21st December 1997

The Wise Roy of Indian Writing

By Rajpal Abeynayake

Interviewing Arundathi Roy in the middle of her book-signing is like trying to eat popcorn during an avalanche. There were three deep queues upto thirty feet long, with people of all sorts trying to get a peek at this year’s Booker prizewinner — (for the book “God of small things’’). She’s petite, chauvinists would say a “small thing’’, a goddess, perhaps....

Q: Apparently Salman Rushdie made some condescending comments about your book. He had said that “God of small things’’ portrays India as an ordinary place, and that India was never an ordinary place. (or something to that effect.) Any comment?

A: I think what he said was that the difference between him and me is that I think India is an ordinary place, while he thinks it is a place with “no middle register”, and “a lot of colour” and things like that. I think these are two different ways of looking at something.

Q:To me it seems that he almost said “it is not proper to make India look ordinary.” Is that what he said?

A: Well, he might have meant that. Ordinary is a relative thing, no? Ordinary for me is what I’m used to, and I’m used to India, right? My ordinary life. So obviously it is a way of looking at something. I’m pleased he said that. I think he’s quite right. It is ordinary for me. India is an ordinary place, because that’s my reality. I don’t take offence at that at all,

Q:How did you come to write this book anyway. You thought “I want to write a book” and wrote it, or you had a story you really had to tell, and told it — or what was it?

A: I don’t know. It's one thing that I had a story to tell and I started writing and it became a book. It isn’t a coincidence, I mean it's always something I knew I would do.

Q: It has been said in some papers that you did all this in one draft, but eventually restructured to interconnect episodes in terms of time....

A: No, that’s a kind of crass sort of simplification by the media. Not that I wrote it in one draft. I mean it took me four and a half years to write, but, it isn’t that I had a story and was thinking of a way of telling it. I just wrote it very carefully.

Q: I’ve read at least two reviews which said the book is replete with similes. Well, you do use the word “like’’like a thousands of times. Is it because you like it like that.

A: I mean...it’s just...I wasn’t aware of it actually. (laughs)

Q:That’s just the way you write?

A:Yeah, you are right. Not only that. It's just the way I think. It's like you see a flower there, and see something in it or not. I see something in it, a shape or something . It's also I think a kind of generosity; like trying to conjure something for somebody.

Q:Unkind critics have said it's a little overwritten when you use similes like that. ( A writer called Binoo John said that in India Today for example.. )

A: I don’t think it's possible for the entire world, especially for critics to agree about a book. There would obviously be people who have opinions.

Q: Okay, but it's not that I’m talking about what the critics say and it's implications, but do you want to venture an opinion about the substance of what they say

A: I don’t think a writer once she has written a book, has any defence. If somebody thinks some book is a horribly written book, that’s what they think. If somebody thinks the opposite, then that’s what they think. Everybody is free to make what they want of the book, and I don’t wish to defend it..... it's... it's... it's such a subjective thing. (laughs)

Q:You have said that this will probably be your only book

A: I said that I have no idea of what I’ll do,. I don’t believe that I should write another book just because I’ve written one before.

Q :This may be banal, but with the flavour of personal experience that has gone into it, would you say that it's your “life’s all’’, sort of. A first novel is always, they say a person’s life’s synthesis

A: I don’t know. I’m not planning another book now, so I have no idea.....

Q: No, I mean how about this present book? In a manner of speaking, did you put your “life’s synthesis’’ into it?

A: It is my way of looking at the world. it's my way of looking at it.....

Q:Who is your favourite author, maybe other than yourself.

A: Oh, I’m not my favourite writer ( laughs) I’m not that vain!

Q: I didn’t mean that seriously!

A: My favourite writers are Joyce and Nabakov.

Q: For what reasons

A: I don’t want to get into that now (laughs) I’m not a person who has this reason thing. I don’t think I quite subscribe to that......

Q: How about this whole Booker thing. Do you like the fact that you won the Booker, or is it just one of those things.

A: Well, I think people make too much of it. I think it's nice, I enjoyed winning it. But essentially I don’t think prizes are for writers, I think they are for readers or somebody to say, oh, maybe “this is this” or whatever. To win a prize is not the reason to write. I think it's ( the prize is ) only as important as you want it to be.

Q: The Booker is also one of the most critisised literary awards. It is certainly the most criticised literary award, from judges to political correctness and all.

A: It happens every year. Every year you don’t read the papers, but it happens. It's actually because there are five judges and it's their opinion. Now, how is it possible for a whole nation to agree about one book?. It's not possible . So why the anger about it and all that? It's just five people’s opinion.

Q: You have a very flamboyant style, personally almost reminds me of Carl Muller. (Have you read Carl Muller by any chance, who was published by Penguin India.? ) Would you call your writing flamboyant.

A: I haven’t read him. I really don’t want to get into what I would call it myself, so I think it's upto everyone to call me what they want, and I’m not going to start calling myself anything ( laughs)

Q: How did your community react to this. Obviously there were some people who didn’t like what you wrote about the community.

A: There are always some people who love it, but there are people who have filed criminal cases against me.

Q: On what grounds.

A: Corrupting public morality.

Q:There is nothing amoral in this book?

A: You may think that, but someone else may not. So it's all very subjective, you know, how some things are written. Part of the Marxist party is very angry with me.

Q: Why.

A: Because they think I have not portrayed Marxism in a proper light.. But India’s has been the most positively warm response as well. So it's all fractured. In India you will never have one single reaction to anything. Anywhere, not only in India, but anywhere in the world....

Q:But are you happy with controversy?

A: Well, it's tiresome, I think it's too......( pause)

Q:You don’t like it?

A: I’d rather do without it.

Q: Are you saying you’d rather have anonymity than have these controversies on you?

A: I mean I prefer it to dying of neglect. (laughs) But it's all kind of tiresome because a lot of those controversies have nothing to do with the book. A lot of it has got to do with climate. A lot of people get angry over the book, upset when it wins the Booker, but it's the same book and nothing has changed about it.

Q: Anyway, irrespective of the controversy, you don’t seem to care that much You don’t seem to get passionate about the book.

A: I can’t afford to. I’ve seen this book through country after country after country — so you get a sort of overview. Someone may love it but someone may hate it for exactly that reason. So you learn to be cool

Q: Have you ever lost your cool

A: (laughs)

Q: Just one more thing. One thing I personally found, sometimes in the book, was that you use words in some places which are not very commonly used. Is it by design?

A: For example.

Q: Say the way you describe a garden of anthuriums for instance, is almost technical.

A: Well, no, in the case of the anthuriums, I think it's just a matter of being precise

Q: So you don’t think you are running a risk as well, in moments you write like that.

A: I’m running lots of risks. The whole book is a big risk you know.

Q: Why do you say that.

A: Yeah, I run risks which is why there are various opinions about it.

Q: In that context, what do you personally think is most important to a writer — is it what you have got to say, or the language, meaning how you say it. There is always this debate among academics whether language is most important or the story is.....

A: That’s like looking at a face and saying “is the eyes most important, the teeth or the mouth’’. In a novel it's the language, structure character and everything. I can’t say one is more important.

Q: But if it's a bad story, maybe you can even make it a good one with language.

A: I think it's all one thing, language story and all of it.

Q: But of course, talking of faces, if someone has a nice face, but a bad nose, then it's a different story. In the same way, if you have a nice story but don’t have the correct language, or vice versa, you think that makes a difference?

A: I think it's all important, unless you are writing some kind of commercial fiction where you are writing a thriller or something and you use standard devices. I think that’s a different thing altogether.

Q: How do you like being a celebrity?

A: I’m waiting for it to end!

Go to Hulftsdorp Hill by Mudliyar

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to Rajpal's Column Archive