The Passion and Rage of Arundhati Roy

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Arundhati Roy protesting the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, Gujarat, India, 1999

Most likely it would still make news today if a first novel by a young Indian woman living in India won the Man Booker Prize. Certainly it was big news in 1997, when Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things received the prestigious British award, and the resultant publicity helped bring international attention to Roy’s intimate, lyrical, and revealing portrayal of a multigenerational family in Kerala.

The God of Small Things reached a much broader audience than earlier depictions of rural and semirural India, in work such as that of the brilliant R.K. Narayan. Roy’s dreamy, elegiac domesticity appealed to the sort of reader who may have been intimidated by the scope and velocity of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Two decades later, her novel is still widely read and continues to elicit fervent enthusiasm. Younger writers credit it with having expanded their sense of what could be done in fiction and, more to the point, of who was entitled to do it. Junot Diaz has called The God of Small Things “one of the single most important novels written in English,” and one can see its influence on Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; the two books share a loose, confident approach to storytelling and chronology, a debt to magical realism, and an interest in how ordinary people carry on with their lives in times of historical turmoil.

The Syrian Christian family at the center of The God of Small Things includes a twin sister and brother whose mother precipitates a series of tragedies by falling in love across caste and religious lines. The narrative, set mostly in the 1960s, focuses on the twins’ childhood, on the drowning of a young half-English cousin, and on their dramatic discovery of what they mean to each other; these plot elements are what the novel’s fans will most vividly recall. So it’s striking, on rereading the book, to discover how powerfully the political climate of Kerala (which at that time had a Marxist government) affects almost everything that happens. Defined, to varying degrees, by class background and party affiliation, the characters are haunted by what it means to be an Anglophile. Roy shows us, from the inside, the challenges and complexities of maintaining an old—and forging a new—cultural identity in a former colony.

Perhaps this amended reading of Roy’s first novel owes something to our awareness of what she has accomplished in the years since its publication. A vocal, visible, and courageous activist, she has campaigned against the Indian nuclear weapons program, the barbarity of her government’s repression of the Kashmiri and Naxalite insurgencies, and the environmental and human costs of India’s hydroelectric dam projects. She has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, written a book-length polemic…

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