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"I Had Two Options—Writing Or Madness"

In her most exhaustive interview to date, Arundhati Roy goes to the heart of her novel

"I Had Two Options—Writing Or Madness"
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Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things, which is being launched this week, looks set to be one of the most important works of fiction in English to come out from India in a long time. Yet, the hype the novel has received turns attention away from the many serious issues it addresses. Here, putting aside all talk of publicity, the writer talks to Urvashi Butalia about the issues close to her: how and why she wrote the book, the role of auto -biography in fiction, what it means to be at the receiving end of public attention... and many others.

Let me start with two questions: One, how long did it take you to write this book—has it lived with you for a long time? And two, when you read this book, you see how close the author is to it. How deep your involvement is. Every word and feeling seems to have been wrenched out of you. This leads to the obvious question—where does it come from? How much of it is autobiographical?

I'll answer the second question first. I've just come back from Kerala, where my brother and my mother read the book for the first time. My brother, Lalith, is in many ways the most privileged reader of the book because we shared a childhood, blew spit bubbles together, misunderstood the adult world together—and have now, grown into completely different lives—we're completely different. He's the vice-president of a company that freeze-dries and exports shrimp—I'm deadly allergic to shrimp. When he read it he said something which nobody else could have said—he said the really real (autobiographical) things in the book are not the characters or the incidents, but the feelings, the love, the fear, the terror. Not the events. Not the main narrative. It's the emotional texture that's real. Of course people will inevitably make connections—yes, Estha and Rahel are half Bengali and half Malayali. Yes, my mother was divorced. Yes, I grew up in a pickle factory. Yes, Ayemenem exists. But this forms the external detail—it isn't the bedrock on which the book is built. Not the deep substance of fiction.

Fiction for me, is a way of seeing, a way of presenting the world—my world—to somebody. Addressing it to somebody I regard highly. Somebody I love. People I care for. And it's true that The God of Small Things has affected my deepest relationships. Made them deeper. A lot of the book is about very raw, very private things. It isn't based on research. It's more about human biology than human history. It is located very close to me. I have invested myself in it. I can't write any other way.

But nonetheless, even though you as an author might have written it keeping in mind people you regard highly, your closest friends, and not an amorphous 'market'—that's where it's going to go.

Of course. There's an element of schizophrenia in the act of writing. Because you write from a deeply private place, and when, if you do get published, it becomes so public. In this case, terrifyingly public... but that happens only after the writing is done. It's like having a letter you wrote to someone—a friend or a lover—published. Who was it written for, and who ends up reading it? Different people. The private, writing self is not, does not, cannot take this 'market' thing into account. You don't think about that, if you did, you'd stop writing. And yet, of course you know in your head that people who you've never met are going to read your book. But I don't believe in adjusting my sights—making concessions for that sort of thing. I don't believe in writing that aims to accommodate a 'market'. I think it's important for a writer to trust her reader. A lack of trust creates safe, selfish writing.

I've always believed that amongst good writers there are selfish writers and generous writers. Selfish writers are the ones whose books leave you with only a memory of the genius of the writers themselves, whereas the generous ones leave you with a memory of the world they have evoked for you.

And do you hope that yours will be that?

Yes I do. I don't know if I've succeeded. I'm not trying to say which of the two mine is. That's an assessment for a reader to make, not for me. But yes, that's the kind of book I wanted to write—to create a complete world—carefully, with craft, detail. You know it's not about issues—I've always believed that my politics will emerge in anything that I write, even a fairy tale, so I don't start out with an agenda. It's the reason why I wouldn't speak to the press before my book was out—because it's a story, not a party manifesto. For me a story is the simplest way of presenting a complex world. I can't simplify it any further without damaging it. You've read the book—you tell me—what is it about? Children growing up in a pickle factory? The death of a child as witnessed by her cousins? That makes it sound absurd!

How long did it take you to write it?

Thirty-six years really... but 'practically speaking, in a hopelessly practical world'—four-and-a-half.

Was it a very participatory process, or was it a very lonely activity?

Lonely. Completely and utterly private. Nobody, not even Pradip knew what I was doing. I don't talk about my work while I'm doing it. Talk about it and it goes away. It just stands up and walks away. This book was written sentence by sentence. There was no advance concept. There were no literary theories. I couldn't have imagined it in advance, because the language, the narrative and the structure are melded together, they're one thing. They can't be separated. The book didn't exist in my head before it was written. It isn't as though I had a story and was thinking of ways in which to tell it. It revealed itself to me sentence by sentence—but not sequentially. I've often been asked about the way the book is structured—it's intricately structured. To me it's very much like designing a building—the architecture of it is plain to see—I see the bones of the story. So I didn't write the first chapter first—you don't begin designing a building with its front door... it evolves whole. There was a lot of weaving back and forth—yet, strangely, no re-writing of language, no dithering over adjectives—for me language is like breathing—like learning to draw—it may take years of discipline to be able to draw a clean confident line—but once you've come through that discipline, you draw effortlessly—you don't rub it out and re-design it.

So it was the architecture of the book, the construction of it—taking narrative threads back and forth—that took time. Not the language of it. An idea appears and you weave it in backwards and you weave it in forwards. Each small moment in the book is refracted through the lenses of the past and the future—it's this that makes small ordinary events so precious. So as you get further and further into the book, it becomes more cross-referenced—full of echoes. That's why I don't think it's an easy book to excerpt.

It was only when I was two years into the writing that I realised what an obvious pattern was emerging. I knew there was one, I just didn't know what exactly it was. One morning I woke up and made a series of drawings—graphics—that's when I understood what I was getting at. The fact that the main thread of the narrative takes place over 24 hours—and others are several years deep.

When you read the book you must have noticed that I told you the story in the first chapter—I didn't write the first chapter first—it was important for me to do that. To tell you the story and then to take you with me through it, through a story that you already know. When I watch Kathakali I'm aware of this—it's the most exquisite thing I've ever seen. I think I enjoy it so much because I know exactly what is going to happen—it made me think. You know what I mean—the bit in the Kathakali chapter.

I quote: "The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar to you as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic."

Research?

No research. You can't research these things. How d'you research Vacuum eagles who watch the world by day and fly around their flasks by night? This stuff is in my soul. You know I was in Ayemenem recently, going down the river in a boat, looking into the water at the reflections. I hadn't done that in years, and I thought how incredible it was that until I wrote The God of Small Things I wasn't aware of how much I loved the river—you know the Meenachal...greygreen. Like rippled silk. With fish in it. With the sky and trees in it. And at night the broken yellow moon in it.

It's lived inside me since I was four. You can't research it. It's there. Burned into me. I didn't realise how much I loved it. How much I watched it. How much I watched everything. I don't know whether this is because I had a writerly gene that was activated when I was very young—but I'm aware that from the time I was a very small child, I watched. And worse, I understood. I understood what was happening to my mother, and therefore to me and Lalith. And that understanding, that comprehension, is a horrible thing for a child. When you see something so clearly, when you see the links in the chain, you lose your sense of self- preservation. Because when somebody does or says something terrible to you, you understand why they're doing it. Something snaps open in your soul, and you just watch. The only avenues open to you are writing or madness. And if you're a writer, you squirrel it away. You watch human beings with the same fascination with which you watch ladybirds, or fish, or stars. It's almost like experiencing the world without the protection of a skin. It touches you in terrible—and wonderful—ways.

Yet,despite the horror, there is a deep love for Kerala—a deep love for almost every character—Ammu, Estha Chacko, Velutha, Mammachi, even Baby Kochamma, and what is remarkable is that it is not judgemental.

Well, perhaps that goes back to what I was saying earlier—the understanding things—the seeing of the links in the chain—the stories behind the stories—what makes people do the things they do—once you understand, it's hard to be judgemental.

You've had a complicated relationship with your mother—been something of a rebel—thrown out of home when you were very young. Has the book evened things out between your mother and you?

Things were evened out between us a long time ago. My book is dedicated to her. But it's true. It was a difficult book for her to read—not least because of the constant journeying between memory and fiction. But what I think is most difficult for her is the realisation that her troubles—her grief and anger at the world were transmitted through her to us—however hard she tried to protect us from it.

Also, I think when she first read the book she probably searched it for signs of herself, identified herself with Ammu. But actually, Ammu as a character, were I to be brutally frank, is much more what I might have been, had I been in my mother's situation. She takes all the opposite turns from the ones Mary Roy took. My mother has been very, very responsible. Yes, she's fought battles, challenged the existing order, but she's done that with great responsibility. She's very upright. Morally upright. She's a very respected person. Whereas I'm not. I don't qualify as moral—at least not in the conventional definition of morality. I've been accused of all sorts of things—some true, some not—but then I've never claimed to be a fine human being. I'm quite happy to have a character certificate that says "Does not bear good moral character".

Is this just an image that you have of yourself?

No. It's an image of myself that I receive from people who don't know me. From the press, from people who speculate about me, about my motives, without knowing me. For instance, take all this media attention over the book. It was sold last June. Even my close friends didn't know the details, the sum of money involved. I didn't tell them because I knew the news would get around—the money would loom like the shadow of death over the book. The news broke in September—a journalist called Amit Roy found out and wrote in the Daily Telegraph in England. It wasn't a big secret there because so many publishers had made offers for the book. They all knew who had offered what. The point is that I hadn't spoken to a single journalist about it. I didn't discuss my advance. Nor did my publishers. But for obvious reasons, it became big news. The media got excited about the money. They wrote about it. Everything they wrote was laid at my doorstep—as though I had somehow orchestrated the frenzy. Then suddenly everybody stops in their tracks and says "But is the book worth it?"...

And you know... I mean what's "worth it?" After all what is an advance?—it's only a publisher's (in this case several publishers') estimate of how much a book will sell. If it doesn't sell, it only means that they made an error of judgement—business judge-ment, not literary judgement, because you don't assess the worth of a book by how many copies it sells. Anyway, the end result of all this is that the book gets loaded with all sorts of expectations, and understandably, a huge amount of hostility.

There's all this moral pressure on me to do the right thing, when there isn't a right thing to do! If I talk to the press I'm promoting myself. If I don't, I'm manipulating the media to get even more attention than I already have. It's the classic double bind. And then, on top of it all, I understand that perception. I can see how people could come to that conclusion. I sometimes feel hostile towards myself when I read about myself. I end up feeling vaguely guilty for having written a book. It's all very complicated. The only option I have is to do exactly what I want to do—what I think is right—and leave the rest to The God of Small Things. I really can't go around soliciting everybody's approval over something that isn't in my power to control or moderate. I'm not unduly worried—because I believe in literature. You judge a writer by her writing. My book is my best ambassador. If you're looking for me, you'll find me in there. For better or for worse. I can't duck the glare of literature.

You were talking about the patterns into which media people expect you to fall. You mentioned that there seems to be a fear of a basic kind of freedom within yourself.

I don't know if it's fear. I don't think so. It's more a sort of incomprehension. Often, when I read about myself in the press—I'm almost always described as somebody who flies in the face of convention—somebody with a single-point agenda "I must rebel". I find it—and I'm sure there must be others who agree—mildly puzzling. There must be something about me that gives this impression. I don't know what it is. Perhaps it's because I'm sort of living out a feminist goal. I am a woman who has choices. Who chooses, who decides, and then takes responsibility for the decisions—whatever they are. So maybe they get an impression of somebody who has escaped. Evaded the net. Someone who doesn't suffer enough.

But it hasn't come easily. It didn't just fall into my lap. When I was 18, I chose freedom over the safety of a home, good clothes and Johnson's baby lotion. But I did that when I was 18. I'm 37 now. I'm not a young rebel any more. I'm just reaping the benefits of having been one. I'm as free a woman as any that I know. The fortunate thing was that I didn't need to be married, or oppressed or beaten to decide that I wanted independence at all costs. Perhaps this is because I had an extraordinary mother and an extraordinary uncle. My mother and he don't speak to each other—but he, though he doesn't realise it, is in some ways responsible for my way of seeing. I remember something that happened—I must have been four or five years old—it was my birthday. I was getting a lot of the usual free advice from people— "study hard, come first in class"—my uncle called me to his room and showed me a ghastly bauble. My greedy little heart coveted it immediately. He asked me if I wanted it. Of course I did. He said, "I'll give it to you if you fail". That made a deep impression. Failure suddenly became something interesting. Worth examining. Perhaps even worth striving for. Certainly not something to be scared of. I'll always love him for that bit of wisdom. For giving me the courage to take risks.

When you write something like this, you write with the hope that you will find a publisher—therefore you write to communicate—perhaps there will be people who misunderstand, or read something different into it. How do you think you'll react to criticism?

It's hard to say in advance. And though I know this intellectually, it's hard to accept emotionally that there is bound to be criticism. I'm not expecting universal approbation. I know there is going to be a whole spectrum of reactions. Somehow, I'm strangely calm. Irrationally calm. It has something to do with knowing that I've used all my powers to write this book—my intellect, my judgement, my experience—for what it's worth. I couldn't have done it better. If it isn't good enough, there's nothing I can do about it. It's like someone telling me they don't like my small intestines. Or my gall bladder. It'll hurt—but there isn't much I can do about it.

Now, a standard question. Where do you go from here?

Who knows? As Estha and Rahel would put it: no Plans, no Locusts stand I. I have no idea.

You were talking about the patterns into which media people expect you to fall. You mentioned that there seems to be a fear of a basic kind of freedom within yourself.

I don't know if it's fear. I don't think so. It's more a sort of incomprehension. Often, when I read about myself in the press—I'm almost always described as somebody who flies in the face of convention—somebody with a single-point agenda "I must rebel". I find it—and I'm sure there must be others who agree—mildly puzzling. There must be something about me that gives this impression. I don't know what it is. Perhaps it's because I'm sort of living out a feminist goal. I am a woman who has choices. Who chooses, who decides, and then takes responsibility for the decisions—whatever they are. So maybe they get an impression of somebody who has escaped. Evaded the net. Someone who doesn't suffer enough.

But it hasn't come easily. It didn't just fall into my lap. When I was 18, I chose freedom over the safety of a home, good clothes and Johnson's baby lotion.

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