Arundhati Roy

Salon magazine: The Salon Interview: Arundhati Roy. The author of 'The God of Small Things' talks about India, the obscenity charge she faces and how writing is like architecture. By Reena Jana.


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Reena Jana
September 30, 1997 7:00pm (UTC)

she claims she never rewrites or revises. Her first novel, "The God of Small Things," has just won the
English-speaking world's most premier honor, the Booker Prize, is published
in more than 20 nations, has hit No. 1 on the Sunday Times of London's
bestseller list and is climbing the New York Times list. It has earned her in excess of $1 million so far and international media attention as she faces obscenity charges in her native India for a sensual description of inter-caste lovemaking that serves as the novel's coda. And beyond all this, she's good. Real good. Butt-kicking good. So good, in fact, that John Updike, when reviewing "The God of Small Things" for the New Yorker, compares her mind-boggling debut to that of Tiger Woods.

She's Arundhati Roy, and she's remarkably tiny -- hovering around 5-foot-2 -- despite the black platform shoes she's wearing and new literary lioness persona. An explosion of curly black hair frames her face, which showcases nearly childlike, saucer eyes and cheekbones that erupt the moment she talks or smiles. Now in her mid-30s, Roy grew up in Kerala, the Marxist Indian state in which "The God of Small Things" is set. The novel is a vertiginously poetic tale of Indian boy-and-girl twins, Estha and Rahel, and their family's tragedies; the story's fulcrum is the death of their 9-year-old half-British cousin, Sophie Mol, visiting them on holiday.

The daughter of a Syrian Christian mother, a divorcee who managed a tea plantation (just like the character of Ammu in Roy's novel), Roy didn't attend school until she was 10. "I was my mother's guinea pig," she explains. "She started her own school, and I was her first student." As a teenager, Roy went on to attend boarding school in southern India and wound up at Delhi's School of Planning and Architecture. And now, after years of supporting herself as an aerobics instructor in New Delhi, she's one of the world's most celebrated novelists. We forgive her for not rewriting or revising "The God of Small Things." Thank God she didn't. Where would the world be without such a display of raw gifts for simile and metaphor, rhythm and lyric? Without Roy's dizzying microcosm of modern India? Without such an honest and wildly creative (her word plays would drive William Safire and any self-respecting dictionary reader mad) expression of human yearning and joy? Let's not think about a world without "The God of Small Things." Let's ask Roy about the world with it.

All eyes are on India right now, with the 50th anniversary celebration of its independence. At the same time, all eyes are on you and this novel. People around the world are asking, "What does it mean to be an Indian novelist today? What does it mean to be Indian?" Will readers find the answers to these questions in "The God of Small Things"?

You know, I think that a story is like the surface of water. And you can take what you want from it. Its volubility is its strength. But I feel irritated by this idea, this search. What do we mean when we ask, "What is Indian? What is India? Who is Indian?" Do we ask, "What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be British?" as often? I don't think that it's a question that needs to be asked, necessarily. I don't think along those lines, anyway. I think perhaps that the question we should ask is, "What does it mean to be human?"

I don't even feel comfortable with this need to define our country. Because it's bigger than that! How can one define India? There is no one language, there is no one culture. There is no one religion, there is no one way of life. There is absolutely no way one could draw a line around it and say, "This is India" or, "This is what it means to be Indian." The whole world is seeking simplification. It's not that easy. I don't believe that one clever movie or one clever book can begin to convey what it means to be Indian. Of course, every writer of fiction tries to make sense of their world. Which is what I do. There are some things that I don't do, though. Like try to make claims of what influenced my book. And I will never "defend" my book either. When I write, I lay down my weapons and give the book to the reader.

Speaking of influences and defenses, your work has been compared to Salman Rushdie's. And now, in India, you face charges of obscenity in India for the erotic ending of "The God of Small Things" -- a controversy reminiscent of (but not as severe as) Rushdie's fatwa (death sentence).

I think that the comparison to Salman has been just a lazy response. When in doubt, if it's an Indian writer, compare them to Salman, because he's the best-known Indian writer! When I say this, I feel bad, because I think it sounds like I don't think very highly of him, because I do. He's a brilliant writer. I think critics have a problem when a new writer comes along, because they want to peg an identity on them. And Salman is the most obvious one for me. But then readers begin to assume the influence, and this isn't fair.

The comparisons emerge from the need to create an analogy, a metaphor for readers to understand the unknown writer's work ...

I understand that need. But then I don't understand when readers assume that Indian writers are "magical realists" and suddenly I'm a "magical realist," just because Salman Rushdie or other Indian writers are "magical realists." Sometimes people can misread because of such pegging. For example, when Baby Kochamma is fantasizing or Rahel is observing something as a child or Ammu is dreaming in my book, it is not me, the writer, creating the "magical realism." No, what I am writing is what the characters are experiencing. What the reader is reading is the character's own perceptions. Those images are driven by the characters. It is never me invoking magic! This is realism, actually, that I am writing.

Actually, it's not just Rushdie I'm compared to. There's Garcma-Marquez, Joyce ... and Faulkner, always Faulkner. Yes, I'm compared to Faulkner the most. But I've never read Faulkner before! So I can't say anything about him. I have, however, read some other writers from the American South -- Mark Twain, Harper S. Lee -- and I think that perhaps there's an infusion or intrusion of landscape in their literature that might be similar to mine. This comparison is not that lazy, because it's natural that writers from outside urban areas share an environment that is not man-made and is changed by winds and rivers and rain. I think that human relationships and the divisions between human beings are more brutal and straightforward than those in cities, where everything is hidden behind walls and a veneer of urban sophistication.

The obscenity charges brought forth by an individual lawyer, Sabu Thomas, that you face are in Kerala, the same Indian region you depict in your book. Is this what you mean by "the divisions between human beings are more brutal and straightforward" in non-urban areas? And how are you coping with such a reception to your book in the very place that inspired its writing?

When the charges were first made, I was very upset. Actually, the individual who accused me of obscenity first did so when I was on my first book tour in the U.S. in June, and no one told me about it because they didn't want me to be upset on tour. Now, I realize that this is what literature is about. This is the fallout of literature. It's more important for me to argue that -- on my territory. To state MY case for literature, and freedom of speech. It's far more important for me to do that than to go to book parties or on tours. That's the real fight, what it's all about. And that is MY territory, no matter what he is trying to do, what he is trying to say against my book. And I am not afraid, I'm capable of dealing with this and doing myself justice. I am going to stake my claim. In fact, last week, I made an appeal to the high court, and they decided to give the case to a lower court. It's a criminal case, you know; and in India, even though a private citizen charged me, the case becomes "the state" vs. me! It's so unfair, the person who is accusing me of obscenity only photocopied the last three pages of my book and presented them to the court.

The vernacular press in India has dealt with this with viciousness; my mother, who lives in Kerala, hears of the controversy and cannot just be happy for the international success of the book. This has been a strain. But one cannot hide from the glare of one's own writing.

When I started to read "The God of Small Things," it took me some time to figure out who the protagonist was -- and then I started to feel it was the place: India, Kerala.

That quest is interesting -- that quest for one main character. There is no reason for there to be one. In fact, I think the center is everyone, Ammu, Baby Kochamma, Velutha, Estha, Rahel ... they all are the core.

Another "core" of the book is the lyricism of your prose. The Indian-American writer (and Salon columnist) Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has confessed to writing to the rhythms of Indian music; sometimes she reads her work out loud in public with the music playing in the background to enhance the musicality. Do you have a similar approach?

I don't listen to music when I write. It's about design to me. I'm trained as an architect; writing is like architecture. In buildings, there are design motifs that occur again and again, that repeat -- patterns, curves. These motifs help us feel comfortable in a physical space. And the same works in writing, I've found. For me, the way words, punctuation and paragraphs fall on the page is important as well -- the graphic design of the language. That was why the words and thoughts of Estha and Rahel, the twins, were so playful on the page ... I was being creative with their design. Words were broken apart, and then sometimes fused together. "Later" became "Lay. Ter." "An owl" became "A Nowl." "Sour metal smell" became "sourmetal smell."

Repetition I love, and used because it made me feel safe. Repeated words and phrases have a rocking feeling, like a lullaby. They help take away the shock of the plot -- death, lives destroyed or the horror of the settings -- a crazy, chaotic, emotional house, the sinister movie theater.

How do you react to reviews that analyze your wordplays as "writerly" or self-conscious?

Language is something I don't think about. At all. In fact, the truth is that my writing isn't self-conscious at all. I don't rewrite. In this whole book, I changed only about two pages. I rarely rewrite a sentence. That's the way I think. Writing this novel was a very intuitive process for me. And pleasurable. So much more pleasurable than writing screenplays. I get so much more pleasure from describing a river than writing "CUT TO A RIVER."

You know, I always believe that even among the best writers, there are selfish writers and there are generous ones. Selfish writers leave you with the memory of their book. Generous writers leave you with the memory of the world they evoked. To evoke a world, to communicate it to someone, is like writing a letter to someone that you love. It's a very thin line. For me, books are gifts. When I read a book, I accept it as a gift from an author. When I wrote this book, I presented if as a gift. The reader will do with it what they want.

This is your first novel. How did you start writing it? What was your process? How did you guide yourself through it?

If someone told me this was how I was going to write a novel before I started writing it, I wouldn't believe them. I wrote it out of sequence. I didn't start with the first chapter or end with the last chapter. I actually started writing with a single image in my head: the sky blue Plymouth with two twins inside it, a Marxist procession surrounding it. And it just developed from there. The language just started weaving together, sentence by sentence.

How did you arrive at the final sequence that became the novel in its finished form?

It just worked. For instance, I didn't know, when I started writing, that this book would take place in exactly one day. I kept moving back and forth in time. And then, somehow, I realized that in some of the scenes, the kids were grown up, and sometimes they weren't. I wound up looking at the scenes as different moments, moments that were refracted through time. Reconstituted moments. Moments when Estha is readjusting his Elvis puff of hair. When Estha and Rahel blow spitballs. When Ammu and Velutha make love. These moments, and moments like these in life, I realized, mean something more than what they are, than how they are experienced as mere minutes. They are the substance of human happiness.

Your biography on the book's dust jacket says you are "trained as an architect and the author of two screenplays." By other published accounts you are an aerobics instructor. Why and how did you decide to write a novel?

From the time I was a very young child, I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a writer. I never thought I would be able to become one -- I didn't have the financial opportunities to be a writer. But then I started writing for film, and this started my writing career. Still, when I was studying architecture, or teaching aerobics, these were things I really wanted to do, things I focused on completely. No matter what I did or what I do, I become absorbed in it. And that was what happened when I started writing "The God of Small Things." I worked for a long time, and finally, when I saved enough money to take time off and take the risk of writing a novel -- which took me four and a half years of my life, once again I was able to focus on it completely and really enjoy writing it. I was as involved in being an architect as I was writing this novel, and vice versa. I never spent time just dreaming of becoming a writer and resenting my present state. No, my secret was to live my life refusing to be a victim. Failure -- no, I shouldn't say "failure," rather, the "lack of success" never frightened me. Even if this book never sold or caught any attention, it would still be the same book. This book is this book. At every point in my life, I decided what I could do and then did it.

There is no way for any publisher or writer to know what will sell and why, even though they are all looking for formula. People are asking me if I am feeling pressure now, and they ask me if I will repeat what I achieved in "The God of Small Things." How I hope I do not! I want to keep changing, growing. I don't accept the pressure. I don't believe I must write another book just because now I'm a "writer." I don't believe anyone should write unless they have a book to write. Otherwise they should just shut up.

So you aren't working on another book?

No. Not now, I am totally free. Right now it's important for me to accept my own peace; I have no idea what I must do next. I don't care. I don't feel I must "follow the path." I don't believe in rules. One of the worst books I've ever read was "The Craft of Novel Writing." I don't write reviews, even though people are asking me to now. I don't want to analyze too much. I had no idea that all of this would happen. For me, what made writing "The God of Small Things" so worthwhile is that people all around the world are connecting with this book, that it's somehow hitting some deeply human chord.


Reena Jana

Reena Jana contributes regularly to the New York Times, Wired, Asian Art News and Flash Art International.

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