Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book-extract of Arundhati Roy’s new novel hints at a minor literary storm

Her second novel in two decades, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, likely to unleash political slugfest between shallow liberals and uneducated right-wingers of Modi’s India.

There is the “exclusive extract” in the British newspaper, The Guardian of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” of Arundhati Roy, the 1997 Booker Prize winner of her debut novel, “The God of Small Things” and also an interview with her by Decca Aitkenhead, a journalist and writer of a searing account of her improbable happy second marriage and the death of her second husband through drowning in the Caribbean Sea trying to save their four-year-old child, “All At Sea”. Roy’s boo-extract is a teaser to whet the curiosity of her admirers who had wait with baited breath these 20 years for her second novel.
It is both dangerous and unethical to form impressions of a book by reading a short extract. It is almost like judging a book by its cover. There can be one of two reactions to an extract. First, the hope that the whole book will be as exquisite as the extract is. The second is the misgivings about the book that the extract triggers and the hope that the book would not be as bad as the extract.
Then there is the interview, which gives a glimpse of what the author thinks of her own work. In serious terms, the author’s views on her work should not be taken too seriously as many serious students of literature would know. The book will stand or fall on its own merits, and it has nothing to do with the views of the author on her own work. But it is too much of a temptation not to let the author’s recommendation of her own book enough importance.
The book-extract of Roy’s second novel and her thoughts about the novel in the interview tickle your curiosity, and sometimes they might even provoke in however mild a fashion.
So here are some hastily formed impressions about Roy’s second novel, about her views on fiction and the cultural milieu of the book and the author, with its inescapable political connotations.
Roy exudes elfin charm, which is quite spontaneous as well as a well-executed ballerina performance. She is an unassuming celebrity who will smile radiantly and talk to anyone, even to those with whom she has only nodding acquaintance. But her views are not as innocent. Her views traverse a different line. When she says in the interview, “Everyone thinks I live alone, but I don’t. My characters all live with me.” This is interesting, mostly true and charming as far as it goes. The other two statements are slightly more exaggerated, surreal even. Roy says that it is her characters – she refers to them as “the folks in my book” -- who chose the publisher though the money was much less. She also makes the romantic-metaphysical pronouncement: “The difference between the fiction and the non-fiction is simply the difference between urgency and eternity.” Or her impish confession: “To there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves.”
With that last statement of hers, we enter the slightly phoney world of the modern liberal India artist, etherealising the calling of the art, indulging in empty universalisms. Without meaning to do so, Roy represents the type. Perhaps there is something to that thing called “the collective unconscious” which that Sigmund Freud disciple-turned-rebel-and rival Carl Jung coined. In many ways, like many other modern artists and writers, Roy is an Arnoldian – the mid-Victorian failed-poet-and-respected-literary-and-culture critic Matthew Arnold – who has lost faith in the old religions and old gods and seeks refuge in this new thing called art and literature as the new god and as the new religion.
The extract gives the impression that Roy’s new novel is an allegory, a political allegory. And it has disturbing echoes of a Salman Rushdie fantasy, but unlike in Rushdie Roy’s imagination is finely sketched and it does not indulge in epic comicality as Rushdie does. That is the saving grace. But it seems to hint at the limitations – no fault of Roy’s – of the liberal imagination. Many of the liberals, including writers and artists – in India are incapable of looking reality in the face. The only exception is another Book Prize-winning author, Kiran Desai, who showed rare maturity in dealing with a complex world where the political and personal impinge on each other in her 2006 novel, “The Inheritance of Loss”.
The allegory is escapist fare where one is allowed to indulge in Oriental excess and turn one’s back on grimy reality. Reality makes an appearance in an allegory but it is presented in the mythical form of evil. Roy’s book-extract suggests that it is about the nightmarish Indian political reality and she is going to deal with it as some fiction writers to do: in the form of an allegory.
It appears that the besieged Indian liberals in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing India will find solace in Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, and going by the ululations on the Facebook after the reading of the book-extract in The Guardian, it looks like the Indian liberals will go into a swoon over the book. The uneducated right-wingers in the country will rant against the book. Roy’s book is all set to unleash a political slugfest, and interviewer Decca Aitkenhead has hinted that the book is likely to be controversial in the public sphere. Roy is demure about the prospect.


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