My Romance with Arundhati Roy –and Your Health

Okay, this is slightly autobiographical. The health part appears late in the article.

Back in 1997, I was a fresher at Geoff Malone's main office in Singapore. Geoff was the founder of the Singapore International Film Festival, a collector of Saab cars, a member of the jet set, a friend of the Sultan of Brunei and his younger brother, and a multi-millionaire architect with two offices in Singapore, and one each in London, Melbourne, Sydney, Brunei and perhaps a couple of other places. The office where I initially worked was on the top floor of Orchard Towers at the top of Orchard Road.

It was the most sought out office in Singapore as far as young graduate architects were concerned, and the interior was more glam than major corporations like RSP or DP, or the oldest office in town –Swan and McLaren– all of which I had seen when I had visited them for interviews a few months prior to starting work. Their biggest source of income was from multiplex cinemas, which they were designing all over Asia.

Work was all I did in Singapore, and during my year there I never tried to visit Sentosa Beach or other major attractions which were not architectural in nature. In fact I did not realise during my time in the Lion City that Orchard Towers (which I often used to exit at around two in the morning) had many delights to offer. Such knowledge would have rendered needless that expedition to Hindu Road and the lane between Desker Road and Hindu Road in Little India one night, to unburden myself of a 27 year old weight. (That is if you don't count being on the receiving end of an older child unburdening himself when I was 3 or 4 years old, at the edge of Ring Road in Delhi, not far from the present day Nanakpura SPUWAC). I blame the writers of the Lonely Planet Singapore guidebook for this latter part; and my bookish outlook on the world.

Incidentally Little India was the seediest part of S'pore, perhaps deliberately so. Chinatown on the other hand was very picturesque. I distinctly remember wondering less why I had to run from that transvestite when she/he/it tried to make me sodomize her/him/it after I mistook her/him/it for a woman, and more why this first and unpleasant experience had to be on a road called Hindu Road. Why could they not call it Lee Kuan Yew Street or Confucianist Street, for example? I also remember that the footpaths in Little India were extremely narrow, and hardly walkable unlike the rest of the city. Perhaps this had a role to play in the recent riot by South Asians in that area.

Geoff Malone International was very Singaporean, with ethnic Chinese workers competing for supremacy with white employees from UK and Australia; and Filipinos doing most of the draughting and whatever designing the mostly semi-competent white employees would let them do. I was the first Indian in the mix, and was a graduate of an elite school of architecture from Delhi. Although I was not competitive by the standards of my school (SPA), the Singaporean environment showed me that I was pretty good. Being good at your job does not always translate into being successful at it. Office politics was intense, and the glass ceiling was unbreakable. A menu for dissatisfaction.

We used to consume a lot of stationery in that office, and the vertical blinds were not perfect. I had put up an empty carton of larger (or at any rate longer if not wider) than A-zero size paper / foam / block-board / something on the practically full height glazing behind my station to prevent reflected glare on my computer screen. Around this time there was some coverage of Arundhati Roy in some magazines, perhaps Asiaweek or (?) the Far Eastern Economic Review, or even Time or Newsweek. They all were published from S'pore if I remember correctly. It was the early days of the internet and even hotmail was a new service, so there was no question of having access to Indian papers there. She had published her novel and it was all the rage in the literary world. I perhaps did not read it then, but I photocopied all those pages with Arundhati's photos on them and taped them to the carton behind me.

The redoubtable in some respects James DeSoyres –the lead architect on most of my projects– saw her pics and said something about her cuteness. I was simmering due to the discrimination, and was not very articulate. So I replied that she's not a cute girl, she is a senior architect. As an immediate afterthought I said that she's going to win the Booker Prize this year.

Let me explain the background here. Arundhati graduated from SPA six years before I joined it. She was cute, no doubt. In fact as late as 2006 one of her batchmates who was my teacher said that many of his batchmates had started to look like grandmothers by then, but Arundhati looked young. As far as the Booker prize goes, I knew that this was India's golden jubilee year so the jury would not be able to resist making a symbolic award. It was convenient / serendipitous that Arundhati released her book that year. It was eight years in the works, just like Joseph Heller's magnum opus, and structurally too it copied Catch 22. Later on when I did try to read Arundhati's book, suffice it to say that I realised that it was not really unputdownable. If she is to be judged by that effort alone, then she is perhaps in the same class as Salman Rushdie –whose contrived prose is also certainly not top quality tunch maal– in my humble opinion.

This does not mean that I think that Arundhati is not a serious talent. Her auctorial oeuvre is fairly spread out, and she has a penchant for going out on a limb to create something. She wrote the movie "In which Annie Gives it Those Ones" (1989), a movie about life in a college of architecture. This was the first humorous and slightly exaggerated cinematic treatment of a small group's rigorous and demanding time spent in a top class professional degree college in India as far as I know. It came years before others thought of doing the same for colleges giving medical and engineering education. I am referring here to Munnabhai and the three idiots (no no, not Chetan, Aamir and Rajkumar). Incidentally Arundhati's movie also had one of today's superstars –Shahrukh Khan– in perhaps his earliest movie role, though he did not appear in the initial credits.

I remember that we first year students were making measured drawings in the early part of 1989, and went one night with many other students from SPA to Connaught Place and the neighbouring area. We went there mainly to see what we call Arundhati's movie. It was being screened at Max Mueller Bhawan. She must have been in the audience somewhere, and must have been happy to see the audience reaction. I was very satisfied with the movie at that age, and saw it a few more times later. It is conceptually interesting, extremely good for a first effort made with a low budget, and would not have remained a cult movie had architecture been as popular a field as engineering. Doordarshan merely gave her a late night slot if I am not mistaken, perhaps for this very reason. (It can be seen on youtube for free because she sold it to Doordarshan to make some money out of it, and DD doesn't care.)

It is to Arundhati's undoubted credit that she made a pioneering effort with this movie. Her extremely powerful first cousin Prannoy Roy used to sell his work to Doordarshan too, and later on was tried and acquitted for charges of corruption in this regard. But I am not sure if he has had any role to play in her success. Her mother said in a 2002 interview that she and her children were never contacted by her husband, who is/was also Prannoy's uncle, after they got divorced. Arundhati too has been in a short lived marriage like her mother. She was married to Gerard DaCunha, another alumnus of SPA who went on to achieve great success. He designed and executed nrityagram for Protima Bedi –with just one drawing, he told us. He created a powerfully expressive campus which is normally considered to be in the same league as Rukmini Devi Arundale's kalakshetra. Arundhati left him and later married Pradeep Kishen, a filmmaker. They worked on a few movies together, including the one mentioned above.

After the success of the God of Small Things, Arundhati bought a house in Chanakyapuri in Delhi and appeared to fade out. She reappeared on the scene with an article in Outlook when the Bomb was exploded by India in May 1998. I had come back from Singapore by then, and remember talking to my friend Valentino Chongthu the guitarist from SPA. He told me that everybody was very happy in the hostel with the nuclear test, and he had never seen so many people so happy together for so many days before. Valte was saying what everybody could see everywhere one went those few days. But wet blankets like Praful Bidwai and Arundhati wrote against the tests, and were covered extensively. Some people say that they were covered by the pro-Congress sections of the media, but she is pretty much everywhere.

I never bothered to read Arundhati after the self-defeating article she wrote against the nuclear tests, so I cannot tell how far she has managed to develop her craft. I met her once at Green Park market in Delhi. She was eating a Sambar Dosa in a restaurant, and one of my juniors from college was with her. I told her about my Singapore talk with DeSoyres. She just smiled a lot and said nothing if I remember correctly. Probably she had grown tired of attention from fans by this point.

By now you must be wondering what this has to do with your health. Read on and you will know.

The academic year in India starts after the summer vacation like almost all countries. Arundhati's unit had shot the movie in the summer of 1988, just before I entered the school as a fresher. The unit had organised a number of murals and graffiti. One message which comes to mind today was written on the urinal wall on the sixth and top storey. It said, "Please do not throw cigarette butts in the urinals, they get all soggy and difficult to light up." This is gross and funny at the same time, but it gives an insight into the Indian system whereby you can buy one cigarette at one time, and even share it with friends. You cannot do this in every country, so you should be thankful that you are in India. Remember this and buy only one cigarette every time you walk to the local cigarette seller if your marital litigation has driven you to smoking.

Also, look at this sorted woman! She went from a privileged background to relative deprivation, but made all the right relationship decisions. She dumped –or distanced herself from– those who did not need her or those who suffocated her, and embraced those who needed her wholeheartedly. She had her mother before her as an example, and you can follow her example even if that involves you rejecting her. This is the key to keeping your mental health good, and as free adults you have the power to do this. She pursued success with the weapons which she had, and stopped chasing it after achieving it in reasonable measure. Marvellous, simply marvellous. You can do this in your career as well as your personal life. It will lead to happiness. I bet that Arundhati is a happy woman. You should emulate her and become a happy unit too.

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 06th April 2014
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