Beyond The God of Small Things: A Reader’s Guide to Arundhati Roy

This June, one of the most highly anticipated novels of the last twenty years will be published. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set on the Indian subcontinent and is promised to be a bold love story, a masterful piece of fiction that is both inventive and incredibly humane. This is also a novel that some thought may never be written.

Roughly twenty years ago, a novel broke out that was impossible to avoid. Even if you hadn’t read The God of Small Things, you were talking about it and its author, Arundhati Roy. The book seized your attention and became a conversation flashpoint with its political message and spellbinding story. It has since become a modern international classic. Published during the same year as the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, this novel arrived at the height of post-colonial studies and in a swell of fascination with Indian culture and history.

Arundhati Roy was a subject of fascination as well. Her arresting author photo brought an air of cosmopolitan style to literary fiction. The combination of beauty and literary accomplishment poised her to achieve even greater acclaim. She was approaching a level of success that seemed destined to eclipse India’s most celebrated author, Salman Rushdie. Yet, despite her commercial success, Roy’s fierce commitment to politics redirected the course of her career.

By September 11, 2001, the novel had sold six million copies worldwide and was published in forty languages. In the four years since the publication of The God of Small Things, Roy spoke out against India’s 1998 nuclear testing and its efforts to become a nuclear superpower. She also railed against the American bombing of Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on a sophomore novel, Roy wrote about power and powerlessness. It would have been easy to coast along a glossy literary circuit taken with her glamorous persona, but Roy refused to back down from her political efforts.

In reaction, the American press largely shunned her nonfiction writing, but the European press embraced her political work. She was widely published in international newspapers such as Le Monde and The Guardian. These essays became the basis of her future nonfiction books. As she took on a more public role as a speaker, Roy commanded large audiences at rallies.

Moving on, she has gone on to support Kashmiri independence from India, campaigned against the construction of the Narmada dam project in India, publicly criticized Israel, questioned the investigation of the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, and argued that the 2008 Mumbai attacks should be considered not as an isolated incident of terrorism but within the context of more complicated issues regarding regional history and society, poverty, the Partition of India, and the consequences of British colonial rule.

Throughout these two decades, she has not stopped writing. She simply did not make time for fiction. There are many young activists for whom her blockbuster bestselling novel is a mere footnote. While fiction has not been her focus since The God of Small Things, it is clear that both it and the rest of her writing has always been consumed by the repercussions of political injustice. Leading up to the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, acquaint yourself with her incredibly relevant backlist titles.

  • The cover of the book The God Of Small Things

    The God Of Small Things

    A Novel

    The 1997 Booker Prize winner and worldwide bestseller is at its heart a book about the fate of Indian society. In Kerala, India, a pair of seven-year-old twins named Rahel and Estha are bound by shame and secrets. They find themselves thrust together with their English cousin Sophie at Christmas in 1969. Living in a fragile democracy fraught with fear of Communism and a sustained adherence to the caste system, the children are the embodiment of this oppressive environment. A series of events trigger a chaotic stream of horrific events that culminates with the death of several innocent individuals and the brutal separation of Rahel and Estha. This dreamlike novel suspends belief through its skillful narrative and the piercing beauty of complicated love that survives despite all.

  • The cover of the book The End of Imagination

    The End of Imagination

    This book is a collection of five books of essays by Arundhati Roy and includes a new introduction by the author. This work guides the reader through Roy’s early days of political activism, following her Booker Prize win for The God of Small Things. Beginning with “The Cost of Living,” Roy calls Indian officials to task for the Indian nuclear tests of 1998 as well as the construction of massive dam projects that displaced incredible numbers of people from their communities. This collection also includes the nonfiction works, “Power Politics,” “War Talk,” “Public Power in the Age of Empire,” and “An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire,” which cover her well-known criticism of the post-9/11 American conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the imperative to address corporate malfeasance, and the global dismantling of democratic institutions.

  • The cover of the book Capitalism: A Ghost Story

    Capitalism: A Ghost Story

    In this indictment of capitalism, Arundhati Roy scrutinizes the sinister side of Indian democracy. In a country of 1.2 billion people, the 100 most wealthy Indian citizens possess assets that equal one quarter of India’s gross domestic product. Roy digs into the manner in which India has responded to globalism through exploitation. While natural resources are squandered by contemporary robber barons, hundreds of thousands of farmers commit suicide so as to avoid overwhelming debt. Roy highlights the ghosts that haunt India’s march into the 21st century, exposing the slums and the corruption that infests policy making.

  • The cover of the book Field Notes on Democracy

    Field Notes on Democracy

    Another collection of essays, Field Notes on Democracy takes an unflinching look at the problems caused by the rise of nationalism, the tyranny of religious majorities, and neo-fascism in modern day India. Roy carefully examines the cruel marginalization of religious and ethnic minorities, rising terrorism, and the aftermath of large scale displacement inflicted upon populations through corporate greed. This book serves as a warning to the world’s largest democracy which teeters on the verge of injustice and social chaos.

  • The cover of the book Things that Can and Cannot Be Said

    Things that Can and Cannot Be Said

    Late in 2014, a remarkable meeting was held in Moscow. Actor and filmmaker John Cusack, Arundhati Roy, and activist Daniel Ellsberg met with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in order to discuss the impact of surveillance, power, and the enduring influence of empire during a time of endless war. They discussed the broader meaning of patriotism, the ways in which foundations and non-governmental organizations limit dissent, and the fact that money travels more freely than people do across international borders. This book is composed of essays and dialogues by Cusack and Roy that are the product of this conversation and the reflections based on it.