This week I am in a state of utmost happiness. For Arundhati Roy fans, the name rings a bell. For Roy virgins, twenty years later, she has finally published her second work of fiction and what a book it is; layered, textured, nudging you in one direction and then dragging you back to another. It leaps and meanders, it weeps and laughs.
The book is not a story as much as it is an experience. She has dedicated it to the unconsoled. Clever that dedication, because this book talks about the hidden ones; the ones who go unseen. In an India teeming with 1.2 billion people, Roy has decided to focus on the ones who fall through the crack, the ones we do not meet in our daily lives. But the reality is they exist; the hijras, the Maoists, the abandoned children, the street creatures, the disdained, the reviled, the mentally unstable, the freedom fighters, the Naxalites, the abused and the abusers, the raped and the rapers and the people in a graveyard, waiting to die but living it up.
Roy’s book is about Kashmir and Godhra, Bhopal and the Sikh riots. It’s about emergency and partition, and fast unto deaths. It talks about displaced people; physically from dams and mentally due to torture and horrifying memories. It’s about megalomaniac leaders and fly by night politicians, bureaucrats and corrupt officers. It’s about Hindu fundamentalists and Muslim jihadis, love, war and relationships beyond blood. It’s about motherhood and mothering and deep love that transcends physical space.
You wonder if the book is about heaven/Jannat in a graveyard or a graveyard in the Jannat/heaven called Kashmir. You sense Roy’s passion, her deep-seated knowledge and you gain a new respect for this woman who has roamed among the unconsoled, lived their lives, heard their tales. You get a sense that maybe, possibly, the book is partly autobiographical. Is Tilo modelled on Roy? But conjectures aside, above all the book is about poetry and lyricism.
In her opening lines she talks about bats drifting across the city like smoke. You visualize the Amaltas (Golden Laburnum) blooming in full yellow glory looking up at the scorching brown sky and uttering an expletive or imagine resting against frayed velvet bolsters that are washed, darned and washed again. Picture the simple man collecting relics, in a bright yellow See, Buy, Fly, duty free bag, from a life less lived. For a heart-stopping moment, listen to the lovers as the silence between them swells and subsides like the bellows of an accordion playing a tune only they can hear. Ride that car floating like a steel bubble through a city of potholed streets, towering cement blocks and snaking gray flyovers tangling and untangling under a yellow sodium haze.
In New York this past week, I heard Arundhati Roy in conversation with none other than Eve Ansler; the famous Tony award winning author of The Vagina Monologues. Ansler an icon of the feminist movement; Ansler and Roy together; two phenomenal women sharing the stage at BAM; give a child a lollipop. Ansler introduced Roy’s book calling it an earthquake. She likened it to a river that flows in all directions, gathers twigs, rocks, gets flooded, collects sediment and is never still. Roy called her book a story of the air. She wept, laughed, applauded the epithet labelling her hysterical and endeared herself to one and all. The face of pure joy that laughed up at me as I had my book signed will forever be seared in my memory.
People in the know will immediately recognize characters and get pulled into the narrative. Others may revel in her clever story-telling and make sense of nonsense. Some will read it for the poetry of Cohen, for the Urdu verses and Hindu mantras. Others will read it for the artistry of words and images. Beg, borrow, buy but burrow into Roy’s world of the unconsoled. The book is a must read.
What is a must-forget was the cricket match India threw away. There is no doubt we have a great team; it was just not our day. While an entire nation inhaled in anticipation and exhaled in disappointment, Pakistan beat us comprehensively in every department. Suffice to say, I have no nails.