In the Halls of Arundhati
Kashmir, Maoist insurgents, environmental activism and the rising communal tensions in modern day India. The novelist and the polemicist is a duality she has worn for 20 years, and she is not going to stop now. The story of twins Rahel and Estha and their traumatic childhood in Kerala was a publishing sensation, selling more than 6 million copies worldwide, scooping up the Booker Prize and turning Roy somewhat uncomfortably into a darling of the global literary set.
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But those hoping for a swift series of fiction follow-ups were disappointed. Compared to her widely acclaimed debut, the reviews for her belated follow-up are more mixed, with some saying the work is long and chaotic. Roy says under the stewardship of Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, India is at its most polarized place in years. But Roy is unrepentant, seeing herself as a much-needed canary in the coal mine. Notwithstanding this complication, Roy emerged as a global phenomenon after winning the Booker -- an incredible voice of fiction from a third-world country, also hailed gloriously in India.
And then, in May , India conducted its second nuclear test.
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If I said nothing, somehow I was part of that celebration -- a celebration that was repugnant to me," she said. She wrote a critique of the test, "The End of Imagination". Political and social Roy was born. The angst, lying dormant within her, found utterance after the bombs went off in India -- and in Pakistan. Roy's return to fiction after a gap of 20 years delves into a parallel universe inhabited by people who dictate terms to her and boss around in her house, as she curiously engages with them to see how well they get along together.
This "magical bonhomie" of the novelist transpires into characters who breathe life into the pages of her fiction. The opening of "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" ends on a thoughtful note: There was so much else to look forward to. There has been "so much else" to make noise around her that the ethereal and sublime aspects of her creative genius often go unnoticed.
Just like this little hint that Roy left in the opening of her book -- again leading the Man Booker Prize longlist -- her fiction appears to be too deep to be read superficially. It is structured like an onion where layers have to be peeled to get closer to the underlying messages. It took her ten years to write the book.
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She says she allowed the plot and characters to take their own course and was never in a hurry to finish the book. For a decade she lived with Anjum, Tilottama and other characters travelling through several universes like the Khwabgah, and taking a much bigger risk, in terms of experimentation, than "The God of Small Things". It is a very layered universe.
And it can only take that much time. I could not have written it faster or slower.