21st December1997


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Behind the Turin Shroud
Behind the Turin Shroud


'I am not a rebel'

By Roshan Peiris

Arundhati's wordHer face is framed by wavy hair caught up in a pony tail with an outsize red band. Her mesmerising eyes keep company with the tiny brilliant nose ring. Her girlish form dressed in a black and white checked blouse and black trousers, belies her 37 years, and her powerful writing.

Arundhati RoyArundhati Roy, India's first winner of the Booker Prize exudes a quiet charm and talent.

Even some of her fiery critics would have to admit that this petite woman from Kerala has an abundance of talent and a very great degree of sensitiveness in her writing. She was in Colombo on the invitation of Lake House Bookshop.

At the Taj having breakfast on Thursday morning, she readily acknowledged that when she left home at 18, she did live within the walls of a shanty with a tin roof, making a living selling empty beer bottles in Delhi's Ferozeshah Kotla.

"Were you a rebel having had a volatile childhood?"

"No. I am not a rebel nor have I ever been one. A rebel sounds like some sort of professional. I lived at the edge of my community in Kerala belonging to a wealthy family. I assimilated much around me, but still I looked at it all poised at the edge," she said.

Her house in Ayemenem, Kottayam was one of the landmarks of the area overflowing wealth and security. But this girl who came to live there with her mother Mary (Ammu in the book) and her brother Lalith (Estha in the book) after her mother left her father, was told that she must learn to stand on her own two feet. This inculcated, she said, a great deal of independence, and helped mould her character.

"I owe it to my mother and yes I have dedicated my book to her, for all she did, and stood for."

"No, my brother is not a twin born from separated but simultaneously fertilized eggs.

"That is just in my story. Lalith, his wife and mother will be here later today," she said.

In The God of Small Things Roy portrays sensitively the aching love between cross caste lovers Velutha and Ammu. Velutha belongs to a very low caste, the Paravan caste who had to crawl backwards when confronting those of the high caste.

But Roy describes Ammu's deeply emotional scene and the first sexual experience between the Paravan and this high caste woman. How did she do it?

"I must say, as you say, it is a sensitive story but a very risky thing for me to do. I knew I had made myself vulnerable writing about this unacceptable love. Yes, I did think it all out," she said softly but eventually it comes down to love between two people. I grew up in an atmosphere of strict caste divisions.

"But I believe I really grew up at the edge and perhaps saw things differently. I know it was unusual to break away from accepted norms in one's society. But anyway it was fiction. If I resisted writing as I did, it would have become a kind of formula writing.

What is her secret in capturing the ethos and the spirit of the people she writes about, be it the communist chief E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Velutha the Paravan, Baby Kochamma the great aunt, Chacko the uncle or Kochu Marie the midget cook (all in the story)?

"I think I capture what you call the ethos of the people in the book because it is the way I see them. After all fiction is a way of seeing and portraying people.

"I assure you that sometimes it can be quite uncomfortable to do so.

"Yes,' she said, a smile on her face, "it is uncomfortable, but I do so."

Roy has certainly a wizardry with words and descriptions especially the unflattering portraits of some of the Keralan people. For example, she speaks of Chacko the uncle in the book with his gray nails full of sweat and dandruff.

She bursts out laughing. "I know, but I don't mean it to be unflattering. It is only a form of criticism coming from a very deep emotion and affection.

"Chacko was an Oxford man but he was now contriving to cultivate some of these traits."

Did you require guts to do so?

"Not really, I was just putting things in perspective but always with deep affection and emotion."

Your language in the book is described as Indo-Anglian. Would you say it was a natural way of writing-may be a gift in writing or was it contrived?

"Remember English is the language in which I was educated and I might say the language I even dream in," she says with a mischievous look.

"In the Colonial era it was a great conflict that some of us spoke and wrote only in English. But we love the language and one likes to make it one's own and also make it do what one wants it to do.

Didn't you have a fascination for revolutionary Marxism? As a child did you even shout Marxist slogans, Inqilab Zindabad? You also write with much insight of the Communists.

"As I said earlier I lived on the edge of my community. It is odd that you should say this now because the Communists in Kerala are very angry with me. Why, I really don't know. One thing I do know is that they are angry with my analysis of comrade Pillai. I am told that I am a critic of Communism," she says.

"You write with such feeling of Velutha the low caste man. Did you actually know such a person in real life?

Her face turns thoughtful and intense. "Yes I had someone like him who was my closest friend and I loved him."

You are today famous as an author, what sort of readership do you dream of having? "In India, so far there has been much suspicion about my book among the readers."

But she said with a grin, "They are between the ages of sixty five and eighty five. It is, I think, a good thing when the readership debates fiercely about my writing.

"But the peculiar thing is when the book does well in the West they say I write for the Western people. If the West condemns, then the Indian readership tends to just ignore the whole thing.

"I like to feel the sentiments expressed about the book by the Indian and Pakistani readership whether it be viewed with affection or hostility, it is still true of my world," she adds.

And is she planning another book?

"No, my mind is blank of ideas just now. I am travelling quite a lot to promote my book," she concluded.

(Arundhati Roy's Booker prize winning novel 'The God of Small Things' is available at Lake House Bookshop.)

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