The curious place of Arundhati Roy’s non-fiction in the canon and the persistent mischaracterisation of her work.
If you look up the name of Arundhati Roy in the latest edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature you will find this:
Novelist, script-writer, and anti-globalisation essayist and campaigner, born in Bengal and brought up in southern India. Her semi-autobiographical novel set in Kerala and much influenced by Salman Rushdie, The God of Small Things, won the 1997 Booker Prize.
The Companion, a work in process, was started by Paul Harvey, a scholar civil servant. The first edition came out in 1932. The above quote is taken from the latest and seventh edition published in 2009. Roy first appeared in its pages in a broader entry on ‘Anglo-Indian Literature’ in 2000. She was briefly mentioned among the latest and third generation of Indian writers in English. The first fuller treatment of Roy was in the Concise paperback version of the Companion that was edited by Margaret Drabble (with Jenny Stringer) in 2007. It contained a brief synopsis of The God of Small Things and a little more information about Roy that touched on the activist leanings of her later writings. This earlier entry was nearly four times longer than the current one.
Needless to say, with thousands of entries ranging from ‘Mahabharata’ to ‘Macaulay’ and beyond, the Companion is a treasure trove for common readers of literature in English. But it is particularly indispensable to students of the field. The space afforded to a writer or work in this reference roughly corresponds to their standing in the literary canon. Even so, all of that said, the main problem with this presumably updated entry on Roy is that it is significantly wrong.
When Kemp, one of the nearly 200 contributors to the Companion, reviewed Roy’s novel for the Sunday Times he claimed the novel employs “magic-realism as recycled candy floss”. Anyone who has read the novel and has any correct ideas about magic-realism, would disagree. Thankfully, the phrase magic-realism is missing from Kemp’s entry on Roy. Even so, he couldn’t resist the idea and mentions Rushdie as a decisive influence on Roy. The comparison with Rushdie too is wrong; there is no scholarly, or popular, consensus that Roy’s novel was written under the influence of Rushdie. Discussion about his influence died soon after the glare of the Booker win faded, leaving Roy to chart her own course. And this was already a decade-old thing when the above entry was published.
Calling Roy an ‘anti-globalisation essayist’ is as wrong as claiming she is influenced by Rushdie because, even if it were to be described briefly, it is closer to the truth to say her work is against a certain kind of corporate globalisation. Her essays deal with overtly political issues including the hand-in-glove functioning of powerful corporations with national and state governments. The result of such functioning is a massive draining of public resources and the eventual accumulation of wealth in the hands of transnational elites. This perpetuates dehumanising poverty and the moral cowering of a whole society that has learned to cope with failures rather than deal with systemic corruption. In effect, her essays open one’s consciousness about how the world works.
The academic and editor Kemp is a fly in the ointment because his 50-odd entries in the Companion do little to address our literary ignorance and serve as examples of slapdashery. The enthusiasm that he displays for certain writers in this canon-shaping reference becomes active dislike in the case of others. Roy falls in the latter category. The Companion may not be a perfect concoction but, thanks to Kemp, it seems it has declined in quality after Drabble.
A pattern of bias
The faulty take on Roy in the Companion is neither unique nor particularly alarming, but there seems to be a pattern of bias against her non-fictional work in certain important academic publications. One would not expect scholarly works to be so tuned to the hooting or booing of crowds and TRP chasers as they apparently are.
One such example that relates to Roy is from the recent award-winning Concise History of Indian Literature in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Jon Mee is a scholar who deals with the late 18th and early 19th centuries of English literature, or the Romantic period. His resume, easily available online, is impressive: he has authored four books, edited ten and contributed 37 chapters in anthologies. Mee’s chapter in the History on Indian novelists of the 1980s and 1990s traces the thematic and chronological growth of the genre and how it arrived at a certain confidence. But his narrative enters dubious territory when he comes to the end of his chapter and again Roy is the victim. He gets the easily known fact of Roy’s birth year wrong. More strangely, he writes that the narrator in The God of Small Things is Rahel, the girl twin. The narrator is in fact an omniscient one who is privy to much more than Rahel could be. Apart from these blunders, Mee tries to hold up his interpretive roof with the thin stick of academic jargon. He writes: “Roy’s novel records the dislocation between the ‘Small God’ of individual lives and the ‘Big God’ of nation”. Of course the novel is about individual lives. But these lives do not play out against the backdrop of a nation but rather an adult world deeply hostile to human tenderness that seeks to operate by rules laid out by its incurious hardened members.
Kemp’s inaccurate connections between Roy, magic realism and Rushdie are not in the same league as Mee’s factual and interpretative errors. Kemp seems to have entered the inner ring of Oxford University Press by stealth or with the help of an ideological crutch (Kemp and the new editor Dame Dinah Birch once shared the virtual, aristocratic high podium of debrett.com). Mee seems to be an honoured and revered invitee. Both cases prove that scholarship, even of the highest kind, is a distributable good and not necessarily something acquired among stacks of books in closed lonely rooms.
The case of Sarkar
The third example is of a very different kind. Indian Literature is a bimonthly journal published by the Sahitya Akademi, the Indian government’s apparently independent departmental entity. It is common knowledge that Roy has contributed to some very important debates. Indian Literature, if it merely mouths the State’s position, which Roy criticises loudly, is likely to lose whatever standing it has as an independent or semi-autonomous production. But in its pages, a guest editor, possibly again by invitation, and who fondly and often calls himself a poet and a writer, Subodh Sarkar, writes that Roy does “make a fornication of truth, masturbation of a legacy and rape of a history”. To the reader it seems that Sarkar is enjoying himself at the expense of Indian Literature or vice versa. Sarkar is reluctant or forgetful about elaborating on what he means when he uses big words like ‘truth’, ‘legacy’ and ‘history’. He seems to be talking about the freedom of expression guaranteed to Indians by the constitution: Roy, according to Sarkar, is doing all the dirty things she can using that freedom. Sarkar clearly uses this language because he lacks proper arguments.
Roy’s non-fictional work – compilations of her essays or interviews – is treated entirely differently from her novel, this when it is not only gaining unprecedented prestige in India but also across the world. Contrarily, Roy’s non-fictional works seem to have affected her image adversely, for the canon-building forces. Her non-fictional works are not reviewed by platforms dedicated to reviewing such as Biblio and The Book Review. Roy’s one such book The Algebra of Infinite Justice (2002) was selected for the Sahitya Akademi award in 2006, but this, along with three of her non-fictional books, was not reviewed in Indian Literature.
All three examples – Kemp in the Companion, Mee in the Concise History and Sarkar in Indian Literature – embody a glaring failure of critical standards. The critics converge on the hapless Roy as they, intentionally or unintentionally, try to parry her out of the canon. This convergence raises the question of the place of non-fiction, particularly urgent contrarian political essays, in the canon of English literature. A Nobel win by Alexievich Svetlana in 2015 for her documentary non-fiction – based on topics such as the lives of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan and the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – may offer a clue to where literature is headed.
Yash Pal Rohilla is a Ph.D candidate at the Central University of Himachal Pradesh.