I was 14 when I first skimmed through “The God Of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy. I say ‘skimmed through’ because, at 14, I did not understand a lot of things it addressed. I had no idea about politics in general, and no clue about communism. Even today there are moments when I don’t understand politics; to me, it’s just noise. And back then, in the book, that is what it was – noise and extra plot. Little did I know that the same politics, disguised within beautiful prose, would become the heart and soul of my own future. Little did I know lounging on a terrace on a warm mid-winter afternoon, that I would one day be labelled ‘anti-national’ just like the Booker Prize-winning author of the book I was flipping through.
If someone told me that not many years later, on a platform called Twitter, I would announce my own book and haters would call me ‘the next Arundhati Roy’, I would be flipping with joy! I still do, even when people mean it as in insult to emphasise on my “anti-nationalism” and this is exactly what makes me question the concept of nationalism over and over again. How does empathising with the pain and hardships our own people go through because of policy failures and critiquing the government for the same makes anyone “anti-the-nation”? To me, the story of “The God Of Small Things” was a story very similar to mine: of two kids very close in age living with a single mother. Their trips to the movies, their relationship with their mama and masi and mother reminded me of my own house, and thus I found comfort in Roy’s words. “If no one understood how I had felt my whole life, at least she did,” I thought to my younger, much softer self. Certain paragraphs of the book were like reading my own life back to me. The characters, Ammu, Estha and Rahel, became my mother, my younger sister, and me. Many years later, I re-read the book and this time, Ammu, Estha, Rahel, Velutha, Sophie Mol… all of them became me. Every character reflected my thoughts, worries and pain. I cried with them and laughed with them. And with a better understanding of politics, I understood, and confronted, issues that I had been so sheltered from all my life – caste, economy, conflicts within families, gender bias.
Politics and activism came much later, but what grew in my heart as a young girl was love – for writing and for people. I looked for stories in every person I met and situations I was put in. I altered realities and wrote them down; I made people fall in love on paper and gave them a happy ending where no one dies. I built my own little world. And as a much older, and considerably more aware young woman, I started to shatter the same worlds that I built. How could I live in my happy bubble when the world outside was burning, when the air was polluted with chemicals and thoughts that would eventually burn humanity down?
“I don’t write about the issues, I write about the air and everything that is in there,” Arundhati Roy said on October 27 at India Habitat Center, where I met her. I listened, hanging on to every word she said as I sat in the second row with a freshly twisted ankle clutching “The God Of Small Things” squirming in pain, not because of my ankle but at the realisation that the sad, terrifying worlds that she created are real. Her words are honest. Her stories are true and we love to hate her because we are all 14-year-olds who live in a bubble with happy endings, where no one dies. But people die, and children are orphaned, and caste is not an ‘issue’ but a reality we breathe, yet manage to ignore. In Roy’s book, the characters don’t exist, but they scream and shout things we don’t want to hear. So we shut our ears, close our eyes, label her an ‘anti-national’ and move on.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the chance to meet her. I still haven’t finished reading her latest, “The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness”, mostly because it is too difficult to read. It is a frightening universe and despite all the brave front that I keep putting up, I still don’t have the heart to walk through it. It’s the last 50 or so pages set in Kashmir that haunt me, sitting on my bookshelf, challenging me to begin re-reading from the dog-eared page.
She said a novel becomes a universe she constructs. “Anybody can walk through who is not frightened of it. They might get lost or find their way, they may not like what they see but that does not matter.” And I still haven’t had the courage to be a part of that universe, maybe because the universe she writes about has been a subconscious part of me and my own truth for so long. We didn’t speak much because I was too stunned to talk, I was smiling ear to ear with Meru, Penguin Books’ Editor-in-Chief, encouraging me to speak, amused at my fangirl moment. But couldn’t. What do you tell the person whose work inspired you to have the courage to love not one but all of humanity? I didn’t have many words to say to her but there was a moment we shared, a warm hug and a knowing look. As an aspiring writer and activist and a fellow anti-national, Arundhati Roy is everything I wish to become.