Arundhati Roy- From The God of Small Things to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Twenty years ago a book took the world by storm, a morally strenuous and imaginatively rich work that not only made a deep impact on its readers but also impressed the critics community. The book is none other than The God of Small Things, the brainchild of literary genius Arundhati Roy. Born to Mary Roy and Rajib Roy in Meghalaya in 1961, Arundhati Roy was a child of single parenthood. Her parents separated when she was two following which she and her mother lived with her maternal uncle in Ooty and later moved to Kerala, her mother’s native when she was five.
Roy was home schooled by her mother till she turned ten and went on to finish her formal education from Corpus Christi, Kottayam and later at Lawrence School, Nilgiris. She graduated from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi where she met her first husband Gerard de Cunha and moved in with him.
Before venturing out on the path to literary stardom, Arundhati Roy dabbled in acting, scriptwriting and running aerobics classes. She essayed the role of a goatherd in Pradip Krishen’s movie Massey Sahib whom she later married. She collaborated with him and released two films, In Which Annie Gives it to Those Ones and Electric Moon, for which she wrote the screenplay. The limelight fell upon her when she won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay for In Which Annie Gives it to Those Ones in 1988.
She began her tryst with novel writing with The God of Small Things in 1992, which she finished in 1996. The novel is semi-autobiographical in nature and captures a major part of her childhood in Aymanam. Ammu, one of the main characters in the novel is modelled around her own mother, Mary Roy, who ran away from an orthodox father and her maternal home to the foreign lands of Bengal where she married the first eligible bachelor she met. Arundhati Roy’s uncle, George Isaac, the inspiration for Chacko (Ammu’s brother), is a real-life Rhodes Scholar. The similarities don’t just end there. The strained relationship that the twins share with their Ammu is a reflection of the complex relationship between Arundhati and her mother. She describes the four years spent in writing the novel as suffocating and prison-like, stating it as the reason why she took a break from further novel writing.
The God of Small Things was an immediate success since its publication and put Roy on the map. Although it was a commercial success since the beginning, no one really expected the book to be translated into 40 different languages and create such an uproar worldwide. Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, making her its first Indian woman and non-expatriate recipient. Her affair with controversies started with this very award with some critics calling her work ‘execrable’ and ‘profoundly depressing’, undeserving of a Booker. The book did hit a few road bumps back home due to its depiction of sexual tendencies and political drama, something that a conformist State like ours wasn’t ready to accept, yet. E K Nayannar, the then Chief Minister of Kerala was unabashed in criticizing the book for its ‘poor portrayal of Communism in Kerala’.
A film review on Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, based on the life of Phoolan Devi by Arundhati Roy in 1994 saw her caught in the eye of a polemic storm. In her review titled The Great Indian Rape Trick, she scorned upon the re-enactment of a rape scene in a movie without a woman’s consent and also charged Kapur with misrepresentation of Devi’s life.
The End of Imagination (1998, which condemned the development of nuclear weapons) saw the birth of an activist with an unrelenting will to stand her ground when it came to her beliefs. This essay was a cry to humanity or whatever that’s left of it to put an end to a nuclear war that was fast approaching. Her long standing conflict with the United States and its policies began here. In this article, she holds the US responsible for paving the way towards an inevitable annihilation of peace by popularising the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.
Her first stint with the law was in 2002 during the protests of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Roy stood against the Supreme Court’s decision in favour of building dams over the Narmada on account of it being detrimental to the residents of the area. She stated that not only would the construction of the dams lead to mass displacement of the inhabitants, it would also fail to provide the projected irrigation and other benefits. During the course of these protests, she and a couple of other activists were falsely accused of attacking a group of men outside the Supreme Court. She filed for dismissal and the Court complied despite taking offence to her language in her petition. As a result she was held in contempt of Court and was penalized with a fine of 2000 rupees and a day’s worth of prison time.
Since then, she has taken up social as well as political causes and has risen to be one of the leading polemicists of our nation. She has openly voiced her opinions on everything under the sun, from faux Gandhians to Prisoners of War, foreign policies to environmental issues, you name it, and she has something to say about it. She has been blatant in criticising her country’s misgivings and has landed herself in quite a soup due to it more often than one can imagine. It still doesn’t prevent her from having an opinion on issues that matter and exercising her rights to voice them.
2003 saw her drop a new bomb on the US foreign policies in Afghanistan. The bombing of Afghanistan was a violation of the so called peace procession that US was on. In her essay titled Instant Mix Imperial Democracy: Buy One Get One Free, she openly calls the US a hypocritical State and George W Bush, the then President, a war criminal. Roy has been the devil’s advocate on numerous such issues which led to widespread dissent among her fellow urban literati.
Every celebrity has a defining controversy in his/her life and Roy’s came in the form of Kashmir, 2010. During a convention on Kashmir, she crossed the line into a territory that most progressives would tread with utmost caution when she publicly asserted that “Kashmir was never an integral part of India”. She was rumoured to have been charged for sedition on this issue.
After the announcement of present Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s candidature in the run for Prime Minister’s Office in 2013, Arundhati Roy had yet another piece of mind that needed giving. She ended up calling his nomination a tragedy and painted him as a war monger.
She’s back making headlines again and this time for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a promise that all we readers have been eager to encash since the masterpiece that was The God of Small Things. After God of Small Things, she did not feel obligated to write another novel. In an attempt to grasp the greater meaning of things she refrained from further fictional projects. Now that she feels that she’s understood “the working of the big wheels”, she sees the need to focus on details, the minute aspects of things that often evade the eye. The twenty years spent on nonfiction, studying our country, our wars (within and without), our struggles and our little moments of joy seem to have paid off. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at first glance a story of everything, from the eyes of everybody because that my dear, is how you tell a shattered story.
Her journey of opinions, truth, rumours, controversies, fiction and nonfiction has been quite a dynamic one. Our country is yet to reach the stage of evolution where difference of opinions can not only exist but also be embraced without the threat of harm to the holder of the said opinion. Until then, this country will see no dearth of left wing thinkers like Roy. And we will learn from them, from Love Laws that decide who should be loved and how much or from Anjum who used to be Aftab, but we will learn about the harsh realities that we’ve let pass past us without a second glance. We will suffer, but we will learn.