Keeping 'Small Things' in perspective Author Arundhati Roy is beautiful, a talented writer, charming - even more, she seems totally unimpressed.

Publishing

May 24, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,sun staff

WASHINGTON - Don't hate her because she is beautiful.

Arundhati Roy told People magazine that she wanted nothing to do with its annual list of the world's 50 most fabulous faces, and they put her in there anyway.

It also would be unfair to hate her just because her first novel, "The God of Small Things," is an international best seller that has made her millions, or because John Updike hailed it as a "Tiger Woodsian debut." Nor can one begrudge her Great Britain's Booker Prize, a literary award so hot that English bookmakers lay odds on it.

The tiniest frisson of dismay is permitted, however, when Roy confides she is pleased her reading here has been moved to a larger venue in order to accommodate the throngs. A year ago, you see, her first visit to Washington attracted what she characterizes as a very small audience - mostly Indians from the World Bank, with questions about economics.

How many people in all?

"Not very many. Maybe 100."

It's suggested that that is actually a respectable number for a literary writer, given that no reviews of her book had yet appeared.

"Really?" Roy's response is a verbal shrug. "Today, you see, it's 500. In New York, it was so massive, and in San Francisco, there were so many people, they were practically hanging from the ceiling."

She's not bragging, just stating the facts as she knows them. For Roy, 38, is rock-star famous in her native India. People travel long distances to meet her, to see her, to read her poems written in her honor.

"Somebody who sells boiled eggs on the side of the road, people who have never heard of literature - have heard about the woman that won the Booker Prize," she says, huddled in a jean jacket, a tiny, incongruous figure in the wood-paneled bar of her hotel, where lobbyist types unafraid of cliche embrace ice-cold martinis and smoke cigars. "It's so sweet. These little villagers with big soda-bottle specs come up and hug you and say, 'You won for us.' "

So this United States tour, for the paperback edition of "The God of Small Things" (HarperPerennial, $13), is almost a respite. Almost. Roy finds she can't eat with her fingers in the restaurants here, which makes her homesick.

"The God of Small Things" is the story of "two-egg twins," a boy and a girl, Estha and Rahel. Told in a rich, playful, wholly original voice, the book moves back and forth in time, circling ever closer to a single, cataclysmic event that rends the family apart: the death of a half-English cousin, Sophie Mol.

Roy writes: "Still, to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it. Equally, it could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago. Long before the Marxists came. Before the British took Malabar, before the Dutch Ascendency, before Vasco da Gama arrived. . . . It could be argued that it began long before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a tea bag.

"That it really began in the days when the Love Laws where made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.

"And how much."

Ultimately, almost everyone violates these laws - the twins, their mother, all their relatives. Roy says the novel's language came naturally, but the structure took much of the four years she labored. "It was like laying a music track, you just keep putting more layers in it. It just emerged, it presented itself to me."

When she finished, she sent the manuscript to a British agent, David Godwin; in his excitement over the work, Godwin flew to India four days later. Roy, whose writer daydreams had focused on having a single, hardcover copy for her own, found reality leaping ahead of her with a $1.6 million advance and sales to 25 countries.

The book received glowing reviews and was climbing best-seller lists long before she won the Booker. All of which made her quite ripe for a backlash, particularly in Great Britain.

"That was fun, actually," she says. "They were so nasty. Their prize was being taken away by this heathen."

She is the first Indian writer to win the Booker, and "The God of Small Things" can be read as a novel peculiar to her homeland, with its emphasis on history, politics and caste. Note that it is the death of a half-English child that brings the family to grief, a detail that Roy concedes is significant.

But Roy believes her book has been embraced by an international audience - she casually reels off the list of countries in which it's a No. 1 best-seller - because of its universal appeal. "I really don't think it's a novel about India, but a novel about human nature. I don't think people are that interested in India."

The book is not autobiographical. And yet, like most first novels, it is not not autobiographical. Roy grew up near a pickle factory in Ayemenem, the setting for "God." She was not a twin, two-egg or otherwise, but she has a brother to whom she is close. Her brother asked of the book: "Where are all the nightmares?" (She offers no further explanation of this comment.)

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