One of the many big-noters in India has announced her return to the literary scene with a novel about the uprising in Kashmir. Coming 20 years after her only other effort, Arundhati Roy’s 2017 publication has already received enough hype to make one puke.
Since her book The God of Small Things was surprisingly awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1997, Roy has been involved in activism, written essays and numerous articles. One has to be grateful that she did not attempt a second novel. Her first effort was terrible; author Carmen Callil, chair of the 1996 Booker jury, pronounced Roy’s work “execrable”, and said it should never have reached the shortlist.
I’m willing to bet that the second book will be an even greater success than the first; in this day and age frauds succeed much better than they did in 1997.
Below is the review I wrote at the time; it is no longer on the Internet as the site hosting it died an unnatural death.
An Indian writer has received an advance of half a million pounds for her first novel, The God of Small Things. Great stuff, one would say, it proves there is talent in the country. The hype that has necessarily accompanied this has obscured the novel to a large extent. There are reviews floating all over the Web, some of them written by people who have not even read the book. The very fact that an Indian author has received a six-figure advance for a first novel necessarily means that the book must be good – thus runs the logic. It makes for even better copy when the writer is a woman.
A number of Indian publications have gloated over the novel. The customary interviews have taken place with the writer and the usual pithy sayings have emerged. It is time to look a bit more closely at this publishing “feat”, the circumstances of the writer and the actual content of the book. One must remember first of all that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Indian independence; indeed, it is a nice time for a British publishing house to give an Indian author such an honour. Good timing to expiate some of the guilt surrounding the act of partition of the subcontinent.
The author, Arundhati Roy, is the daughter of one Mary Roy, a women who gained her own measure of notoriety by challenging the Christian inheritance law some years ago in Kerala. Mary won her case and thus became an icon for feminists in India. Mary Roy, however, was not the best of mothers; she kicked her daughter out at the age of 18 and the girl thus had to fend for herself. It is not, therefore, surprising that Arundhati has constantly tried to gain her mother’s attention by various means and show her parent that she can succeed on her own as well. A large number of so-called great works have come about because a man feels he has something to prove to his parents.
Arundhati has lived on the edge of the so-called intellectual circuit in Delhi, a city which is a ball of hot air. Her first marriage to an architect ended in divorce and she is now married to a photographer by whom she has two children. She has tried her own attention-getting tactics — berating Shekhar Kapoor over his film Bandit Queen was the latest gimmick — and has, to some extent, gained a fair measure of publicity. Now comes this novel, which, if we are to believe the writer, did not require a single correction (there is a silly line which she has used to explain this: “one does not re-breathe a breath”) and in the space of five years. In other words, this spontaneous creation took a fairly long period of time. Does sound a bit like constipated genius.
Now to the novel itself. It is the story of a family who hail from a village in Kerala, one which Roy chose to call Ayemenem. The story is told within an uncertain time-frame which winds itself back and forth and anyone searching for structure within this book will be disappointed; the writer has an excuse – it is like a work of architecture, she says, and the form develops in any direction. There is plenty of detail in the 350-odd pages; the English is stuffed stupid with a surfeit of similes, most of them very poor ones. There is a bid to copy Salman Rushdie but it does not work; the use of language is stilted and and some words are so obviously contrived that they are out of place when used. Roy would have one believe that this work is spontaneous but the truth is that it is contrived and rather badly at that. It is so obviously wrung out of herself that any claim that this novel was lying dormant within herself just waiting to be written must be taken with loads of salt.
The God of Small Things is seen from the perspective of seven-year-old Rahel. She and her twin brother, Estha, live with their mother, Ammu, who was married to a Bengali from whom she is divorced. Ammu and the twins live in the Ayemenem house with their grandmother, uncle and grand-aunt Baby. The family owns a pickle factory that comes into conflict with the Communists. The family is awaiting the arrival of Sophie Mol, the twins’ half-English cousin and the book drifts back and forth to the arrival and the aftermath of the death by drowning of Sophie Mol and an ill-fated love affair between Ammu and the untouchable Velutha. Rahel returns to Ayemenem as an an adult to a decimated household, a dysfunctional twin and a decaying house.
Were a Keralite to read this book, he or she would obviously understand the setting and a lot of social surroundings. An outsider may find it exotic but that is all. In this sense, the book is insular in the extreme; there are splashes of Malayalam here and there and despite the feeble attempt at translation, the real meaning of the phrase is often hidden. Roy obviously has a huge narcissistic streak and ensures that the reader will identify her as the girl Rahel; whether this is intended to tell the reader that everything, including the incestuous relationship Rahel has with her twin, was also part of Roy’s life is unclear. This is a totally unnecessary twist to the book.
The story line is quite predictable; the death of a child and the love affair between a woman of the higher caste and an untouchable are standard fare in many an Indian novel. The only difference here is that this affair is suddenly sprung on the reader and it cannot be logically deduced; indeed, logic is a major casualty in this novel. There is a process of development in any book but there seems to be none in this book and, in my opinion, it is highly over-rated. One thing which puzzles me no end is the fact that Penguin India did not publish it; David Davidar has been the face of Indian publishing in English and his laconical explanation, “it wasn’t offered to us,” does not answer the question. Davidar is one who has chased after any writer whom he feels has the slightest chance of being a success. Why he did not choose to do so with Roy is a mystery.