1997. The God of Small Things. Her debut novel. That won her the Man Booker Prize. The story being a revolt in itself depicted the passionate idealism of its writer Arundhati Roy.
2017. Two decades later, her second novel hit the shelves. During this huge gap, Roy wrote many powerful editorials and articles that took the shape of anthologies. And about whom she very candidly declared, “All my books are accidental books—they come from reacting to things and thinking about things and engaging in a real way. They are not about, ‘Oh, did it get a good review in the Guardian?’ I don’t care.”
Roy’s creative philosophy is quite rare. In a world where writing is more about self-promotion and self-profit, a part of the market industry, it appears inconceivable to see an award-winning author waiting for almost twenty long years for her Muse to take genuine flight!
Roy’s case seems unmatched, especially when the market, as we understand it now, could take the work of art to its audience at an affordable price because of scientific knowledge. Today, the market has placed creative artists in a new situation. Art appreciation is democratised, so to speak, with methods of mass production ensuring the availability of works of art to the common people.
It wasn’t so earlier when appreciation of art was the preserve of the ruling elite. The sufferer was the creative artist, who was not part of the ruling aristocracy, but was singled out by Muse, and thrown into a state of affairs that ‘elicit’ art. The artist was completely dependent on his patron. Often enough, the patron was satisfied to be the subject of artistic work. He was pleased to see himself drooling in imaginative eulogia. However, this is not to say that the artist did not heed his inner voice. Many did. But most of them led precarious lives, perpetually in search of new friends from whom they could borrow and sustain themselves.
That is why Niccolo Machiavelli, whose Prince sold an inestimable number of copies in latter-day times, wrote his masterpiece on politics in the 15th century with the humble submission to Lorenzo (ruler of Florence) that he found his work “unworthy” of his patron. With no market to determine his prospects, Machiavelli thus ended his note: “And should your highness gaze down from the summit of your lofty position towards this humble spot, you will recognize the great and unmerited sufferings inflicted on me by a cruel fate”.
Ludwig van Beethoven was among the first composers who could choose not to live a life of penury. Though initially dependent on the aristocrats of the Austrian capital, he could dedicate a symphony (Eroica) to his hero Napoleon, on whom he did not depend. Nonetheless, he withdrew the dedication to getting disenchanted with him later on.
Today, it’s now a symbiotic relationship. In publishing, the patron cannot even be sighted, unless it’s the reader. In The Golden Gate, Vikram Seth hails his Muse, but also thanks the reader (or the buyer) who—
“Did not question,
The crude credentials of this verse.
But backed your brashness.
With your purse”.
Ghalib serves as a classical example. He lived an indigent life throughout. He couldn’t bargain his creativity fully. The result he suffered for a few pennies, at times. In a letter written perhaps only a year or two before his death, he while looking back at his life, had quoted the verse of the Persian poet Anwari as describing his own position—
“Alas! There is no patron who deserves my praise.
Alas! There is no mistress who inspires my verse”.
Ghalib’s poetry perchance couldn’t find an ideal patron or buyer. His verses were too precious to get any bargain hunter. Their sublimity and grandeur were invaluable. That’s why Ghalib looked to posterity to award him the eulogy which men of his own times denied him.
Time proved him right. However, the scenario for contemporary artists is different. They have to sell their Muse: display and auction her at varying rates! Roy may be an exception, but given the fact that her single write-up in any leading magazine or newspaper fetches her payment in dollars, the discourse takes a new twist altogether.
The bottom line remains that to be ruled by the market is fraught with danger for the creative. Moreover, while drawing sustenance from the market, the form of “patron” has turned unspecified and there is more susceptibility for Muse to be browbeaten by the forces prevailing beyond the market.
That brings the persuasive lines in The God of Small Things to mind—“And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.”
Roy, defying her celebrity fame and the market fad—“when books are done, not written, and are launched, not read”— took an astronomical 20 years to let her Muse speak up about the unsaid things. True to her words!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK