four strangers become friends
Meeting your favorite writer in the flesh and blood is not always the same as reading their thoughts in paper and ink. Their voice, which fills pages with its rich magic, does not sound the same when they speak aloud. It is easy to expect writers to be an amalgamation of their characters—both vulnerable and mysterious, witty and sarcastic. We expect Agatha Christie to exude the eccentricity and pompousness of Hercule Poirot and Jane Austen to have the piercing eyes and wit of Elizabeth Bennet. At first glance, however, a writer may look and sound much more like the man you sit across from the subway, his nose buried in his paper. Or the kind old lady next door, who sits on the veranda with her dog, sipping tea.
When I first learned that Arundhati Roy was coming to Toronto as part of her promotional tour for her newest novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I was curious to meet her. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was the first fiction novel she had written since her debut, published in 1997, the year I was born. I had read her Man Booker-prize-winning debut novel, The God of Small Things, and fell in love with her poeticism, the intricacy of her characters, and the suppleness of her ability to construct plot. Set in Ayemenem, Kerala, the novel weaves elements of mystery, the greater political landscape, and darker undercurrents of family life, ultimately creating a story that breathes and lives on its own. Roy took a pause from fiction to pursue activism and pen several fiery nonfiction books, in which she fiercely advocates against the usage of nuclear weapons and argues for the independence of Kashmir. Her second fiction novel in twenty years was thus greatly anticipated.
When my best friend cancelled a few days before the event, I debated whether to attend the book launch by myself. But it was a hot summer day and there was nothing to do at home, so I found myself in a line that stretched the entirety of the street from the Bloor Street United Church, where her talk and signing was to take place. I was astounded by the length of the line and even more so by the diversity of the crowd that had gathered around the church; there were people young and old, academics in their blazers and activists in bold clothing.
As I stood in the line, munching on my dinner, sweat streaming down my face in the blaze of the June sun, an elderly woman with graying curls in front of me in line turned around.
“Why do you like Arundati Roy?”
Her voice was deep and resonant, velvet tones textured the roundness with which she pronounced her As and Os. Dark kajol lined her midnight eyes. I cannot remember her name now, but it somehow fit the regal way she carried herself. In response, I mumbled something about the vividness of her writing style, the angry passion and the discerning criticism of her nonfiction.
The woman behind me, who looked to be in her mid-fifties and spoke with a British lilt, leaned over and joined our conversation.
“I like her because she brings me to places I have never been. I felt like I was in Ayemenem with her last one, and I felt like I was in New Delhi in this one. Even when I have not been to either place,” the British woman said.
“Really?” the elderly woman countered. “As I read it, I wondered how anyone who had not seen those places could have understood her words. She is so specific with them—only those who have lived in New Delhi would have smelled its scent through her pages. I felt like I was back home after so long, when I read her new book.”
“When did you leave India?” I asked, as the child of Indian immigrants myself.
“I left New Delhi nearly 70 years ago, when the borders were drawn and Pakistan was born. I was only seven when I saw it for the last time and we resettled in Lahore. But the way she described the foods, the streets, the air, it felt I was seven years old again.”
I nodded, touched by her words. As a member of the Indian diaspora, the nostalgia with which she spoke of New Delhi felt familiar in a way I could not place. Perhaps it was a longing for a home that I could never truly inhabit. It is a feeling echoed by the characters of Roy‘s Ministry of Utmost Happiness who are caught between borders, whether they be those of gender or caste, religion or place. For those who have crossed borders, home can sometimes only be found within the pages of a book.
After almost three hours, we were admitted into the church, losing each other in the crowd amidst the hundreds of others scrambling to find good seats. Nearly a thousand people filled the church, straining their ears to catch Roy’s voice. When she arrived on stage, she was smaller than I had imagined her to be—dainty, elfin in her build and mannerisms. Her voice was childlike, musical, soaring with joy as she thanked us for attending. It was an image that juxtaposed the fury encased in her essays. Prior to reading a chapter, she announced that she would be showing us a clip of a documentary. We watched footage of the violence in Kashmir, the heavy presence of military in the region, the human loss of life as a result of the fight for borders. There was a young woman in her mid-twenties sitting next to me who recently immigrated to Toronto from Bangalore, India. We struck up a conversation about India and eventually land on the Kashmir conflict.
“It’s strange,” she said, “how your own country can withhold such horrors.”
Roy was unflinching in her interview following the documentary. It was clear that she did not want to shy away from horror but rather witness it in its full spectrum, to question and to confront it—not out of anger but love for humanity. When I finally met Roy, a copy of my book in hand, I was struck by the warmth that creased the folds of her eyes. For a person who has achieved a great deal as a result of her penchant for justice and gift for the written word, she has an earthiness to her that makes her feel tangible. She is the sweet middle-aged woman next door, the comforting friend, the fiery activist, and the gifted writer all at once. I wanted to say something eloquent as she looked up at me after signing her name, but all I could stammer is a thank you for everything. From the look in her eyes, I think she understood.
Perhaps the extraordinary nature of literature lies not solely in the dialogue between the writer and the reader, but the way in which a book lives on its own, breathing and touching the lives of those who enter its radius. And The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has created quite a large radius for itself, from Lahore to New Delhi, from London to Toronto, twisting and crossing borders, making the foreign familiar and the familiar foreign, and most of all, uniting four strangers, even if for just a temporary moment.