As I write this, I’m still smugly high-fiving myself for pouncing on an invitation I saw a few weeks back to attend an intimate evening with acclaimed Indian author Arundhati Roy (in conversation with Rebecca Davis, Haji Mohamed Dawjee and Kim Windvogel). Facebook is certainly good for some things.
When I arrived at the new lecture theatre at UCT last night I could sense the excitement of the audience. I even heard mutterings of equal smugness that these people had nabbed themselves tickets (free, nogal) to the hottest event on this year’s literary calendar.
When Roy herself entered the theatre, the audience erupted into rapt applause; she hadn’t yet opened her mouth. And when she did, we hung on her every word. It was like sitting at the feet of a guru – she commanded that much admiration and respect.
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel came out in 1997. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favour and get a copy. It’s a rich and poetic story set in 1960s Kerala about two small children and a shocking event which reveals the complicated and hypocritical actions of the adults in their world. It’s the only book I’ve reread three times – it’s beautiful. It also paints a very unflattering and vivid picture of the political and caste system in India, an act for which she has often appeared in court – for “corrupting public morality”. “For further ‘corrupting public morality’”, Roy jokes. The novel won her a Booker Prize.
Roy’s visit to South Africa is to promote her second foray into fiction: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which I devoured with equal fervour. Her writing is sublime.
“How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.”
The story is an epic journey from the streets of Old Delhi to its present-day metropolis, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India. It is a tapestry of a diverse country played out by characters including a Muslim hijra, an upper-caste Hindu, an officer in the intelligence bureau, a Sikh, a Christian – almost everyone is represented.
“People—communities, castes, races and even countries—carry their tragic histories and their misfortunes around like trophies, or like stock, to be bought and sold on the open market.”
The treat of the night for me was hearing Roy read her own words. If her writing is like poetry, her reading was like music. And in a flash, it was over and throngs of people gathered at the signing table for another piece of this awe-inspiring woman.
Written by Melissa Fagan, freelance content writer and editor
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