Booker Snooker

How Arundhati Roy exploited India chic and colonial guilt to win literature’s big prize.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

The God of Small Things has been good to the South Indian novelist Arundhati Roy. The past year has brought many blessings: the fairy-tale arrival at her door of the eager publisher with the fat check (a $1.6-million advance–unheard of for a debut novel); landmark sales (600,000 copies in hardcover); multiple translations (23 languages); much feting and fanfare (global book tours, interviews, pride of place in “India” specials in Granta and The New Yorker); and finally, the announcement, last Tuesday, that Roy had won the Booker Prize for Fiction, which is awarded annually to a writer from Britain or the Commonwealth and brings with it a cash prize of more than $30,000.

Though Roy’s victory seems to validate the ubiquitous comparisons to the ubiquitous Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, there is cause for pause. Sure, The God of Small Things is a cozy read. But so are many of those books that go straight to the remainder pile. So why did Roy win the Booker? Why all the hype?

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

The answer is simple: The Zeitgeist was ripe for Roy and Roy for it. Her book hit an English-speaking market that craves all things Indian: tandoori food, yoga, Deepak Chopra, the altie-hip-hop of Cornershop, chai, Homi Bhabha. And while it would be ridiculous to suggest that Roy incubated this book for the better part of five years and then released it to capitalize on India chic just as it crested, it is also true that she has played to that market in terms it understands and swallows whole.

Nothing wrong with that–but Roy is strenuous in her denials. She claims that 1) she doesn’t want “Brownie points because I’m from India” and 2) her book “doesn’t trade on the currency of cultural specificity.” But of course 1) she does and 2) it does. Roy’s book–a humid tale of a pair of twins whose divorced mother has an affair with an untouchable–is the sum of its othernesses. The family at the center of the novel belongs to a small, insular community whose inner workings are foreign even to most Indians. Their family home, Ayemenem, is located in the comparatively remote southern state of Kerala, a region that Westerners who might know Rushdie’s Delhi or Naipaul’s Bombay from reading their fiction might not recognize. Roy’s descriptions, therefore, can be safely lush, richly runny: “The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum … and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”

No one cares that Roy’s prose is a breath-defying crush of run-together words and run-on sentences; strategically random capitalization and italicization; numbered lists; reversed words; adjectival clusters; acronyms; quotations from songs and poems; repeated images; and abrupt endings. The sensory overload–the weight and range of devices, some more clunky than clever–fragments the narrative more than it enhances it, forcing the reader to keep pace. (Click here for a sample.)

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

But nowhere is the self-indulgent circling as pointed–or annoying–as in the image of Rahel, the girl-woman protagonist who is a dead ringer for Roy: “jeans and white T-shirt … wild hair tied back to look straight, though it wasn’t … tiny diamond in one nostril … absurdly beautiful collarbones and a nice athletic run.” It is this image of the exotic-familiar, the combination of diamond stud and bluejeans, that has made U.S. reviewers go light on Roy. She’s the Indian babe who led that Eastern Religions seminar you took: different enough to charm, similar enough not to intimidate. And the fact that she’s clearly smart and literate makes everyone feel good–and safe–about gushing. How glossy, therefore, is the praise, how insubstantial the contact, in the U.S. reviews I’ve read. “Roy gives us a richly pictorial sense of these characters’ daily routines and habits,” said Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, “and she delineates their emotional lives with insight and panache, revealing the fatal confluence of jealousy, cruelty and naivete that shapes their destinies forever.” No mention of the flabby plot with its contrived deaths, no taking to task for the overworked prose–Ayemenem is just too far away.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

So Roy rode the wave here in the United States. Book clubs met and raved, and timorous, tingling questions (“How deep did you have to reach to release those wonderful twins?”) were asked during the author’s tours. The public invited magnificent pronouncements from Roy, a sense, somehow, that this woman felt things more deeply, more creatively, more spiritually. And she responded. Asked about her language, she said it is “the skin on my thoughts,” traceable only to private rhythms. So deeply felt, so minutely realized were these rhythms, it seems, that she rewrote nary a word of her book (remarkable, given its length–321 pages–and the fact that a word processor is quick to forgive errors). The narrative structure was “crafted and designed … obsessively for four-and-a-half years.” The story, too, was mine, mine, so what if Rushdie’s latest was also set in Kerala: “I grew up in that village in my grandmother’s pickle factory. Rushdie didn’t invent that.”

Some of her British critics would agree that Roy and Rushdie indeed have little in common. Only in the “fantasies of publicists,” moaned the Guardian, can such comparisons be made. The Brits feel they know India, and several members of the press, at least, appear unimpressed. “Arundhati Roy’s victory left me close to despair,” said David Robson in the SundayTelegraph. “If this is the novel of the year, then the novel is dead.” Carmen Callil, who chaired last year’s prize committee, called The God “execrable” and said it shouldn’t have made the list.

Does the skepticism mean that The God got a more thorough going-over in Britain? Not really. Americans think of the Booker committee as the Protectors of the Literary Flame. In fact, Booker politics are no less clubby and sordid than Oscar politics. Prize and process are widely reviled by British readers and critics. By giving Roy the prize, the committee has confirmed the darkest suspicions of its critics: Yes, it’s sold out quality literature for pop accessibility. Also: The queen’s recent visit to India put the spotlight back on the issue of colonial guilt. Her refusal to apologize publicly for a 1919 massacre was badly received; Roy’s win has been spun as a compensatory gesture from the colonialists to the former colony.

Roy herself was predictably modest about The God’s success–“not the best novel, the luckiest,” she said. The win brought tears to her eyes, of course, and prompted a phone call to Mom in India. The God of Small Things is dedicated to Mary Roy, who, like the twins’ mother, married outside her community before returning divorced and in disgrace. Mother and daughter were estranged for six years, if the stories circulating here are to be believed. Kicked out of the house when she was only 16 (she was called “Suzie” in those days), Roy went to Delhi and then to architecture school, supporting herself by selling empty milk bottles (some say beer bottles). She bummed around the beaches of western India with a husband (some say a lover) before settling down in Delhi’s comfy Press Enclave, where all the newsies live (one review claims a “cottage … deep in the jungle in central India”). The stuff of a novel, but don’t expect the 37-year-old Roy to write it. The Booker, and all the laurels, are “about my past, not my future,” says this ace of the apothegm. “I will only write another novel if I have another novel to write. I don’t believe in professions.”

At a book reading in Seattle some months ago, Roy told her audience that she’d allowed The God to be published on the condition that it never be optioned. Last week, the Daily Telegraph reported that HarperCollins had finished recording an audio version of the novel, using the voice of British actress Diana Quick, who, though she had been chosen because her British accent would not “distract” listeners, was “directed to imitate Indian accents for some dialogue.” Earlier this week, Roy confessed that she’d stuffed some “movie-related” faxes into books, saving them for a calmer time … perhaps for when she repairs to that quiet cottage in the central Indian jungle.