Why a mysterious Delhi tomb adorns the cover of Arundhati Roy’s new book
An Indian journalist shot the cover photograph of ‘The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness’. But its precise location may just go to the grave with him
Dilliwallahs have a new lexicon for the seasons they encounter. We now identify them according to the specific kinds of illnesses we need to fend off, or the PM level in the air we breathe. So writer and photographer Mayank Austen Soofi (an employee of HT Media, which publishes Mint), on being asked when Arundhati Roy approached him for an image for the cover of her new novel, says it was last year, “during the time of dengue and chikungunya”.
Roy gave instructions, both precise and indeterminate: She wanted a tomb, or a stone surface that looked like a tomb. “But it should not look like anything in particular. Just like the cover photograph of The God Of Small Things, which was water, but not a stream or (any other water body),” says Soofi. Something about a photograph he had taken earlier of Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra had appealed to her.
Graveyards play a significant part in The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness: Anjum—who used to be Aftab—unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home; a child, Miss Jebeen, the first, is born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard.
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Soofi, who explores and photographs the city and its people extensively for his website The Delhi Walla, took hundreds of photographs of the many tombs in that dot Delhi. A regular visitor to the city’s dargahs, he went from the ones at Nizamuddin to Mehrauli and Chirag Delhi, shooting “not the main graves, but the secondary ones that nobody cares about”.
“I still remember this particular grave,” says Soofi. “It had started raining, it was looking so beautiful, and there was a rose on it.” He remembers wanting to take a photograph, but being nervous because water had collected around the grave. (It was dengue and chikungunya season.)
“But it was so beautiful that I took many, many, many pictures that day from all angles.... Did you notice the fly?” He passed on to Roy hundreds of photographs of the decrepit marble grave—a withered red rose against its white background, a dead fly hanging at the edge blackened with age—and it clicked with both her and the book-cover designer David Eldridge.
Soofi, who is a self-professed fan of Arundhati Roy and her writing, has been the main chronicler of the birth of the new novel through his photographs—incidentally, the author’s photograph on the book flap was taken by him too—of Roy’s visit to the Penguin Random House India office, her recording the audio version of the novel, and of, just, her.
In the 20 years since The God Of Small Things was published, he has collected all the different editions of the book, in every language, including the 20th anniversary edition published this month, even completing the pilgrimage by visiting Aymanam (the Ayemenem of Roy’s novel) during a trip to Kerala last year. “I’ve read The God Of Small Things so many times; it’s my favourite novel by any Indian writer. I thought you can’t write better than that. Then this, written by the same author, but after 20 years of living a more complicated and interesting life.”
Soofi, though, remains as silent as the grave in his photograph about the location. “It’s in Delhi,” he teases. He hasn’t even told Arundhati Roy where it is. “This is my secret.... Although it is very easy to find if you know my haunts.”