Arundhati Roy

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Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things was awarded the Booker Prize in 1997. It sold over 6,000,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into over 20 languages. The recipient of the 2002 Lannan Foundation Prize for Cultural Freedom, she was also granted the 2006 Sahitya Akademi Award for her book The Algebra of Infinite Justice, but refused the award to protest Indian governmental actions. Her nonfiction books include An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire (South End Press, 2004); War Talk (South End Press, 2003); Power Politics (South End Press, 2002); and The Cost of Living (Modern Library, 1998); and she discusses international politics further in The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Interviews with Arundhati Roy, with David Barsamian (South End Press, 2004). She lives in New Delhi, India.

Suzanna Arundhati Roy was born on the 24th November 1961, the child of a marriage between a Christian woman from Kerala and a Bengali Hindu tea planter. It was not a happy marriage and she is unable to speak of her father without difficulty. "I don't want to discuss my father. I don't know him at all. I've only seen him a couple of times, that's it," she told Sunday Plus when pressed.

Arundhati spent her crucial childhood years in Aymanam. There, her mother Mary Roy (later a well-known social activist) ran an informal school named Corpus Christi where Arundhati developed her literary and intellectual abilities unconstrained by the set rules of formal education. Aymanam is no longer the old-fashioned village of the sixties in which the novel is set. It is now a bustling extension of Kottayam town, with 7,000 houses and a rash of dish antennae. Paradise Pickles still exists. Social prejudices have dissolved to great extent, though an affair between a low caste man and an upper caste woman can still cause quite a flutter.

"A lot of the atmosphere of A God of Small Things is based on my experiences of what it was like to grow up in Kerala. Most interestingly, it was the only place in the world where religions coincide, there's Christianity, Hinduism, Marxism and Islam and they all live together and rub each other down. When I grew up it was the Marxism that was very strong, it was like the revolution was coming next week. I was aware of the different cultures when I was growing up and I'm still aware of them now. When you see all the competing beliefs against the same background you realise how they all wear each other down. To me, I couldn't think of a better location for a book about human beings."

The rural environment was also important. "I think the kind of landscape that you grew up in, it lives in you. I don't think it's true of people who've grown up in cities so much, you may love building but I don't think you can love it in the way that you love a tree or a river or the colour of the earth, it's a different kind of love. I'm not a very well read person but I don't imagine that that kind of gut love for the earth can be replaced by the open landscape. It's a much cleverer person who grows up in the city, savvy and much smarter in many ways. If you spent your very early childhood catching fish and just learning to be quiet, the landscape just seeps into you. Even now I go back to Kerala and it makes me want to cry if something happens to that place."

She says that she was never "part of this safe world where you grow up and then are married and sent off. You know it's actually terrifying for people and in many ways I escaped that. Having an arranged life and being sent off to some stranger's house. But on the other hand escaping that meant watching it from the outside and not knowing exactly what would happen to you."

"I grew up in very similar circumstances to the children in the book. My mother was divorced. I lived on the edge of the community in a very vulnerable fashion. Then when I was 16 I left home and lived on my own, sort of... you know it wasn't awful, it was just sort of precarious... living in a squatter's colony in Delhi."

On Writing
The inspiration for the book was not an idea or a character but an image - "the image of this sky blue Plymouth stuck at the railroad crossing with the twins inside and this Marxist procession raging around it." The rest of the story did not just accidentally fall into place however, " much of fiction is a way of seeing, of making sense of the world ..and you need a key of how to begin to do that. This was just a key. For me (the novel) was five years of almost changing and mutating, and growing a new skin. It's almost like a part of me."
"I didn't know what I'd started really, I got a computer and started using it, finding out what it could do. I didn't know I was writing a book for a while. It took me five years to write The God of Small Things, but for first few months I was just fooling around before I realized what was happening and got down to writing the book properly."

The Title
"To me the god of small things is the inversion of God. God's a big thing and God's in control. The god of small things...whether it's the way the children see things or whether it's the insect life in the book, or the fish or the stars - there is a not accepting of what we think of as adult boundaries. This small activity that goes on is the under life of the book. All sorts of boundaries are transgressed upon. At the end of the first chapter I say little events and ordinary things are just smashed and reconstituted, imbued with new meaning to become the bleached bones of the story. It's a story that examines things very closely but also from a very, very distant point, almost from geological time and you look at it and see a pattern there. A pattern...of how in these small events and in these small lives the world intrudes. And because of this, because of people being unprotected.. the world and the social machine intrudes into the smallest, deepest core of their being and changes their life."
"This novel didn't have a title until the very last minute. I didn't know what to call it, there were lots of ideas and suggestions but I just remember printing out the manuscript and just printing out the title at the last minute.

"One of the chapters was called The God of Small Things, I don't know how that happened, I just remember Ammu's dream, who was the one armed man, the God of loss, the God of Small Things? When I read the book now I can't believe the amount of references there are to small things, but it was absolutely not the case that I started with the title and built the novel around it. At the last stage they knew they had to put their faith in fragility and stick to the small things, and I just can't believe how appropriate the title is."

Emotional texture
"My fiction is an inextricable mix of experience and imagination."

"The book is a very sad book and somehow the sadness is what stays with me. It took five years to write and I keep finding myself making an effort to be happy. A lot of people ask is it autobiographical ? It's a very difficult question to answer because I think all fiction does spring from your experience, but it is also the melding of the imagination and your experience. It is the emotional texture of the book and the feelings which are real."
"Even though I think of myself as a writer, I can't write unless it comes from within. I couldn't write a column for instance. Even if somebody came to me and said 'Here's five million pounds for writing a screenplay based on this theme' I would probably say no. So I couldn't be a writer for hire."

"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."

"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 color 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."
"When I write, I never re-write a sentence because for me my thought and my writing are one thing. It's like breathing, I don't re-breathe a breath... Arranging the bones of the story took time, but it was never painful. Everything I have - my intellect, my experience, my feelings have been used. If someone doesn't like it, it is like saying they don't like my gall bladder. I can't do anything about it."

"Only about two pages were rewritten. I don't rewrite. It was just a lot of arranging."

"As a very young child my mother gave me a book called Free Writing and we were encouraged to write fearlessly. The first coherent sentence I ever wrote, which is actually in this book, was written when I was five. It was about an Australian missionary who taught me. Every day she would say, 'I can see Satan in your eyes.' So, the first sentence I ever wrote was: 'I hate Miss Mitten and I think her knickers are torn.'"

"Language is a very reflexive thing for me. I don't know the rules, so I don't know if I've broken them."

"There are more people in India that speak English than there are in England. And the only common language that we have throughout India is English. And it's odd that English is a language that, for somebody like me, is a choice that is made for me before I'm old enough to choose. It is the only language that you can speak if you want to get a good job or you want to go to a university. All the big newspapers are in English. And then every one of us will speak at least two or three - I speak three - languages. And when we communicate - let's say I'm with a group of friends - our conversation is completely anarchic because it's in any language that you choose."
"For me, the way words and paragraphs fall on the page matters as well - the graphic design of the language. That was why the words and thoughts of Estha and Rahel were so playful on the page... Words were broken apart, and then sometimes fused together. "Later" became "Lay. Ter." "An owl" became "A Nowl". "Sour metal smell" became "sourmetalsmell".

"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 ."

"For me the structure of my story, the way it reveals itself was so important. My language is mine, it's the way I 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."
"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."

"...I don't think I offer you one thing. If there's tragedy there's also comedy going on somewhere on the side. If there's sadness there's also happiness, there's also joy."

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