Arundhati Roy on Fame, Writing and India
You said that you would probably never write another book unless there was another book inside you to write. Is the writing a process to unleash the inner self?
I don’t know. I am a bit suspicious of this kind of personal therapeutic approach to writing. I think it is fine, but then you just have to understand that it is therapy, and literature is something else. Literature is about art and craft and not just about your feelings and your coming out of yourself. No one cares about you except you, whether you come out of yourself or help yourself or don’t help yourself is entirely your business. But literature is about art, about creating something. I’ve always said that amongst great writers there are selfish writers and generous writers; selfish writers leave you with the memory of their brilliance whereas generous writers leave you with the memory of the world that they have evoked. And to me, writing must be an act of generosity, not an act of self-indulgence or therapy. I’m not going to burden the world with what it did for me or didn’t do for me.
Does being recognized by others give you some sort of validity of this process?
No, after all, a story is the simplest way of presenting a complex world. That’s why I am a writer, because I can’t simplify it any further. If I could I would be a politician. I would have slogans, I would have a manifesto. I don’t. Or I would be an architect or whatever. It’s a very internal process trying to make sense of the world to yourself, and when you do that and that eventually becomes something which makes sense to others, too, there is a satisfaction in it. But the fact is that whether it made sense to three people or to three million people, it would have been the same book. I thought my book would be read—if it were really successful— by 3,000 people or 8,000 people. The fact that you can kind of tunnel through the world in this way is wonderful, but also very frightening.
But what you say reverberates throughout the world. It’s the way it is.
It’s like something that you created and it’s no longer yours; my book belongs to the reader now. It’s on its own. I respect the process of writing enough to know that on one hand I was so completely in control of what I was doing that it is mine, but I also know that there is a deep secret and mystery to the process of writing which isn’t mine. So, I don’t have an ego about it. I know however much this book might shake the world, I can’t reproduce it. I don’t think that my next book would do the same thing, if ever there were a next book. It would be just as difficult for me because I am no longer the person who wrote that book. I’m somebody else and I don’t know what that somebody else can or cannot produce. It’s not as if I can stand on this book to do whatever I have to do next. It’s gone from me.
With this computer-aided technology and the way that the word is transforming, what do you see as the evolution of language in the future?
I wrote my book on a computer and I don’t think that I could have written it this way without a computer, because technically it’s like laying a soundtrack. My computer was my memory and I was laying echoes and rhythms, you know? If I had to go through thousands of pieces of paper and insert … theoretically I could have done it, but practically it would have been a less successful attempt. Because in the computer the minute I thought of it, I could summon it up, where I wanted to put what. Whereas if you’re writing by hand, it’s a more tedious process and a lot of your intentions can fall by the wayside. So, in this endeavor, it was much more important than I imagined it would be just because of the way the book is structured.
How do you see the evolution of language itself?
Just a few years ago you had these establishment writers who were accepted as the “big dudes” of literature and they would write books and everyone would go crazy over them. I think that process is going to become much more democratic, because writing is something that so many people are doing. There are so many books and writings from other places now rather than from just what has been perceived to be the center of the universe, Europe and America. People from other places are going to start telling their stories. That’s what I mean by fame is democratic, there are more and more people like me who are going to be first-time writers who have a story to tell and who are heard. So in a way, the stories are going to become more diverse. But then I think also there is going to be a kind of standardization because of this huge global culture that is happening. So the generation after me in India is going to be very different; the children are going to be people who have been brought up on the same things as other children all over the world, on MTV and all of this. It’s going to be very sad, but there is nothing that you can do about it.
In your book you wrote, “Men without curiosity, without doubt. They looked at the world and never wondered how it worked. They knew. They worked it.” In your book you break many taboos. Did breaking the taboos in the book serve as a way of somehow reorganizing this control over our lives?
I think that writers are always two people. I’m one person who lives my life and the other part of me watches me live my life, you know, and that part is the writer who is sort of detached from everything and watches. It doesn’t make you live your own life less passionately, but yet there’s a part of you that is sitting on the ceiling fan and watching it and smiling or whatever. In everything I do or have ever done in my life, I feel anger towards authority, and I’m even frightened of ever having a child because I don’t want authority over that small person. It’s very confusing for me and anyone who is involved with me. Because it’s just this permanent questioning of every little thing, every sentence … I mean, it becomes a wall which is quite tiring sometimes. I suppose often these emotions are awakened in you through whatever you have been through in your childhood and nothing that happens to you as an adult ever quells those questions or those fears or that anger. It will always be there. And yet, I know, that if you were to speak to anybody who knows me they will say, “Oh, she’s so calm.” And the fact is that I am very calm, but that is only in my day-to-day interaction, but I am not at all calm about major issues or major questions, you know. And that’s not a sort of shouting kind of anger that I have, but a very cold anger.
Your constant questioning of authority is very similar to believing that much of what we think, see or believe is filtered through society’s eyes.
I don’t know. I don’t feel like that. I feel the opposite of that. Because as a child I was not wanted or accepted or not needed by anybody in the place I grew up. I never saw things through their eyes at all. Sometimes I wonder why I see things the way I do, because it’s completely the opposite of the way people are conditioned to see things here, especially women. For instance, I sometimes think I am perhaps the only woman in India, maybe the only woman in the world, who never thought about getting married or wanting children. The fact that I am married has nothing to do with wanting to be. That’s why one has this constant questioning of everything. You almost get tired of never having a place to stand, never having the ability to just say, “Yeah, this is how it should be.” It’s all the time saying, “Why this?” and “What does it mean?” and “What should I do?” There is no place to rest. That’s the way it is for me.
In 1955 Colin Wilson wrote a book called The Outsiders, which talked about the psychology, the physiology, the whole state of consciousness of those who have gone outside—Galileo, Copernicus—people who had to constantly remove themselves from this conditioned aspect of society. And I think you could call yourself an outsider. The family in your book as well as your real-life family seem to have lived as outsiders.
I think there are people who are safe and there are people who are not. And if you have been one of those who are not, it doesn’t matter. Like, now, it seems to me that I am safe: I have money and I have this and that. But somehow it makes me feel more precarious than ever. When you say I’m a star and famous … it fills me with panic because I’ve been outside that world and I feel too much anger towards it to want to be their star. In India today, I am being lauded and- hugged by people that repulse me, by this whole generation of Coca-Cola kids, you know, MTV rich brats. For them I am everything that they would like to be: cute, and famous and cool. And I am not. I don’t want that. For instance, they think that looks are everything and they will spend hours having fashion shows and beauty contests. Now, I haven’t ever been to a fashion show or beauty contest in my life. It makes me sick. But in the papers, my photograph will be alongside Miss India or Miss Universe or whatever. That is why that kind of fame doesn’t appeal to me at all. It disgusts me actually. A lot of it has to do with People Magazine saying, you know, we want you to be one of the 50 Most Beautiful Something. And I say, come on, read my book. Can’t you see what I think of that sort of thing?
I wonder what aspects of India you think you represent to the international community?
I will tell you one thing about the West. I always say that you know that someone doesn’t know anything about India the minute you see them striving to understand it. Because those of us who live here have ceased to try. It doesn’t matter. You don’t understand it any more or less than you understand anything else, but you just live in it and get on with it. And this is also true in people’s literature who come from
here—this kind of all-purpose, multi-talented Indian. You want somebody to hook on to who represents India, but the fact is that I don’t represent India and nobody
represents India and nobody can claim to. I am me. I am not interested in flags and nations. I am not even interested in being the first Indian citizen on a Monday night to have won the Booker Prize. I keep saying I am the first aerobics instructor to have won the Booker Prize. The reason this book has done what it has done is not because it’s Indian, but because it’s universal. What does it matter if an Indian or an Estonian or Albanian wrote it? Only journalists and pundits and critics who are interested in these tags; readers are interested in reading. They are not going to read it because it’s Indian or it’s Albanian. In fact, if you see what happens to books that try and trade on this kind of exotic, ethnic thing, they are just sort of on the margins; they never become mainstream because they are too precious. Of course my book is Indian, because that is the world I know. It doesn’t compromise on its sense of detail, and that detail is Indian, but that is just coincidental. The characters are human and anybody recognizes them.
But there is this big debate in India itself on what is Indian literature …
Exactly, and it’s so puerile. And they’ll say, “Oh, you’re selling India to the West” or “You’re not selling India to the West” or “Is this authentic?” And I say, what do you mean by these words? “Oh, but she uses Elvis Presley so that’s not really Indian.” But what is really Indian? That you sit and chant Vedas in some temple? How do you define Indian? People do strive to inhabit the definition that India has been given by the West. That does happen. But it’s complete nonsense. I keep saying just replace authenticity with honesty.
But do people read your book in India?
It’s incredible what has happened in India because it has just broken through all these barriers of who reads books. A literary book in India usually does not sell. They usually have print runs of 2000, 3000 copies for a normal writer. A big writer, even writers like Rushdie, would sell say 12,000 copies a year. And he’s the biggest Indian writer. And my book has sold, I think, more than any book ever in India. So people are reading it and people get very angry here. If your book doesn’t transcend national borders, if it doesn’t get published anywhere else, then you are a failure, but if it does then you are attacked for it. So there’s always debate about what I have done, and not showing India in the proper light and all of that stuff. But there’s also this negative definition that the West has of India, thinking it is full of poverty—and they only want to hear about poverty and the caste system. But should we not address it because you don’t want to define yourself negatively to the West? You just have to be true to yourself and forget about what others say.
Balzac called fiction the secret history of nations. Do you think that you in a way are writing something that is true, that this is history, this is not just fiction?
I would agree with that. The stories you tell, the fiction you write, is a way of seeing, the world and there are many, many ways of doing this, which is why I hate getting into debates about literary theory. First of all, I am not an academic and secondly, I don’t have any rules—the only rule I have is that there are no rules. So, it’s important that the secret history is written by many people, so that there are conflicting ways of looking at the same thing.
Literature, you once said, is not divided according to language but according to stories, and as a writer you govern language. What is this governing of language?
The context in which I said that was a program on which I appeared with Salman Rushdie. He said in the introduction to his book of the best Indian writers that the only good writing coming out of India was in English and that the writing in regional languages was not worth anything. And a lot of people including me were very upset with that. This is again that claim to represent India and no one language can claim to represent it, no one person, no one culture, no one caste, no one religion, because everything is true about India. I tried to explain to him that there are so many writers in regional languages who are closer to him in many ways than I am. So, you divide literature according to the ways in which you tell stories, not according to the language you use. Then there is this big colonial debate about writing in English. They ask me “Why do you write in English?” And they say, “But your writing is not like any American or British writers.” And I reply, “Naturally I am not American or British. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because I use English, my thoughts are British.” I govern language; the language is mine to express my thought in. As a writer, it is my medium. You use that medium to do what you want it to do.
You have said that every character is a part of the writer and so sometimes writers play with insanity in a way because the writer is divided into all these different people.
You’re invested in all of them. When people ask me, ‘Is Rahel you or is Ammu you?” I say yes, but so is Baby Kochamma and so is Comrade Pillai. They are not very nice people, but I am not a very nice person.
You wrote a 26-part series on the Indian nationalist movement. Did that politicize you in some way?
I wrote it because I was already political. It didn’t politicize me. I guess I was born that way. A lot of the questions I asked started when I was in architecture school. It was again this thing of asking very basic questions. “Why should you tell me that this building is not as good as that building when everything about it technically works? Who are you to mark my sense of aesthetics?” In my fourth year I designed this multi-story building which in plan looked like a frog, but everything worked, the parking, the structure, everything…. it was just saying it is none of your business what it looks like. It was asking the basic question of who decides, who is this divine committee? I just want to know, because these are all ways of being powerful. And then in my fifth year, in my architecture thesis called “Post-Colonial Urban Development in Delhi,” I showed how basically architects manipulate space in a city to exclude various kinds of populations which are not supposed to be present there because they are too poor or too dirty or too whatever. And it becomes a very radical questioning then of who are the people in the city who claim to own it and who don’t and why. And then, of course, it begins to become an aesthetic questioning, too. I keep saying that one of the reasons I’m a successful writer is because I am a completely failed architect. I don’t know what kind of architect I could ever have been because I don’t know how to choose my aesthetics. The line has been interfered with so much that I don’t know how to make those decisions any more as to what kind of building I would like to design.
Do you think that there is something about your formative years that prepared you for this position in life? Where is your grounding now?
Everything that happens to you, even when it seems dark and terrible when it’s happening to you, you can learn from. And I think I have learned from everything that has happened to me. And I continue to learn from everything that happens to me. If I had not been who I was and I had not been through the experiences I have been through, I would have been killed off. I would not have known how to handle it. I would have thought, “It is all so wonderful and it’s so sweet and everybody loves me and I’m so famous.” But I know what the whole thing is about. I have seen the other side too much to be able to just accept this joyfully. That’s the greatest piece of good fortune that I have had. Just two years before this happened to me I was totally on the other side of the fence, because of a huge debate I had about a film called Bandit Queen, and I wrote this series of articles called “The Great Indian Rape Trick.” And all the beautiful people denounced me. The invective and the things that they said about me in the press were terrible. So, this is almost ridiculous. It just makes me laugh because it confirms my opinion of them. When I was going through it, it was traumatic. It was a complete and direct attack on my self-esteem and it was very hard to take at the time.
What happened with the lawsuit pending against you? You are being castigated for having writtenabout an upper caste woman who has an affair with an untouchable.
The two guys who have filed this case are just not representative of what is happening in this country with the book. Much as I would like to portray myself as a writer who is being hunted down, I am not. The lawsuit is a terrible pain to have to deal with, but I am quite sure that it has been brought to harass me. I will handle it by myself because the courts are not as regressive as people think they are. I am sure that the case will be thrown out. But the courts take so long and it will go on and on. When you live in India you know that India lives in several centuries simultaneously and they are all at war with each other in a sense. There is nothing you can do that is of any importance that will not end up in some kind of trouble or controversy. And this is the fallout of literature. It has created so much debate in Kerala. Some condemn me, some praise me, but that’s what literature is all about. It’s not about winning the Booker Prize and wearing nice clothes and feeling famous. Literature is about touching people’s lives. It is absurd in a way, but absurdity also suggests surprise and this reaction doesn’t surprise me. People get angrier with the same book when it wins the Booker Prize. It’s as if the text changes the bigger the book becomes. Those who filed the case against me also happen to be lawyers, and they want some publicity. It’s so easy. Just put a finger on The God of Small Things and you’re in the New York Times.
What is the god of small things? One critic wrote that social propriety is the novel’s victor. The deity of love and happiness loses out in the end. Is social propriety the god of small things?
That’s perhaps exactly the opposite of what I think. But a lot of people have this simplistic reading where they say, “Oh, anybody who breaks the love law suffers, so what you’re saying actually is that you shouldn’t break the laws.” That kind of simplistic reading of crime and punishment is nonsense. The god of small things is the inversion of what god means; it’s the god of loss. Take the way the novel is structured. The structure ambushes the story in that it begins at the end and it ends in the middle. And it tells you that, of course, the consequences of what happened were terrible, but the fact that they happened at all were wonderful. That’s what I mean when I say that the novel belongs to everybody. I don’t really want to legislate what people should make of it because it’s their book to think what they want. But certainly it’s not what I would have hoped that somebody would draw from it.
You had also said that the book is more a biological description of who we are and what we become.
It’s more about biology than history. It’s about how human society since the dawn of time divided itself into different bits and made war over those divisions and made love over those divisions. There are always those who make the laws and always those who argue against them. It’s about how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws. I think what happens in the West is that people ask these very simplistic questions: “Are you a pessimist or an optimist?” To me that’s a joke because I am both. You see tragedy in comedy and you see happiness in sorrow, you see everything in everything and that is part of the process of living. So, in my book there is horrible sorrow but there is also the most delicate happiness. I can’t ever offer you one emotion. The only time you see that is in sport, which is why one loves sport; you see such simple feelings there and it is so outside of life. It’s not war, but it’s the joy of winning or the sorrow of losing. It just simplifies things. Therefore, it’s beautiful in a way. In my book I never offer you one emotion at any given point of time. Never. It is the simplest way of presenting a complex thing and it cannot be further simplified.
You are talking of emotionalism and I am talking about biology.
Well, biology in that sense for me is something that I feel when I am in Kerala. The intricacies of these social divisions have suppressed biology to the extent that in Kerala you see physically beautiful people who are trapped in their sociology for reasons that you cannot even begin to comprehend. So, in my book, I address this question directly. When Velutha looks at Ammu, I wrote,”… history struck out and for the first time he saw that she was a woman.” You see the most beautiful men there bare-bodied because of the climate, and yet I know that people don’t look at them as men; they only see them as Paravans, untouchables. And it has always been unbelievable to me that you could have annulled your own biology to that extent.
It seems that biology is no longer biology. It becomes sociology but biology is the real rhythm of our lives.
Exactly. But I have not had the courage to translate my book into Malayalam because I know what a radical thing it is. And I have not had the courage because the people who will have to take the consequences of that are my family who live there, and I don’t feel that I have the right to do that to them. Because it will be amazing what will happen. People will read my book in Kerala and they will say, “Oh, this is wonderful but, of course, that bit about the Paravan, you must have put it there as a joke. You know that it is not possible that a Syrian Christian woman would do this.” Somebody told me that it is not possible for a Paravan to perform sexually with a Syrian Christian woman, because he would be so terrified. They will take what they want from the book and reject the rest because they don’t want to face it.
What does this say about your own biology? You said before that you don’t want children and that you never thought of getting married? But you do have children, even though you are not their birth mother, you have been their mother.
Actually it locks right into what I am saying. Because looking after children who are not yours is different. They’re already in the world and you can do what you can for them. But I can’t make that decision to bring somebody into the world. I also never had the complete responsibility of how to bring them up because my husband’s parents were there and I was a little 21-year-old rat. They were a big family and they forced the children to go to a big school and all of that. It wasn’t my decision. It was only a question of doing what one could. I didn’t start out as the person who had to make decisions, but it was bad because I didn’t agree with all the decisions that were made.
But you have become a married woman. Has this changed you?
I don’t know. I lived with him for ten years before we got married and so the terms and conditions were clarified before anything happened. One thing is that I am paranoid about being trapped. The door has to be open, otherwise I’ll just leave through the window. If it is open I might stay.
You said that the writer is like a child . . .
You move between worlds that are perceived to be real and worlds that are supposed to be imaginary without acknowledging the boundaries. That’s why I guess madness lurks so close by. It’s just being curious, isn’t it? Curious and non-judgmental; being able to experience something without clamping down on it. I really don’t want to make any claims for writers as a group. I am speaking for myself. I don’t think most writers are like that. I think most are just the opposite — very old and tired people.
It took you almost five years to write this book, sitting in front of your computer everyday. So, there seems to be a balance between being a disciplined human being and maintaining this open, child’s perspective.
As I said, it’s like sculpting smoke. First you have to generate it and then you have to sculpt it because I don’t believe in this “I wrote my book in one week” kind of approach. Something that lives with you over the years is something important; it is something that stands the test of your growing. It isn’t that I didn’t change in five years. It’s just that it still worked for me. I am manically disciplined when I work, in that sense, because it is something that you are giving and you don’t want to give a half-hearted offering. If you are doing it, do it properly.
What about the physiological process of creating? You do aerobics. Is there an integration between the physiological discipline and the creative discipline?
Absolutely, I am just as disciplined about not working as I am about working. Really for me, the idea of doing nothing or enjoying myself is just as important. It’s important to not become somebody who really takes oneself too seriously. And doing exercise and being in touch with my body is something that I really value. I feel quite stupid about it sometimes but I also think it is important to feel stupid. It’s important to think, “Gosh, this looks ridiculous.” But it really makes me happy to do that; to be a person who is physical. It’s exactly the same kind of discipline that you need to write a book. It’s like if I cook and I wash up, nobody has told me but I just have to make sure that every last thing is clean. All of these things matter. I might tell my daughter a million times that how you clean the dishes affects other aspects of your life, including how you write. But it doesn’t matter to her; she can’t see. And I feel bad to go on about it. I don’t want to become some kind of nag about cleaning the sink. I’ll clean it. But for me it’s just that sense of completeness. It is not some great virtue, it’s just the way it is for me.
But it is that same element as you say.
Exactly. I’ve taught at a gym for years. I started doing aerobics and I wanted to be good enough to become an instructor, so I became an instructor. It’s not something to boast about. You’re just doing it for your own satisfaction. And if someone else wants to go to the gym to lose weight because she has to go to a party, that’s okay. I don’t want to be judgmental about it. Maybe I am lucky to be like that; to have a sense of discomfort if something is not done with concentration and discipline.