In one of 2017’s most-anticipated literary events, Arundhati Roy’s second novel went on sale Tuesday 6 June. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the story of a transgender woman in Old Delhi, is expected to quickly become a bestseller – thanks in no small part to the long-running international success of Roy’s first book, The God of Small Things.
That novel won the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction when it was released in 1997, making an international literary celebrity out of Roy, the first Indian woman to receive the honour.
In the two decades that have passed, The God of Small Things has sold around 8million copies, and still incites a rare fervour in those who count it as one of their favourite reads. But who is Arundhati Roy – and what has she been doing for 20 years?
She was born in India in 1961.
Roy was born Suzanna Arundhati Roy in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya, and spent most of her childhood in Kerala, on the tropical south-west coast. Her father, Rajib, was a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager, while her mother Mary was a Malayali Syrian Christian women’s rights activist and teacher.
When Roy was two, her mother divorced her father – a decision that she has said dramatically affected her childhood. “In Kerala, everyone has a tharawaad [lineage],” she told Progressive magazine in 2007. “If you don’t have a father, you don’t have a tharawaad. You’re a person without an address.”
But she thinks she ultimately benefited by being raised by her “completely nuts” mother. “I thank God that I had none of the conditioning that a normal, middle class Indian girl would have,” she said. “I had no father, no presence of this man telling us that he would look after us and beat us occasionally in exchange.”
She tried out various careers before becoming a writer.
Determined not to get trapped in a miserable marriage, Roy left her home village of Ayemenem (the same village where The God of Small Things is set) at the age of 16 to study architecture in Delhi. Later, she moved into the film and television industry, writing screenplays for two films and a TV series with her second husband, filmmaker Pradip Krishen, and dabbled in teaching aerobics classes.
The God of Small Things took years to write.
Roy began work on her debut novel in 1992, when she was 31 years old. It took her four and a half years to complete the lyrical, semi-autobiographical tale of twins Rahel and Esthappen, who are separated after going through a traumatic childhood in India and reunited in their early thirties.
Roy told the New York Times in 1997 that she “would have been amazed and stunned even if some small Indian publisher agreed” to take on her manuscript, but the book was a commercial success almost at once. Six weeks after she completed her final draft, it had been sold to publishers in 18 countries, earning Roy half a million pounds as an advance.
Her work was controversial from the beginning.
Most major critics in the US and Canada adored The God of Small Things, describing it as “dazzling” and “magical”. (John Updike wrote that it was a “Tiger Woodsian debut – the author hits the long, socio-cosmic ball but is also exquisite in her short game.”) But the reception in the UK was less than rapturous. Carmen Callil, the founder of feminist publisher Virago Press, called the book “execrable”, while a Guardian journalist described its inclusion in the Booker award shortlist “profoundly depressing”.
The book was also heavily criticised by EK Nayanar, then the Marxist leader of Kerala, who took umbrage with its erotic content. The author was forced to return from an American book tour to answer obscenity charges in her home state, although these were later dropped.
She gave all her Booker prize money to charity.
Roy donated the £21,000 she received as a result of winning the Booker prize to Narmada Bachao Andolan, an environmental-social movement that campaigns against dams being built across the Namada River in central India.
The last 20 years have been busy.
Many people expected Roy to continue churning out bestsellers after the success of The God of Small Things. Instead, however, she stepped away from fiction, becoming heavily involved in political activism in India.
Over the course of the next two decades she would write dozens of non-fiction books, articles and essays on subjects including globalisation, imperialism and capitalism. She has campaigned against US foreign policy, Hindu nationalism and India’s development of nuclear weapons, and in favour of indigenous land rights, Maoist rebels, and Kashmir’s independence from India (for which she was charged with sedition).
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Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub in 2011, Roy said that the political mood in India began to swing towards “a right-wing, fundamentalist space” shortly after The God of Small Things was published.
“I was somehow afforded a platform on which I could say things about the nuclear tests and about a lot of things that were happening there, and I started to write about those things, and it absorbed me completely,” she said. “I don’t want to write books just because that’s what the world expects me to do.”
She’s not afraid to criticise political icons.
“I am not such an uninhibited fan of Gandhi,” Roy told the Guardian in 2007. “After all, Gandhi was a superstar. When he went on a hunger strike he was a superstar on a hunger strike. But I don't believe in superstar politics. If people in a slum are on a hunger strike, no one gives a shit.”
She’s technically married, but has lots of lovers.
Roy is still married to her second husband, Pradip Krishen, although they are separated and do not live together. She told Vogue in March 2017 that she has lots of “sweethearts”, who she refers to as “my harem”. (If you’re curious about the identity of the men in her harem, she says they’re all given a nod in the acknowledgements to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.)
Don’t call her the voice of the voiceless.
Although her characters often have uncommon stories, Roy rejects the notion that her writing shines a light on unexplored issues - instead questioning why those issues have remained unexplored in the first place.
“When people say this business of ‘she’s the voice of the voiceless’, it makes me crazy,” she says. “I say, ‘There’s no voiceless, there’s only the deliberately silenced, you know, or the purposely unheard.’”
Images: Rex Features