My Short Love Story for Arundhati Roy

People

My Short Love Story for Arundhati Roy

Illustration: Akshita Monga

T

he first thing I saw was her ankle. Dainty, adorned with a heavy silver bell. Then, more of her emerged from an autorickshaw. A flowing ethnic skirt, a face that made your heart stop, and hair, my God… hair as wild as a feral child in July.

If ever there was love at first sight, this was it. As I stubbed out my benumbed cigarette on the sunny lawns of the Jamia Mass Communication Research Centre in Delhi, I realised my life had changed. I was transported. I was in love. And in trouble.

Advertisement

This was in the late ’80s and having a crush on your teacher had still not been sanctioned by American television. Arundhati Roy had just joined the institute as a lecturer of script-writing and I became her devoted student. I would come early for class, and sit in the first row, and gaze dreamily, as she spoke. Behind me, I could hear the collective sigh of the other mesmerised boys, all teetering like me on the edge of dangerous love, as Ms Roy lectured us about the art of the short story. In those still magical hours of the afternoon, none of us had art on our minds.

As the semester wore on, my 22-year-old angst-ridden self was consumed with just one question: How to get this vision to notice me in a class of 25 breathless boys, all ready to outwrite Homer for the sake of half a dimpled smile?

When she asked us to submit a short story for discussion, I saw my chance. I realised, very quickly, that there could be no direct route to attention. It would not come by way of nuanced prose, liberal quoting of Thoreau, or by creating literature that would shine a light on the human condition. I was 22 and the only human conditions I knew of were sleep, sex, and endless hunger, and that was hardly the stuff of great literature. No. My moment in the Arundhati sun wouldn’t come by depth of creative genius; it could come by accessing spectacular shallowness.

That day, I decided to write the worst short story ever written. A creation that would be Danielle Steel in its depth, Sidney Sheldon in its plot, and Harold Robbins in its language. A creation that would revolt her so deeply that she would have no choice but to single it out. My puerile creation would do for me what no brilliant short story would ever do for these boys – get me her undivided attention. Where others would attempt to conquer with success, I would succeed with abject failure.

I basked in her undivided attention for four long minutes. Four full minutes longer than any other guy in my fucking class.

So I wrote. I wrote a story about a woman who uses her body to get ahead in life. I threw in clichés, tired tropes, half-assed characters, a couple of plot points from Rage of the Angels, awkward love scenes involving phrases like  “her twin globes of desire”, and a dramatic and over-the-top finale, where said woman triumphs in spite of the odds stacked against her. It was tripe, worthy of last season’s rotten tomatoes.

Naturally, the next morning she picked up my story from the pile of undoubtedly brilliant writing that lay stacked on her desk. She then proceeded to hold me up, as an example of everything that was wrong with the youth, the country, the generation. I basked in her undivided attention for four long minutes. Four full minutes longer than any other guy in my fucking class. I think I smiled all through the drubbing. As I sat down, I congratulated myself. I had done a good job.

But I would know just how good only years later.

***

The year was 1998 and The God of Small Things had just been published, taking the world by storm. The petite novel with its immense characters – the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, who does more than sell drinks, Ammu, who dies at a viable, die-able age, and the sky-blue Plymouth that glides through the Kerala summer, ringing the death knell of love that was still to be born – lit up the world of fiction in a way that Indian fiction hadn’t been lit in a very long time.

I had given up my script-writing ambitions and moved on to start a company that would later become a major television network. I had fallen in love with the woman who would go on to become the mother of my girls, and my crush on Arundhati Roy was the stuff of schoolboy memory.

One night, I found myself at a party to celebrate the success of The God Of Small Things. It was a small, intimate gathering and I was there with my newly minted wife who’d laughed uncontrollably when I told her about my wildly successful tryst for attention. I spied on Ms Roy, who was standing in an elegant sari, right across the room. Megha nudged me to go on and say hello. Very hesitantly, I approached the circle of people flitting around the star of the evening.

“Excuse me,” I said to her, “I’m sure you don’t recognise me, but you used to teach me once upon a time.” I expected nothing more than a polite but blank smile in response. There must, after all, be a whole generation of now fully-grown men and women who’ve used this for an opening line.

But she took one long look at me and said, “Of course! You’re the guy who wrote that awful story!”

I laughed loudly to camouflage my blushing face and assured her that her talent-recognition skills were on point and that I did not become the world’s next Hemingway. The “twin globes of desire” came floating back to me, as I cringed inwardly and the older version of me wished, very fleetingly, that the younger me had not done such a spectacular job of sticking out in her memory. It is one thing to be remembered, but another thing to be remembered for the rest of your life by a great writer as the author of the worst story ever told. I swiftly moved on from her at the party and stuck closely to my laughing wife for the rest of the evening.

It’s been an era since that evening and I’m hoping another era goes by before I bump into Arundhati Roy again. By then, some other smart-ass kid would have hopefully tried this stunt, and my story would finally be forgotten.

Comments