Monday, 14 January 2013

MM's heirs?: Arundhati Roy, fierce, polemical novelist and campaigner



Fierce, polemical and controversial

Arundhati Roy: novelist and campaigner


The theme of much of what I write, fiction as well as non-fiction, is the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they’re engaged in.
Arundhati Roy, ‘Come September’, 2002.

Since winning the Booker Prize in 1997 with her first, and, so far, only novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s career as a writer has not followed contemporary literary convention: there have been no more works of fiction: no stories, no plays, no poems; no literary reviews or appearances at literary festivals. In concentrating exclusively on political issues, Roy has taken the path of non-fiction, carving out a high-profile and often controversial reputation as an outspoken commentator on current events. In 1998 she wrote The End of Imagination, a critique of the Indian government’s nuclear policies, re-published in her collection of essays The Cost of Living (1999), in which she also campaigned against India’s huge hydroelectric programme. After accusing the New Delhi court of attempting to silence protest against the Narmada Dam Project, Roy was brought to trial, convicted of contempt, fined and, according to the judgement of the Supreme Court of India, sentenced to ‘symbolic imprisonment’ for one day.
Roy was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004 for her work as a human rights activist and for her advocacy of non-violent protest. In the same year she published her sixth collection of political texts, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, in which she argued against the globalized injustice of neo-imperialism, narrow-minded nationalism, the power of the military-industrial complex and the ideology of those who would bomb civilians as part of a ‘war on terror’. In June 2005 she took part in the World Tribunal on Iraq, and in January 2006, provoked a storm of controversy, by refusing to accept the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award for her book of essays The Algebra of Infinite Justice in protest against the Indian government
violently and ruthlessly pursuing policies of brutalisation of industrial workers, increasing militarization and economic neo-liberalisation.

A politicised sensibility

Though most definitely not what you’d expect from a Booker Prize winner, these biographical/bibliographical facts raise an interesting question for literature students: how does an awareness of Roy’s post-1997 work affect our interpretation of The God of Small Things? Without reading any of Roy’s non-fiction – although I would obviously recommend that you do, starting with An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire – it’s clear that Roy’s political views are dissenting, radical and left-wing, and that underpinning her internationalist political agenda is a profound commitment to civil liberties and human rights. Equally clear is that, although expressed in the form of a literary narrative, The God of Small Things is a product of the same world view reflecting the same politicised sensibility, sharply focused on parallel preoccupations. The shared interests overlapping Roy’s fiction and non-fiction are palpable: as a compelling human drama, The God of Small Things depicts the brutal and brutalising effects on individuals and communities of oppressive power structures – patriarchy, caste and class, neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism – the same social institutions and systems that Roy scrutinises with such intensity in her polemical non-fiction.


Structure and voices in The God of Small Things


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 colour 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. (Arundhati Roy quoted on Jon Simmons’ unofficial website.)

Re-constructing a blueprint for The God of Small Things represents a fascinating challenge for any student of the novel. Its two main storylines are separated by twenty-three years: the first, focusing on the twins’ devastating and divisive experiences in Ayemenem, takes place in 1969, and the second, of their homecoming as adults, in 1992. The movement between these ‘time zones’ is fluid and frequent and, as readers, we have to get used to the pace quickly: in the first chapter there are around a dozen ‘cross-cuts’ between the ’92 and ’69 storylines, interspersed with character back stories, describing the early lives of the twins and a more detailed ‘biography’ of Baby Kochamma. Although it seems haphazard at times, this fluctuation between time lines represents something of a guiding principle in the structuring of the novel as a whole, in that the meaning of the story is not to be found in the chronological unfolding of events. Roy alludes to this idea in Chapter 12 when Rahel watches a kathakali dance in mid-performance:

It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories, you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.

If we extract the 1992 story of the twins’ reunion, however, we find that the order of events is sequenced more or less chronologically. Yet, even when extracted, the 1969 story, ending with Ammu and Velutha’s first night together, is emphatically non-chronological and, as such, plays a critical role in conveying the author’s thematic purpose, one that Roy has made explicit reference to in comments quoted on her unofficial website:

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.

The third person narrator

Roy’s decision to write The God of Small Things in the third-person affords her the flexibility of perspective she needs to cross-cut between storylines and time zones, and to explore the inner lives of a large cast of central characters – Ammu, Estha and Rahel, Chacko, Baby Kochamma – as well as a whole host of ‘supporting’ characters – Velutha, Margaret, Comrade Pillai, Vellya Paapen, Mammachi, Pappachi, the level crossing lunatic, Inspector Thomas Mathew (the list is a long one). In lesser or greater degrees of detail, Roy describes their lives, relationships, motivations, secret wishes, insecurities and miseries from the all-seeing, all-knowing point of view we usually associate with a third-person narrative. Most of Chapter 13 is taken up with the back story of Margaret and Chacko in England and it’s no accident that Roy adopts the detached, neutral voice we tend to associate with a particularly English style of novel in order to tell it:

Margaret Kochamma wrote regularly, giving Chacko news of Sophie Mol. She assured him that Joe made a wonderful, caring father and that Sophie Mol loved him dearly – facts that gladdened and saddened Chacko in equal measure.

Yet Roy does not tie herself to this distanced tone, preferring to go beyond the boundaries of ‘objectivity’, making comments, for instance, about the psychology of her characters that they themselves could not possibly be ‘aware’ of; on Mammachi’s fury at Velutha, for example:
Without realising it herself, she grafted the manner of the man who had humiliated her during the march onto Velutha

or Margaret’s love for Chacko:
She was perhaps too young to realize that what she assumed was her love for Chacko was actually a tentative, timorous acceptance of herself

or on Estha’s damaged psyche:
Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world. He grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past. Gradually the reason for his silence was hidden away, entombed somewhere deep in the soothing folds of the fact of it.

Clues, warnings and reminders

It is not only in these moments of dramatic irony that the author intervenes so openly: there are literally dozens of clues, scattered liberally throughout the novel, about the tragedy to come – ‘...blooded on memories of a broken man...’ (Chapter 1); ‘...they would watch with dinner plate eyes as history revealed itself to them in the back verandah...’ (Chapter 2): ‘...not wholly unaware of the hint of doom and all that waited in the wings for them...’ (Chapter 4) – clues which serve to remind us of the author’s control not just of events but of the order in which they are revealed. As well as making dire warnings about the future, Roy’s authorial perspective has the power to uncover grim reminders of the past, in this case, Rahel’s watch:

Something lay buried in the ground. Under grass. Under twenty-three years of June rain.
A small forgotten thing.
Nothing that the world would miss.
A child’s plastic wristwatch with the time painted on it.
Ten to two it said.

An inventive and changeable narrative voice

So, with the clinical judgement of a psychoanalyst and a point of view moving like mercury in and out of characterisations, in and out of time zones and storylines, unearthing clues for the reader that remain buried for the characters, are we listening to an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful narrative voice? One way of telling might be to tune in to the sound of that voice. Is it ‘impartial’ or ‘god-like’, at least in its tone? Sometimes, but hardly consistently, because, though the controlling viewpoint is obviously omniscient, it is also clearly and firmly grounded in the perspective of the novel’s chief protagonists, the children. Roy does not simply allow the reader to see through the eyes of Estha and Rahel, she re-constructs their experiences of a hostile world through their language – at once lively and fearful, inventive and anxious – effectively integrating a child-like register into the texture of the novel as a whole, while still writing in the third person. The evidence is not hard to find, though one example is intriguing:

And Ammu’s angry eyes on Estha said, ‘All right. Later.’
And Later became a horrible, menacing, goose-bumpy word.
Lay. Ter.
Like a deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. Shivery, and furred. Like moth’s feet.

Intriguing not just because it combines typical orthographic playfulness and nursery rhyming with the ominous symbolism of Pappachi’s Moth, but because of comments made by Roy in a 1997 interview with the online magazine Salon, which relate directly to the passage above and lead us back to her architectural sense of structure:

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 a 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.’

Looking beyond form and language


Concentrating, as I have in this article, on form, structure and language, it has been easy to overlook the fact that The God of Small Things is a political novel about political conflict; and that, in directly addressing issues like class and caste, gender relations and child abuse, neo-colonialism and globalization, this book is perhaps one of the most politically charged, left-wing and radical of any contemporary work of fiction. To begin to understand and contextualize her partisan concern with power and resistance, we need to give due consideration to Arundhati Roy’s subsequent career as a human rights activist and a writer of non-fiction.


Richard Lees

This article first appeared in emagazine 33.