Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Indian literature in English after Arundhati Roy
In June of 1997, on the verge of graduating from high school, I received an award for my study of foreign languages, a book wrapped in blue shiny paper. As I opened it, a small clipping from TIME slipped out—an article on an Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, whose novel was taking the literary world by storm. My prize was Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things (1997). I sat down to read it immediately.
On a visit to India the summer before, I had poked around bookshops desperately seeking out new fiction—something other than the requisite thin copy of Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) that seemed to be everywhere, dusty and unthumbed, the few books by Anita Desai and Gita Mehta, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1954), and a graying Sahitya Akademi translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chaturanga (1916). This was 1997 and, unlike today, most of Mumbai’s bookstores were hidden inside luxury hotels, Indian literature meant Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, and the bookshelves dedicated to India offered little more than old Lonely Planet volumes and coffee table books on the lives of the Maharajas. At age eighteen, I found Anand dry and Rushdie pompous. Desai and Mehta felt like they were writing for my parents’ generation. There was even something dull and unfashionable about the packaging of these books, most of which were published not in India but in England. Indian literature wasn’t cool—it was, somehow, embarrassing.
The idea that India could have a contemporary novel of its own, a novel that shouted rather than whispered, a novel by a young woman, was, to my mind, a revelation.
The God of Small Things changed all that. The idea that India could have a contemporary novel of its own, shorn of Anand’s unwieldy idioms or Markandaya’s awkward exoticisms, a novel whose writing style was new and fresh, whose irony and anger were youthful and contemporary, a novel that shouted rather than whispered, a novel by a young woman, was, to my mind, a revelation. I found myself simultaneously devastated by the book and exhilarated at the thought that this is what the Indian novel had become. The announcement of Roy’s long-awaited next novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, to be published later this year, brings me back to that time.
I did not know it then, but the Anglophone Indian novel was at a turning point that The God of Small Things foretold, even if its own gaze was resolutely backward. There was such tragedy in the writing, and stagnancy, and frustration at a world that could not accommodate childhood, social change, or eruptions of desire. There was Ammu, who desperately wanted a life for herself but was burdened by what Kiran Desai was to later term the inheritance of loss, a sense of melancholy passed down from generation to generation, clipping the wings of the youth, suppressing the possibility of joy. There was Velutha, who (one imagined) read Marx in the moonlight and represented a proletariat gathering its forces, waiting for the right time to strike out against centuries of oppression—but who eventually also became a victim of the devastating forces of history and state-sanctioned violence. And of course there were Estha and Rahel, two-egg twins who did their best to find spaces to breathe, even as their childhoods were snatched from under their feet, leading to lives marked by silence and grief. Now we can look back and see just how presciently these characters comprised a cry for help, a recognition of the power of the past in stunting the future. But The God of Small Things also represented a sense of possibility, a freshness that promised throwing off history’s handcuffs and forging a new future for Indian literature.
Just as her readers were beginning to wrap their minds around this liberating duality, Roy herself started to feel burdened by her success. After she was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997, she attained a cult-like following, was feted and invited to undertake speaking tours, and plied with money. The sultry book jacket image of her was circulated widely by the media, and in 1998 People named her one of the world’s fifty most beautiful people. Roy records this in The Cost of Living, the nonfiction book she published in 1999 as a response—a rejoinder—to this adulation. She spoke at my college around that time and underlying her words was a gathering layer of anger. Rather than bask in the applause she had earned, it was clear she wanted to use her fame to publicize various injustices: the World Bank, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, India’s nuclearization. She was not in the mood to be a celebrity. Something had hardened inside her and she would never be the same.
Now, as a professor of literature, when I teach The God of Small Things to my students, we discuss Roy’s transition away from fiction as emblematic of the very violence she describes in the novel, a violence in which the world’s Small Things—children, words, insects, the birthmark in the shape of a leaf on Velutha’s back that makes the monsoons come on time—are swept up into the winds of the Big Things—violence, history, politics, caste, and war—and methodically silenced. Roy’s novel began as a small thing, a rejoinder to the violences of patriarchy, caste, and party politics, a clearing of space for voices that otherwise would have drowned, unnoticed. But it got taken over by the roar of international publishing markets, the exoticization and commodification of brown women’s bodies, and the unequal relations between India and the West, turning The God of Small Things into another notch in the global capitalist-patriarchal enterprise. I understand it now—it is an ironic footnote to the novel’s own story—how The God of Small Things became something else entirely from the novel she had written, and how once Roy saw it happening, she turned resolutely away. But at the time I still needed Roy to represent those things I sought so badly and could not find elsewhere: the female writer, the Indian humanist, the giver of beautiful gifts.
In an ironic footnote to the novel’s own story, The God of Small Things became another notch in the global capitalist-patriarchal enterprise.
So while Roy turned in another direction, I remained dogged in my pursuit of the possibility her novel had offered me, the possibility of an Indian tomorrow as opposed to the staid rhythms of the past to which Anglophone Indian literature seemed so beholden. Certainly, Roy’s success made publishers more willing to take risks with the kinds of books they published. Suddenly it was not just Anand and Rushdie populating the shelves. Bookstores mushroomed, Indian Literature sections grew. Some books were good and others less so, but the options seemed endless. I watched over the decades as Indian English literature became something entirely new, entirely different from what it had been before. In the place of hoary folk stories, novels with glossaries, and the ramblings of male narrators were new and more diverse plots, new writing styles, new kinds of characters. The translation industry grew as well, and every day there was a new author that I had never heard of. Roy’s book opened up a new path, and writers, readers, and publishers jubilantly followed.
• • •
Meanwhile Roy set her sights on the ugly undersides of this new world. In 2001 New York was attacked and in response the United States unleashed unilateral military strikes that have taken the world into what seems to be a perpetual state of war. The 1998 electoral victory of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India made Hindu nationalism increasingly mainstream. Ties with Pakistan were strained and India came close to war several times. In 2002 a train of right-wing activists returning from the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya was set on fire, precipitating a resurgence of Hindu–Muslim violence and culminating in an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat that killed over one thousand people. And current prime minister Narendra Modi’s hardline version of the BJP won the 2014 elections in a resounding victory.
Development became the mantra of the new India. Buoyed by the economic liberalization of the early 1990s, the slogan “India Shining” promised its citizens a bright, shiny future. But the new malls, apartment complexes, and global brands that now seemed to be everywhere heralded a nationalism more exclusionary than ever. The promise of a better future was palpable in these aestheticized spaces, but their empty corridors and high price tags only revealed the falsity of that promise. The number of farmer suicides increased and the communist Naxalite movement grew in India’s heartland. The calls for azaadi (freedom) in Kashmir intensified, and the Indian army cracked down with further violence. Terrorism became part of the fabric of this new India, in spectacular cases such as the attack on parliament in 2001 and the coordinated attacks in Mumbai in 2008, and in smaller bombs in markets and buses. Cities such as Mumbai were also affected by a right-wing resurgence, as frustrations over increasing economic inequality became channeled into a parochial politics that divided residents into locals and foreigners. In 2015 many writers, including Roy, returned their national awards, protesting the muzzling of free speech and the government’s silence on rising communal violence around the country.
It’s as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks that have set off resolutely in opposite directions.
It is to exposing these issues that Roy’s writings turned, and although she did not write a novel in the two decades following the publication of The God of Small Things, she wrote prolifically. After The Cost of Living, she published at least twelve books, including The Greater Common Good (1999), An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire (2004), and, most recently, Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014), along with countless articles and long-form reporting in Outlook, The Hindu, and other publications. All are harshly critical of the violence of global capitalism, the dangers of Hindu nationalism, and the failure of the Indian state to value the lives of its marginalized people: Adivasis, Dalits, Kashmiris, women, farmers, Muslims, slum dwellers, and so on. The anger I had glimpsed in 1999 now hardened into a sense of loss at India’s betrayal of its people. In Power Politics (2001) she writes:
It’s as though the people of India have been rounded up and loaded onto two convoys of trucks (a huge big one and a tiny little one) that have set off resolutely in opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into the darkness and disappears. … For some of us, life in India is like being suspended between two of the trucks, one in each convoy, and being neatly dismembered as they move apart, not bodily, but emotionally and intellectually.
Some in India find her too harsh, too strident, too literary for nonfiction, and too sympathetic to Naxalites and Kashmiris. Some have responded to her with venom. But it is precisely this anger that she seems to want to elicit. After the fantastic adulation of 1997, perhaps anger seemed more real, a sign of wakefulness, the more legitimate response in a nightmarish world.
It is in this context of two decades of polemic nonfiction that Roy’s fans, those who have stuck with her through the nonfiction and those who have not, now rejoice in the announcement that she is publishing a second novel this summer, twenty years after The God of Small Things. Although little information about the novel has been released, its title, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, suggests a chilling social satire. Will it be a fictional version of her political writings, a skewering of the Indian state’s indifference, but this time in fictional form? Or will it be something else?
• • •
Roy’s twenty-year turn to nonfiction makes a compelling case for the need for new forms of writing in conditions of social emergency, forms that remain resistant to commodification. This is in line with an overall sense among Indian intellectuals and critics that the present requires a heightened vigilance, an active carving out of a space for dissent. From this perspective, Roy marks one end of cultural production in India today. Another is represented by the many new forms of fiction that have exploded in India since The God of Small Things. These include grittier novels, such as Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), Manu Joseph’s Serious Men (2010), the queer novels of R. Raj Rao, and a number of graphic novels. It also includes commercial fiction: the popular novels of Chetan Bhagat, the “chick lit” writings of Anuja Chauhan, the fantasy fictions of Amish Tripathi, and the romances of Durjoy Datta and Ravinder Singh.
As Roy found spaces further and further from the market, a vast array of new commercial fictions began to emerge.
The range of new writings suggests that Roy’s desire to find spaces further and further from the market as a response to India’s right-wing turn is not the only response to present conditions. Indeed, the vast array of new commercial literatures in India suggests that dividing cultural production into the categories of commodified/apolitical and non-commodified/political is not the most helpful way to imagine a renewed literary future for India. Rather we can find surprising solidarities across these ideological divides. Some of the new literature advances the ideas that Roy inaugurated in The God of Small Things, even though it is written in a non-literary style and is often commercially oriented. Even in genres such as “chick lit,” which many see as offering a superficial, market-driven understanding of women’s problems, we can locate some of the questions of female desire that plagued Roy’s characters. In Anuja Chauhan’s Battle for Bittora (2009), the protagonist Jinni struggles to reconcile her own complex sense of self—outspoken, confident, occasionally silly—with a narrow idea of what it means to be politically engaged. On the surface the book can seem like the complete antithesis of Roy’s, with its comedic tone and its language of “sinewy wrists,” but nevertheless, it raises important questions about the relentlessness of patriarchy and the validity of female desire, in a simpler form that is accessible to a much broader range of readers than the earlier generation of Indian English fiction.
Something similar could be said about Ratika Kapur’s 2015 novel The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, which takes the sexual transgression that was so violently suppressed in The God of Small Things and folds it into the experience of everyday life. The protagonist Mrs. Sharma, lonely because her husband is working in Dubai, starts up an affair with a man she meets on the Delhi metro. Torn between the prudishness of society and her own sexual needs, the narration is a fascinating rumination on social hypocrisy and the work women do to fashion livable lives for themselves. But Mrs. Sharma is an individualist who wants a better life for herself and will do almost anything to achieve it. The novel thus makes a similar social critique as does Roy, but uses the language of aspiration and self-transformation to do it.
And there is the recent English translation of three of Ambai’s mystery stories, collected as A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge and originally published in Tamil in 2014. Ambai’s detective protagonist Sudha Gupta solves mysteries involving missing persons against a shadowy background of domestic violence and sexual abuse. But the feminist project of its author—the women’s studies scholar C. S. Lakshmi, for whom Ambai is a pen name—is carefully downplayed in the books, which are marketed to a wide audience. The prose is shorn of any overt political gravitas and could be read as a simple detective plot set in the everyday life of middle-class Mumbai.
• • •
These texts might seem to mark the end of literature as dissent; they do not take political positions as much as write mundane stories of sadness, freedom, and desire. Their politics are not spectacular, but folded into everyday life. But from another angle, these new books show how dissent does not need to take place in an exclusive sphere outside of the market, outside of all forms of commodification, that it might be even stronger and reach further if it reflects partial complicity in them. This possibility is something that Roy’s personal trajectory—from commodified fiction to angry, political nonfiction—has the potential to overlook. Indeed, The God of Small Things was not immune to its own charges of political quietism: Aijaz Ahmad, a well-known Marxist literary scholar, criticized the book for finding political awakening in the private act of a sexual encounter instead of in the public sphere, a perspective excoriated by feminists. The lesson is that rather than policing what counts as political writing, we might accept that dissent comes in a variety of forms.
Rather than policing what counts as political writing, we might accept that dissent comes in a variety of forms.
It is likely that readers in the United States will not have heard of these three novels by Chauhan, Kapur, and Ambai, as increasingly Indian literature—even in English—is marketed to Indian audiences and does not rely on international sales. Authors such as Chauhan and Bhagat are not even published abroad; they explicitly write for local readers. There is an irony here: while critics see the new literature as thoroughly a product of the market, and thus as representing the end of “good” literature, these new texts are in fact not subject to the same kinds of exoticization and international commodification that Roy faced with The God of Small Things because they are rarely read abroad. They are not outside the market, but occupy a different market. They are reflections of the new India, but also offer new forms of dissent unavailable to the earlier generation.
India’s new literary landscape—with its vast range of texts, its apparent disinterest in politics, and its complicity with capitalism—seems unwieldy at times, and I sympathize with Roy’s desire to steer clear of it and find a purer medium in prose nonfiction. For her commitment to justice, her vision of a better India, and her tireless resistance to the commodification of writing, she will be remembered as one of the most significant authors of the twentieth century. Yet there is still a bit of that eighteen-year-old inside me, even now, who craves the joy of burrowing down into a fictional world. There is a part of me that wants the old Arundhati Roy back. Maybe I will find her in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Otherwise, I think I will go read The God of Small Things again.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.