Arundhati Roy’s Return to the Form That Made Her Famous

Karan Mahajan in The New York Times:

RoyRoy’s first and only other novel, “The God of Small Things,” was a commercial and critical sensation. The gorgeous story of a doomed South Indian family, it sold six million copies and won the Booker Prize. It became a sort of legend — both for its quality and for its backwater publishing story: Roy, unlike so many other successful Indian writers in English, didn’t live abroad or attend an elite college. She had trained as an architect and had an obscure career as an indie actress and screenwriter. Her success, which involved foreign agents and a startling advance, was linked to India’s kick-starting, liberalizing economy as well. It seemed everything had come together for Roy’s book. Roy reacted with instinctive defiance. She stopped writing fiction and began protesting against the Indian state, which, she felt, was steamrollering the rights of the poor and collaborating with capitalist overlords. Several books of essays followed. Their titles — “The Algebra of Infinite Justice,” “The End of Imagination,” “Capitalism: A Ghost Story” — convey the largeness of her concerns. She traveled with Maoist guerrillas in an Indian forest, marched with anti-big-dam protesters, met with Edward Snowden in a Moscow hotel room, and was threatened and even briefly imprisoned by the Indian government — and she continued to write. But the writing was not of the same standard as her fiction. Though occasionally witty in its put-downs, it was black-and-white and self-righteous — acceptable within the tradition of political writing, but not artful.

So it is a relief to encounter the new book and find Roy the artist fully and brilliantly intact: prospering with stories and writing in gorgeous, supple prose. The organs of a slaughtered buffalo in one scene “slip away like odd-shaped boats on a river of blood”; the “outrageous” femininity of transgender women or hijras in a neighborhood make the “real, biological women” look “cloudy and dispersed”; a boat is seen “cleaving through a dark, liquid lawn” of a weed-choked lake. Again and again beautiful images refresh our sense of the world. The story concerns several people who converge over an abandoned baby at an anti-corruption protest in Delhi in 2011. There is a hijra named Anjum who has survived the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots of 2002. There is her sidekick, a former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussain because he is obsessed with the “courage and dignity” of Saddam “in the face of death.” And there is an enigmatic middle-class woman called S. Tilottama who ferries the abandoned baby to her home.

More here.