Goddess of Small Things

Arundhati Roy has secured $1 million for her first novel, a tale of love and loss set in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Goddess of small things

For a university drop-out who used to hawk beach snacks to hungry hippies in Goa, a million-dollar literary advance is no small thing. But the first-time novelist Arundhati Roy, 37, who launched her book The God of Small Things in India this week, never questions the worth of her words. "It's their business risk," she shrugs. "I trust my book."

Her 340-page volume will soon appear in 16 different languages in 19 countries. But the hysteria surrounding Ms Roy's debut, which instantly propels her into the most exalted ranks of Indian fiction writers, alongside Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, doesn't seem to faze this tiny woman with glittering black eyes. "It's my own way of seeing," she explains. "It took me 36 years to write, really, but practically speaking, in a hopelessly practical world, it took about four-and-a-half years in front of my first computer."

The result is a story about one day in the life of a south Indian girl, Rahel, during which a cousin's death alters everything. The girl's mother's inter-caste love affair is brutally terminated as a result, and her twin brother is banished. Paradise Pickles, the family business, flounders. Written with an ear for the humming repetition of playful or incantatory phrases, and a child's eye for disturbing or pretty details, the book is preoccupied with the need to hold on to love, and suffused with a sense of place - a backwater village in Kerala state, hard by the Arabian Sea.

"Kerala is small, and tightly packed. Really densely populated. It is so hot there. And a lot of the people are physically beautiful," Arundhati Roy says. "As to who should be loved, and how, there's almost no sexuality involved. Biology has been subdued. There are love laws."

Arundhati Roy's book has already been labelled a masterpiece by excited members of the publishing world. The rights were auctioned by her British agent, David Godwin, for $250,000 in the UK and $160,000 to Random House in New York, and lucrative deals for translation rights quickly followed. Godwin was alerted through Punkaj Mishra, a young reader in the Delhi branch office of HarperCollins, who took the manuscript along on a train trip and, overcome with excitement, broke the journey midway to telephone his congratulations to Roy. After reading a sample chapter in London, Godwin booked the first flight to India on impulse. He tracked down the writer at the top of a narrow New Delhi stairway that spirals as tightly as the obsessive twists in her tale, and signed her up on the spot. "Once it got into their hands, it is as if all was done by a machine - well oiled and running smoothly," Ms Roy says, shaking her curls in disbelief.

She looks simply too cute to fit the role of literary genius. At a reading of her book to the Delhi literary set, the year's smartest British Council do, she appears girlish and unprepossessing in a white ribbed T-shirt and black jeans. Without her daily aerobics she would be seriously scrawny instead of fine-boned. Her diamond nose-pin winks in the spotlight and her hair grows curlier as she tells more of her tale. There is obvious joy in her wordplay: a character expires at a "viable, die-able age". As the guest of honour, Ms Roy squats down on the floor during the formal cocktail party, scrawling autographs on a pile of books proffered by admirers. It is easy to picture her as the book's heroine: Rahel, the Stick Insect, dark-skinned, with incipient horns on her forehead, watching and measuring everything, and reading words backwards when she pleases.

"We have all endured the amorphous terrors of childhood," Arundhati Roy says earnestly, perfecting a soundbite for next month's book tour of North America, and obviously rather uncomfortable with her sudden fame. "This book is about that. There are emotional extremes, and the feelings are real. Of course, the public response should make me happy, and I am making an effort - but the sadness of the book stays with me."

When Arundhati Roy gets quizzed on how autobiographical her novel is, she sighs and speaks of "emotional texture". "It's the reason why writers flirt with insanity; every character has a bit of you in them."

What eluded her during the writing process was structure. But after about two years of randomly tapping out memories and impressions to fill up the blank screen, the former architecture student got out her old pens and made a literary blueprint for herself. "I woke up and sketched the plot graphically with a series of drawings. That's when I understood what I was getting at." She dredged up her own childhood as a minority Syrian Christian in the deep south with a marked intensity, and even included her first coherent written sentence, pencilled in a lined notebook at the age of five. "It was about this Australian missionary lady, who kept telling me 'I can see Satan in your eyes', " Arundhati laughs. "I wrote 'I hate Miss Mitten and I think her gnickers [sic] are torn'."

Her account of childhood is not sentimentalised. It feels acutely real. In one scene, Rahel, her twin brother and a cousin from London kill an entire colony of red ants, one by one, with a heavy rock which is soon covered with a mulch of severed legs and insect blood. The new arrival from London is less squeamish than the twins presumed. "Let's leave one alive so it will be lonely," she suggests brightly. They pause to consider, but are compelled to kill the last ant anyway.

Ms Roy, who was briefly an actress after living in a tin-roofed shack in a Delhi slum, also brings the discipline of writing dialogue for screenplays to this novel. Her film Electric Moon, which became a 1992 Channel 4 production, spoofed game-park tourists, erstwhile royals, social pretence, and ecology. It managed to offend nearly everyone who saw it, but eventually drew a cult following. An earlier film, And Annie Gives Them Those Ones, depicted the chaotic lives of architecture students in New Delhi, of whose ranks she was once a member, down to the last slangy cadence. "But I felt limited by cinema. I love words. I wanted to crawl around inside my skull and heart," she says.

The new author will not admit to any literary heroes or influences, other than Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which happened to be on her school's required reading list. "People's response to my book is refracted through adulation and hostility. I don't know the rules of literature and so I didn't know I was breaking them," she says with a certain defiance.

While Arundhati Roy was writing, she hid everything from her partner Pradip Krishen, a photographer, and from all her friends, afraid she would talk the tale out. When she showed Krishen her last draft, which he said he adored, she accused him of lying just to please her. She admits that, more than anyone else in her experience, she is finicky, "well, about small things". In every new contract, absolute control over design of the book, its dust jacket, the weight of the paper, is her primary demand. In order to meet her exacting standards in India, friends set up a new publishing company called India Ink.

After completing The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy swears she will not write another. "I have no plans to compete with myself. I probably won't write another book until I am 90. I don't know if I'll be a full- time anything. I only do one thing at a time"n

Excerpts from 'The God of Small Things' appear in the latest issue of 'Granta' magazine. The book will be published by Flamingo in June.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

    £19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future