Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize in 1981 for his second novel Midnight’s Children. Arundhati Roy won the coveted award in 1997 for her first novel The God of Small Things. One would think these two writers who feature as key names in Indian writing in English would get along well.
According to Rushdie, in his memoir Joseph Anton — the alias he used for the 10 years he lived under a fatwa, cobbled together from the first names of writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov — that hit the stands worldwide on Tuesday, the two met on three occasions and each time, things didn’t turn out too swell.
Rushdie writes about meeting Roy for the first time in 1997 in the company of other Indian writers as part of a photo-shoot in London for a special ‘India issue’ of the New Yorker.
Along with the likes of Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri, Rushdie recalls the group bearing “looks of self-consciousness, of curiosity, of giddiness”, with Chaudhuri later realising the group was “not my sort of people”.
But it was years later, Rushdie writes, that Roy repeated Chaudhuri's feelings about the gathering in an interview, saying, “I don't think anybody in that photograph felt they really belonged in the same ‘group’ as the next person.” Rushdie, writing in the third person about himself throughout the book, tellingly adds, “He remembered her as having been pretty friendly and happy to be there with the rest of them. But that was probably a mistake.”
He then writes about meeting Roy again a few days later at the London launch party for The God of Small Things. “He found Miss Roy in an icier mood.” A positive review of Roy’s novel by American writer John Updike had come out that day in the New Yorker and Rushdie walked up to Roy to tell her she must have been “very pleased”.
“Miss Roy shrugged prettily,” writes Rushdie. “‘Yes, I saw it,’ she said. ‘So what?’” He writes how he found her reaction “surprising” and “in a way, impressive,” before going on to tell her, ‘No, Arundhati, that’s too cool... A wonderful thing is happening to you. Your first novel is having a magnificent success. There is nothing quite like first success. You should enjoy it. Don’t be so cool.’”
Rushdie then recalls Roy looking him “straight in the eye” and replying, “I am pretty cool” before turning away.
The last time the two met was when Roy won the Booker. Rushdie writes about how she told The Times the next day that Rushdie’s writing “was merely ‘exotic’ whereas hers was truthful”. Rushdie would call Roy’s agent David Godwin to tell him that “he (Rushdie) did not believe it would be a good thing for two Indian Booker winners to be seen attacking each other in public”, adding that he had never said publicly what he thought of The God of Small Things, “but if she wanted a fight, she could certainly have one”.
Godwin assured Rushdie she had been “misquoted”. This was followed soon by “a mollifying message from Miss Roy” making the same claim. “Let it rest, he thought,” writes Rushdie about himself, “and moved on.”
It is to be noted, though, that Rushdie defended Roy in an August 2001 New York Times column when the Supreme Court of India insisted she withdraw an affidavit against the court’s attempt to “silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it” (Roy’s words) related to the Narmada Valley agitation.