Glamour, Glitter And Booker
by Elizabeth Menon

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Glamour and Booker prize - one may not associate the two; but that concept changed when a beautiful woman with razor sharp intelligence from Kerala claimed the literary throne in 1997 as India was celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence. Arundhati Roy was the first Indian woman and the first non - expatriate Indian to have won the Booker prize. ‘God of small things’ topped the Sunday Times best seller list for ten months since its publication and now, the paperback edition has topped the list.

Book lovers had a date with the newly crowned royalty on June 15, at the Royal Geographic society in central London. A rapturous welcome awaited the Booker Prize winner of 1997 - shimmering of a tiny diamond preceded an exquisitely beautiful, petite vision on to the podium. There was loud cheer from the audience for Arundhati Roy who looked like a school girl or the girl next door; but all this pass and the beauty get eclipsed as she begins to speak; razor sharp wit and humour capture the audience. She was there to talk about her book, ‘God of small things’, that went on to ‘big things’! The book is full of simple imagery that stuns everyone who comes across it; the linguistic inventiveness captures all. It appears to be mostly autobiographical but she says that “only the starting blocks are real and the run is fiction.” It is the way she talks, her use of the language that makes one see the inventiveness; the book has it and it is there when she speaks, quite obvious even to the less mortals.

When she was asked about the language in the book, she said: “I want the language to do what I want it to.” It is quite clear that the English language is putty in her hands; words flow from her unforced, with a glorious beauty and simplicity. Therefore, it is no surprise that a Booker Prize winner is feted as never before! When it rains in Ayemenam, “slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, ploughing it up like gun fire”; when Ammu dies at the age of thirty one, “ Not old, Not young, But a viable die-able age.” - the language does what she wants it to do, indeed!

It starts with hot brooding month in Ayemenem. The story is told through the eyes of dizygotic twins, Rahel and Esthapan. Chacko their uncle talks about the ‘wonderful male chauvinist society' that allows no claim to the property for daughters in a Christian family; Mary Roy, Arundhati’s mother, challenged the Travancore Christian Succession Act and won the case for all the Christian women in Kerala. There is something that is shared by all the characters in this book: a kind of vulnerability. Baby
kochamma, who longed for the Irish monk and later found peace with television and Santa Barbara, Oxford returned Chacko the uncle, Pappachi the grandfather, Estha and Rahel, Kochu Maria the servant and Margaret Kochamma -they all share this. Velutha is the one who captures your imagination and he is the only one who does not show any vulnerability; he shows great control even when he was insulted at the Ayemenem house. Although does not appear that often, his presence is felt throughout the book as an easily loveable character. His death by the police is an insight into the police brutality that may exist in some quarters.

Women in Kerala have a long tradition of being in the forefront in the field of education and many, work away from home on their own. Therefore it is difficult to understand the death of Ammu, an educated middle-class woman in Kerala. Ammu should have survived the divorce and the death of Velutha and Sophimol. Women of older generation in Kerala have survived similar situations to become successful in their chosen profession. The love of the twins for their mother is very touching and it was this love that made them abandon Velutha whom they both loved; they had to make a choice and they chose their mother. This is one of many situations that tug at your heart- strings. One finds the survival of Kathakali and Kunthi Devi among banana- jam, pickles and communist demonstrations: amidst all this you can almost picture Muralidharan perched on the milestone!

It has been said that this book undermines public morality, though this may be considered quite tame in the country that produced Kama Sutra back in AD 459. Perhaps Arundhati should have realised that even fictional characters indulging in such an explicit act would still be considered immoral and indecent in Kerala, especially since she grew up there. One should not forget that this criticism comes from Kerala where there is 100% literacy rate and these are very intelligent people expressing their views. It follows the dictum ‘certain things are not talked about in public or put on display; they are strictly private.’ The incident in Abhilash theatre where Estha is abused by the ‘orange drink - lemon drink man’ and the insinuation that creeps into Estha’s and Rahel’s relationship, perhaps should have been left out as these do not improve the book in any way.

The complex nature of the book, flashing back and forth in time, the ease with which the words flow and unique way of describing even the mundane events, make this book what it is: a truly great creation: a storm of a book that won the ‘1997 Booker Prize’, to celebrate India’s fiftieth anniversary.

© E Menon

 

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