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India Ink

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like many things in India, language is political and complex and varied. In a land where millions cannot read, there is a “national” language millions cannot speak--Hindi--multiple official languages, thousands of dialects. And then there is English.

All of that matters very much in the world of Arundhati Roy, and yet, because for her imagination precedes words, it matters very little. As a writer, words are her clay. They serve her.

So, in her new novel, “The God of Small Things” (Random House), Roy has written a tragic family saga in language both lush and adventurous. In her story, told mostly through the eyes of 7-year-old fraternal twins Rahel and Estahappen, she vividly re-creates the way children see, hear and experience:

“During the funeral service, Rahel watched a small black bat climb up Baby Kochamma’s expensive funeral sari with gently clinging curled claws. When it reached the place between her sari and her blouse, her roll of sadness, her bare midriff, Baby Kochamma screamed and hit the air with her hymnbook. The singing stopped for a ‘Whatisit? Whathappened?’ and for a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping.

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“The sad priests dusted out their curly beards with gold-ringed fingers as though hidden spiders had spun sudden cobwebs in them.

“The baby bat flew up into the sky and turned into a jet plane without a crisscrossed trail.”

Set in Kerala, the southernmost state in India, the novel tackles family, class and race, and what happens when they intersect. Although widely acclaimed and a surprising success here (it sits at No. 5 on The Times’ bestseller list), the book’s wordplay has divided critics. Kirkus Reviews termed it “vigorous . . . dominated by odd syntactical and verbal combinations and coinages reminiscent of Gerard Manly Hopkin’s ‘sprung rhythm,’ incantatory repetitions, striking metaphors and sensuous descriptive passages.” Times critic Richard Eder, while calling the book “a novel of poignancy and considerable sweep,” also says, “Roy invents cute and with cloyed self-indulgence.”

The author, however, is surprised by the attention to her way of writing.

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“I don’t understand when people say it’s unconventional; I thought it was very conventional,” she says, laughing. “For me, language is the skin on my thought. It’s the way I think, the way I see things. I don’t rewrite my language. I’m not self-conscious about it.”

Such nonchalance might seem unusual in a first-time novelist, but Roy, 37, has been preparing for this time and this book for years. Despite her desire to write, she studied architecture, acted briefly, then stumbled into screenwriting, producing screenplays for two small “very idiosyncratic, highly unsuccessful” films. But they gave her the resources and the honing she needed to write “The God of Small Things.”

“There’s a lot about this book that I tried to do, but I couldn’t do as a screenplay writer,” she says. “It’s almost stubbornly visual. The idea that you could evoke a landscape, a river with words, not just with pictures . . . to imbue the words with feelings. Of course, you could do that with a camera, but to me the thrill was to evoke it with language.”

To find the world depicted in her novel, Roy did not have to go far. Like her twin protagonists, she grew up in Kerala and had a grandmother who owned a pickle factory; college educated, she is therefore a member of India’s “elite.” But she finds the idea that the work is autobiographical a bit simplistic.

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“There’s a whole chapter about somebody being stuck at a railroad crossing. . . . Everybody’s been stuck at one. So if you actually address that question, everything is just ordinary everyday life, which is why even if you don’t know about [the town] Ayemenem, you know what it’s like to be stuck at a traffic light, you know that society has these brutal ways of dividing itself up, you know what it’s like to be a child. So it’s autobiographical, but it’s autobiographical everywhere.”

Dressed in jeans, white ribbed cardigan and thick-soled shoes, Roy seems tiny and delicate, but not fragile. In her Beverly Hills hotel room she projects an edgy mischievousness that bubbles up in her writing, especially in the character of Ammu, the children’s beautiful, defeated, passionate mother.

The attention showered on Roy and her book has come at a fortuitous moment. The recent independence anniversary celebrations in India spawned a media frenzy of critical examination of the country, its progress, its failures and its arts. The literary journal Granta did an all-Indian literature issue, as did the New Yorker, crowning Roy and such colleagues as Vikram Seth and Anita Desai as the new literary elite.

In that New Yorker issue, the touchy politics of language was ignited again when, in an essay, the best known of that anointed circle, Salman Rushdie, wrote that “the prose writing--both fiction and nonfiction--created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official languages’ of India. . . . ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books.”

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The comment has “everyone riled in India,” Roy says. “I think that was a very cruel, unnecessary thing to say. But it also set off this whole wave of self-righteousness on both sides. And I see it all as entirely unnecessary because, as writers, surely we must believe that the stories that we tell are what’s important.” (While she writes--even dreams in English--her book incorporates snatches of Malayalam.)

“You can’t just say, ‘This language is more important.’ Why should that be? There is no one language that can claim to represent all of India, but there are stories,” she says, gathering her long hair along with her thoughts. “If no one else, at least writers must believe that they govern language.”

Although she finds the new attention somewhat manufactured, Roy, who lives in New Delhi with her filmmaker husband, is excited by the work coming from her country, believing that India’s place in the world forces its artist to produce intellectually complex literature.

“A country with that much poverty and that much illiteracy and so on--forget anybody who can write--anybody who can read is privileged, anyone who can eat is privileged. So what you have is a literature that is being produced by writers who are actually without doubt members of the elite.

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“And what happens is in that situation it’s not so easy, you’re not writing the literature of the oppressed, which is powerful but simple, you’re struggling to see why the society works in this way. [Literature] cannot hold one simple position.”

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Neither can the people of India. In her home state of Kerala, reactions to Roy’s book have been largely positive, but reflective of the class, ethnic and religious divisions she skewers.

In 1957, the state gained the distinction of having one of the world’s few democratically elected Marxist governments, Roy says; its culture is further complicated by the co-existence of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

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“If the book had come out in a small way . . . people would have jumped on it. But the fact that there has been this huge acclaim, the people love to be the subject of literature, because it gives the community a sense of pride and dignity, a sense that you’re worth writing about.”

Still, there are complaints. One communist critic called it one of the best books ever written by an Indian in English, then said Roy didn’t know anything about Marxism. Others claimed that it was impossible for an Untouchable and a Syrian Christian to have a relationship, as they do in the novel, because Untouchables can’t perform sexually.

That vivid love scene at the book’s end has also gotten Roy charged by one man with corrupting public morality. “He didn’t even read the book, he just copied the last few pages,” Roy says dismissively. The case has been stayed.

As for the next chapter in her own life story, Roy doesn’t know. She believes that Indians have a “huge sense of inconsequence, a sense of timelessness and perspective” that comes from facing the immense problems of the still-developing nation. “When people say ‘What are you doing next?’ I say, ‘What does it matter?’ ”

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