We interviewed author Nayana Goradia about her latest book The Middle .
Before this Nayana has written a biography, Lord Curzon: The Last of the British Moghuls which was published by Oxford University Press and reviewed widely both in India and overseas.
Here is the email interview
Booknerds: The entire book has engaging images that set the tone of the story. Even the cover has a collage of photographs and gives a nostalgic vibe. How did you decide on picking the photographs to be featured in the book and the book cover?
Nayana Goradia: The cover design is courtsey the hugely talented Malini Saigal who felt it should smack of newsprint, which is where The Middle began. The photos, line drawings, the images are taken largely from the original publications like The Times of India, The Statesman, The Hindustan Times and The Illustrated Weekly where they first appeared. Some images have been added from my personal collection and some “borrowed” to enhance the narrative. Collecting the pictures was not as difficult as was their elimination. What to leave out was the painful part!
Among other things, the cover of the book carries a drawing of the Delhi Durbar of 1903 with the Viceroy, the arrogant Lord Curzon entering the city like a Mogul emperor atop a majestic elephant.
The avant garde City Lights Book Shop, San Francisco, which Pandit Ravi Shankar wanted to visit.
From a callow child growing up in a privileged household in princely Jamnagar to being whisked off to a stylish school in a foreign land where my inability to speak in English gave me a tremendous complex, I travelled across to the US for post-graduate studies at Washington State University before I was 21. Then there was research in Cambridge, UK.
Marriage took me to Calcutta of the late 60s still basking the afterglow of the Empire. Seventeen years later we moved to Delhi. Studying at some of the top universities of the world, under brilliant professors not merely expanded my knowledge base but also encouraged me to go beyond the trodden path. It is probably due to the influence and encouragement of my teachers, that I was able to switch from an MA in English to a Ph.D in History.
Booknerds: There are stories from published sources all over the book. It must have taken a long time to compile and would have required hours of dedicated filtering. When did you finally to sit down and compile everything into a book?
Nayana Goradia: For several years now my husband had been after me to collect all my scattered early writings and put them in a book form. Unfortunately, I had never systematically got down to cutting out the articles as and when they appeared in the national dailies and magazines, pasting them in scrap book or kept a record. As a result, while some articles carry the date and the name of the publication, some are blank, and some are lost forever! The filtering took me an year. No doubt, the curfew imposed by the pandemic helped!
Booknerds: The stories have been written in a very humorous and quirky way. Even the mundane ones are narrated in an interesting matter. On what basis did you select the articles and decide the flow of content?
Nayana Goradia:The “stories” were picked up and written at random. There was no attempt to control or filter the flow of content. Whatever came to the mind, however mundane, but if it caught my imagination, I tried to turn it into an article. I remember as an undergrad in an English Class at Elphinstone College in Bombay where our marvelous professor Mrs. Kamal Wood drew our attention to an article by G K Chesterton entitled On Running after One’s Hat. The article opened amazing possibilities of what could be done with the most frivolous and trivial a subject: “an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered”!
My stories are part personal narrative, part fabrication, part documentary, part travelogue written with a touch of humour, a slice of sarcasm and always a lump of tenderness.
The idea of writing an autobiography, of stories progressing systematically from childhood to education, marriage to grandmotherhood had never occurred to me. It is only when I was collecting and sifting through what I had written, that I began to see a pattern.
I added the unpublished four part Ceylon Interlude which deals with my school going years and also borrowed two chapters from my husband’s book Fly me to the Moon to fill in the blanks in the story.
Booknerds: How did you determine which parts of your life to include and which ones to leave out? We would love to hear one such incident which didn’t make it to the final cut!
There is this one incident that comes to the mind. It was the evening of Diwali at Washington State University. There I was sitting in at the dining table of our dormitory, Regents Hall gulping down my dinner of baked vegetables and cheese and feeling miserably homesick I was wearing a bright maroon saree but that brought no cheer to my heart. Just then some girls joined my table and complimented me on my saree.
I explained the occasion to them, saying how I missed the lights and the bonhomie of Diwali, telling them how Laxmi, the goddess of wealth went around in her golden chariot on that day and entered the home where the lights were brightest. After some hurried whispering, some of the girls crowded around me wanting to know more while others disappeared apologetically giving their class assignments as an excuse.
Soon it was time to vacate the dining hall and go back to our rooms. The girls at my table pressed me to stay on and tell them more but as the kitchen staff indicated, it was time to go. We walked up to our floor and instead of returning to their rooms my friends insisted on escorting me to mine. We were joined by more girls especially those who had to rush back to complete their assignments. I walked to my room, turned around to say good night and opened my door. And lo behold’ What a surprise awaited me!
Instead of the usual darkened gloom, the room sparkled with candle light. In those brief minutes while I had lingered in the dining room, my friends had rushed upstairs, scouted the rooms on our floor, picking up all the candles they could find and arrange them in my room. I was speechless with delight. Tears of joy welled in my eyes. Somebody shouted “Ah, Nayana this will make you the richest girl in our dorm!” Somebody started singing “Jingle Bells”, another cried out “Merry Diwali”. It was indeed one of the most unforgettable Diwalis in my life.
Booknerds: How to do you view culture and traditions at this stage in life? In the stories about how your father would ask you to wear bangles and a bindi to school, you have mentioned how embarrassing it was. How has your view changed now and if you were to go back in time, would you react differently?
Nayana Goradia:My father’s insistence that I wear bangles and a bindi to school were, in his somewhat old-fashioned way of thinking, a symbolical manifestation of our traditions. In world of increasing westernization when it was fashionable to sweep away old practices and customs, for my father these symbols were a reminder of our past, our heritage.
There was a time not so long ago, to speak in the vernacular was to be a desi! To be hep or “with it”, you had to shed your desi accouterments and go fashionably anglicized. My father, sincerely hoped I would be able to stand firm and not get swept away by the tide of westernization, simply because it was the done thing.
When I had to wear the long traditional skirt called pavade with odhani on special occasions while I was still at school, I felt myself singled out-from the crowd and hated that feeling. But time gradually made me shed my inhibitions and be comfortable with myself and what I stood for.
Nevertheless I must confess, that if I were to travel back in time today, I think I would probably feel the same embarrassment as I did then!
Booknerds: I am a writer and always end up putting of myself into my pieces. So if anyone criticizes my work, I tend to take it personally. It must be ten times more for you when you hear criticism! How has the criticism been for the book? Since it is so personal to you and based on actual events, how does it feel to receive mixed reviews about it?
Nayana Goradia:Well, I suppose every writer, however well-known and well-received must feel a sting of pain at criticism. The Middle is, however, too new and “too casual” a book to receive any reviews of consequence.
But I did feel the sting and the searing pain with my earlier work Lord Curzon: the Last of the British Moghuls. It was the first and only major biography of a prominent British Viceroy by an Indian author. British empire was to reach its high noon with Curzon’s viceroyalty but also to strike the death knell for the Raj with his Partition of Bengal.
While the Indians reviewers were generally appreciative – some reviews even stretching over an entire newspaper page, the British press was not so enthusiastic. Practically every major British newspaper carried a review – The Daily Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement, The Sunday Telegraph and many, many more But alas! they had many holes to pick in my work. Denigrating a British hero was just not done! I felt scalded in the begining until a seasoned writer friend said reassuringly, “Consider yourself lucky to have the reviews! Many would die to get a two-line mention. Here you have two columns, however scathing!” My book went into 5 editions and remained in print for 20 years.
Booknerds: Are the stories or dialogues exaggerated in any way? I often found myself reading a piece and think, “OMG, there’s no way someone could have said that!”
Nayana Goradia:Of course many of my stories are “exaggerated” and “fabricated” but most of them have a kernal of truth. One glaring exception is “The Weary-Go-Round”. It is grossly exaggerated, childish and lacks humour. I regret having included it in my collection.
The retired British rear Admiral in “A Guest on Hire” was indeed a flesh and blood person who, for some reason, happened to be stationed in Calcutta that year. We, on the middle rung of our company’s ladder, had been assigned the task of entertaining a visiting Burrah Saheb from London to dinner at our home. It was an honour but we were also aware of the risk. The Burrah Saheb was fastidious about the company he kept but the rear Admiral proved to be our proverbial godfather.
That evening, the Admiral had glided into the room, resplendent in his dazzling white jacket, extended his arm forward, then stopped suddenly and said “But we have met before!” The Burrah Saheb looked suspicious and said in his most disagreeable tone, “Have we really?” And the incorrigible Admiral smiled back and said “Of course, it was at the Garden Party… Buckingham Palace last year”. Up to this point, the story is faithfully related as it unfolded. The dinner with the Mountbattens and the Jaipurs was an “add on” prompted by a mischievous desire on, my part to deflate the pompous saheb!
“My aunty is an antique,” was told to me by my bearer Jacob when we were posted in Cochin. But in the story “A Jeeves in the House”, these words have been put in the mouth of the ayah.
Curzon-Shurzon: Mr. Mallik, my daughter’s Hindi tuition teacher, and our daily visitor, burdened with thoughts of providing dowries for four unmarried daughters on one hand and, on the other, seeing me wasting time and energy and money on as frivolous a subject as a thesis on a British Viceroy had finally blurted out. “Why madam, why you work on this Curzon-Shurzon? You are having own house, own husbands, own childrens. Then why this Curzon-Shurzon?” at which stage, even I began to question myself but for wholly different reasons.