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.

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 nonexpatriate 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.

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. 

There was a time when I bought and read everything Roy wrote and published.

Like many people who are not fully aware of the modern literary world, I had no idea who Arundhati Roy, until the Booker Prize. And by 1997, I was just a little boy in a little village in Imo State in Nigeria. I was, let’s say, seven years old, so I had not started speaking English yet. I was not even aware of the world. I did not know there was anything like the Booker Prize. But this happened years later, around 2004, when I travelled to Lagos – I had been in the seminary then. I needed to start exploring. It was that moment that I read The God of Small Things that I began to fantasize about India. It was all that was in my head. I began to dream, mightily about a country of Magic.

In 2006, I travelled to India and it was when I first came to the full realisation that I would become a writer. I bought books by Gurcharan Das, Amit Chaudhuri, Chetan Bhagat, Shobha De and many other authors. I devoured everything. I did not care about who was great. I wanted to read everything and I enjoyed that journey. I had been living in a slum called Pahar Ganj in Main Bazaar, in New Delhi, a setting which would later feature prominently in my first novel, The Abyssinian Boy. 

I had started writing The Abyssinian Boy in the house of a Brahmin family Delhi, who treated me like a Dalit and thought I didn’t know. I was given a room upstairs in their bungalow house, which I paid dearly for. If I had tea with a cup in the house, it was never used. One day, I ran away from the house to Pahar Ganj, where I got a room for Rs 150 per night. It was there in Pahar Ganj, that I met this American writer and musician, Russell Hawkey, who told me the story of his family.

Russel Hawkey was not particularly a writer. I always found him at Ajay Guest House. He had a near obsession with Ravi Shankar and made up stories that fascinated me. I was working on so many ideas. His story fascinated me. His story today gave birth to the idea behind my second novel, The Beginning of Everything Colourful.

He told me, interestingly, of how he met Jean-Louis Bourgeois, which I didn’t understand then. He said that he met her son, Jean-Louis Bourgeois, while sitting in a sidewalk cafe called “café pick-me-up“, located in New York City´s East Village, on Ave. A, just North of Ninth street, overlooking Tompkins square park.

It felt like I was chatting with an East Village character, a handsome white haired elderly man in his sixties dressed in Khaki safari wear, jungle hat included, a white man’s white man, who always seemed to draw any conversation back to what an amazing and astute philosopher he was, and how some day, oh yes, some day, he was going to drive his old van with a simple wood frame bed inside, and some rock miners tools, and head west, always west, and find some large vein of gold in some far off mountain. Possibly it would be an undiscovered riverbed just seething with gold nuggets. The details changed, but the basic story, “I WILL STRIKE IT RICH!, that part, stayed the same, and always got him very excited to the point of agitation. It was just a matter of time. The right time. The perfect time. I´m quite sure it never happened. I did hear later that he dug up some Herkimer diamonds in a deposit located somewhere in upstate New York. And I did spend some time sleeping in that old van, always parked on sixth street, when times really got hard, later on. But I´m jumping ahead.

Louise Bourgeois. Her name now ranks in my mind as one of the undisputed super geniuses of the twentieth century. On that sunny fall morning in Delhi, however, it could have been Lisa Bernstein, for all that it conjured in my ignorant memory banks.

He told me, that her son, Jean-Louis, who would later become his great friend, and a bit of a father figure, and then, finally, a curious, and often humorous adversary, came strolling up to his table. He struck him at first glance as possibly being a borderline bag lady kind of dude. He was pulling a small suitcase behind him, one of those zippered canvas cases with little wheels and an extending pull out handle. You could tell it was part of his normal gear, he wasn´t going on any real out of town journey. He had long, grey streaked hair pulled back in a frazzled pony tail, he looked a little unkempt, and seemed peeved at nothing in particular, like maybe there was a bad smell that only he noticed, so, o.k., another east village crazy guy, but wait, he had a cool turquoise bolo tie, and a well-made belt buckle with a labyrinth design imprinted on it, and as soon as he started speaking, he realized he was smart, and funny, so he was eccentric maybe, not borderline nuts.

“Good morning, Walter, have you discovered the mother load yet?” Jean-Louis teased.

“It´s all a matter of time my friend, it´s all here in the geological maps, if you know how to read ém”, Walter replied, rustling some dusty survey maps, dead serious, but with a gleam of pure glee in his knowing eyes. He knew, he just knew, and someday, we´d all know, too.

“Yes, time is a great friend to those who truly know”, Jean-Louis deadpanned, “And who is your friend here”, he said, nodding in my direction.

“Oh, just another young fellow down on his luck, but he´s got some good stories, so I allow him to sit with me”, Walter said, pompously.

“I love a good story, maybe you´d like to tell me one, but I have to run up to my apartment, would you like to join me?” Jean-Louis inquired.

Russell wasn´t too sure, because he looked a little weird, but he was curious, because he felt smart, and he had nothing else to do, so away he went, walking up Avenue. A, as he towed his tiny valise behind him. He often followed people, just to see where their road goes, always ready to bail out if it got too boring or scary. Jean-Louis just seemed interesting, and interested in him, and that is always a bit alluring.

He took him into a building on Ave A, between ninth and tenth streets, an old pre-war building with peeling paint, and a sweet and sour garbage smell on the first floor. 

From Russell Hawkey’s narrative, which I have joyfully built the foundation of The Beginning of Everything Colourful with, it turned out that he owned the place. His father, Robert Goldwater, a very famous art historian had found him a small apartment in this building when he, Jean-Louis, was just out of university. Then he had met and married a beautiful photographer named Carollee Pelos, and they lived together there, and to gain some control over their futures, they had bought the building with another couple who lived there, with help from Jean-Louis´s mother, Louise. The other couple eventually sold out their half interest to Jean-Louis and Carollee, and now they owned the whole place. 

Jean-Louis admitted he had no head for business, Carollee was the dominant partner in that regard, so for him it was all kind of a fluke, it just kind of happened around him. In the near future the whole building would be his. Quite tragically Carollee was at the time dying of Cancer, out west in their beautiful owner built Taos, New Mexico adobe home, situated on a mesa. 

Jean-Louis was just in town checking on his mother and the building, and he was certainly no bag lady, but actually a Harvard graduate, who was a talented writer, and had produced a lush coffee table book with Carollee, as photographer, called “Spectacular Vernacular”, about human dwellings around the world that were built with local materials, and in harmony with the land and indigenousculture. O.k., so he´s a super cool guy, after all!

Russell helped him with his roller case up the stairs, and they sat and talked, in a modest, back of the building, apartment.

“My mother is actually quite famous”, he said, when I didn´t recognize her name, “There are some leading art historians who consider her the greatest living artist of our time” 

“Really?, I replied, “and I thought I was at least mildly aware of such things, it just goes to show how little we sometimes know about what´s up in the world”

“She was the first woman to have a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1984, and is considered the forerunner of woman in modern art”, he proudly related.

Russell was also to read later that she was thought extraordinary, since for most artists this would be the pinnacle of their work, a retrospective at MOMA, but that she had gone on to do her best work, after this show, in the opinion of many art critics and scholars.

He felt like he had fallen into a deep well of talent, culture and intelligence. You just never know who you might meet on the street in a city like New York. 

He said they spoke of his great grandfather, Edwin Tappan Adney, his art training at the art students league in Manhattan, and his desire to research and write and produce a museum show about him, because the work he did with Native Americans and their birch bark canoes and native languages, was so unique, and fascinating. Jean-Louis agreed enthusiastically, and so began their friendship. You could doubt any of these, based on the fact that you just met in Pahar Ganj, but I thought life was stranger than fiction.

Who could have guessed then, that ultimately it would all end so dramatically and sadly, and that Russell’s nascent father-son, or maybe to be more accurate, Uncle-nephew dynamic would  explode in their faces, and become an episode of epic proportions, a psycho drama dance that would involve his Jean’s mother, his high powered lawyer for the Mayor of New York brother, his then girlfriend, the local police, a neighbourhood cast of over a hundred, and end up with Russell being held on the infamously horrible Rikers Island jail compound for 40 days and nights, on spurious and false charges. How strange are the ways and means of fate. 

I loved the ending of the story.

The story however, must be told.

At the time Jean-Louis and Russell met, he was living, or perhaps camping would be the more correct word, on a rooftop on Fifth Street, due to a freshly former girlfriend, who had hijacked my borrowed apartment, sneaking her name on the lease, moving out his few possessions, changing the locks, and leaving me with little choice but to revert to survivalist feral thinking. 

First step, find an apartment building front door that would open with a plastic card, in this case, a Kinko´s copier account card, and fashion a makeshift bedroll made from found blankets with a plastic tarp to keep dry, and kept hidden behind a chimney on that dirty roof. It was within sight of my old cozy, now hijacked, fourth street nest. 

He didn´t plan it that way. He just wanted to stay in the neighbourhood, and took the first door that was easy. 

Creeping up the stairs trying not to be heard, like an anxious alley cat.

Part of Russell’s narrative, I used to build up the narrative for my new novel. To some, it would sound like fiction, but the truth is that this was what I found out, reading The God of Small Things later. Those writings that you consider fictitious are sometimes, the truest.

FIRST PUBLISHED ON THE TRENT ONLINE

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(Onyeka Nwelue is an award-winning Nigerian writer, filmmaker, talk show host, and cultural anthropologist. He is currently a visiting assistant professor and Visiting Fellow of African Literature and studies in the English Language Department of the Faculty of Humanities, Manipur University in Imphal, India. He is a Visiting Professor at Queensland University in Haiti and also a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies, Ohio University, where he spends time in Athens, Ohio.)