THE literary world of London is American enough to have hired one of those endless limousines to carry the Booker winner to the party at a Soho club. Not surprisingly that American stretch superlative, packed with champagne, had trouble rounding a bend towards the entrance of Guildhall where Arundhati Roy had just been awarded the prize. A car was in the way—Salman Rushdie's. It took some frantic hollering from David Godwin, Roy's agent, to alert Rushdie that he was blocking the path. And in a divine symbolism conjured up by some small god, the master of magic realism pulled out of the way to make way for the new star.
The Booker had begun to look more and more hers with every passing day to the Day. Literary London was convinced that the petite, flamboyant Roy had what it takes: a first-rate book, an exotic background, great personal style. Helping her along was what some considered weak competition. Alan Ross, legendary editor of the London literary magazine, said: "It's the thinnest list in years," but admitted to admiring Roy's book. Yet she never became a favourite with the bookies. In fact, as October 14 neared, and the chorus for her began to grow, some began to feel that the stage was set for the jury to axe her, and assert its self-respect by declaring itself above public opinion. Ian Jack, editor of Granta , said: "She deserves to win it, but she won't."
Thanks to media attention, the Booker has become something of a paperback Nobel among writers from the Commonwealth. It won her only 21,000 pounds, a trifling amount for someone who's raked in more than a million dollars in advances for her debut novel. But the Booker is not about money, it is that sought-after crown in the fantasy of fiction writers. She walked right into the fantasy and stole it publicly. "Gosh, I don't know what to say..." she began after walking up to the stage in Guildhall. This was essential Arundhati, that confidence to stand up and be vulnerable. Moments earlier when all eyes would be on the favourite, she wasn't there. She had gone to the loo, and had to be summoned frantically up two flights of stairs as the names were to be announced. She walked in just as the announcement was being made. Like everything else about her book, The God of Small Things , the timing was spot on, almost scripted.
Even so Roy's success with her book has been so astounding, that had she wanted to script the trajectory of her own literary career, she would not have dared dream up such a fairy tale. Roy finished writing her book in May last year, handed it over to an agent in June, by September it was fetching bids of hundreds of thousands of dollars in literary salons across the world, by December she was a media star for millions who were glutting on stories on her looks, her bohemian past, her talent
Launched on April 4 in Delhi this year, and subsequently in the UK, the US, and several European countries, the debut novel has gone on to rave reviews and literary lists everywhere. Amazingly for a literary novel that makes few concessions to popular taste, it has sold nearly 400,000 hardback copies globally. Even in India where literary novels barely sell 2,000 copies, The God of Small Things has already logged up more than 30,000. The latest addition in the whirl of magical numbers that surround her was the $1.2 million that Random earned in the US for the sale of her book's paperback rights. And all this before she won the Booker.
But the numbers are only one, titillatory part of the story. As impressive has been the literary acclaim, well almost. The formal Booker tribute read out by jury chairperson Gillian Beer, professor of English at Cambridge, at the Guildhall banquet, read: "With extraordinary linguistic inventiveness Arundhati Roy funnels the history of South India through the eyes of seven-year-old twins. The story she tells is fundamental as well as local: it is about love and death, about lies and laws. Her narrative crackles with riddles and yet tells its tale quite clearly. We are all engrossed by this moving novel." More than this, Roy fondly recalled a remark Beer made later. The novel, Beer said, "keeps all the promises it makes".
Soon after the presentation within, Roy strolled into the press room to call her mother in Kerala. "Mary Roy," she said to her well-known activist mother, whose house she left at 17 to make her own way in the world, "I called to tell you I've just won the Booker prize." Among the scores congratulating her, Rush-die seemed to be eminently missing. One witness said he had been grouchy grim through the evening. There are whispers that Rushdie has been generally a little unenthused about Roy bagging a starring role in the Literary Indian act.
But others were touchingly gracious. Jim Crace, the shortlisted novelist who lost out, travelled with Roy's entourage to Soho in that eternal silver limo, and said through his own dejection, "I'll say so much that I was clear that if it wasn't going to be me, it is you I wanted to see win." In the teeming Soho House on Greek Street where the revels were taking place, former winner Ben Okri could be seen being even more effusive.
With characteristic panache, Roy had set the cat among the pigeons at the award ceremony itself, guaranteeing many more openings for the media. In elliptical fashion she'd suggested that her first book could well be her last. "I will write another book if I have another book to write, not because I am a writer or because I won a prize," she told the press. The Daily Telegraph took up the gauntlet, and declared promptly the next day that "Miss Roy may prove to be a one-hit wonder." But then it doesn't take a telescope to see that she clearly has a hard act to follow.
Only, this one has to get over first. The publishing world is not done with her first novel yet. The novel is being translated into 27 languages. In the last six months, Roy has visited nearly 70 cities across the world to promote the book. The paperback is still due, as sales move towards the half million mark. Check out the numbers: 115,000 in the US, and about 70,000 each in Britain, Norway and Germany. And the film rights still to be sold.
The God of Small Things would have won the Booker if success alone was the measure. As it is critics have been talking of rescuing the Booker itself. Stephen Moss wrote in The Guardian that the prize has become "too establishment, too litcrit." Why are popular writers such as Iain Banks so under-represented, he asked. This year, he said, "has not even been interestingly disastrous; it has been profoundly depressing. " He has suggested that publishers of all short-listed titles should have their books paperbacked instantly at affordable prices. "Let readers—not academics, or critics, or literary editors—decide which they like and what they hope will win."
Several critics seemed agreed that the book was more than a little overwritten. The novel aims at a kind of tragi-comedy,
The Guardian wrote. "Unfortunately her lush style and tendency to overwrite do not enable her to achieve her undoubtedly ambitious plan," Moss wrote. Comparisons to V.S. Naipaul and Rushdie, he said, are "the fantasies of publicists". Novelist A.S. Byatt said the book was derivative of Rushdie and was "overwritten".
But who can argue with numbers? Her novel has sold more than Booker prize-winning books do after winning the award. The fastest selling Booker prize winner was Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha which won the prize in 1993. It sold 27,000 copies of hardback within half-an-hour of bookshops opening the day after the announcement. Judging the Booker winner is hard work. In all 88 titles were submitted for the 1997 Booker, with an additional 18 books called in by the judges. The rules were changed this year to limit entries. Ten women have won the Booker prize, and 19 men. What was impressive about Roy's victory was that it was unanimous, for in recent years spats between judges have plagued the prize.
The jury on Roy and the Booker has also given one more resounding verdict on Indians writing in English. If you were in charming Cheltenham for their annual literary festival recently you could have been forgiven for thinking you'd run into an Indian literary soiree. In fact Roy's success was the ultimate topping on an Indian-writing feast that has been on in England for several years, kickstarted by Rushdie and Midnight's Children , but picking up turbo momentum now. At Cheltenham, more than half-a-dozen writers were on display—novelists Mukul Kesavan, Githa Hariharan, AmitChaudhuri, Ardashir Vakil and Sara Banerji; playwright Manjula Padmanabhan; non-fiction writers Sunil Khilnani and Urvashi Butalia; and Indophiles Patrick French and William Dalrymple.
But here too it was Roy's reading at the Town Hall, on the very eve of the award announcement, that was a big sellout. That gave an indication of how British publishing and readership is increasingly beginning to look at outsiders like Indians to inject energy into the English novel. The audience was almost totally White, middle-aged to old, and rapt in its admiration. Later, the signing queues stretched long. Somewhere in its shape could be divined the future of Indian writing. A glamorous princess at its head, and then a slightly straggling, wavy, slim, but solid contour.