What Arundhati Roy taught me about fiction

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Twenty years after her debut novel, “The God of Small Things,” Arundhati Roy returns to writing fiction with “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” to be published June 2017. A literature professor and ardent fan reminisces on the day he met Roy one afternoon in New Delhi, while she was still writing the book. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A severe metal frame hugged the wooden door of the second-floor flat in central New Delhi. What is she fending off, I thought. I checked my phone (five past ten; just in time). I took a deep breath, a feral scream in my throat. I touched the bouquet of flowers in my arm. I rang the bell, waited, and soon heard locks and levers being turned, with no particular haste.

Packing for India three months earlier, I had mindlessly put Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” in my luggage, in my mind some vague plans to reread the novel on a suspended berth in a crowded train to some mystical destination (because that was India, wasn’t it, trains and loitering cows and the Taj Mahal). Then I met Anand, who runs Navayana, the independent anti-caste press that publishes Roy's often radical polemics on caste and Hindu nationalism, nuclear weapons and Kashmir. I joked to him that I’d be in Delhi for a week after a writing residency, and it would be my birthday, and I’d do anything, anything, for a selfie —

This was four years ago, almost to the day. In October last year, Roy announced that she was publishing a second novel — “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”  — after a 20-year hiatus from fiction. “Finally,” people said, with well-meaning entitlement. It’s about  time. Last week more details emerged: the novel, out in June from Hamish Hamilton and Knopf, is a “contemporary story” set in the subcontinent, populated with characters “in search of a place of safety,” who “have conspired to confound accepted categories and notions.”

When I was in India, the idea of meeting her didn’t reside in this universe, the same way that certain people exist in the mind as ideas, always abstract, never gaining form or shape. It explained why, when the meeting was confirmed weeks later, I felt the need to reread “The God of Small Things,” her celebrated debut about fraternal twins Rahel and Estha in 1960s Kerala, which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997. I felt like an undergrad preparing for a quiz. She was not a real person to me. She was fiction and politics and commitment to causes larger than ourselves, and I was determined to marshal everything at my disposal to partake in a serious conversation about ideas.

arundhati roy jean baptiste paris.jpg Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997. Revolving around the lives of fraternal twins Rahel and Estha in 1960s Kerala, the novel discusses themes of "forbidden love, caste and memory, empire and family, all jostling and never quite settling down." Photo by DR. JEAN-BAPTISTE LABRUNE/FLICKR/CC BY-SA 2.0

“It's you!” I said, like an idiot, when she opened the door. She wore a green kurta, her hair beautifully ruffled. She laughed, gave me a hug, and, as the most generous of writers routinely do, let me in.

Reading a life-changing work to me always felt akin to “opening up a world.” When I read “The God of Small Things” for the first time, I was just beginning to truly understand fiction and had freshly lost the ability to read for pure, unadulterated pleasure; instead I had begun to read closely, purposively, to discover how fiction operates and how, to see how it does what it does.

It is with such attention and earnestness that I read that novel, and it is hard to describe the experience except in literal terms. Reading it was like carefully lifting a veil, and the world it revealed suddenly stirred with new life. That novel about and around forbidden love, caste and memory, empire and family, all jostling and never quite settling down. That novel in which English was unlike anything I’ve read: mangled, made strange, unfailingly mesmerizing. There was plot but turned over its head, eddying in whirlpools. There were hilarious passages, “hugot” lines. There were characters, recognizable and “human,” but imbued with allegorical gravitas.

From Roy I thus learned that fiction is, first and foremost, about alertness, both to the smallest scurryings of language and the broadest infrastructures that dictate how lives are lived. Fiction is about the Small Things because most of the time they betray the Big Things; often they are one and the same.

The resonance was, of course, narcissistic to some extent; I saw my own rage and politics in Roy, how this agitated the prose and at the same time lent it a rawness. I saw rural Philippines in her Ayemenem, entitled Fil-Am balikbayan brats in Sophie Mol, my mother’s courage in Ammu. I saw the familiar undercurrent of antagonism in all societies haunted by unpunished historical wrongs. I recognized the impetus, the source, the wanton celebration of this animal called fiction.

From Roy I thus learned that fiction is, first and foremost, about alertness, both to the smallest scurryings of language and the broadest infrastructures that dictate how lives are lived. Fiction is about the Small Things because most of the time they betray the Big Things; often they are one and the same.

“I read you’re writing your second novel,” I had told her later that February day four years ago. (We had Kashmiri for lunch. When the food was laid down, she tore a piece of chapati with her hand — “You want to share?” — and gave me half.) We were in the backseat of her car, on our way back to the metro station where she offered to drop me off.

She nodded, made a sound that resembled an amused sigh. No clues? I asked, a smile to cushion the possible intrusion.

“Nothing like ‘God of Small Things,’ that I can tell you,” she said.

Her last 15 books or so, she went on, were all nonfiction. They had to be written, she said, but fiction, she paused, the best part of her life is when she was writing fiction. No need for clunky, tedious footnotes and citations. She reclined in her seat, looking outside, at the still traffic of cars, perhaps the near decade that took her to write “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” materializing as a ghost in the middle distance.

I had just wrapped up a three-month writing residency then; three months with a writing desk in a quiet “dance village” an hour away from Bangalore, released temporarily from the demands of everyday life. A dream for any writer. A gift. I wanted to say, yes, I know exactly what you mean, Arundhati. But how dare I?

Instead I told her that one of my undergrad papers was on “The God of Small Things,” about how it did the personal-is-political thing in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Really? she asked. Remember that passage, I said, about the centuries telescoping into a single moment. She nodded. When Ammu and Velutha looked at each other for the first time, she said. Yes, that. I always try to do the same thing with my own work, I said, and —

A boy, just then, no more than 15 or 16 appeared at her window with an armful of books. Dan Brown, John Grisham, Chetan Bhagat, and “The God of Small Things.”

Pirated, she sighed, and we laughed.

Centuries, it seemed, indeed “telescoped into one evanescent moment.”

*

Did the selfie happen?

I went in and handed her the flowers. "Oh, Glenn,” she said, “so sweet." I placed my knapsack on an imposing table at the center of the living room. Two dogs, sprightly and loud, came running in as she looked for an empty vase. Anand arrived shortly and told her that all I had wanted was a selfie with her. She laughed. Because, like a snob, I wanted my experience in the subcontinent to be pure and unsullied by documentation, I didn't bring a proper camera. She took pity on my Blackberry and handed Anand her iPhone. She then emailed me the photos. So the result was not technically a selfie. It couldn’t have been. When she wrapped an arm around my shoulders, and we shared a laugh about something someone said, I couldn’t have found a way to stabilize my hand, or any body part, long enough to press a tiny button on a phone.

selfie glenn diaz.jpg

***

Glenn Diaz teaches English and literature at the Ateneo de Manila University. He has an MA in creative writing from the University of the Philippines. He is the 2013 recipient of the M Literary Residency in Bangalore, India, where he worked on his first book.