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The Rediff Special/George Iype

'Ammu may have some similarities to me, but she is not Mary Roy'

Mary Roy Arundhati Roy's The God Of Small Things, has just been nominated for Britain's top literary award, the Booker Prize.

Consistently on the bestseller lists for several months now, the book has attracted its share of controversy. A member of the Syrian Christian church has filed a case against the novelist for allegedly vilifying the community while Marxist leader E M S Nambooridipad has accused Roy of mangling facts.

To understand the controversies swirling around the book, Rediff On the NeT's George Iype turned to an unlikely quarter -- Mary Roy, Arundhati Roy's mother and herself a celebrated maverick. A Rediff On The NeT World Exclusive!

Both mother and daughter are rebels. The mother fought against Christian inheritance law, winning a landmark Supreme Court verdict that granted Christian women in Kerala the right to their parents's property. The daughter left home at 18, did not see her mother for six years after that, lived an unconventional lifestyle and is now a literary superstar.

After a 30-year relentless campaign for women's rights, Mary Roy now leads a quiet life in Kottayam where she runs the much sought-after Corpus Christi school at Kalathipady. Arundhati is a member of the school's governing body; the wars of the past are over -- mother and daughter are now close as is evident from Arundhati's moving dedication to Mary in her book.

Not once has Mary Roy spoken about her daughter's novel, refusing all requests for an interview. "The novel is so close to me that I keep it in my heart," she told George Iype who persuaded her to speak for the first time about the The God of Small Things.

In her exquisite home -- which was designed by Arundhati, who trained as an architect -- Mary Roy discusses the characters, the controversies, and, of course, her daughter's celebrity.

Have you read The God of Small Things?

Yes, I have read it.

Can you judge its literary quality?

No, I cannot do that. For me the novel is a personal experience because I am Arundhati's mother.

Then, as a mother, what do you think about your daughter's novel?

I really do not want to speak too much about it as my comments could result in unnecessary controversies.

Do you think it is a great novel?

Like all mothers, I am proud of my daughter. I am proud of her literary achievement. She is a very great writer. She always loved writing. And she writes well too.

The God of Small Things has won international acclaim. Don't you think it is a great work?

One doesn't really judge a book by the international rating it gets. At least, I do not do that. For me, Arundhati's novel is a matter of personal judgement. A book is a subject of personal rating and appreciation. To ask me to comment on the novel is the most difficult thing because everything that happens in the novel was so close to me.

So the novel is the story of your family?

I will not say it is our family story. Of course, there are many incidents and instances in the novel which closely resemble our lives. Some of the incidents were true. But everything that happens in the novel actually did not happen in real life.

What are those things that resembled your lives?

Ayemenem is not a fictional place. It is an actual village where we all lived in the 1960s. The house we lived in is still there. My maternal family still lives there. We -- myself, Arundhati and my son -- all lived there.

Is the novel an autobiographical account of your lives?

I cannot call it an autobiographical account. Basically, The God of Small Things deals with two children growing up in Kerala in 1969. Because the characters in the novel resemble our family members, there is a tendency to see it as autobiographical.

How do you feel about the characterisation of Rahel and Estha?

It is a very beautiful portrayal of two children. These two children are the mute witnesses to the tumult in Ayemenem House. Arundhati had done it superbly well.

Ammu's character in the novel reminds some readers of Mary Roy.

I do not agree with you. Ammu is a central character in the novel. Ammu may have some similarities to me, but she is not Mary Roy. Ammu and Mary Roy are poles apart in many ways.

Central to the story is an 'unchristian' act -- the affair between Ammu and Velutha. What do you think about the portrayal of this relationship?

That is beautiful fiction. In my life, there was no love affair and passion that you read in the novel. I do not think Arundhati is talking about me when she unveils the characters -- Ammu and Velutha. That is precisely why I do not think I am the Ammu in the novel.

Arundhati was a very sensitive child. The relationship between Ammu and Velutha must have been the real life story of someone else. The novel is a product of Arundhati's childhood years in Ayemenem. Naturally, she must have known many things which I might not have known of.

Was the drowning of Sophie Mol in the Minachal river a real incident?

No comment. I am not prepared to talk about it now. Find out for yourself.

What about the Paradise Pickle company owned by Ayemenem House in the novel?

Yes, we still own the pickle factory. It is known as Palat Pickle. It is run by my brother. But I do not talk to him much.

Do you think The God of Small Things is a story of hope, love and passion?

I do not know because I do not feel like giving adjectives to my daughter's novel. My feelings are different. As a mother, I liked the novel. But sometimes I do feel as her mother. I am very coloured about the novel.

Did you know that Arundhati was working on this novel?

Never did she tell me that she was writing a novel. I discovered about it only after she published it.

Did she visit you and Ayemenem House to work on her story?

What is there to work on a story? The God of Small Things is not a research product. It came from Arundhati's heart. And she wrote it. She is going back in the novel -- the lives she saw and experienced 30 years back in our family.

Does Arundhati come to stay with you now?

She comes often to stay with me.

Wasn't there a time when you had an extremely strained relationship with Arundhati?

It happens with your children. When you control children, you do things which they do not like and they do things which you do not like. When you let them go free there are things they do which you might not approve of. But I think ours was always an understanding relationship. Many people talked about Arundhati's marriage or living with someone. But that is something I would never object to. Marriage or living with someone is somebody's freedom and choice.

Do you mean that you do not care for your children living the way they want?

You are using the wrong word. It is not that I do not care about my daughter getting married or living with somebody. I respect her right to do what she wanted to do. I would never oppose her, but tell her to use her discretion. That is why Arundhati has said in the beginning of the novel: 'Thank you for letting me go without creating a row.' This is what most families would not do. But I let her go because I thought living the way she wanted was her fundamental right.

Do you mean that letting Arundhati go free into the world helped create the literary masterpiece?

Most surely. Freedom from the beginning of childhood helped her to achieve literary stardom today. Letting your son or daughter go free 20 years back in Kerala was a sin. But I did that because I care for their rights.

Today, no other student anywhere in India enjoys the degree of freedom that students at the Corpus Christi School have. On holidays, the boarding students can go out anywhere they want after writing their names in the register book.

I strongly feel that only through freedom will your sons and daughters grow. My Arundhati is an example of that.

Do you think women in India are still under the dominance of men?

Of course, they are. There are few women who are able to work and support their families in India. Indian women need more economic independence. One absolute certainty in India is that women are born to get married. And marriage means getting a dowry. And getting a dowry means staying with your parents. And staying with your parents is to get social acceptance. Or else your daughter will not get the right bridegroom. This is the biggest hurdle that women face in India today.

What we need is mental and financial independence for women so that they can exist as Indian citizens with equal rights with men.

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