❮ Poetry & Prose ❮ Books / People
Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 and has been translated into more than forty languages. Roy has also published several works of non-fiction and is a widely respected human rights activist. Several of Roy’s works are set out below.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
As Alex Clark articulates, there is something Janus-faced about the way we fetishise the writing of fiction: Roy is at once seen to be participating in the “real world” but also as having abandoned – or been abandoned by – the creative muse that we imagine propels all artists. Her recent interview with the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, in which she said: “To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves,” suggests that she would not agree with that binary worldview. And neither, indeed, does her second novel.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) is, according to Alex Clark, “a curious beast.” There are many many characters, its written in an achronological way and while the style is somewhat haphazard, it has passages of breathtakingly composed and powerful prose: The idea that the personal is political and vice versa informs its every sentence. This novel of maddeningly frayed edges, wonky pacing and occasional longueurs. But its patchwork of narratives, painful, funny, sexy, violent, earthy, otherworldly, its recurring images of lost and recovered children, individual sacrifice and self-denial, and its depiction of the constant battle toward self-assertion in a society still held in thrall to the taxonomy of caste and class, make for a disturbing and memorable return to the land of make-believe.
An Atlas of Impossible Longing
According to Shirley Chew (2008), the novel is, “deftly and sensitively narrated.” According to Marie Arana (2011), “every once in a great while, a novel comes along to remind you why you rummage through shelves in the first place. Why you peck like a magpie past the bright glitter of publishers’ promises. Why you read.” Roy’s An Atlas of Impossible Longing is such a book, a novel to convince us that boldly drawn sagas with larger-than-life characters are still possible in a relentlessly postmodern world.
Spanning three generations of an Indian family from the turn of the 20th Century to India’s partition, An Atlas of Impossible Longing traces the intertwining lives of the inhabitants of a vast and isolated house on the outskirts of a small town in Bengal. One of the book’s main protagonists is a first-time novelist, is no one you’ve heard of, and yet she is also no stranger to books. She lives in the picturesque hill station of Ranikhet, in the distant Himalaya mountains, and commutes to New Delhi, where she works for an academic publisher that specializes in South Asia. It begins in 1907, when Amulya leaves Calcutta with his young wife, Kananbala, and travels to the backwater of Songarh to open a factory to manufacture herbal potions and perfumes. In time, they produce a son, who is a joy to them both, but the quiet cramp of small-town life becomes anathema to the lonely mother. She starts to evince strange symptoms, begins speaking out of turn and is given to obscene outbursts.
As months go by, it is clear she has gone mad.
Love & shame & despair & & &
The God of Small Things
Betrayal is a constant element in The God of Small Things. Love, ideals, and confidence are all forsaken, consciously and unconsciously, innocently and maliciously, and these deceptions affect all of the characters deeply. Read my review: The God of Small Things
In line with its title, The God of Small Things explores how the small things affect people’s behaviour and their lives. This book, which is highly worth reading, is Arundhati Roy’s first published novel. It vividly depicts the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by the “Love Laws” that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much.”
One interpretation of Roy’s theme of forbidden love is that love is such a powerful and uncontrollable force that it cannot be contained by any conventional social code. We could also assume that conventional society unwittingly or somehow wittingly seeks to destroy real love… in this work (and in so many other books and poems and paintings) love is consistently connected to death, ‘loss’ and sadness.
Roy often denies that she’s been influenced by Salman Rushdie’s prose, yet there is clear evidence that there is some (it is a truism indeed that we are beholden to some degree to the shoulders of yesterday’s people; our predecessors; our parents etc.). One example is the level of foreshadowing that occurs throughout Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and like Rushdie (and models Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez) uses an incongruous tone to relate to episodes of sadness and tragedy. Rightly so, in my opinion, both Roy and Rushdie clearly make an issue of the problem that the notion of “shame” plays in South Asia and how it all too often stands in the way of love.
The novel received overall positive reviews in the Western press. Time named it one of the best books of the year. It won the Mann Booker Prize in 1997. Funnily enough (in an ironic way because actually, it is far from funny), in India, the book was criticised in particular for its unrestrained description of sexuality. Indeed, E K Nayanar, the then Chief Minister of Kerala (Roy’s home state) obliged her to answer charges of obscenity!
READING LIST &c.