DEBATE ON ARUNDHATI ROY: MY ARTICLE FROM THE ‘YEMEN TIMES’, 3 May 2007

THis entry reproduces the full text of my short piece
ARUNDHATI ROY, MOST IMPORTANT ‘IN INDIA’ WRITER SINCE TAGORE?,
published in the YEMEN TIMES (Education Supplement), Issue 1047, Vol 14, 3
May 2007, p. 3.

It is a response to Dr R.S. Sharma, ´The Mistress of English Prose’ (Issue
1023, Vol. 14, 8-12 Feb 2007 – review of Murari Prasad, ed., ARUNDHATI ROY:
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES, Delhi: Pencraft, 2006. For the book itself, see
entry on this blog for 9 October 2006.

**

Among today’s clutch of Indian writers in English, Arundhati Roy is not
only unusually famous but famously unusual. She is an international
best-seller, yet she lives in India and is not liable to the charges of
inauthenticity frequently levelled at diasporic writers. She is seen as a
regional novelist of Kerala, yet was born in 1961, not there but in
Shillong (then in Assam, now in Meghalaya), to a Hindu Bengali father and
Kerala Christian mother. She has written only one novel, the Booker-winning
The God of Small Things, yet is considered a leading novelist by the
critical establishment even though the rest of her work consists of two
screenplays and a large body of non-fiction of a campaigning and
journalistic nature.

As a scholar of Indian Writing in English (IWE) myself, I responded in the
Yemen Times earlier this year (Issue 1021, Vol. 14, 1 February 2007) to Dr
Prasant K. Sinha’s review of another book edited by Dr Prasad, Vikram
Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’: An Anthology of Recent Criticism. I am now pleased
to be able to respond similarly to Dr Sharma’s review of the volume
Arundhati Roy: Critical Perspectives (which I did not contribute to as
such, but did participate in as one of the peer-readers). It consists of a
brief foreword by postcolonial guru Bill Ashcroft, a long introduction by
Dr Prasad, nine essays on Roy (including one by the editor), an interview
with Roy from 2001 (reprinted from Frontline), and an extensive
bibliography. One of the contributors, Antonia Navarro-Tejero, of Córdoba
(Spain), is also the author of a full-length study of Roy and Githa
Hariharan. Like Dr Sharma, I applaud the quality and utility of this volume
for those studying, teaching or simply interested in Arundhati Roy. I
would, however, like in this brief piece to qualify aspects of his
assertions and to raise some additional points.

Dr Sharma correctly notes that ‘a proper estimation of Roy’s activism is
still awaited’, but this book certainly makes a start in that direction.
There have been various critical anthologies and studies dedicated to The
God of Small Things, but to the best of my knowledge this is the first to
attempt a comprehensive coverage of both that novel and her non-fiction –
notably in Murari Prasad’s own essay, which ambitiously straddles the
fiction / non-fiction divide. What, though, no-one in this volume attempts
is a detailed comparison of Roy’s non-fictional practice to that of other
IWE authors. Joel Kuortti, in an article of 2004, did compare Roy’s and
Rushdie’s political non-fiction; but, for instance, Amitav Ghosh has
produced substantial amounts of non-fiction, some of it as politically
engaged as the anti-nuclear Countdown. Vikram Seth’s Two Lives is also
historically engaged non-fiction. Surely, more than Roy is involved here.

Dr Sharma claims that one weakness of the book is a certain narrowness, in
that ‘most of the essays operate within the single parameter of
postcolonialism’. This is not entirely fair. As Dr Sharma does actually
note himself, the more strictly political dimension is discussed, as is the
feminist aspect. Aijaz Ahmad takes head-on the vexed issue of Roy’s
unsympathetic portrayal of Kerala communism in her novel; Antonia
Navarro-Tejero’s dissection of the exploitative character Chacko critiques
Kerala Marxism, thus strongly diverging from Ahmad, while also offering a
feminist reading with stress on subalternhood. The volume has sufficient
balance.

The complex and multi-stranded content of Roy’s novel is, in fact,
sufficiently dealt with in the volume: what it does lack is a really
substantial discussion of its language. Murari Prasad himself, in 2004, did
publish a paper going into that vital aspect in detail, and a similar piece
would have usefully enriched this collection. As it is, Aijaz rather
polemically claims in his essay that Roy is ‘the first Indian writer in
English where a marvellous stylistic resource becomes available for
provincial, vernacular culture … without the book reading as a
translation’. He even contrasts her novel with Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, whose
English is famously pervaded by Kannada, arguing that in that book Rao
‘wrote in English what could easily have been written in another Indian
language’ (pp. 40-41). This clashes with the widely-held view that The God
of Small Things is comparably pervaded by Malayalam inflections, as
represented in this volume by Alex Tickell (‘these [linguistic] experiments
occur in close proximity to … Malayalam’ – p. 67). There is a potential
controversy here that seems worth taking up, and it would be interesting
for a neutral scholar to look at Roy’s stylistics closely and compare her
English in detail with Malayalam usage (such a study would, though, need to
be accessible to the non-Malayali reader).

Also not taken up by either book or review is the massive international
popularity of Roy’s novel – it is said to have sold over 4 million in over
two dozen language versions – and the related issue of translation. How has
The God of Small Things been received in, say, France, a country where much
of her non-fiction has also been translated? Has the Spanish translation of
her novel been received differently in Spain’s European and Latin America’s
third-world contexts? What difficulties have Roy’s translators experienced
in rendering her very particular brand of English, and what strategies have
they used to get its flavour across?

There, a whole slew of issues remain to be resolved. Meantime, the
contributor Amitava Kumar reminds us that Arundhati Roy has become ‘perhaps
the most important writer in India familiar to the West since Rabindranath
Tagore’ (p. 31). She remains an ‘in India’ writer though so many have
chosen diasporic hybridity. The very special status of her writing is
vindicated by both Dr Prasad’s excellent compilation and Dr Sharma’s very
judicious review. And yet, in response to the questions her work raises,
perhaps the best the critic can do is recall the finale of The God of Small
Things, and echo Roy’s own moving one word of closure, ‘Tomorrow’.

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