Tuesday, June 14, 2011, 00:00

Girl who kicked the hornet’s nest


Girl who kicked the hornet’s nest

Indian author Arundhati Roy’s anecdotes about her mother are strange, to say the least, but it was the latter who inspired Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, and possibly to a large extent, shaped her persona – fiercely independent and non-conformist, and yet extremely sensitive.

While on a trip to South Africa with a friend, she was asked to wait in the car while he put his father, a Parkinson’s patient, in bed. “My mother is, er, rather singular,” the friend said apologetically. “She is apt to drive people up the wall.”

“How crazy is your mother?” shot back Roy, whose own tales about her mother, Mary Roy, are enough to startle the conventional. “Is she like my mother, who lies in a zinc tub in the courtyard, naked, while her secretaries clip her toes? Is she like my mother, who, ignoring her bulk and at 70 years, posed in a bikini?”

“Mmm, perhaps you’d better come in,” the friend conceded.

Mary Roy shaped her daughter’s life, both for good and bad, as well as the 1997 debut novel, The God of Small Things, that parachuted Roy, 49, into international limelight, especially after it made publishing history by fetching her the highest advance ever for a debutante author – a whopping half a million pounds (US$800,000).

It also brought her mounting controversies and law suits.

A lawyer from Kerala, the state her mother was born in and where Roy lived as a young child, filed a case, alleging obscenity. The objection was mainly at the passages depicting sex between Ammu, the mother of two children and one of the main protagonists, who despite coming from an upper caste family forms an attachment to Velutha, the servant who belongs to a community lying at the bottom of the rigid social hierarchy and regarded as an untouchable.

“I had to attend the hearings for almost 10 years since it was a criminal case,” Roy says. “But after the Booker, people did not know what to do. Kerala claimed the Booker but did not want the book and the judge told me he used to get chest pains every time the case came up (for hearing).”

Roy is candid about the novel being partly her autobiography.

“My mother committed two cardinal crimes,” she says. “She belonged to the Syrian Christian community, who are very traditional, very conservative and quite boring. She committed the crime of getting married outside the community, marrying someone who turned out to be an alcoholic four days after the marriage. And then she broke another taboo: got divorced and returned to her village with us (Roy and her brother). We were banished by the community. Parents in the neighborhood did not want their sons to play with me. I was the worst thing a Syrian Christian girl could be: thin, dark and clever. Everyone would tell me, ‘no Syrian Christian boy would ever marry you’. At a very early age, I learnt to say: ‘Who the hell wants to marry them!’”

Like the mother-daughter relationship portrayed in the book, Roy’s relationship with her mother is also both poignant and dark. Her mother, a serious asthma patient, would often tell her, “I am going to die and then you will be on the streets”.

“I used to think, if she dies, I will have to find a way to die too because I can’t just live here (in Aymanam village in Kerala). It’s like being buried alive. My mother was pretty violent with us. She would take out all the bitterness on us of her failed marriage and embittered relationship with her own family. She used to call my brother a male chauvinist pig – and he was only four at that time.”

But Roy inherited her rebellious streak from her mother. Mary Roy began a school in the village that is today a well-known educational institution. She also filed a case in court challenging the discriminatory tradition that girls could not inherit parental property and won equal inheritance rights for women.

“She’d also tell me, you are better than all of them (the other children in the village). On one hand, she’d build me up and on the other, pull me down. There was a lot of violence and so much trauma that I spent all my time catching fish on the river, thinking I will do anything to get out from here.”

At 16, Roy ran away from home, opting to live in a slum in New Delhi “along with beggars and lepers”, enrolling in the School of Planning and Architecture. She found work with architecture firms and sustained herself. “I realized I don’t have to die if my mother died and I discovered freedom.”

The school shaped her political and social philosophy: “All the political stuff I write now was planted when I studied architecture. I did not want to design houses for rich people. My thesis – Post-colonial Urban Development of Delhi – is about citizens and non-citizens, about how an entire establishment is designed to exclude the marginalized.”

Then came the Bohemian period. She and her boyfriend then, Gerard da Cunha who later became a well-known architect left the school and went to the beach town of Goa, making a precarious living selling cakes on the beach. However, she says she soon tired of the hippie culture and on an impulse, sold her ring to a fruit juice stall owner “for Rs300 and a banana milkshake”.

With the money, she bought a ticket back to New Delhi.

In the Indian capital, she met filmmaker Pradip Krishen and was offered a tribal girl’s role in his film, Massey Sahib. She then wrote film scripts and tried her hand at various jobs, including teaching aerobics classes, till The God of Small Things made her rich and famous. “I became a Miss World variant,” she says, likening herself to beauty pageant queens who became instant celebrities after winning a title in India. “People looked at me as if I had won the World Cup. I decided to use the space to say what I really wanted to.”

She gave away the prize money to a group of people protesting against a high dam on the Narmada River – the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) – and took up their cause. Since then, she has been following causes close to her heart, though they go against the government line.

One of the most controversial causes is the government crackdown on the growing Maoist movement in India that the state has outlawed as terrorism but Roy says it is tribal people’s fight against injustice and repression.

Last year, she created a furore when she quietly visited Maoist rebels in Dantewada, a tribal village in central India – where 75 security personnel had been killed in an ambush in 2010 – and wrote a long essay in a magazine, sympathizing with the outlaws.

“I went with a very firm prejudice,” she says. “That in an armed struggle, women were at the receiving end of violence. But I was disabused. I saw 48 percent of the guerrillas were women. They had come after watching their mothers and sisters being raped, houses burnt down, or to escape the patriarchy of their own society. The Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (a women’s organization in Chhattisgarh state) has 90,000 members and is probably the biggest feminist movement in India. But they are all called terrorists and are liable to be shot on sight.”

In India, she says 800 million people live on less than Rs20 a day. “This is not due to a natural disaster but created by policy... A government that has more poor people than some of the poorest people in Africa and can’t give them water or access to healthcare is now making policies on the behest of some corporate houses that will exclude the majority. When there is so much poverty, there is bound to be violence,” Roy says.

Never a devil’s advocate, this enfant terrible always speaks from her heart.

China Daily Asia Weekly on May 27, 2011, page 24