Saturday, 8 March 2008

‘Success devastated my life. It changed all the equations’ Arundhati Roy

It’s 10 years since Arundhati Roy wrote The God of Small Things, won the Booker, and was shot out of a cannon into a mega-space that has few literary equals. Sitting against the fading light of a window in her beautiful wood and stone barsati in New Delhi, in one of her most personal interviews ever, she revisits the journey — its elations and its ambiguities — with SHOMA CHAUDHURY

It’s ten years now. Looking back, what did the Booker do to you?
It’s a little difficult for me to say because the Booker is conflated with so much else. From the moment I finished the manuscript, everything took off at such a trajectory — the Booker was just a part of it. I suppose it formalised it all, in a way. It was simultaneously a release and a burden. On the one hand, there was this artificiality that got me. It was almost as if we were all boy scouts saying, let’s go home with the big prize and show mummy. On the other hand, it became my middle name. Now I don’t think about it much.

But didn’t it open up your world and forge new platforms?
Do you think so? I don’t know how much of that was the Booker, and how much The God of Small Things (GOST). In my mind, they’re very separate. What’s incredible for me is that after 10 years of a very intense political journey, my political instincts are the same as they were in GOST. And that has to do with what the book was grappling with in itself. The Booker is an Anglo-centric prize, it means something in the English-speaking world, but the GOST is in 40 lang– uages. India, of course, has bec– ome such a success-oriented and prize-thirsty culture, in all the ads and in everyone’s dreams everyone’s always winning a prize, and so, it mattered here to the middle class. But I feel vaguely humiliated in having to discuss a prize in more depth than my own book.

Yes, the real magic carpet was the book. So across continents, what did people respond to?
It is remarkable. It was exactly the opposite of what nuclear weapons do. It vaulted over so many cultures. In Estonia, my translator said, “You know, this was my childhood too.” In America, this bank of cool women editors would say with a drawl, “You know, we’ve all got aunts like Baby Kocham– ma.” (mimicking) People tell me they’ve read out passages at their weddings... One of the sweetest things that happened was while I was sitting in Kautilya Marg one day. This little man came up the stairs like some tropical Santa Claus with a lot of presents and said, “Mai Eagle flasks se aya hoon”. And he had all these Eagle products and this brochure with all the parts of GOST where Eagle flask is mentioned! (laughs) I was particularly touched because I remember when I wrote the sentence: “Esthappan and Rahel walked across the airport car park with their Eagle flasks bumping on their hips and the twins knew the eagles watched the world by day and flew around their flasks at night…” — for some reason it delighted me. I waltzed around the room for hours because I was so happy at thinking this thought. I was sure no one would notice it; it would mean nothing to the world, but it made me happy and that was enough. And now, here was this man!

There have been many unusual receptions like that. Even today I get letters that just turn my heart. Someone wrote to me from Croatia talking about the NATO bombing and said, “My hair turned white in this horror and then I read your book and it helped me through the war…” Things like that. Sometimes it’s not GOST, sometimes it’s the political writing. But it’s all something for people to have; it’s not meant for anything else. It’s for people to have and to hold and to read and go to sleep at night, it’s for people to be with themselves. Very often, I get taken aback by people who come and start telling me the most intimate things about their lives. It throws me because I don’t know them. But it’s to do with the writing. They feel they know you. It’s different from being a star; it’s very, very deep. Very, very wonderful. And it’s not about me, but about writing itself and ideas and stories. As a writer, the clay you work with is so intimate...

It spawns a million relationships with itself —
Yes, and till today it fills me with delight because oddly enough, however I might appear to people, I did grow up in a little village like the one in the book, and the fact that that story has such a universal resonance means a lot to me. Some people resonate to the political stuff, the caste politics, the naxalism; others fix on the children’s world; some resonate to all of it. And I love that. But I always used to say, I wish I could’ve been paid back in meals or something because the thing that complicated my life very deeply — far more than the Booker prize — was the commercial success of the book. That made me have to deal with something I never anticipa– ted or sought, and being as political as I am, it was very difficult.

But didn’t it free you too?
Of course, part of the reason I can write and think the way I do is because I don’t really have to earn my keep anymore. Even my political writing has certainly been informed or emerged from that — that sense that I can be a mobile republic. But you have to be very careful about being that free because everybody isn’t, and you have to understand that. I do try and understand that I have a freedom that isn’t available to other people. I see it as a very delicate thing, because it can make you arrogant or stupid or disconnected.

If you see things politically though, you run less of a risk. I think it was very important that GOST came out in ‘97, and in ‘98, there were the nuclear tests and so that whole trajectory coincided with something dark that began here. The two together put me on a path that I didn’t entirely control. You would imagine that if you had written a book that won a big prize and earned a lot of money that you’d be in control of your life, but I’m still very ambiguous about what I’ve done. I can’t settle on it in any way.

Because the flight was so stupendous, was there any point when you lost your bearings or were pulled out of yourself?
I was lucky on several counts. I wasn’t a teenager when it happe - ned. I had been through quite a lot. So I wasn’t willing to blush when everyone was clapping. I was already skeptical and embarrassed and ambiguous about it. I never walked out and embraced it. Sometimes I wish I had —

More frothily enjoyed it —
Yes. (laughing) I was always prickly about it, always looking at it sideways and laterally. No, it devastated my life in many ways which was not nice. I am somebody who doesn’t — I don’t come from the bosom of some stable family, I didn’t have any stability. All I had were relationships I have forged myself, in many of which I was the waif, the most vulnerable person. And suddenly, I was loaded with all of this and it just changes your equation. On top of this came the fact that I never really had a choice of not coming out and saying the things I said politically because the nuclear tests happened. And as I’ve said a million times — to not say something is as political as to say something. But the moment you do that, you are in another universe, you are spinning away. I remember having a dream once — this hand coming and picking me out of the water and holding me up and saying, “You can have anything that you want, what do you want?” And me saying, “Just let me go, I don’t want to be this.” Because you are scared of everything moving around you. Every - thing. Every intimate relationship. Yet because those relation ships were forged in art and politics and so on, they are all wise people. Everybody in my life had to deal with all this, not just me. And I did manage. All my old friends are still my friends. I was shot out of a cannon but I came and landed right back here. It’s not like I wanted to live in LA.

At the same time, a whole new universe of friends and deep relationships have been formed. But it took a lot out of me. It took a lot of balancing. To be suddenly that public and that scrutinized, you have to be that hard on yourself. And the more political you are, the more difficult it is. You have to search inside yourself for your own levels of what is acceptable, not live by other people’s.

Also, there was this other interesting combination of being a writer and — what does a writer do? A writer hones his or her language, makes it as clear and private and individual as possible. And then you are looking around and talking about what’s going on with millions of people, and you are in that crowd saying things that millions of people are saying and it’s not at all individual. How do you hold those two things down? These are very fundamental questions. This is why so many writers are frightened of political engagement. They feel it is a risk, and it is a risk, and yet I would rather do it than not do it.

But sometimes it’s a big struggle. There’s always something happening, and I run the risk of becoming someone more responsible than I ought to. Before I wrote on the Parliament attack, I had literally told myself a hundred times to pull back and work on something else. But as I watched the news and the glee with which people were talking about the rope and how much it weighed, I thought, I know all this is a lie, and they’ll hang him and I’ll never be able to live with it. John Berger once said to me, something is gathering in our world, something dark, but you have to get off the tiger. I have failed to do that. It’s a very big dilemma for me. Very, very big dilemma. I know the urgent intervention is important. So is the other thing. How do you handle it? I am at a loss to know.

Speaking of loss, did you outgrow any key relationships?
No. I am a loyalist. Some of the most profound conversations I’ve had have to do with the fact that if you grow and burst out of the confines of whatever was prepar - ed for you and yet none of those things were superficial, none of those affections were superficial, how do you find a way of holding on to that and yet free yourself? To me, that’s a very fundamental thing, because it’s very easy to just walk away from everything.

But I struggled to find ways. I said, why does it have to be so conventional? Why must we be so consumerist even about our relationships? (laughs) I could’ve gone anywhere — I’m not totally unhedonistic, but I would like to look for it here, I would like to look for happiness — in whatever brief moments that it comes to anybo - dy — I would like it to be here. It’s important to recognise what are the sources of that. Even political - ly when I write, it’s very important to place yourself and to be unco - mfortable and to know that there isn’t anything that’s pristine about anybody. People who act most pristine are the most suspect.

What did GOST mean for you personally? What did you take pleasure in?
You know, when you’re writing fiction, the world is different because you, sort of, come home with sentences like other people come home with shopping. (laughs) The process of writing is the process of sharpening your thought and that’s the only thing that makes me really happy, regardless of what effect it has or what people think about it. And because writing is the same as thinking, everything in your body settles when you write. Eventually it’s about something settling inside yourself. I am a person who’s always slightly fearful of what might happen because, I think, when you have an unsafe childhood you never really settle, no matter how old you get. So for me, there are some things — like the four years when I wrote GOST — nobody can take that away from me, no matter what happens now, nobody can say those four years didn’t happen. Or that that book wasn’t written. So for a long time, I didn’t feel the need to come back home with sentences. But now again I feel that. I feel life has been lived for 10 years at some reckless, breakneck, rockstar speed, in terms of experiences and stimulus and understanding and looking at something till your eyeballs hurt and internalising that politics and living enough to write again.

Is the “lived life” important in writing fiction? Is it important to process the personal?
If we didn’t, it would be tragic. But I am not talking about gratuitous confession. The kind of writing I would respect is not about gratuitous individualisation where each person is special and we all wear baby t-shirts saying, I am special. I think if you can see the world through a person, if you can see that there isn’t anybody who is really not a product of their history and culture and who is not at the focus of so many big guns that are booming — I would respect a writer who can see that, a writer who can scale from the personal to the other stuff. Every book doesn’t have to be about everything. The point is, can you take a risk? When I wrote GOST, I didn’t think it would make sense to anybody, but whether it makes sense to 300 people or 6 million people, it was still the same book.

Did it release you from some of the demons of your childhood?
The first time my brother read it, he said, “What happened to all the monsters? Why are they missing?” So it wasn’t really about my childhood, I haven’t really written about that — maybe sometime one will. The idea wasn’t to be therapeutic. For me, it was more important to see each person has got this trajectory behind — there’s history at work, politics at work, and yet there’s tenderness and it’s totally personal.

There was such a detailed sense of place in GOST. Do you still think of it as home?
There is a very particular sense of place in the book, but it is imbued with dread. I don’t think that can ever change. Someone remarked to me that everyone in the book is somehow homeless, spewed out from somewhere else. That sort of dysfunctionality is very much part of my make-up.

Is there a very different you that’s writing the new novel?
I wonder in the new fiction what will change and what will stay. I don’t want to write GOST again (laughs). But I’m not one of those people who radically change. I function on instinct and those don’t change. I suppose the sense of loss is relocated. It’s not the village I grew up in and was terrori - sed by. That sense of dislocation has been relocated to another place. (laughs) There’s such a polarisation and hardening of things in the world around. There are other languages in my head now. It is not the English-speaking world I move in all that much anymore, even though I do think it’s necessary to engage with it and not lose that feeling of continuing to journey between these worlds.Less and less of us are doing that. But I’m uncomfortable talking about the new book in any specific way.

Last question. About sense of place: is it people who keep you here, or for all your being a “mobile republic”, does something really connect you to India?
By most standards, I probably qualify for being anti-national. I don’t have a nationalistic bone in my body. It’s just not my instinct. Yet it’s incon ceivable for me to not be here, because it’s everything that I love. And it’s not to do with flags or constitutions or any of that. But if I go away for one week and I come back and see some ZEE TV in the immigration lounge and the mouldering ceiling, I just feel so happy. It’s just so many things —even the quality of light, the rag g e dness of things around, the environment, the food, the colour, ever ything — it’s not even external. I’m just a full desi — full-time desi in that way. I just feel, where else can you be? Where else can you interpret the darkness and all its layers? There’s all the coded jokes and the whole sense of history... It’s not like one is looking for a new life in a supermarket.