’ perspectives on Indian food, from Mahasweta Debi to Salman Rushdie and Chitrita Banerji. For anyone who’s seriously interested in Indian food writing, I always recommend stopping by Vikram Doctor’s archives—his curiosity about food is endless, his knowledge is encyclopaedic, and he wears his erudition very lightly.

There should be two books out this year, though I resisted writing/ editing for a long time—for many years, it was much more fun encouraging other writers, which was a great way to get to read wonderful books without actually having to go through the effort of writing them myself. But I’ve enjoyed putting together How To Read In Indian, a collection of pieces on reading and writing, out this year from HarperCollins. The other one’s not as predictable, and it’s also out in late 2012.

Q: New technology and innovative thinkers have been driving almost every aspect of living over the years. How has journalism evolved over the years? Highlight the positive and negative aspects of it in the current scenario.

A: In some ways, it’s almost back to the old 19th century model in India, with a combination of an adda culture, a tradition of parodies and sharp broadsides and some pamphleteering. TV’s another story all together, and it’s a little worrying to realize that I remember a time when we had intelligent television—it’s like confessing “I grew up with the dinosaurs”. In my field, literary journalism, you have the writers and increasing numbers of reviewers, from Trisha Gupta and Supriya Nair to Chandrahas Choudhury and Palash Mehrotra. You have some pockets of excellence—Caravan’s long-form journalism, for instance—and what looks like a very vibrant writing scene. But you don’t have enough of the right kind of space. We’re more curious about writers than about writing, and we’re ruled not just by bestsellers, but by desperately bad ones—as though we have so much contempt now for readers that we don’t even believe they deserve the basic courtesies of grammar and fluency.

Q: Where do you see Indian writing and authors 5 years from now? In comparison with International writers, how do they fair currently? Name 5 favorite Indian journalists/authors.

A: That question’s an interesting one, because it speaks of an anxiety that goes back almost a century—where do we stand in comparison to the rest of the world, do we actually matter, are we read alongside the best? If you’re talking about prizes and attention, we’re doing fine. One of my writer friends suggests that the most interesting stories will come out of Asia and Africa in the next ten years, just as they once did out of Russia and then Europe, and as they do now out of both the Americas. So there’s much to watch.

Five authors? I have a soft spot for the poets, especially the ones who aren’t here any more. Arun Kolatkar, because if we really read Jejuri with attention, we would never ban anything again; Agha Shahid Ali, because he wrote one of the most contemporary chronicles of conflict in The Country Without A Post Office; Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes, because they were among the last generation to live as writers before writing became a profession; and a fictional character, Charulata from Tagore’s Nashta Neer. The most interesting thing about Charulata’s story is that she was a better writer than Amal and I think Tagore was perfectly aware that if she’d embroidered more slippers and written less beautifully, both her love affair and her marriage might have prospered. But Tagore didn’t want her to be an embroiderer of slippers, did he? Perhaps that story really ends with Bhupati looking up from his printing press long enough to read her and have the sense to become her publisher.

Q: Explain us the meaning of your blog title – Akhond of Swat. Why did you choose to name your blog so? If you had started this blog today, would you have kept a different title? If yes, then what would it be?

A: It’s from the Edward Lear nonsense poem: “Who or which or why or what/ Is the Akond of Swat.” It was chosen at random, when people were speculating about the identity of Hurree Babu, and it seemed to fit with my own, slightly anachronistic style.

Q: Kitabkhana is your earlier blog. Share some memorable stories of writing at Kitabkhana. Why did you discontinue it?

A: Perhaps the loveliest thing about writing Kitabkhana was finding a community among other litblogs—some of them, like Bookslut, Moorish Girl, Maud Newton and the Elegant Variation, are all grown up now. Perhaps the strangest thing about writing Kitabkhana is that being Hurree Babu allowed me to have a completely different voice from my own. He was borrowed from Kipling’s Kim because I didn’t think Kipling would mind, and it was useful to be able to have both a masculine and a feminine identity on the Internet. People couldn’t help responding to the Babu as though he was male, even when they knew better, and he had a knack for creating a very Raj atmosphere around him. I think the Babu had a much more interesting time online than I did, really.
It stopped for the usual reason: it had been a lot of fun, but the party was over. Sometimes you’re just done, you know?

Q: People who love to eat are always the best people – Julia Child. From the food posts that you have written, and your book, it is clear that you are among the best people. 🙂 Do you also like to cook as much as you like to eat? What other things interest you?

A: Thank you! I admire people who can be ascetic about food—I’m too much of a sensualist myself, which is the polite way of spelling “glutton”.  What else happens so regularly to us—three times a day—that gives you the chance to slow down, to spend time with friends, to be a little meditative, or a little sensuous, to be creative, to have fun? I cook, as an amateur, and perhaps it’s the shopping you love even more—meeting people, seeing how precise the fishmongers are, how busy a butcher’s day is, seeing how different even basic vegetables can be in Delhi from market to market.

Q: Your legal suggestions in the post regarding women’s issues were indeed very thoughtful. What other legal aspects, can women (rural & urban) turn to, for their benefit?

A: I’d suggest using the blog Blank Noise as a resource, or tuning in to Annie Zaidi’s writings at Known Turf—it’s actually easy to Google for legal help, but what’s really hard for many women (and men who respect and love women) is understanding how you should fight for your rights.

Q: “You really want to be in touch with today’s women? Get those Calvin Kleins off, let the waxing begin, and trust me—you’ll feel our pain” Ouch! These were Nilanjana’s tips for metrosexual men trying to get in touch with their feminine side. That post was indeed a humorous and thoughtful read! 😀 Have your thoughts changed in 6 years? What other suggestions (painful/painless) would you give for today’s men?

A: 1) Perhaps this is a function of age, but at this point in my life, you look at men and you see potential allies, and you begin to get more curious about the ways in which patriarchy or patriarchal attitudes harm men. One of my teachers, who is something of a Zen master, speaks with eloquence of the harm that being an oppressor or being part of an oppressive system does to that person, and I think you see this understanding more and more these days. Most real men are instinctively feminist, even if they might not call it that-most decent men understand that the best relationships are based on equality and respect.

And 2) Don’t wax. It really hurts.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

A: 🙂 No, I never have.

Q: How important is it for the blogger to interact with their readers? Do you respond to all the comments that you receive?

A: I respond to many, though not to the trolls. And some readers have become friends over the years, so that’s a big bonus.

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

A: Being in direct touch with readers.

Q: How, in general, would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favourite five blogs.

A: It’s such a wide field! Some of my favourites: Jabberwock on books and film, Pamela Timms’ food posts over at Eat and Dust, Sidin’s Domain Maximus, Manjula Padmanabhan’s YES, and an old, old favourite, Chapati Mystery.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

A: Make your subject something you care about. I would have done Kitabkhana for free. Come to think of it, I did.

Q: Do you earn revenue through your blog? How does one go about it?

A: Blogging worked for me because it was something I didn’t have to do for money, and I liked—still do like—that freedom, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask about this. I wouldn’t want to monetize it. Then I’d have to blog and then it would feel like a job and then I’d want to quit. Jobs and offices make me deeply nervous.

Q: According to you, what is the future of Blogging?

A: You’ll probably see a platform shift in India as people move to Tumblrs or find forums like Cowbird, but the impulse stays the same, doesn’t it? People like sharing their lives and their interests. So it might not stay on Blogger, and the shape of the blog might change, but the journalling, creating instinct will survive in some form or the other.

Thank you Nilanjana for this interview. It was wonderful knowing about you, your works and lots more. Friends, hope you enjoyed reading this interview. Do comment and let us know your thoughts. Also do check out our latest contest at

Connect with Nilanjana: Blog, BlogAdda, Twitter.

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