Arundhati Roy: With love, from Kerala - by Ayesha Javed Akram Back   Home  
For all her worldly wisdom and courage, there is a human vulnerability to Roy. It’s there in her eyes, those big hazel almond shaped eyes that seem to peer straight into you. It’s there in the particular angle at which she holds her swan-like neck. And it’s there in the lilt of her voice. It is almost as if fighting all those battles has made her more prone to being wounded. As if trying to understand the pain of others has made her more prone to pain herself.

She’s Suzanna Arundhati Roy and she’s small, which is why we can’t quite see her sitting on the stage from our place on the floor. At 5 feet 2 inches, she is the literary world’s most ferocious lioness. But she is not satisfied with this. Forget satisfied, this identity at times seems to bother her. During interviews, at seminars, in the middle of speeches one can almost see her deliberately and defiantly throwing away the celebrity cloak. Shrugging it off as if it was distasteful. Stamping on it as if to annihilate it. And with a grace that is comparable to the anger with which she discards the cloak, she steps into the shoes of Arundhati. The 40 something woman who enjoys listening to Abida Perveen. Who drinks kaali chai without milk and without sugar. And who hates posing for photographs but looks great in each and every one of them.

Faisal Farooqui, our in-house photographer was almost in raptures after his cover shoot with Arundhati.

“I had her sit next to the huge window in her room and since it was mid-day the light was brilliant; I didn’t need to use any reflectors or artificial light. The slanting light seemed to create a halo around her head giving her a rather angelic appearance. In person Arundhati’s short stature takes away from her exotic beauty but seen through the lens, her raw earthliness comes alive, making each picture a classic. I was shocked when she commented that she always felt nervous during such sessions. You surely can’t tell this from the results.”

Those of us who haven’t read The God of Small Things have heard about it or seen the book lying in a bookstore or come across a mention to it in one way or the other. There aren’t many who are unaware of Arundhati’s mind-boggling debut that John Updike, when reviewing the book for the New Yorker, compared to that of Tiger Woods. And though the phenomenal success of the book (a Booker prize and royalties in excess of $ 1 million) has cleanly divided her life into pre-book and post-book days, the former are not more interesting than the latter.

Arundhati grew up in the southwestern state of Kerala. She laughs and often comments;

“Kerala is home to four of the world’s greatest religions - Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Marxism.”

When she comes down to recollecting her childhood, she does so with an almost artificial glee as if trying to camouflage the pain of those early days. About the pain there can be few doubts for there have been definite indications of it in previous talks as well as this one.

It wasn’t just the blend of varied tastes, ideas and cultures blossoming in Kerala that thrilled Roy. The trees, the rivers, the sky, the earth of her childhood home are all sights and smells that she remembers vividly.

“I think the kind of landscape that you grew up in, it lives in you. I don’t think it is true of people who have grown up in cities so much for you may love buildings but you can never love them in the way you love a tree or a river or the colour of the earth,” she once commented.

Her father she never knew, for her parents got divorced when she was very young. Once, when pressed by an interviewee to cough up information about her father, she answered: “I don’t want to discuss my father. I don’t know him at all. I’ve only seen him a couple of times, that’s it.”

Her mother, Mary Roy she describes in a remarkably colourful manner: “She’s like someone who strayed off the set of a Fellini film. But it’s such a wonderful thing to have seen a woman who never needed a man and to know that this is a possibility. That one does not have to suffer because of such a lack. We used to get a lot of hate mail because people didn’t know how to deal with my mother. She was a woman who was unconventional by their standards and according to them the least she could have done was to be unhappy. But she is anything but unhappy and this bothers people.”

Mary Roy was something of a talked-about figure in Kerala herself, much before she became the talked- about mother of Arundhati. She married a Bengali Hindu and, what’s worse, then divorced him, which meant that everyone was confirmed in their opinion that it was such a terrible thing to do in the first place. She also became famous or infamous depending on how you look at it because in 1986 she won a public interest litigation case challenging the Syrian Christian inheritance law that said a woman can only inherit one-fourth of her father’s property or 5,000 rupees, whichever is less. The Supreme Court actually handed down a verdict that gave women equal inheritance retroactive to 1956. But few women take advantage of this right.

There were many lessons that Arundhati learnt from her mother, both at home and in school.

“I was one of my mother’s first guinea pigs. She had recently opened up a school (Corpus Christi) in those days and I was one of the few who dared to study there - not that I was given a choice in this matter.” Now of course the school has become phenomenally successful and people book their children in it before they are born - an indication of how the Kerala mind-set has changed over the last four decades.

And the lessons at home? Arundhati laughs and starts ticking them off on her fingers. “Let’s see, she was insistent that I should never get married for in her opinion there was no need for this. The daily mantra in our house ran something like this - be independent, never trust a man, never fall in love and remember that the only one you owe allegiance to at all times is yourself. Independence was our religion.

“Ever since our early teens, my brother and I were told that our mother would not support us after the age of eighteen and thus it was that at seventeen I left home for university with plans of never coming back and I never did.”

Her mother’s sermon obviously left deep impressions on her for in an interview given more than two decades after these preaching sessions, Arundhati found her self admitting to the discomfort she experienced on seeing a bride.

“For me, when I see a bride, it gives me a rash. I find them ghoulish, almost. I find it so frightening to see this totally decorated, bejeweled creature who, as I wrote in The God of Small Things, is ‘polishing firewood’.”

Though Arundhati has become artful in fielding questions about her father and avoids bringing him up in conversations, it is obvious that the family suffered because of the lack of a male presence in their midst. In Kerala, everyone has what is called a tharawaad [lineage] and if you don’t have a father, you don’t have a tharawaad.

As Arundhati once put it, “You’re a person without an address”.

Though she thanks God that she had none of the conditioning of a middle class Indian girl, it is not hard to read between the lines and understand that it wasn’t easy to be different. Whilst on the one hand she was lucky that she did not have a father to braid her, on the other hand she was unlucky in not having a father to look after her.

But given the absence of a father and her mother’s anti-men stance, it is testimony to Arundhati’s generosity of spirit that the minute she walked out of her house she stepped into the arms of a man. And learnt to love him with abandon. And this was despite the fact that for the first seventeen years of her life, she had lived with a woman who hated men.

It was in University that she met her first love. Gerard Da Cunha, now a celebrated architect in India, was at that time Arundhati’s senior in University. Both of them were young, enthusiastic and completely misdirected. They were studying for a degree in architecture, not knowing why they had selected this particular discipline. In Arundhati’s case, the decision had emerged simply out of a necessity to leave home. In Gerard’s case the decision had obviously arisen out of some innate interest in the field since he did eventually go on to practice the profession.

Despite her mother’s teachings to the contrary, Roy decided to go ahead and give marriage with Gerard a try.

“It was purely about getting married for convenience. See, the squatter’s colony that Gerard and I were planning to live in was actually home to many refugee families from Pakistan and so the very thought of a man and a woman living together with out marriage was unheard off there. Simply to avoid hassle, we decided to go ahead and tie the knot. So off we trudged to the registrar’s office and stood in line for a full three hours before we chickened out. This wasn’t for us, we decided and rushed back. After that day we were never really sure what our status in society was. Semi-married, we used to call ourselves.”

The squatter’s colony still exists in Delhi’s Ferozshah Kotla and the house that Arundhati occupied was one of the many tin roofed structures that still line the colony.

Though piles of unpaid bills did force Gerard into a job at DDA and Arundhati into trying their hand at building plans, she was obviously not made for this.

“Can you see me going to DDA offices to get my plans cleared,” she once asked.

Obviously not and that’s why Goa happened.

“We weren’t enjoying working as architects and so decided to be flower children. Off we traveled to Goa and began making money by selling cakes on the beach. It was fun for a while but then the touristy atmosphere of the place started to get to me and I decided to call it quits.

“I still remember how my parting from Gerard and Goa took place. We were sitting on the beach one evening and I just realized that it was over. I turned towards Gerard and he could see in my eyes what I was about to say. I told him that I knew he would become an architect one day and I also knew that I was destined to be a writer. We had spent a lovely time together but that had to end now because our destinies were different.”

In retrospect, Arundhati finds it more difficult to explain why she ended a relationship with Gerard.

“We were very happy together but I guess at that point I just wanted more. I needed to be on my own, to explore the world on my own pace, to see, to feel, to hear - in short, to grow. Being with Gerard was holding me back. I wanted to be one on one with the world.”

When asked to describe him, Arundhati gives an impish grin and states: “He was a big sweetie.”

She returned to Delhi to land a job at the National Institute of Urban Affairs. To get to work each day, she would rent a bicycle from Nizamuddin for Rs. 2 daily, much to the amusement of the lepers who would observe her going off to work and then wait for her in the evenings, confident that she was going to crash one of these days.

“But I didn’t and these bicycle rides actually led to the entry of Pradip Krishen into my life.”

It is to Pradip that she dedicates The God of Small Things with the following acknowledgement: “Pradip Krishin, my most exacting critic, my closest friend, my love, without you, this book wouldn’t have been this book”.

The role that Pradip offered her was that of the tribal bimbo in Massey Saab. Initially, Arundhati wasn’t sure if she wanted to give acting a shot but a tea session with an Italian friend of hers convinced her.

“He kept suggesting that it might just turn out to be an enriching experience and that I wasn’t really loosing out on much by saying yes. Thus, I went ahead with it and Massey Saab became my first and last acting assignment.”

Pradep and Arundhati were just getting to know each other when she got a scholarship to go to Italy and study the restoration of monuments there for eight months. By the time she got back to Delhi, she knew for a fact that her calling lay in writing. Since Pradip was her only real contact in the world of media, she started by writing for television. Their first project together, a 26 episode television epic called “The Banyan Tree”, never materialized because the financiers lost interest in the project midway.

“My first major heartbreak,” is how she refers to this project.

The second Pradip-Roy collaboration, the film In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones did however become a reality and ran on Doordarshan. Roy then scripted Electric Moon for Channel four and it was this film that led to her first published article. The piece about the making of Electric Moon was published in Sunday magazine and from here on her writing career began to materialize.

However, Roy begs to disagree. “Who says that one becomes a writer only when one puts pen to paper. I feel that is just the final act, the curtain call, the last step. The major work happens before, when you are living, sensing and experiencing - in short, living for it is then that stories and ideas enter your mind. Putting them to paper is the least important of the tasks.

I feel I was always a writer. When my brother read The God of Small Things he was shocked to see that I remembered all the details, the smells, the colours, the flies. This just shows that I was a writer even at that age and was constantly imbibing information, storing it for further use.”

But how did the book begin to be written?

“I don’t know. It just did. I bought a computer, began fiddling with it and the story started pouring out. And so it went on for five years and at the end the book was ready.

“When people ask me when the next book will happen, I am at a loss to answer. I don’t even know how the first one happened, so how would I know about the second one. I don’t think one can plan to write a story. The story chooses you as an instrument and you end up having to tell the story. Until the next story chooses me, the next book will not happen.”

But while Roy was setting out into uncharted professional territory, she had also decided to enter uncharted personal territory.

“I’d been living with Pradip for ten years before we decided to get married. Personally, I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. I just feel that the entire ideology of marriage is so artificial because in India for instance, tradition demands that two strangers live together for the rest of their lives for no reason other than to preserve the sanctity of a document. For someone like me, the idea of allowing another person to put limits on you, to force you into a compartment, to mould you, to redefine you, all for the sake of a document is unacceptable. I don’t like limits because they tend to exclude the world. I feel all relationships ought to include the world for that is the only way to grow.”

But if she feels so strongly against marriage, why did she agree to it then?

“For a very funny and unconventional reason. My parents-in-law had a beautiful marriage and they had always made it a point to celebrate their wedding anniversary (which incidentally coincided with New Year’s eve). The year my father-in-law died, my mother-in-law went into grieving and as the end of the year approached I could see the memories of the many past New Year celebrations begin to haunt her. So, to cheer her up I told her that Pradip and I would get married on New Year’s eve and that way she would be able to keep celebrating the day. Thus, it happened.”

And it seems to still be successful?

“Successful,” she repeats, raising an eyebrow at my choice of words. “It’s still around.”

And from the looks of it, Roy is not feeling limited by marriage.

“That’s because the rules are clear.”

Is this the reason that she has not opted for children so far?

“I feel I have mothered far too many children already. When I was three, I was taking care of the two year olds in my mother’s school and this continued till I graduated from her school. Then Pradip had children from a previous marriage and I looked after them also. I don’t believe that one can only love one’s own children for I have deeply cared for all the individuals I have ever mothered. I often laugh and say that I’m living my life backwards for at this point in time I want to be a teenager, only concerned with me and my self. I’ve been a mother many times. I don’t wish to experience it again.”

What now? You’ve experienced love, lust, motherhood, fame, hatred, indifference; what’s left?

“A lecture tour in America for now and then let’s see. Something will come up. Something always does.”
Published in Pakistan weekly TheFridayTimes.