Arundhati Roy’s Work of Fiction: A Journey of Twenty Political Years
I read The God of Small Things in 2016, almost nineteen years after it was published and after it was confirmed that Arundhati Roy’s second novel was getting dressed to make an appearance the following year. I couldn’t delay reading it any further.
When The God of Small Things was first published and it won the Booker Prize in 1997, I was in my first year of college. Contemporary books in English, with their relatively exorbitant price tags, at that time of yet-to-appear online bookstores, mostly remained out of reach for readers from middle class families in my city. We preferred to wait for aunts and cousins living overseas to casually leave copies of the year’s bestsellers when they visited home; and they generously did.
It took me a long while to get my hands on a copy of Roy’s debut novel. Hearing people speak about it had piqued my curiosity, and then I forgot, even when I earned the purchasing power for the book. A range of Indian authors had started writing in English and were doing quite well for themselves in those years. Yet, I reveled in reading English literature by native English writers. I might also have been a tad fearful of disappointment. Critics wrote fantastic things about Roy’s novel. I thought I knew better. Attempts to read glorified literary works of famed authors had caused me pain in the past.
I gradually became familiar with Roy’s voice and her spirit, thanks to my profession. Working as a journalist in India post 2001 meant keeping abreast of what she was saying in her columns, at press conferences, at international university gatherings, on foreign television channels, and brief reports of her arguments and conflicting counter-arguments from opposing big shots published. I had heard her quiet voice spilling out dangerous truths many times, and I had wondered if her spine had been manufactured on order at the Jamshedpur steel workshops. There was much awe and too much envy in the air when people spoke about Arundhati Roy, and it made absolute sense when mostly men said that they hated her. Because there was no way they could break her.
In essence, the naïveté in her eyes, her nonchalant smile, her candid honesty, and clear thinking frightened people and governments so that they started calling her, not anti-government, not anti-establishment, for that was a common term for rebel journalists and media houses, but anti-Indian. They would have understood if she were scared, if she crumbled; but she cared not a dime.
Yet I was fearful that a book she had written years ago, could spoil the statuette of immense courage I attributed to her.
Finally, I read it. When I did, I felt stupid. I should have trusted my heart and her capability, a little more.
Roy had taken four years to write her first novel. When the editor at HarperCollins, Pankaj Mishra, shared it with British publishers, it led to hundreds of eureka moments; like fireworks on a Diwali night. She received a £500,000 advance for the manuscript and sold rights to the book in 21 countries.
In regional and vernacular Indian literature, we had read about social struggles across caste, tribes, religion, economic boundaries, and of lost love and torture. Many of these were eventually made into movies for their regional fervor and national relevance. But to tell a rural-urban, ethnic-exotic story of oppression and love, of abuse and loss castrated by caste, religion, and social barriers, with its flavor and aroma intact, and in English! Was it the first time someone attempted something of this magnitude?
This significant work of fiction also came at a time when the English-speaking world was opening up to literature from various corners of the world. The story of the fraternal twins in The God of Small Things ran across decades and societies, across separations and meetings, giving a historical perspective, yet remaining in the present. The novel reflects Roy’s honest retelling of events and scenarios and her love for word play. The invention of new words, new phrases, and new denominations was necessary to be able to bring to the international reader the essence of place.
With The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy showed us how to describe our soil, our scents, and our societies; how to successfully transcend boundaries, and present stories across lands that have been long claimed to be exotic; how to demonstrate, analyze, and cut through the ethnicity and exoticness of places to show that the people in these topographies are also human; when slashed, they bleed red blood.
Roy helped us realize through her beautifully simple writing and brutally honest plot that the language doesn’t matter as long as you revel in it, dance in it, play with it, and use it to carve your seemingly mundane story. For aspiring non-English writers expressing themselves in English, The God of Small Things is a fantastic manual for what a novel can be.
I say mundane, because helpless young children face abuse at the hands of complete strangers day after day, week after week, irrespective of whether the victims realize its significance at the time. What was new in how Roy presented it, was the matter of fact way she demonstrated how abuse happens, how discrimination occurs, or how bias develops. Her success empowers ordinary wordsmiths too to come forward with their stories, truthfully, fearlessly, candidly.
In her new novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy does it again. In this slow, leisurely, and painstakingly built fiction that Roy has crafted with exquisitely beautiful and sad prose, she blurs the lines between fiction and reality.
Her second novel has been criticized for its intersection of characters across time and regions, and the way the story travels half the country. Readers have said the story takes a convoluted route as the protagonist goes to Gujarat and faces riots, meets an abandoned child on Delhi roads, and meets victims from Kashmir to take the story further. It has seemed like a first draft to some, important characters have been introduced late into the story and haphazardly; and there are too many main characters.
Non-fiction can convey harsh realities, but it eventually gathers dust. Fiction can immortalize characters and stories. The journeys Roy has taken through forests, rivers, hills and villages, to spaces where human rights have been put on hold and stopped for politics, appear in her fiction. It doesn’t matter if it’s flawed.
It seems with every chapter of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy sought to etch the stories of Anjum, Mulaqat Ali, Zainab, Saddam Hussain, Tilottama, and others in the hearts of the people of her country and beyond, so that someday these stories get set in stone, wringing out tears of understanding, compassion, and acceptance for our real-life protagonists.
Roy doesn’t seem to be in a hurry; she continues her activism, even if it is fiction that she is writing. In her second novel, she strives to write a story that will be read and talked about for a long time to come, long after the real life characters on whom her protagonists are based, wilt off from the face of this Earth.