- Jennifer May
- Joydeep Roy-bhattacharaya at Anatolia Tribal rugs in Woodstock
"What matters in the end is the truth.” So begins Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Storyteller of Marrakesh: A Novel (Norton, 2011). But within a few sentences, that simple statement has been deftly tangled—”the truth is precisely that which is transformed the instant it is revealed, becoming thereby only one of many possible opinions”—and set on its ear: “In other words, there is no truth.”
Welcome to the quicksilver mind of Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. The Rhinebeck-based author has fashioned a narrative as intricate, mysterious, and beautiful as the mosaics created by one of its characters.
Every year, a storyteller named Hassan gathers an audience in the fabled Jemaa el Fna of Marrakesh, Morocco, to recount the tale of a charismatic foreign couple who disappeared one long-ago night from this very place. To the kaleidoscopic accompaniment of the square’s nighttime drummers, dancers, acrobats, and kif smokers, Hassan unfurls his story, joined by listeners who offer their own contradicting accounts.
But Hassan is more than the teller of this tale. His lovestruck brother Mustafa is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and as flashbacks illuminate scenes from their childhood and coming of age, the storyteller slowly becomes not just the weaver of his oral tapestry, but one of its principal threads.
Roy-Bhattacharya’s rising literary career may follow a similar pattern. His first novel The Gabriel Club (Granta Books, 1998) confounded American publishers by taking place not in his native India, but in Budapest during the endgame of Soviet rule. The Storyteller of Marrakesh: A Novel launches a trilogy celebrating diverse Muslim cultures: The Book of Baghdad is set in that city’s ancient book market, and Like a Perfect Circle Drawn on Water explores the arts of Persian calligraphy and Sufi poetry. Other works in progress include a reimagined Antigone set in war-torn Afghanistan and a 2,400-page epic about Germany between wars; he’s plotting another novel set in glasnost-era St. Petersburg.
Indeed, it might appear Roy-Bhattacharya is eager to tell any story except for his own. But as with Hassan, tale and teller are more intertwined than they seem at first glance.
Listen long enough, and Roy-Bhattacharya will tell you the story of an Indian boy who loved books and took an unusually twisting path toward becoming a writer. But first he will tell you another tale, one that explains how he came to live in the well-disguised condo his friends call “The Cave.” Today it is fragrant with the lentil soup and chicken vindaloo he’ll serve for lunch. Every surface is covered with bookshelves and exotic furnishings: mother-of-pearl-inlaid chests, kilim rugs, carved peacocks, a bronze-winged horse, a Berber lamp he bought in Morocco.
Roy-Bhattacharya sits on the couch, petting a stray cat he’s adopted. He’s wearing an open-necked shirt, drawstring trousers, and sandals, his dark eyes set off by a silvering beard. He carries a cane that he often forgets to use, especially when jumping up to fetch books, which he does frequently.
“I couldn’t write in Manhattan,” he says in a sonorous Anglo-Indian baritone. In 2004, he and his wife left the city for a sprawling Dutchess County farmhouse with acres of privacy. Roy-Bhattacharya taught philosophy at Bard, then creative writing at SUNY Albany. Three years later, everything changed.
While vacationing in Marrakesh, he “completely fell in love” with the Jemaa. “I decided while I was still there to write a book set in that square.” He returned at nightfall to witness its “transformation from farmers market to ancient Cirque du Soleil. You can hear the drum circles from a mile away—it’s like a sensory overdose.”
The biggest audience gathered around the traditional storyteller. Though Roy-Bhattacharya spoke no Arabic, he could sense the man’s hold on his listeners, the rhythmic patterns of his words. Returning the following night with a translator, he introduced himself as a writer. The storyteller said, “So, you kill words.”
He went on to explain, “Words are like butterflies—when you pin them to the page, they’re corpses, their spirit has flown.” Roy-Bhattacharya was mesmerized by this living literature. “What I was witnessing is a form of communal storytelling that predates Islam and the Greeks. We’ve been a literary culture for about 2,000 years; for 5,000-7,000 years before that we were an oral culture.”
Through his translator, he asked, “What do you need for a story?” The storyteller’s response: “Love and mystery. Without the blood of mystery, you don’t have a story.”
Roy-Bhattacharya flew home and wrote the first draft of The Storyteller of Marrakesh in four months. But he wasn’t done. Though Hindu by birth, he was “very frustrated with what was going on in American culture post-9/11, the pervasive fear of the Other.” He likens this demonization to the Cold War, with fanatical Muslim fundamentalists taking the place of fanatical communists in Western eyes, and hopes that by celebrating “the positive cultural aspects and heritage of the Muslim world,” he can help combat such black and white thinking.
The Book of Baghdad was inspired by a 2005 bombing that destroyed “the oldest extant book market in the world, dating back to the ninth century. It was a devastating cultural blow to the Iraqi psyche.” The novel’s heroes, an author and a poet, die in the attack. According to Islamic tradition, souls wander for seven days between death and the afterlife. During that interstitial week, the pair search the streets for their loved ones, roaming through Baghdad’s past like Dante and Virgil in the underworld.
In 2008, Roy-Bhattacharya sent Storyteller, 200 pages of Baghdad, and a third excerpt to New York agent Nicole Aragi, whose clients include Junot Diaz and Jonathan Safran Foer. She held an auction for rights to the trilogy; Norton won.
Roy-Bhattacharya sat down to write, and “my real life turned upside down.” His cat Katya, “the love of my life,” fell ill. The vet diagnosed a rare cancer, and after she died, an autopsy traced her illness to a toxic black mold pervading the farmhouse. Roy-Bhattacharya vacated immediately, abandoning everything but his library; he microwaved 3,000 books.
By September he’d lost his cat, home, and possessions; his marriage broke under the strain. He plummeted into “horrendous” depression, but he had a three-book contract to fulfill. When his mother learned he had no furniture, she sent a shipping container from India.
Roy-Bhattacharya kept “crazy hours,” working 18 hours at a stretch. In June 2009, he passed out at his computer. When he came to, he realized something was seriously wrong. “It felt like my brain had slid down in my skull,” he recalls. He checked into the hospital, undergoing months of testing. When one neurologist gave him four months to live, The Book of Baghdad took on new resonances. “I was writing a book set in the afterlife and trying not to die. You can’t make this up.”
Finally Dr. Ravi Ramaswami at Saugerties Wellness Center diagnosed candidiasis, stemming from toxic mold. “The cat was the canary in the coalmine,” says Roy-Bhattacharya. “I’ve been chained to my desk because of my health. I could despair—in microcosm, the state of my life; in macrocosm, the state of the world—but it’s better to work.”
Roy-Bhattacharya grew up in Jamshedpur, a small industrial city at the confluence of two rivers, surrounded by iron-rich hills. His father, an MIT-trained scientist, died when he was seven; his mother never remarried. “A one-parent family is very unusual in India. I was a single child, so books were my company.” He rode his bike to a grocery shop that rented out 50-page sections of books, not always in order. After he finished pages 100-150 of War and Peace, the grocer gave him pages 150-200 of Anna Karenina, saying, “Well, it’s the same author.”
Despite his love of literature, Roy-Bhattacharya went to engineering school to please his family, then transferred to a leftist college to study political science. In his senior year, he “did the unthinkable—fell in love with a younger girl of less prestigious background.” Family opposition only fanned the flames. He gave up an academic fellowship and “became a yuppie with a vengeance” so he could marry his sweetheart. The marriage lasted six months.
Newly divorced, he quit corporate life and spent nine months backpacking and hitchhiking through North Africa. At 25, he entered a graduate program in international relations at Penn, where a Romanian adjunct professor invited him to Budapest as a summer research assistant. “We planned to stay for a few weeks, and all hell broke loose—this was the year of the Velvet Revolutions.”
Roy-Bhattacharya remembers waking before dawn and finding a line of young people outside a warehouse, waiting for a reading by dissident poets. “I had been in this soulless corporate world, living out of a suitcase, making tons of money,” he says. “I was moved almost to tears by this alternate reality. Can you imagine American college students lining up at four am to hear poetry?”
Switching to a philosophy major, he spent the next four summers teaching English in Budapest and Prague, hanging out with an international crowd of raffish intellectuals and buskers. A writer friend, Judy Shapiro, praised his travel journals, telling him they read like fiction. “She planted that seed in me,” he says gratefully.
He finished The Gabriel Club in 1996, sending it to a dozen American agents. In spite of its obvious brilliance, nobody bit. Citing marketing issues, they urged him to write about India instead. Discouraged, he shelved it until a Swedish friend convinced him to publish in England. Though it won awards and was translated into eight languages, plans for a US edition again met resistance, and pressure to write “that Indian book.”
Novelist Dubravka Ugresic writes of Roy-Bhattacharya, “He is my hero among fellow writers. In a world in which an ‘identity kit’ is something like a toothbrush—that is, something one cannot do without—he has chosen the most difficult way. He has jettisoned his ‘identity kit’ in the name of freedom of literary choice.”
“I want to give voice to the voiceless,” affirms Roy-Bhattacharya. He studies the lamp he found in the Jemaa, perhaps contemplating another tale. “What I’m trying to do with these books is to tap into something very, very basic: that we are all human.”
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya will appear at the Millbrook Book Festival on May 14.