Book RevieThe Mistress of English Prose [Archives:2007/1023/Education]

February 8 2007

Reviewed by Dr. R.S.Sharma
Professor of English,
Faculty of Languages,
Sana'a University, Sana'a

The book under review is a veritable anthology covering the entire oeuvre of an internationally acclaimed star writer, Arundhati Roy: her celebrated novel, The God of Small Things, which bagged the 1997 Booker Prize, and her political writing. Under a single cover, Murari Prasad offers a bouquet of some of the best and recent writing on Roy.

In the Foreword, Bill Ashcroft, the founding exponent of postcolonialism, designates Roy as an activist writer. In his own words, “Roy demonstrates that acts of representation may, and indeed must go hand in hand with acts of political resistance”. This is at least true of what has been described as 'postcolonial writing'. But it needs to be added that a proper estimation of Roy's activism is still awaited .We may reach important insights if we compare, for example, Roy's The God of Small Things with Ngugi wa Thiongo's Devil on the Cross, as far as the spirit of activism and rebellion is concerned.

The editor's Introduction is distinguished by the fact that it supplies all the personal and literary details that one requires for an insightful reading of Roy's work: her fiction and non-fiction. He draws on Roy's own words, where necessary, and makes a stout attempt to defend her against such critics as CD Narasimhaiah and Rukmini Bhaya Nair.

Further, Amitava Kumar extracts the salience of Arundhati Roy's mission and vocation in his succinct piece. The essay titled “Reading Arundhati Roy Politically” by Aijaz Ahmad is well-known to the Roy scholars and finds numerous references in other articles in this collection. Ahmad analyzes Roy's anti-Communism and comes to the conclusion that “she has neither a feel for Communist politics nor perhaps rudimentary knowledge of it.” What Ahmad does not appreciate is the fact that the novel drew contrary reviews from CPI (M) and CPI (ML), the latter praising her realism for highlighting the torture that the Naxalites suffered at the hands of CPI(M) in Bengal and Kerala. Nonetheless, Ahmad's criticism about Roy's naivety in political matters of India , including her position in her recently launched book,13 December, A Reader, The Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament ( ?name=Arundhati+Roy) has found echoes in discussions of Roy's activism and has been extended to all areas of political controversy espoused by her.

On the other hand, Ahmad applauds Roy's achievement in creative writing. He regards The God of Small Things as a landmark in Indian English fiction. “In this line of evolution,” he observes, “Arundhati is an original. She knows about language and form what Rushdie knows. But with English she has even greater inwardness and naturalness; the novel is actually felt in English.” This claim on behalf of Arundhati Roy has met with general consensus among the cognoscenti, but the common reader is baffled by the novel's complex and contrived plot structure.

No doubt The God of Small Things is a 'writerly text' and its temporal structures are complex and interlocking. Madhu Benoit in her essay has made a commendable attempt to analyze the multi-layered narrative and relate twists and turns of the temporal stretches to thematic element, though all the correlations are not equally convincing.

Alex Tickell examines Roy's “postcolonial cosmopolitanism”, but he fastens upon a single image and goes for)sort of) overkill.Tickell is quite right in assuming and exploring the cosmopolitan element in The God of Small Things)and Roy is not alone in this, because postcolonial writing generally includes a cosmopolitan living. But it would be myopic to suppose that the family group is confined “in the foreign, socially contained space of the sky-blue Plymouth”.Rahel herself, the mediating consciousness in the novel, breaks the bounds of postcolonial construct.

Few critics, I guess, would agree with Brinda Bose when she argues that exoticism is represented as politics in The God of Small Things. On the other hand, the essays by Antonio Navarro-Tejero, Julie Mullaney and Devon Campbell-Hall are well-argued interventions in the diverse thematic aspects of Roy's novel , such as power relationships, globalization and eco-feminism. Julie's line of argument is quite convincing inasmuch as she focuses on Roy's contribution to “the development of a feminist transnational anti-capitalism” but perhaps she bites off more than she can chew)she says precious little about The God of Small Things.

Bishnupriya Ghosh studies the process ( almost miraculous) by which numerical figures relating to various national and international issues are presented and converted into frightening moral inequities in Roy's non-fiction. By employing the abstract entities of mathematics Roy prominently foregrounds the suffering of the displaced by Narmada Valley Project, the have-nots in Indian society and the Iraqi victims of the American invasion. She advocates Roy's cause and endorses her hyperbolic style as a merit in Roy's non-fiction. Bishnupriya herself, I feel, is guilty of this exaggeration when she mentions Roy along with some great martyrs of history.

Articulating the marginal appears to be the chief concern of postcolonial criticism and the topic is quite familiar. What distinguishes Murari Prasad's essay is a scholarly and systematic exploration of the creative process including the linguistic devices by which Roy has articulated the marginal in various sectors of the global community. He suggests that in the case of Roy's corpus, the discourse of marginality must be considered in conjunction with the representation of resistance.

I entirely agree with Prasad when he pleads that the title of Roy's celebrated novel must not be applied to Velutha exclusively. N. Ram's interview with Arundhati Roy enables us to get things from the horse's mouth, as the saying goes. The questions are mostly journalistic, focusing on Roy's activism and Ramachandra Guha's tirades against her. I think her rebuttal that Guha quotes her sentences out of context and tendentiously is worthy of serious consideration because writers, the world over, do suffer from what I would call 'the politics of misquotation and dissimulation'.

To sum up, the compilation is critically valuable, immensely informative and up to date. But I am constrained to mention two reservations. Most of the essays operate within the single parameter of postcolonialism. Secondly, the collection has drawn largely on World Literature Written in English. However, the skewed slant is not going to detract from the real virtues of this solid and significant contribution to Arundhati Roy studies.