| Arundhati Roy: New innings
London, May 29: Arundhati Roy, who had always been adamant about not allowing The God of Small Things to be adapted for easy consumption, has relented and allowed her 1997 Booker Prize-winning novel to be dramatised for BBC Radio 4.
Reflecting the happy mood at the BBC engendered by the about-turn from the feisty activist, playwright Tanika Gupta, who wrote the 10-part adaptation, commented: “The BBC approached her agent (David Godwin) for the rights to the book and we were very surprised (she agreed).”
To be fair to the author, when she said she was totally against her book being adapted, she had a film version in mind. Her argument was that she did not want her book to be viewed through the prism of someone else’s film, and to this day she has stuck firmly to her position despite promises of large sums being thrown at her.
Gupta said she had never met Roy, had not consulted the author during the adaptation and had no idea whether it would meet with her approval.
The 10 episodes, each 15 minutes long, will be broadcast from July 12 to 23 on Women’s Hour, which will give the airing a feminist aura.
Gupta explained that in adapting the novel, which she read when it was first published eight years ago and found “wonderful”, she had to omit parts of the plot.
The BBC plugged the play, which has original music by Nitin Sawhney, a highly regarded British-Asian musician, as “the tragic and compelling tale of the two-egg twins Rahel and Estha and their desperately dysfunctional family. A story of forbidden cross-caste love and what a community will do to protect the old ways. The God of Small Things is set in the present and in 1969 in Kerala in a house called Ayemenem.”
It added that “the twins witness a terrible tragedy and are innocently drawn into its tragic repercussions”.
According to the BBC: “The novel moves back in time, unfolding the tragic events little by little.”
The BBC also said: “It is a story which deals with big themes such as the way women who are abused can often become the abusers and how violence and hatred of women is endemic in society and often ignored.”
The BBC said: “The sound world of monsoon rain, birds, insects, wind, communist demonstrations, wild Kathakali dancing, the sound of a steam train departing and, of course, the river form a vivid backdrop to the tragic events as they unfold. Nitin Sawhney’s haunting and beautiful music weaves throughout.”
Gupta told The Telegraph: “You can’t put everything in. I hope it gives listeners a taste for the story so they will go and read the whole book.”
The novel has sold exceptionally well around the world, but a BBC adaptation is bound to help sales.
Gupta argued that it is better on balance if authors do not adapt their own novels because playwrights possess skills different from those of novelists.
“You need to dramatise the story and, at the end of each 15-minute episode, leave listeners on a cliff-hanger.”
Though Gupta is an experienced playwright, she said: “This one was very difficult, like wrestling with an octopus. The narrative structure of the story is not straightforward. The refrains are poetic and lyrical and you are trying to keep that and yet tell a story.”
She said: “It took me a while to work out how to do it, how not to give away too much too quickly, though in the book people know what happened right at the start. Once I had cracked the code, it took me two months.”
Asked whether the book would lend itself to a cinematic version, Gupta responded enthusiastically. “Film and radio are similar, much more so than film and a stage version. This would make a fantastic film, partly because the tale is told from the children’s point of view.”
The cast of the play includes some well known names from the British Asian acting fraternity, among them Shaheen Khan, a slim woman in real life but who padded herself up to play the disapproving mother in Bend It Like Beckham.
Khan said she was delighted to get a part, that of the grandmother, “into which I could really get into. The writing was very good”.
She was more cautious when asked whether a radio play could be made into a film. “With a radio play, a lot is left to your imagination. It’s not like that with a film which is all there in front of the audience.”
The author Patrick French, who had a part in the publication of The God of Small Things — he suggested his own agent, David Godwin, when he was sent the manuscript of the novel by his writer friend, Pankaj Mishra — confirmed that Roy had received several offers from film makers.
“She did not want to do a film partly because she did not want film crew crawling all over Kerala,” said French.