Happy Birthday, Arundhati Roy! Our author looks at and recommends some of her best works that make for great starting points for her body of literature.
Arundhati Roy is among India’s best-known contemporary writers in English, who also often makes the news for her radical views and political activism. An architecture student, Roy came to the literary limelight by winning the Booker Prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things. Between her two major works of fiction, she has also published numerous essays and non-fiction works and written two screenplays which have garnered National Film Awards. Roy has frequently stirred up controversy not only with her political views but also with her fiction, battling everything from sedition charges to charges of obscenity.
In this article, we explore Arundhati Roy’s literary output through her three major works. Two of them are her novels, published twenty years apart, and the other book is a representative of her non-fictional writings. Each of these books has dealt with sensitive, hotly-debated issues plaguing the Indian nation and has been the subject of much controversy in their unique ways. Hopefully, through an introduction to these books, the reader will be spurred to check out other works from the seditious heart of Arundhati Roy.
Arundhati Roy’s debut novel and winner of the coveted Booker Prize for Fiction, The God of Small Things tells the heartbreaking story of three generations of the Syrian Christian Ipe family in Kerala. The plot largely revolves around the fate of the twins Esthappen (aka Estha) and Rahel, as well as their family members, navigating their lives surrounding growing societal complications related to caste, class, and religion. Their mother, Ammu Ipe, and her brother, Chacko, are both desperate to leave their dead-end village Ayemenem in Kerala. But when Ammu leaves for Calcutta at the age of 17, marrying a tea factory manager, her husband turns out to be an alcoholic wife-beater.
Ammu is eventually forced to return to her village as a disgraced single mother with the twin children she bore. One day, when the family attends a screening of The Sound of Music, Estha is sexually molested in the lobby by a snack vendor referred to as the “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man”. The traumatized Estha tells no one about the incident but is soon overcome by fears of the molester returning and plans to escape with his sister Rahel on a boat along the nearby Meenachal River. They are joined by Chacko’s daughter, Sophie, eager for an adventure, but when the boat hits a log on the turbulent river and capsizes, Sophie drowns.
The family tries blaming it all on Velutha, a Dalit man who was also having a secret affair with Ammu, with the twins coerced by their great aunt Baby Kochamma to lie to the police. Estha, at some point in his life, goes mute, wracked by the traumatic nature of events. The God of Small Things stands out for its disjointed non-linear narrative, telling its story through flashbacks, memories and dream sequences that reveal the workings of the characters’ inner lives. The title refers to how people’s lives are often fundamentally altered by the workings of chance through seemingly small events that go on to have massive repercussions.
Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award in English, The Algebra of Infinite Justice is an assortment of Roy’s essays covering a wide range of issues: from communal violence in Gujarat to the global war on terror following 9/11, the Sardar Sarovar Dam project in Narmada Valley to the threat of nuclear holocaust, and more. Following a foreword from art critic John Berger, the collection opens the provocatively-titled essay, ‘The End of Imagination’, written after India’s landmark Pokhran nuclear tests in 1992. Recalling Adorno’s (in)famous call for “no poetry after Auschwitz”, Roy discusses the dire implications of living in a post-nuclear world, arguing flaws immanent to the logic of political entities which justify nuclear armament.
If Roy focuses on India it is only because, as she describes, the country represents for her a “microcosm of world politics… versions of what happens here happen everywhere”. That her concerns extend well beyond her nation is testified by the eponymous essay, also published as a standalone article, where Roy discusses the 9/11 attacks and America’s “Operation Infinite Justice”, to be understood as the culminating backlash for the decades of military violence that the USA has been exporting to other so-called third world countries. Referring to the seemingly global indifference towards the American plight following the attacks, she writes, “It isn’t indifference. It’s just augury. An absence of surprise. The tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around eventually comes around”.
Arundhati Roy’s intense prosaic style, switching between sentimental and polemical, makes the book a fascinating read. In the essay “War is Peace”, she discusses how media propaganda pushes us towards a false dichotomy of choosing between sympathizing either with the US or the Taliban. Her point is that both poles represent fundamentalist positions and must be rejected, the real beauty of the world is to be found somewhere in the middle. “War Talk”, the final entry in the collection, discusses the covertly racist Western denunciation of the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan. Roy focuses on this hypocrisy even as she underscores the unspeakable horror of nuclear weaponry anywhere in the world, concluding her book with the powerful question: “Why do we tolerate them? Why do we tolerate these men who use nuclear weapons to blackmail the entire human race?”
A full 20 years after her debut novel, Arundhati Roy published The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in 2017, a tapestry of stories built around the most sensational episodes of violence in recent Indian history. Anjum, a transwoman (hijra), lives in a graveyard behind a government hospital, where her only companion initially is a blind old Imam who joins her as she reads the newspapers. We learn that Anjum was born intersex but gendered as a boy by her mother, Jahanara Begum, who named the kid Aftab. Growing up, Aftab turns out to have a great singing voice, which results in him getting teased by the other kids as being “too feminine” and his father, Mulaqat Ali, tries to force a gender-change surgery when he discovers that Aftab is intersex.
But Aftab is way more interested in women than the stories of masculine ethos peddled by his dad, and one day, transfixed by a beautiful saree, he follows a hijra across the streets of Delhi to the Khwabgah, a home for intersex people. It is there at the Khwabgah that, after moving in at the age of 15, Aftab becomes Anjum following a sex change operation. She adopts a baby girl she finds abandoned outside a mosque, calling her Zainab. But when Zainab falls ill and spurs Anjum to go on a pilgrimage to Gujarat, she finds herself caught amid the 2002 Gujarat riots. The spectacle of violence fundamentally transforms Anjum, hardening her outlook, herself only being spared because killing hijras was considered inauspicious.
Aside from Anjum’s tale, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is littered with several other characters representing a wide range of other communities and their singular issues threatening the (supposed) unity of the Indian nation. There’s the unemployed young Dalit named Saddam Hussein, out to exact revenge on the police officer responsible for his father’s death. There’s Biplab Dasgupta, a government bureaucrat who discovers that his tenant, Tilo, whom he secretly loves, has suddenly gone missing. With great care and utmost patience, Arundhati Roy painstakingly weaves these scattershot stories into a singular fabric whose locus is the contemporary Indian state in all its glory and fragility.
Why We Should Read Arundhati Roy
Whether fiction or not, Arundhati Roy’s writings are always laced with the same polemical approach to everyday injustices that most other authors take for granted. She strikes a careful balance between sensitive sympathy for her subjects and simmering anger directed at the oppressors and the flawed socio-political system perpetuating the horrors she chronicles. It is not just for political reasons that Roy makes for an interesting literary voice but also for the formal qualities of her prose. As evidenced by her two novels, she eschews conventional linear narratives and instead tells her stories in a fashion closer to subjective and necessarily fragmented experiences of history and cultural memory. Readers who love her major works would do well to also check out her other books like Walking with the Comrades (2011), The Doctor and the Saint (2017), and My Seditious Heart (2019).