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Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, acclaimed as a masterpiece and rapidly becoming an Indian bestseller, is an international literary sensation. Last year, Roy, was paid a total of 5,00,000 pounds in advances by 18 publishers worldwide. Brought up in Kerala, Roy, 37, trained as an architect in New Delhi, where she still lives with her film-maker husband, Pradeep Kishen. She wrote screenplays for television and film, her most successful feature film being Electric Moon, before locking herself away to write The God of Small Things. Drawn from experiences in Roy’s life, it tells the tragic story of a Syrian Christian family from Aymenem, in Kerala, riven by internal jealousies and divided by social prejudices. Its unique structure and lyrical prose makes for an brilliant debut.

 

The God of Small Things, acclaimed as a masterpiece and rapidly becoming an Indian bestseller, is an international literary sensation
She wrote screenplays for television and film, her most successful feature film being Electric Moon

On 5 April at the British Council, New Delhi, The God of Small Things was officially launched with its publisher, IndiaInk. After Arundhati Roy had read extracts, her and Sanjeev Seth, photographer and now publisher, answered questions, excerpts of which are below.

Are you happy with the critics reactions so far?

I‘m happily overwhelmed. The problem is, it’s a very sad book and somehow the sadness of the book is what stays with me. It took five years to write and I keep finding myself making an effort to be happy. A lot of people ask is it autobiographical? It’s a very difficult question to answer because I think all fiction does spring from your experience, but it is also the melding of the imagination and your experience. It is the emotional texture of the book and the feelings which are real.

Was writing it a happy experience?

When I write, I never re-write a sentence because for me my thought and my writing are one thing. It’s like breathing, I don’t re-breathe a breath... Arranging the bones of the story took time, but it was never painful. Everything I have - my intellect, my experience, my feelings have been used. If someone doesn’t like it, it is like saying they don’t like my gall bladder. I can’t do anything about it.

 

When I write... It’s like breathing, I don’t re-breathe a breath...
If someone doesn’t like it, it is like saying they don’t like my gall bladder. I can’t do anything about it.

Where does your interest in language come from?

Language is a very reflexive thing for me. I don’t know the rules, so I don’t know if I’ve broken them. As a very young child my mother gave me a book called Free Writing and we were encouraged to write fearlessly. The first coherent sentence I ever wrote, which is actually in this book, was written when I was five. It was about an Australian missionary who taught me. Every day she would say, ‘I can see Satan in your eyes.’ So, the first sentence I ever wrote was: ‘I hate Miss Mitten and I think her knickers are torn.’

This book will probably put Kottayam in Kerala in India’s Lonely Planet Guide, how do you feel about that?

A few days ago I spoke to my mother who lives in Kottayam. She said that she got a call from a German man who wanted to see her. A weary traveller with a pineapple turned up at her house. He had read the excerpts and had travelled to Aymenem looking for the house in the book, which is actually fictional. But someone in the village gave him my mother’s number and he brought her a pineapple, he said, ‘in exchange for good prose.’

How was IndiaInk launched?

Arundhati:

I was talking to Sanjeev about how to work on the cover. We took the pictures together and it started evolving. I quickly realised that any publisher that I worked with in India would become completely fed up with me. There was going to be this big nusiance factor of me breathing down their neck at the press and Sanjeev said, ‘why don’t I do it? I’ll raise the money.’ I don’t know anyone else who is as obsessive as I am, he is actually more obsessive about small things and I thought, that this was a chance to have some fun. Of course I was advised against it by everyone who said that I needed more professionalism, not less. But I wanted him and then Tarun joined. I never thought I’d be happy with how my book looks because I am so finicky, but I just love it. They have done a brilliant job.

Sanjeev:

Today we are launching a book and also a publishing imprint. It’s not very often that that happens. The responses that we have been getting on how the book is made, quite apart from the writing, have been rather overwhelming. So both Tarun and I wanted to say that when you start something new and take a fresh initiative, until you actually commit yourself to something that is meant to be a challenge, there is a certain amount of ineffectivess. But when you commit yourself to it and throw yourself into the water, both of us felt that Providence moves in and events work in your favour.

But saying that, I had the back-up of so many old friends. People who work with paper showed me what to do, publishers who were old friends opened their doors and taught me all about costings and binding, I went to Thompsons press whose entire shop floor raised itself to match the quality of the writing to bring about this book, graphic designer friends who gave hours and hours of their work to create the cover, as well as our fantastic logo. There was a snowballing of a lot of good will which pushed us along to hep make this product.

Sanjeev, will IndiaInk be publishing more?

We will be publishing more, but we wanted to wait until this book got read and then we could see whether we are able to deliver a book that is worthy of its physical presence and whether we can sell it well and most importantly, can we keep it in print. If all these things happen, then we will feel confident of holding the trust of another author and continue publishing.

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By Claire Scobie: A writer from the Telegraph Magazine, London who is now freelance and working as a journalist in Delhi.

All photographs by Pablo Bartholomew
For photo rights, please contact the agency, Gamma Liaison.


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