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The Rediff Special /Vir Sanghvi

'I think from a very early age, I was determined to negotiate with the world on my own'

Arundhati Roy She will concede that she was living with Gerard da Cunha, now a celebrated architect while she was studying architecture. ''It became clear to me that I would never become an architect,'' she recalls. ''Can you see me going to DDA offices to get my plans cleared?''

But once she was virtually thrown out of home, she had no alternative but to try and make a living on the fringes of architecture, if only to pay the bills. She worked for an architect, helping with drawings while da Cunha took a job with the DDA. Neither enjoyed this kind of life much and so they decided to put out.

''We went off to Goa because we decided that we would be flower children. We would make cake ands sell it on the beach and make a living that away. Gerard was really in incredible person so we could do it for seven months but then I found I couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't take the tourists,'' she laughs. ''When I think back on all the things I have done I think from a very early age, I was determined to negotiate with the world on my own. There were no parents, no uncles, no aunts; I was completely responsible for myself.''

She came back from Goa with no money. A friend had given her a ring which she sold at a fruit juice shop for Rs 300 and a banana shake. She took a job at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, found a barsati near the dargah at Nizamuddin and hired a bicycle -- ''It cost Rs 2 a day and it was better than going by bus,'' -- much to the amusement of the lepers who lived in the area. She recalls, ''They kept expecting me to get run over and everyday when I came back, they would say Aaj bhi bach gayi."

Pradip Krishen saw her cycling down a street and offered her a small role in Massey Saab -- "I played the tribal bimbo" -- which she accepted, after initial reservations, more out of curiosity than anything else. But they had barely got to know each other when she got a scholarship to go to Italy for eight months to study the restoration of monuments.

Oddly enough, she says she realised she was a writer during those months in Italy: ''I used to write to Pradip and I kept copies of all the letters because the purpose of those letters was because I wanted him to say, You should be a writer," she laughs.

But of course, you don't become a writer that easily. At the end of her scholarship, she took a flight back to Delhi with no job or future in sight. "The stewardess on the flight got talking to me. And when she found out that I had no money, no place to go to when I landed, she offered that I could come and share the crew's hotel room,'' she remembers.

Nevertheless, she had finally decided what she wanted to do. She linked up with Krishen and they planned a 21 episode television serial for Doordarshan called the Banyan Tree. The independent production company ITV advanced the money and shooting began on Roy's script.

Unfortunately, they had only shot enough footage for three or four episodes when ITV changed its mind. It decided that it would rather write off the Rs 3.5 million it had advanced Krishen and scrapped the serial.

''That was a real heartbreak,'' she says.

A lifeline appeared in the unlikely shape of Bhaskar Ghose. He was then director-general of Doodarshan and eager to commission something different for the national channel. He met Roy who told him that she wanted to write but that she didn't think anyone would finance her kind of screenplays.

''I will,'' said Ghose. And did.

Roy wrote a script based on her experiences of university in Delhi. It was sharp, satirical and unprecedented in the critical, unnostalgic look it took at college life in India. Moreover, it incorporated the fractured English of the student community. The title summed up the tone: In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones.

Ghose liked the screenplay and commissioned a film by Krishen and Roshan Seth agreed to star in it. Though the budget was minuscule, it gave Krishen and Roy a chance to put her vision on the screen. Annie got a warm critical response but Ghose had since been transferred and the new regime at Doordarshan was horrified by the movie.

It was telecast once late at night and Roy suspects that the network has probably lost the master cassette.

Electric Moon followed and though the movie had its fans, it was generally deemed an honourable artistic failure. She is not inclined to quibble with the assessment. ''The movie I had in my head and different from the one we shot,'' she explains. ''I wanted it to have a more anarchic quality, but I didn't know enough about cinema to make that come through on screen.''

Even so, it did lead to Arundhati's first published piece. "When I came back after Electric Moon, there were a lot of things that I needed to sort out in my own mind. Writing about them was how I coped with it. I was glad when Sunday published the piece. But I didn't write it for people to read. I wrote if for myself.''

As reluctant as Roy is to talk about her private life, she is even more reticent about The God of Small Things. It is not the kind of book which has a plot that you can easily summarise. And nor is the plot particularly important in any case.

"The great gift that Salman Rushdie has given all of us,'' she explains, "is that people are now interested in India. It is not necessary for us to do back flips or pirouettes to get their attention. We can just tell our stories. In my book, I tell the whole story in the first chapter so there is no element of trying to surprise or ambush the reader.''

Because The God of Small Things deals with two children growing up in Kerala in 1969, there is a temptation to see it as autobiographical. The character of Ammu, in particular, has reminded many of Mary Roy, Arundhati's mother. Like Ammu, she was also divorced from her Bengali husband when the children were young.

Arundhati denies that the book is an autobiography. ''In many ways, Ammu is totally unlike Mary Roy in the kind of person she is,'' she claims. But she accepts that's some of the experiences are her own.

''My mother says that some of the incidents in the book are based on things that happened when I was two years old. I have no recollection of them. But obviously, they were trapped in some part of my brain,'' she says.

Salman Rushdie There are probably some parallels with Midnight's Children which used Salman Rushdie's experiences of growing up in Bombay without becoming an autobiography. But while Rushdie was very conscious of his status as a Great Writer after acknowledging the acclaim that greeted Midnight's Children, Roy seems genuinely unaffected by the praise.

"This is the most personal thing I have done," she says. "When you write a screenplay, you can blame the final product on how the actors said your lines or how the movie was shot. But with a book you have no excuses."

Does that meant that she has finally found what she wants to do for the rest of her life? Will she now become a full time novelist?

Arundhati Roy says she doesn't know. She never set out to plan her life. She has never worried too much about tomorrow. And with half a million pounds in the bank, she has less reason to worry than ever before.

Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine

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