19th October 1997


Home Page Front Page OP/ED News Business

Arundhati Roy wins the Booker Prize with her first novel, The God of Small Things

Not born to be liked but to write

It is better if we first get this out of the way, that she is truly beautiful.

How beautiful.

ArundhatiHere's a story. The brother of her friend met his friend who said publishers were paying all this money to an unknown girl for a first book not because she is bright ( a mind as sharp as a gutting knife) but because she is beautiful. That beautiful.

But beauty passes, gets obscured when she speaks. Her book The God of Small Things, which is why everyone (the New Yorker sent down Mary Ellen Mark just to shoot her) is camped at her door, is replete with all sorts of things, including an imagery so simple it stuns. When it's raining: "Slanting silver ropes slammed into the loose earth ploughing it up like gunfire. "It is also the way she speaks. So much of the book appears autobiographical and when you ask her, she says: "The starting blocks are real, the run is fiction. "We don't talk like that, which is perhaps why we don't write such books. A storm of a book.

How much of a storm?

In April 1996, five years or so after she began, she finishes: Pankaj Mishra, then of Harper Collins, reads it and calls her in the dead of night to say "this is astoundingly good" (he was so excited that earlier he slips off the train en route to Delhi from Dehra Dun to call her from an unknown platform). He then calls writer Patrick French, who calls his agent David Godwin, who reads it on a Wednesday in London and, " astonished", is in Delhi by Sunday. This May 14th by end-June the book is sold to 18 countries (Estonia! Finland!) for over $1 million (Indian Rs.. 3.5 crore), and author William Dalrymple says: "I'll be very, surprised if it isn't shortlisted for the Booker Prize." That's how much of a storm of a book.

In a way, of course, it was quite amusing. She was, after all, the rebel who once lived in a squatters' colony within the walls of Delhi's Ferozshah Kotla, in a small hut with a tin roof, scrounging beer bottles to sell. Now she was sitting in offices (in London, New York) surrounded by suits, preferring fat cheques, with words like 'masterpiece' thrown around like litter. Even for one almost arrogant in her confidence in herself, this was still startling. "I was in shock," she says.

Confident, independent, rebellious, loner , are words that appear to define her best. Though sitting poised in her Rajdoot Marg barsati, surrounded by filmmaker-turned-environmentalist husband Pradeep Kishen, two daughters Pia and Mithva, two dogs Kuttappen (little fellow) and Patti (dog) she appears - God forbid - a picture of domesticity.

It is difficult to label her for she is a complicated woman, but rebellion and independence seem to be recurring themes. She was born 37 years ago to Mary Roy who courted rebellion herself, challenging the Travancore Christian Succession Act (daughters only got 1/4 or Rs. 5,000, whichever was less if their father died without a will) and being vindicated by the Supreme Court. That Mary was a single mother (divorced) didn't help either in Kottayam's insular, conservative community. And Arundhati? Boys were told to stay away from her (God forbid, they might fall in love with her): "I was", she says, "the worst thing a woman could be in Kerala - thin, black and clever."

Tutored to be independent by her mother early on- "from three, I was told to stand on my own feet" she complied. Till the point, she says, "I hated (and still do) anyone telling me what to do." Her mother, supporting her, had that prerogative, and so Arundhati, taking the only route available, left home at 18- kicked out if you prefer never to return for six years. Perhaps, though, it enhanced the close, strong, admiring relationship she shares now with her mother; indeed she appears to acknowledge that in her book dedication, which reads: "For Mary Roy...Who loved me enough to let me go."

Meanwhile she survived : studying at the Delhi School of Architecture, doing drawings on the side for Rs. 4 an hour, living in that shanty, marrying and divorcing architect Gerard deCunha, acting in Massey Sahib ("I hated it"). But already, always, she knew she would be a writer, it was there this knowledge, alive in her stomach, like some unformed child, waiting to get out, but only when ready.

Much of this getting ready, like the discipline that anchors a writer, would initially come through crafting screen plays - 'The Banyan Tree' a television epic for which she wrote 26 episodes but was never done, and the films Annie and Electric Moon. She was by now very much a self assured woman, opinionated, headstrong; she was not forged in some safe, protected, sheltered home, but on the road, as one might say "I didn't see a home for years, people were also scared of inviting me in' aided by a fine brain and a strong will. Imagine her fury then when the producers of Banyan Tree asked her to write, but under Pradeep's name; no, no bloody way, she said. It has meant,of course, that she is defined as unconventional (drinks, swears, wears what she wants) by a conventional world. When Annie won a National Award she turned up to collect it looking so dishevelled that K.K. Tewari would harrumph: "Dress code from next year"; when reporters asked later what the, President told her, she said: "He said 'stay cool, babe'."

Indeed antagonising people., upsetting the balance, comes easily to her. When she savaged the makers of Bandit Queen " You don't have the right to reconstruct the rape of a living woman without her consent" she was called hysterical, jealous, misguided. When she refused to talk to reporters about the hype surrounding her book saying- "I don't have a sound byte to discuss my book" and "money is not the yardstick to assess literature" she was called a pretentious posturer.

But Arundhati Roy was not born to be liked. She was born to write. No more films. She had decided in 1991: "You can write a perfect line but an actor can f... it up." And so in her bedroom on Rajdoot Marg. from her fingers into her computer flowed her book her gut her heart. her brains "everything I have" from 9 am to 3 pm every day. She sat there (she says she never rewrote and editors never asked her to change a word) writing, what Dalrymple calls"exquisite prose".

India Today

It's all so real it had to be fiction

For the last two decades In dian writing in English has conjured up visions of its potential and talent. But none of the earlier upheavals prepared us for the petite 37 year old Arundhati Roy's wondrous creation. In the tumult of feudalism's dying pangs, in the wide swathe that the narrative cuts through Kerala's modern history, in its pungent ironies, in the nerve-tingling passions, in the overarching pathos, the novel has few modern parallels in Indo-Anglian writing. All these have formed the crux and rationale of many stirring Malayalam novels too down the years. And for that, its writers, Thakazhi, Vijayan, Keshava Dev, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, are all as much part of Kerala's legend and history as its revolutionaries. Ironically, it needed the fluttering wings of Arundhati's jet engined English prose to pitchfork that small state which houses a big world, into the centrestage of the literary world.

"For me this book is like showing someone a part of your gut," says Arundhati. She grew up in Kerala when Marxism's slogans were a perpetual chorus and even today smilingly shouts "Inquilab Zindabad", fists raised. Arundhati admits to the early fascination she had for the revolutionaries though most of it has waned. What better philosophy for a born rebel like her? Hilarious and sometimes scathing Arundhati dissects all of them. A haunted house 'belongs' to EMS.

She deftly weaves the saga of the family ("I didn't write a family saga") that lives in the Ayemenem House in Kottayam, a saga, microscoped in time, which irreversibly moves towards its doomed destiny. A surfeit of similes ("black eyebrows angles like a soaring seagull", "filth laid siege to the Ayemenem House like a medieval army") and a few contrived usages like "the crowd unclotted" is all that Arundhati can be faulted for.

Passions and madness run wild in the Ayemenem House, but it is to this house with the steep, tiled roof grown mossy with age, that they all return to live out their lives. Chacko comes back with a bottling machine for the pickles after his marriage to Margaret Kochamma is over, Ammu returns with daughter Rahel after her marriage is over, Estha her son is "Re-returned", a young man cocooned in silence, Rahel returns from the US.

Steering clear of the enchantress called magic realism, Arundhati tells a story by transfixing us to the soul of the characters and making Ayemenem, on the banks of Minachal river, sizzle with life and its cruel ironies. There is nothing that misses the eagle eye of Arundhati, the million minutae that gel to make the macro picture: the crow stealing some soap that bubbled in its beak, the Marxist press owner Pillai who wipes his armpit with his crumbled shirt, the twins who loll around with their mother Ammu and bite her navel, the cruelty of patriarch Papachi. It is all so real. It had to be fiction.

Binoo John

She writes as an architect

Arundhati Roy exploded onto the literary scene just this year with her remarkable debut novel, The God of Small Things, and she seems to have been running to catch up ever since. Her book tour has taken her from India to London to the U.S; she wakes in a panic every morning in a new hotel wondering where she is, and her only impressions of the cities she visits are airports and bookstores.

None of this distress was apparent, however, when she stopped by the offices of Amazon Com to tell Alix Wilber about the small things that went into writing this very big book. Growing up in the Indian state of Kerala provided Ms. Roy with the materials from which she build The God of Small Things.

Arundhati Roy: I guess the most important thing about Kerala is that it's the only place in the world where four of the five world's great religions live together. There's group of Christians there who believe they were converted to Christianity when St.Thomas came there.

ArundhatiSo there's Hinduism, Syrian Christians, Is lam and Marxism, and it provides a wonderful backdrop for the playing out of human drama. I don't think you really need to know anything extra or special about India to read this book because it isn't a book about India, really. Yes, the details are Indian, but it's a book about human nature.

Q: There seems to be some kind of political unrest going on in the background. I know that Kerala was a state that elected a Communist government. Was that before or after 1969?

Roy: The first Communist government in the world was elected in Kerala in 1957, and from then on it became a big power to contend with. I think in '67 the government returned to power after having been dismissed by Nehru, and so in '69 it was at its peak. And it was as if revolution was really just around the corner.

Q: Who was your primary audience when you wrote this book? Was it readers in India? Britain? The U.S.?

Roy: I think only commercial writers have an audience in mind. For me, I think it was really almost like a private meditation. But yet it was a communication as well- I suppose just to an ideal reader; you know, somebody that one loves and admires and respects. But there wasn't an audience, I don't think that there were markets or audiences.

Q: One of the things that really delighted me about The God of Small Things was the incredibly imaginative way you use language-especially as a way to illustrate how children see the world. Nap becomes "gnap", barn owl becomes "Bar Nowl" and just that slight rearranging of letters put me right there in the mind of a seven-year old. Where did these little touches come from?

Roy: Well, I think as a child I knew that there was such a struggle to come to terms with what the world is about to do to you. 1 was an unprotected child in some ways and I felt that one was always trying to anticipate the world and, therefore, was trying to be wise in some way. You sort of accurately misunderstand things and you make concepts out of things that aren't concepts and often, I think, if you have a sort of strange childhood, two things happen.

As a child you grow up very quickly but obviously the part that is a child remains a child. And when you become an adult there is a part of you that remains a child, so the communication between you and your childhood remains open. It isn't an effort for me to see things through that mirror. It's just all the boundaries are blurred and you make your own rules.

Q: It seems to me that writers come in two flavours: those who are primarily interested in language and those who are primarily interested in story. This isn't to say that you can't have both interests, but that one is generally more motivated by one than the other. Which camp do you fall into?

Roy: I think that really you must do both things. For me the structure of my story, the way it reveals itself was so important. My language is mine, it's the way 1 think and the way I write. You know, I don't scrabble around and try, and I don't sweat the language.

But I really took a lot of care in designing the structure of the story, because for me the book is not about what happened but about how what happened affected people. So a little thing like a little boy making his Elvis Presley puff or a little girl looking at her plastic watch with the time painted onto it - these small things become very precious.

Q: I'm glad you brought up structure because that was one of the most amazing things about the book. You're slipping back and forth between several different time frames for one thing; for another, you basically let us know within the first few pages how the story ends and then spend the rest of the novel showing us how and why.

Roy: But also I think that one of the most important things about the structure is that in some way the structure of the book ambushes the story. You know, it tells a different story from the story the book is telling.

In the first chapter I more or less tell you the story, but the novel ends in the middle of the story, and it ends with Ammu and Velutha making love and it ends on the word "tomorrow." And though you know that what tomorrow brings is terrible, the fact that the book ends there is to say that even though it's terrible it's wonderful that it happened at all.

Q: Love is a real minefield in your novel. Through most of the book it is misdirected, misused, misunderstood, and misguided; people die because of it, are scarred forever by it, and yet in the final pages of this essentially tragic story, you end with two very poignant scenes in which love is redemptive - for a little while, at least.

Roy: Yeah, because for me, I have to say that my book is not about history but biology and transgression. And, therefore, the fact is that you can never understand the nature of brutality until you see what has been loved being smashed. And so the book deals with both things - it deals with our ability to be brutal as well as our ability to be so deeply intimate and so deeply loving.

Q: And also the way that the brutality can come out of smashed love. I mean, look at Aunt Baby: her hopes for love were thwarted and crushed and so she turns around and does the same thing to Ammu.

Roy: Yeah, but I think even though you hate her, you also understand her. And for me, it is important that you invest yourself as a writer even in the characters that are not soliciting sympathy.

Q: How long did it take you to write the novel?

Roy: Four and a half years.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the process. How many drafts did you write? Were there any big changes from draft to draft?

Roy: There were no drafts. Because when you asked me, are you a language person or a structure person, for me language is a skin on my thought and I was thinking about it as a story, and was thinking of a way of telling it.

The only way I can explain how I wrote it was the way an architect designs a building. You know, it wasn't as if I started at the beginning and ended at the end. I would start somewhere and I'd colour in a bit and then I would deeply stretch back and then stretch forward. It was like designing an intricately balanced structure and when it was finished it was finished. There were no drafts. But that doesn't mean I just sat and spouted it out. It took a long time.

Q: A lot of erasing?

Roy: No, not erasing much - language was never rewritten. I don't rewrite. It was just a lot of arranging.

Q: You trained originally as an architect, and I was wondering if that way of thinking about the world affected the way you approach fiction.

Roy: Absolutely. People keep asking me why I don't practice architecture and I think, what do you think this is? This is exactly that. It's really like designing a book for me.

Q: What are you reading now? Or do you have any time to read anything now?

Roy: I don't actually. One of the most beautiful things about writing is that it really enhances your reading. But after this five years of concentrating on one spot with such intense concentration, it's as if my concentration is just shattered, and it's a bit like being tortured this long. I find it so hard to concentrate on anything. But I think that it will pass. I hope that it will pass.

Q: Are you working on anything new now?

Roy: No, I'm just waiting for the noise in my head to stop.

Continue to Plus page 3 * A caring priest dies

Return to the Plus contents page

Read Letters to the Editor

Go to the Plus Archive



Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to