Book signing with Arundhati Rov
I met two of my favorite literary heroes this summer: 2017 Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie.
This summer was one long read of delicious books of interesting variety, but the highlight of my summer was the author visits that acted as bookends. Summer began with the visit of Arundhati Roy to LA, and listening to her speak about her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, on June 29th at the Ararati Theatre in conversation with Hector Tobar (organized by LAPL), and ended with a visit by Salman Rushdie who spoke about his 18h book, The Golden House, at Theatre at Ace Hotel on 9th street and Broadway, in Downtown. LA times columnist, Pat Morrison was the facilitator. Unfortunately, unlike with Roy, there was no chance to meet him one on one, but Ms. Morrison was more accessible and getting her opinion was a satisfactory substitute.
Both of these authors are heroes of mine. I first met Arundhati Roy 21 years ago when she visited Colombo Sri-Lanka to talk about her book, The God of Small Things. I still remember her words that her architecture background influenced how she built up and structured her book. After that day, I have always read books with an eye for how authors build up their characters and plot… little pieces of puzzles, and like an absorbing puzzle it’s the reader’s duty to fit the pieces together till the entire intricate picture is completed. I credit Arundhati Roy for making me into a structuralist.
Therefore, meeting her and getting to hear her talk about her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was nostalgic and yet different. She said her book took her 10 years to write and it was a gift to her fans because after the success of her first book, The God of Small Things, she had not written any fiction and was busy being an activist. Her writing in the 20 years between her novels was political and topical, essays based on current events, observations, and research. Therefore, her second novel was much awaited. I was lucky that I got to speak to her after the event. This time her words that I remember were that even today, a woman is not respected or does not have an equal voice. Roy has been criticized, defamed, threatened, and yet she writes what she sees because she cares. The hair on the back of my neck rose when she spoke about a former Bollywood star who now is a Member of Parliament who stated that Roy should be tied to a battle tank and paraded around the war areas of Kashmir as she loves those people so much. A threat I knew that could easily be carried out.
The characters in her books are people we would not see ordinarily because they are the outcasts of society, if she did not so lovingly and with such empathy and understanding describe them to us, making their pains, their joys, ones we now identify with. Her 2nd fictional book’s protagonist is a “hijra”, a man locked in a woman’s body who lives in the community of transgender people in Delhi but later leaves and begins his own ‘Jannat’ (heaven) guest house for outcasts in a cemetery. I love her writing for the poetic nature of her prose. Even bloody scenes like the ethnic mob violence experienced in Gujarat, she renders to us in beautifully haunting though tragic imagery and metaphors.
With Pat Robinson, Rushdie interviewer
I started reading Salman Rushdie as a deliberate act of rebellion as a 16-year-old. That’s when his book, Satanic Verses, for which he received a fatwa from Ayathullah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, was a banned book. As a 16-year-old, it was tantalizing to read about Prophet Mohammed, the character Mahmoud in the book, and read about his crazy ramblings, and yet it was shocking because I was familiar with the culture he wrote about. Even then, the multiple layers of his plot and his prose were like the skins of an onion, each layer of skin needed to be carefully peeled back to reveal the bulb--the wit, humor, satire, and irony within, the concept of doubleness, of the immigration experience, of being displaced and yet standing up for what you believe in were concepts I still remember clearly from that reading. Over the years, I would read 6 more of his books: Midnight's Children, Shame, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, and Luka and the Fire of Life, becoming better at understanding his special structure and with each read, the magic and the mystery of his prose would lesson. However, Midnight’s Children would remain my favorite from his collection of books.
As I listened to Rushdie speak, I marveled at his articulateness, and yes, at his courage too. It does take courage to stand up and question the status quo and deliberately write about subjects that begin arguments. His latest book, The Golden House, has a character similar to President Trump and he referred to this style as “optical reality,” different from his earlier books which were magical realism. One of the quotes I took away was “Character is destiny.” Once a character is formed, the character dictates how he should act and react. Therefore, the author is only the medium through which the character has now taken over.
I admire both these authors immensely, not only for their literary prowess but also for their courage. I believe what they do is special. I love post-colonial literature and both these authors take the language of the colonizer and use it better than the British ever imagined the English language to be used. They give the language a special patina that is unique to them, who can switch comfortably from one language to another within a sentence, or a paragraph, and yet make sense. I find this style especially enjoyable to read, maybe because the languages these authors speak are ones I am familiar with, but even for the native English speaker it adds what I can only term as spice, thus making these reads highly palatable.