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The Rediff Special/Venu Menon

Who's Ammu?

In the week that Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize, a fresh controversy has broken over God Of Small Things. While the author's mother Mary Roy insists that she is not Ammu, the controversial character in the novel, her estranged brother George Isaac insists she is. Venu Menon reports from Ayamanam.

Arundhati Roy With its 'greygreen' veneer, the sluggish Meenachil river spills straight out of the pages of God of Small Things. But Aymanam, the somnolent village that comes alive in the book, is a picture of still life. The Booker Price has left the village folk serenely unmoved.

But the Corpus Christi, the school run by Arundhati's mother Mary Roy, where the social elite of Kottayam send their children to pick up a fashionable Western liberal education, the atmosphere is electric. The institution has emerged as a post-Booker control room where information about the book and its author disseminates, where an embarrassed press corps is greeted with the query: 'Have you read the book?"

Here is where Arundhati spent her crucial early years. It was in this informal and somewhat avant garde setting that she discovered the joy of reading and of going off on freewheeling explorations of the mind. Mary Roy recalls this phase with a sense of vindication: ''She joined a formal school only at the age of eleven. I believe that you learn much more in the absence of a rigorous syllabus. Arundhati literally educated herself. She did not need a textbook with an exam at the end of it. I try to do this for other kids as well."

The Booker has unleashed a torrent of interest centering on Aymanam. The media has been preoccupied with identifying the novel's characters with their real-life counterparts. But in God of Small Things, art does not mirror life. Arundhati does not have a twin brother, did not lose her cousin in a boat mishap or grow up in her ancestral home. Her mother is alive and well though the book pronounces her dead. The plot is part fact, part fabrication.

But this has not discouraged speculation about skeletons in the family cupboard. The character Ammu -- mother of the twins who is a estranged from her Bengali husband and later has an affair with a low-caste Hindu -- is apparently modeled on Mary Roy. ''I am not Ammu. Arundhati has created a character called Ammu using my bio-data as her barebones,'' Mary Roy explains.

Mary Roy But George Isaac, Mary Roy's brother, who figures in the book as Uncle Chacko, is ambiguous on the question. ''Mary Roy is Ammu,'' he contends, but declines to comment on the identity of Velutha, Ammu's paramour, saying ''I would prefer not to answer that question."

In the book, Isaac is portrayed as the England-returned uncle who is at the vortex of the emotional tension within the family. Issac regards his portrayal as true to life. He elaborates on the plot: ''Mary Roy marries a Bengali which falls outside the traditional framework of Christian marriages. That marriage collapses and she returns to her family house with her two children in a disturbed state of mind. They try to establish some kind of stability in their lives. This effort centres round their uncle Chacko. The only male in the house is me. I have to be father to the children and, in a sense, husband to my sister."

The plot thickens when Chacko's ex-wife joins him, child in tow. Isaac continues: ''Ammu panics and enters into a sexual relationship with somebody outside the area of acceptability. She does something unspeakable by Indian standards. How would you feel if your sister panics and has an affair on the banks of the Meenachil river with a Pulaya?''

Isaac thinks the book contains an explosive message -- ''that an aristocratic Christian women breaks the rules by having sex with a low caste Hindu and yet nothing happens. The universe does not come to an end.''

Arundhati Roy This message may not go down well with the Christian plantation owners in their stately mansions along the banks of the Meenachil. Curiously, this is also the strata that celebrates Arundhati's accomplishment. ''She has put Aymanam on the world map," says Thomas Kollenkeril, an estate owner whose wife Basil teaches at Corpus Christi. Arundhati has been a frequent visitor and Basil recalls the writer as being a keen observer of nature who spent long hours watching the insects on the river bank.

The book's appeal straddles the communal divide in a Christian-dominated area like Aymanam. Professor Krishna Kaimal is an authority on Kathakali, a temple dance form unique to Kerala. He lives close to the Aymanam temple which figures in the novel as a pre-eminent venue for the annual Kathakali festival. ''Arunadhati has taken Kathakali beyond the shores of Kerala and conveyed its power and beauty to the whole wide world,'' he gushes.

Yet to the common folk of Aymanam, Arundhati is an unfamiliar name splashed on their consciousness by a ubiquitous media.

Booker or not, Roy's in the dock
The god of small things comes bearing large gifts
'Arundhati did not write for money'
Booker for Arundhati
And the winner is...
'Ammu may have some similarities to me, but she is not Mary Roy'
'Why would anyone abroad be interested in the book? I am not very well educated. So it's not as though I am like Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth'
Obscenity case slammed against Arundhati Roy
Now, it is EMS's turn to slam Arundhati Roy!

The New Masters
Architect of Stories
How Amazon readers reacted to the book
The Salon Interview
The Booker short-list
The Penelope Mortimer review
The Guardian reports

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