No Small Thing
11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
IF ARUNDHATI ROY LEARNED anything at the Delhi architecture school she graduated from in 1981, it was not how to draw a blueprint for her life. Emerging at 21, she turned her back on the drafting table to become a baker, selling chocolate cakes to tourists in her native India. Then came stints as a government researcher, an actress, a movie-set designer and an aerobics teacher. Finally she stumbled upon what she now calls "the thing that comes closest to not having a profession." She became a writer.
And like a character in one of her dreamlike fictional sequences, Roy has seen her career veer onto a wholly unexpected trajectory. Her first novel, The God of Small Things, published by Random House last May and released in 29 countries, is already an international bestseller (No. 9 on The New York Times list). Critics have compared the 37-year-old novelist with William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez and, in John Updike's review, even to the reigning U.S. Masters golf champion: "A Tiger Woodsian debut," he wrote in The New Yorker. "The author hits the long, socio-cosmic ball but is also exquisite in her short game." And in October, Roy became the first Indian citizen to win the Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award. The acclaim has surprised no one more than the diminutive (5'1") author herself. "One of the mottos in my life is to do as little as possible," she says. "It doesn't mean doing nothing. It means doing things at your own pace."
Which is precisely how she wrote the novel, moving to an isolated mountainside home in central India to sit at the computer for five hours each morning for 4½ years. "It is almost frightening," she says, "to invest almost five years in something when you don't know what the outcome is going to be."
The result of Roy's patient labor is a tale of haunting lyricism, a story of twins—half Hindu and half Christian—living as outcasts in a tiny village in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It is the area where Roy herself was raised, the second of two children of Rajib, a tea plantation manager, and Mary, who ran the experimental school Arundhati attended as a girl. "My mother used me as a guinea pig," says Roy, who recalls sweeping up cigarette butts and whiskey glasses left by members of the local Rotary Club, which shared the space. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, and Roy grew up with brother Lalith (now 40, a freeze-dried-shrimp exporter) amid a jumble of creeds—Hindu, Islamic, Christian and Marxist—spending countless hours playing in her grandmother's pickle factory. Sent to boarding school at 10, Roy moved to New Delhi at 16 to enroll in Delhi's School of Planning and Architecture, where she excelled but found little direction. "My success as a writer," she jokes, "merely hides my failure as an architect."
Roy was working as a researcher at India's Institute of Urban Affairs in 1984 when she met a young filmmaker, Pradip Krishen, who surely noticed her lively manner, her exquisite cheekbones and her opulent mane of black hair. He asked her to star in his next film. "It was embarrassing," she says of her performance, though it cemented her relationship with Krishen, now 48, a divorced father of two daughters, 21 and 17. "He's a very open, amazing guy," she says. The couple married in 1993—"or perhaps it was 1994," she says. "It wasn't a big deal to marry, we had lived together so long." They share a large New Delhi home with Krishen's 90-year-old mother and his children.
The union also became a collaboration, with Roy writing two screenplays for art house films that Krishen directed. "By no stretch of the imagination could you call them successful," she says—though they got good reviews and led to Roy's writing a 26-part TV series about India's nationalist movement. Halfway through production, the company behind the project went bankrupt and Roy found herself ready for a change. "I wanted to do something alone," she says, "without the endless negotiation that cinema involves."
As it turned out, Roy's training as an architect paid off in one unexpected way, as she structured her book more like a building than a narrative. "You don't start with the front door and work your way to the fire escape," she says. She began with only a single striking image: a pair of 7-year-old twins inside a sky-blue Plymouth at a sunny road crossing as a Marxist demonstration swirled around them.
When she was finished, uncertain what she had wrought, she sent the manuscript to a New Delhi friend; he forwarded it to British literary agent David Godwin, who was so taken with it he flew in from London just four days later to sign Roy, whom Godwin recalls as being "remarkably unaffected, extremely beautiful, very direct and unpretentious." Also very marketable: In a short time, he had landed her a stunning $1.6 million advance.
Granted a wish most authors only dream about, Roy merely shrugs. "In a sense, I'm the wrong person to give a million dollars to," she says, pointing out that she has no credit cards and little use for luxuries beyond the occasional sauna. "Even before I had this money, I felt uneasy about how privileged I was," she says. "In India, it is a very complicated, mixed blessing."
Roy's free-ranging imagination and sensual imagery were not seen as blessings by at least one Indian citizen. The God of Small Things has provoked a lawsuit by Sabu Thomas, a Kerala lawyer who calls the book obscene—particularly in its vivid descriptions of a taboo liaison between a divorced Syrian Christian woman and a Hindu handyman, a member of the "untouchable" lowest Indian social class. Though a local court will hold a December hearing on the suit, which focuses on just three pages of the novel, Roy doesn't fear a severe penalty.
"When someone becomes famous, some people want to tear them down," says Krishen. "This is harassment."
Despite the annoyance, Roy sees the suit as evidence that her work has broader meaning. "It is a sign that you are touching life," she says. "Reviews and prizes are secondary to grappling with life." In fact, despite the obvious demand for her to write a sequel to Small Things, she is determined not to do so until she does some grappling with her own life. "She goes by her own rules," says agent Godwin. "She has an assurance about herself without being in-your-face about it."
Nor does she plan to become a jet-setting literary star. Though she has undertaken the requisite book tour, attracting admiring crowds in city after city (including 10 U.S. stops), Roy is now determined to spend more time in New Delhi, living the life she has come to love. "It only makes a difference if what you've been wanting all along is to change your life," Roy says of success. "But I'm not interested in doing that."
ELIZABETH FERNANDEZ in San Francisco