It is a hot afternoon in Delhi; its humidity intensified by tension. The tension is coming from beneath my chest. I am not really sick. I am just sweating. Now in
the back of the car, rehearsing the things I would say and how I would say them when I finally set my eyes on Arundhati Roy. At least, for ten years or thereabouts, I had wished the day would come when I’d finally meet the author of my favourite novel, which happens to be The God of Small Things.
[Photo: Onyeka Nwelue with Arundhati Roy]
I’m now standing at her door, on the second floor of a house somewhere in the south of Delhi. I am still nervous, shaking. My palms are wet and feel glum. I know I am at the right place, because I can see posters of films, her name written on them, all over the place. I gently place my finger on the doorbell. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr! I hear crackling. The door begins to open and there, just there, a magnificent figure, gray-haired, extremely beautiful and petite, appears, with two dogs.
I am dumb. Star-struck. I stare into her eyes immediately. I don’t talk back. I don’t say hello. I am weakened. This is Arundhati Roy!
“Hello,” she says to me, opening the door. “Please come in. Welcome, welcome. Are you okay with dogs?”
No, I think to myself. This is Arundhati Roy and so, dogs are okay. I say, “Yes, yes, I am okay with dogs.”
Arundhati Roy hugs me. So tightly. The heavens open. The angels are already smiling at me. I am living my dream – this is not happening, but look at it! It is happening to you, Onyeka! You’re in Arundhati Roy’s house. I can’t remember who doesn’t want to let go, because she is still holding me to herself, closer and tight. I freeze! Dreams come true, I say to myself.
“Please, sit down,” she hurriedly says and offers me a seat at the table close to the counter in the kitchen; a fine decor, the kitchen here and the bookshelf there and there are books, newly published, on the big wooden table in the centre of the kitchen. This is where we sit. She introduces me to her two dogs. I forget their names immediately, but I play with the dogs as I sit and then thoughts begin to race through my head. I am extremely nervous; I think I start to misbehave. I am weird now. She realizes that I am nervous and does everything to calm me down.
“Do you want coffee? Chai? What can I offer you?” she asks.
I don’t think any more. “Anything. Oh, coffee!” That sounds more exotic!
She brews coffee and serves me immediately, while also talking to me about how she got to know about me and how she’s very busy. I sip the coffee, slowly. Arundhati Roy just made coffee for me? I think to myself. I say to her: “This dream came true and I hope I don’t die today?”
She laughs. Now, I am relaxed. She says, “Please, tell me more about you.”
As I do, I stutter and then tears begin to fall down my cheeks. She is listening with rapt attention. I tell Arundhati Roy about my lovely parents, leaving Nigeria at the age of 18 and travelling to India and she wants to know how I cope with racism in India and if I love India genuinely. She looks into my eyes as I talk to her. I look at the coffee cup, holding onto it firmly between my palms as I talk to her. Only two of us are in the room. In the entire house. I bare my mind to Arundhati Roy. I feel like I am talking to a shrink. I am relieved.
When Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997, it became the biggest-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. From the beginning, the book was also a commercial success: Roy received half a million pounds as an advance. It was published in May, and the book had been sold to eighteen countries by the end of June. She began writing this book in 1992 and completed it in 1996. Prior to the success of The God of Small Things, Arundhati had won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay in 1989, for the screenplay of In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, in which she captured the anguish among the students prevailing in professional institutions.
In 2002, she won the Lannan Foundation’s Cultural Freedom Award for her work “about civil societies that are adversely affected by the world’s most powerful governments and corporations”, in order “to celebrate her life and her ongoing work in the struggle for freedom, justice and cultural diversity”. In 2003, she was awarded “special recognition” as a Woman of Peace at the Global Exchange Human Rights Awards in San Francisco with Bianca Jagger, Barbara Lee and Kathy Kelly. She was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in May 2004 for her work in social campaigns and her advocacy of nonviolence.
In January 2006, she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award, a national award from India’s Academy of Letters, for her collection of essays on contemporary issues, The Algebra of Infinite Justice but she declined to accept it “in protest against the Indian Government toeing the US line by ‘violently and ruthlessly pursuing policies of brutalisation of industrial workers, increasing militarization and economic neo-liberalisation.” In November 2011, she was awarded the Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Writing.
She was featured in the 2014 list of Time 100, the 100 most influential people in the world.
And here I am, with her, in her house, in her kitchen, sipping coffee and talking about myself, because she says, “Your story is very interesting. I wanted to hear it. I have never been to anywhere else in Africa, except South Africa. I want to come to Nigeria. How’s everything there?”
I tell her how we have a new President who is aware of things around him and how we are hopeful that Nigeria is transforming. She listens and she wants to know more – I go on and on about how much she is loved in Nigeria and how many writers know her. I am worried. Who will take our picture having this conversation in her house? The dogs can’t take pictures, so I quickly ask: “Is there anyone in the house, ma’am? I want pictures taken.” She laughs and gets up. “No, she says. But I can help you. No one can live with me. I am a mad woman.” She returns with her phone and says, “Let’s take a picture. What do you call it? Selfie?”
I laugh and say, “Yes, selfie!”
I am not good at it. Never done it by myself, because my hand will always shake, but I am going to do this for Arundhati Roy. I do it. I do it. I take more and it is getting better. She is patient. She looks into it and we snap!
We return to talk about politics in India and Nigeria – Arundhati Roy says, “When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, I could not sleep well. I woke up every morning, not able to read newspapers. Just recently I am getting myself, because he is going downhill and people are beginning to realize that.” She has described Narendra Modi’s nomination for the prime ministerial candidate as a “tragedy”. She further said that the business houses were also supporting his candidature because he was the “most militaristic and aggressive” candidate.
“India is a tough place,” she says to me. “This is why your story is interesting. Because I had this beautiful African woman who visited me and we were walking around the city and the reaction from Indians was something else.”
I try so hard to take her away from this discussion as it is a bit much for me, bringing back memories that I never want to reach out to.
“Not like there is no racism in the US,” she says, “but I haven’t faced it there.”
I say, “That is because you’re Arundhati Roy.” She laughs, heartily.
She is expecting three guests from the North East – she says, one of the girls is 15 years and has been raped by police officers from one police station to another for so many years during transfers. That she has been incarcerated. She has already made a press conference. “This was to give her a public face, so people can relate with her case.” In a bit, they would come in, but I do not want to meet this lady, so I tell her I have to go. She wants to know why. I tell her I have not eaten, because I had to rush from the Nigerian embassy to come meet her when I got her message.
Arundhati Roy rushes into her room, gets a copy of The God of Small Things and signs it for me. I keep two copies of my books, The Abyssinian Boy, (in which I had quoted her for saying, “A story like the surface of water”) and “Hip-Hop is Only for Children”, which she says she will read very well before coming to Nigeria next year.
For those who have waited with bated breath since 1997, Arundhati Roy says her new novel will be ready by January. She says she is taking her time.
She hugs me again. And again. I walk to the door and say to her, “I will send you some kente and danshiki. Some Ankara, too.”
“Your dress is lovely! Please, send them.”
I walk out. Walk into the elevator. I walk away. Happy.
Onyeka Nwelue is an Assistant Professor of African Literature at Manipur University, Imphal. His latest book is Hip-Hop is Only for Children.