Writer and activist Arundhati Roy, along with a few others like Salman Rushdie, helped the rest of the world get up close with the political situation in pluralistic India – with a deeply enjoyable fictional backdrop. In her career, Arundhati Roy has not shielded from putting forth her thought and scathing commentary on politicians, businesses, India’s foreign policy, and the class and caste conflicts synonymous in this country of countries.
As the controversial writer turns 58 today, we take a look at her two pieces of fiction, and her non-fictional accounts of democracy, capitalism, and caste in post-Independence India.
The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy started her acclaimed writing career with screenplays but it was her first novel, The God of Small Things, that catapulted the writer into an acclaimed and prize-winning novelist.
The book, which was published in 1997, went on to win the much-deserved Man Booker Prize that year. Set in 1969 in Kerala, it weaves a masterful portrayal of how we inherit tragedy from family and how a single event can have far-reaching consequences, devastating the lives of everyone in its wake.
Partly autobiographical, The God of Small Things tells the poignant story of fraternal twins Esthappan and Rahel who accompany their mother Ammu back to Kerala after Ammu’s divorce. Belonging to a traditional Christian family, Ammu was ousted after she married her Bengali lover. Now, the young mother returns home, resigned to a fate of endless humiliation and jibes from relatives and old neighbours.
As a listless Ammu smokes for hours by the lake, her children help out at the family’s pickles factory, where Velutha works. An illicit love affair soon ensues. Set in the backdrop of a country in much turmoil, Velutha represents the angst of the working-class, low-caste Indians, as he quickly adapts himself to the Communist movement in the state. What follows is a series of events that holds the innocent guilty, and forever tears apart a family that is wracking with grief.
In India, Arundhati Roy may be now known for her searing political commentary, but it will always be The God of Small Things that will be associated with the writer everywhere else: lush prose that breathes a whiff of life into mundane observations and vivid imagery that captures the sights, smells, and sounds of 1960s Kerala, all awash with an insightful socio-political examination.
Algebra of Infinite Justice
At the turn of the century, as the world lurched into a new series of crises following the 9/11 terror attacks, Arundhati Roy was a beacon of reason and precision in the Algebra of Infinite Justice. Published in 2002, her collection of essays took on the mainstream wisdom of the day - the war on terror, nuclear weapons, big dams, and much more. She questions the West’s notion to do what it was setting out to prevent – 'the tired wisdom of knowing that what goes around, eventually comes around'.
In the essay that gave the book its title, she wrote, “Once war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we'll lose sight of why it's being fought in the first place.” Almost two decades later, we continue to live that reality.
Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
In her 2009 collection of essays called Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, Arundhati Roy trained her lens on the contradictions in India. Even as the country was emerging as one of the world’s biggest economies, Roy looked at the fractures and the conflicts that have had a major impact on India - from Kashmir and Gujarat to the tribal-dominated regions where resource extraction continues at a terrifying cost to the environment and people. In her essays, she lashes out at mainstream political parties even as she identifies the structural issues behind the country’s inequality and repression of the poor.
Field Notes of Democracy asks and tries to answer the question of what kind of a democracy we have and what hope lies ahead for the people.
Capitalism: A Ghost Story
Published in 2014, Capitalism: A Ghost Story chronicles Arundhati Roy revisiting her favourite subject – the deeds of the super-rich in India. At a time when a few of them were entering the ranks of the richest in the world, she examines the process of how their wealth is enabled by the suffering of many.
Pointing out that trickle-down economics has not worked, she coins a new term—‘GushUp’—to define the processes happening today. Her usual devastating wit is on full display as she mercilessly takes apart those who keep the country poor and its people suffering.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Arundhati Roy’s second novel came two decades after her first. As Roy has observed in the past, “Fiction takes its time”. And while the world waited for the gifted storyteller’s second novel, Roy was embroiled in brazen political commentary. Which is perhaps why The Ministry of Utmost Happiness presents a hodgepodge of characters melded together in the political climate of war-torn Kashmir and India in general.
The vast, unusual array of characters includes a transgender who finds her community after much turmoil, an activist caught in the throes of the struggle, journalists, and officers. The book highlights these myriad characters considered outcasts, and examines their lives in India, a hotbed for political furore, and class and caste discriminations. Suffused with horror and humour alike, the novel is a heady experience, much like India herself is.
While many readers felt let down after the superlative The God of Small Things, this book is no less an achievement for Roy, whose lyrical prose does not take away from her oft-contended political views.