WITH its "greygreen" veil, the Meenachil river spills straight out of the pages of The God of Small Things. But Aymanam—Arundhati Roy took the liberty to change it to Ayemenem—the somnolent village that comes alive in the book, is a picture of still life. The Booker Prize has left the village folk serenely unmoved.
But in Corpus Christie, the school run by Arundhati's mother Mary Roy where the social elite of Kottayam send their children to pick up a fashionable western liberal education, the atmosphere is electric. The institution has emerged as a post-Booker control room where information about the book and its author disseminates, where an embarrassed press corps is greeted with the query: "Have you read the book?"
Here is where Arundhati spent her crucial early years. It was in this informal and somewhat avant garde setting that she discovered the joy of reading and of going off on freewheeling explorations of the mind. Mary Roy recalls this phase with a sense of vindication: "She joined a formal school only at eleven. I believe you learn much more in the absence of a rigorous syllabus. Arundhati literally educated herself. I kept an eye on her progress, but generally she was on her own. She did not need a textbook with an exam at the end of it. I try to do this for other kids as well."
The Booker Prize has unleashed a torrent of interest centering on Aymanam, and the media has been preoccupied with identifying the novel's characters with real-life counterparts. But in The God of Small Things, art does not mirror life always. Arundhati doesn't have a twin brother, didn't lose her cousin in a boat mishap or grow up in her ancestral home. The book is part fact, part fabrication.
But that has not discouraged speculation about skeletons in the family cupboard. The character Ammu—mother of the twins who is estranged from her Bengali husband and later has an affair with a low-caste Hindu—is apparently modelled on Mary Roy. "I am not Ammu. Arundhati has created a character called Ammu using my biodata as her barebones," Roy explains.
Mary Roy's brother, George Isaac, who figures in the book as Uncle Chacko, is ambiguous on the question: "Mary Roy is Ammu," he contends, but declines to comment on the identity of Velutha, Ammu's paramour, saying: "I would prefer not to answer that question." Isaac thinks the book contains an explosive message—"that an aristocratic Christian woman breaks the rules by having sex with a low-caste Hindu and yet nothing happens. The universe does not come to an end." This message may not go down well with the Christian plantation owners in their stately mansions along the banks of the Meenachil. Curiously, this is also the strata that celebrates Arundhati's accomplishment. "She has put Aymanam on the world map," says Thomas Kollenkeril, an estate owner whose wife Basil teaches at Corpus Christie.
But to the common folk of Aymanam, Arundhati is a name splashed on their consciousness by the media.