Nationality: Indian. Born: Kerala, India, c. 1960. Education: Attended architectural school. Career: Sold cakes on a beach in Goa, India; worked as an architect; actress, screenwriter, and novelist. Lives in New Delhi, India. Awards: Booker prize, 1997. Agent: c/o Random House, 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
The Cost of Living. New York, Modern Library, 1999.
Introduction, India: A Mosaic by Ian Buruma; edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein. New York, New York Review Books, 2000.*
Arundhati Roy, The Novelist Extraordinary, edited by R. K. Dhawan, New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1999.* * *
Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things was one of the most remarkable and talked-about fiction débuts of the 1990s. Garnering enormous interest before publication for its million-dollar advance, and later for winning the Booker Prize, this inventive first novel garnered critical acclaim throughout the world. Like many Indian novelists of the past generation—including Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, and Bharati Mukherjee—Roy addresses the theme of history and the individual; also like them she makes the political personal by framing it through the eyes of bewildered children as well as the wiser eyes of the psychologically bruised adults they become.
The twins at the center of the novel, brother Estha and sister Rahel, are seven in December, 1969, and 31 in May, 1994, when the novel opens. Alternating between the two time periods, the narrative explores the impact of the tragic drowning of Sophie Mol, a nine-year-old cousin visiting India from London. Her death in 1969 was part of a complex series of events that destroyed the extended family and caused the formerly inseparable twins to be parted for over twenty-four years. Following an unusual structure, Roy paints the broad strokes of the whole story in the first chapter. She then continues to circle around and around the central events, accumulating details and finally plunging into her narrative core at the end. This method is reflected in two striking images: of "a funnel of mosquitoes, like an inverted dunce cap" whining over people's heads, and especially the image of a group of bats that "coalesced and blackened" over the "History House" where key events take place, then suddenly plummet down through the "History-hole" in the roof. With its non-linear gathering, repetitions, and deferral of its most painful and ecstatic moments, Roy's intimate narrative reflects the logic of human memory sifting through the past to assess the damaged state of the present.
The story is both unsettlingly funny and brutally sad. Though primarily focused on a well-off but decadent anglophile family "trapped outside their own history," it also offers a rich social portrait of a region (the state of Kerala in Southern India) combustive with repressed violence and historical tensions. The world's first democratically elected Communist government may be in power but the "Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits" of ancient class and caste systems continue to divide Indians. However, the rules that enforce these divisions prompt some, like the twins' mother Ammu, to radically transgress them, breaking not only the laws of history but also "the Love Laws … that lay down who should be loved, and how." As in many Indian novels, The God of Small Things shows history making its first and most powerful inscriptions on the human body. Ammu outrages family and social proprieties by loving Velutha, a carpenter whom the family has patronized but steered clear of since he belongs to an "Untouchable" caste. Ammu is one of several sexual taboo-breakers in the novel; while transgressive eros is equated in her case with the kind of provocative radicalism that could shake up an ossified status quo, in the case of the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man sex is simply self-indulgent abuse of a child. Whether associated with transcendent or base pleasures, all such acts (with one exception) are shown to have damaging, violent effects. In the exception, Estha and Rahel as adults drift into a healing incestuous love, joining their bodies as the only way to bridge the distance and silence that have severed them for so long.
The novel's playful, ironic humor emerges through the quirky seven-year-old minds whose perspectives dominate, and through the novel's eccentric prose style. Reflecting in English the linguistic resources and habits of Malayalam (Kerala's vernacular), Roy's writing abounds in sentence fragments and one-line paragraphs, coinages formed by fusing or chopping up words ("thiswayandthat," "Lay. Ter.") and idiosyncratic capitalizations ("Who d'you love Most in the World?") that reflect the youthful fixations of Estha and Rahel. Indeed, many capitalizations are anthropomorphized abstractions: an overwhelming force or event (History, Biology, the Return of Estha, the Loss of Sophie Moll) will be animated so that it may be brought down to size and pictured having its effects, moving potently through the twins' world like an unpredictable animal. Although many critics find Roy's exuberant style overwrought or precious, especially in its penchant for repeating key phrases and images, she makes a unique contribution to a long-standing literary tradition in India. Ever since Raja Rao's famous statement, made in 1938, that he aims "to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own," Indian novelists have bent and twisted the English of their colonizers to reflect local speech-rhythms and patterns of thought.
Portraying the village of Ayemenem and its inhabitants as burdened by poisonous grievances and layers of dust and defeat that they cannot shake off, The God of Small Things dramatizes the destructive gap that separates those with an eye to the future, who aspire to transform history, and those with an eye to the past, who are content to wallow in its accumulated personal and social debris. The novel also reveals the hideous harm done to children not old enough to competently negotiate that gap—sinned-against innocents who fall into the chasm even as they are made to feel, guiltily, that they are the sinners who created it. Part love story, part political fable, part linguistic dazzle, and part psychological drama, The God of Small Things firmly establishes Arundhati Roy as a complex and original contemporary writer.
—John Clement Ball
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