Arundhati Roy, novelist with a sting
Since the publication of her best-selling debut novel, Arundhati Roy has written often, using her pen as a weapon. But there is a reason why she is far more formidable as a writer of fiction
There are two plain, unbeautiful (and clichéd) words that we think about when reading Arundhati Roy. Small, and big; “small” people, “big” causes. The first she made famous with her first novel, The God Of Small Things. It won a big British literary prize, the Booker, remarkable at that time for a book so particularly Indian—and also, Malayali—in its ethos. An original English novel, but also an original Indian novel, authentic in its voice to the place and people it described. It stoked the imaginations of its readers; made many Indians believe that they too had a story in them. She was the first Indian to win the Booker, and it remains the only book prize that Indians have any sense of familiarity with, even 20 years later.
Translated into at least 30 languages, and having sold over six million copies over the years, it was a “discovery” from India. “A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, and this one does,” John Updike wrote in his lush review in The New Yorker; he couldn’t resist making the comparison with the American sportsman receiving equally ecstatic adulation at the same time, calling Roy’s novel a “Tiger Woodsian debut”.
It was personal—Roy’s story of Ammu and her two-egg twins Rahel and Estha that unravelled in such a mesmerizing manner—and yet universal. In 2017, this 1997 novel is as relevant and has lost none of its sting. The Love Laws, which Ammu broke with the Untouchable Velutha, are more poisonous than ever.
Roy painted Velutha—white in Malayalam—in romanticized colours. With his dark, rippled Untouchable body. Quiet, but not quietly suffering. Rahel spotted him marching with the comrades—a revolutionary—which made Ammu first look at him, really look.
Arundhati Roy, the writer, has always been drawn to the revolutionary.
Soon after her Booker win—and worldwide fame—Roy threw her weight behind social activist Medha Patkar and the villagers trying to save their homes from being submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. “Instinct told me this was the big one. The one in which the battle-lines were clearly drawn, the warring armies massed along them,” she wrote in her 1999 essay “The Greater Common Good”.
“We have to support our small heroes. (Of these we have many. Many),” she wrote. “We have to fight specific wars in specific ways. Who knows, perhaps that’s what the twenty-first century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small.”
For 20 years after The God Of Small Things, there was no fiction. But Roy drew extreme reactions to her polemical essays that tried to “dismantle the Big”.
We then heard the story of her friend, the late writer John Berger, making her open her computer, demanding to see what fiction she was working on, urging her to finish it. This completed novel—The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness, which will be published worldwide on 6 June, and which she managed to send to Berger to read before his death in January—is “suffused with a wisdom and maturity that comes from Arundhati’s two decades of engagement with the world and its injustices (as well as its hopes and its joys),” Simon Prosser, her editor and Hamish Hamilton publishing director, tells us.
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“I have been working on this novel for 10 years now; not too hard, I must admit. Fiction must come to me in its own time,” Roy says of The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness. During this time, Roy has been listening, and giving voice, to the “small heroes” too; she has been all heart, confronting “the chaos in her mind”. If Ammu, Estha and Rahel were the world she grew up in, this new novel has come from the world she encountered after The God Of Small Things: Kashmir and Central India, “where war is peace and peace is war”, and the Gujarat riots.
In her 2010 essay ‘Walking With The Comrades’, of her time spent with Maoists in the forests of Dantewada, she speaks of the courage, the harrowing experiences and the tormented history of the tribal people who then prime minister Manmohan Singh had called “the gravest internal security threat”.
She sees chinks in the Maoists’ armour, but forgives easily in her essay. “The party he (Charu Mazumdar) founded has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India. Imagine a society without that dream. For that alone, we cannot judge him too harshly…”
She peers—briefly—into a cracked crystal ball: “How easily the People’s Army can turn upon the people.... But can we, should we, let apprehensions about the future immobilize us in the present?”
Roy has often made the case for Kashmir’s independence, for initiating peace talks. But this movement, too, she acknowledges in a 2008 Guardian article, has been “…a long and complicated struggle for freedom with all the imperfections, cruelties and confusions that freedom struggles have”.
Arundhati Roy, the non-fiction writer, is unafraid to take sides; she writes, as she says, in a rage and clearly stands on one side of the battle-line, no matter the contradictions she confronts.
Fiction, though, is a more generous space. In The God Of Small Things, we saw Roy’s characters in all their imperfections, cruelties and confusions. In the kind of imperfect, cruel and confused world we live in today.
It was a layered story of loss that had as many victims and persecutors as there were perhaps characters. A story that unravelled as a sum of many betrayals. Baby Kochamma’s cruel deceit that arose from the emptiness in her life. Comrade Pillai’s calculated deceit that came from his political ambition. Estha’s heartbreaking deceit that came from fear for his beloved Ammu.
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These human frailties are what made The God Of Small Things a timeless novel. It is this novel and the inescapably linked world it built, that will bring her readers to The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness.
Watch out for the Lounge interview with Arundhati Roy next week.