I read The God of Small Things in high school, and even though I haven’t read it since, parts of it hit me hard at the time and have stuck with me. I still consider it one of the best books I’ve ever read, so when I heard Arundhati Roy was coming out with a new book, I didn’t hesitate to buy a copy and nominate it for my book club to read.
I did not like this book as much as I liked TGoST, but I really enjoyed it. It’s one of those books that follows a character for a while, then goes in a completely different direction with another character. It can be kind of frustrating, but I found all the characters and events fascinating enough to keep reading, and Roy managed to tie them all together at the end, which is a feat that never fails to impress me.
It starts with an old woman named Anjum who lives in a graveyard, then it travels back to when Anjum was born. It turns out she’s a hermaphrodite and her mother decided to hide that fact, name her Aftab, and raise her as a boy. When Aftab reached puberty, he decided he was really Anjum so he left home and went to live in a hijra community, which is apparently a thing in India. The word indicates a third gender and it covers those who are transgender, intersex, or eunuchs. They have a long history in India, stretching back to ancient times. They’ve often worked as sex workers, and while I don’t think the book ever explicitly states how this particular hijra community supports themselves, it indicates either sex work, or at least some form of entertaining at parties and various gatherings.
Then the book switches to Tilo, a woman I loved for her fierce independence and refusal to be tied down by anyone. Tilo had three men who were attracted to her when she was in college, she dated one on and off for a while, married and divorced another, and the third is actually the one through whose POV we get introduced to Tilo. He seems fascinated by her, even though he doesn’t seem to understand her very well, and I think Roy introduced the reader to Tilo through him because it conveyed the sense of aloofness and mystery in which she wanted to shroud that character. It worked.
At 464 pages, this is hardly a light summer read and several members of my book club complained that it was too long and they got lost amid all the jumping between characters and around India and Kashmir. I understand their frustration, but like I said, I was too impressed by how she tied it all together to not be impressed.
One of the members who knows much more about Roy’s life than I do pointed out that this book just felt like an autobiography. Roy has been to a lot of the places in this book and she has long been an advocate for Kashmiri independence (like Tilo). It made me wonder if Tilo was supposed to be a sort of stand in for Roy.
She also pointed out that Roy has said she doesn’t accept edits of her work, and most of the members of the book club thought that was a mistake with this book, but I disagree. Yes, she covered a lot, and yes, it felt disjointed at times, but all of it was brought together so neatly that I doubt I would have told her to cut anything out if I had been her editor.
What did you guys read this week? Anything else you were really looking forward to?