Men with Saffron Smiles

Eleanor Birne

  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
    Hamish Hamilton, 445 pp, £18.99, June 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 30397 9

I was working as a part-time bookseller in the university holidays when the Flamingo sales rep stopped by with a proof of Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things. I wasn’t senior enough to buy books for the shop – that responsibility fell to the managers – but I picked up the pink and black paperback he had left on the counter and opened it. You weren’t supposed to read on the job and you weren’t supposed to sit down. I did both, right on the front till, until someone in charge ordered me to go and unpack some boxes. I took the proof up to the staff room and put it in my bag before getting busy with the Stanley knife. After work, I read some more. When term started up again, I packed the proof along with my coffee cups and told my tutor I wanted to write my final-year thesis on it. As I was working on it, the novel came out. Then it won the Booker Prize. I watched it get bigger and bigger and then explode – in the end it sold eight million copies. In some ways, The God of Small Things gave me the idea I might like to be a publisher. It felt, madly, as if I’d spotted it, that I – personally – had seen something in that proof copy. Never mind the fact that the publisher had gone to the bother of making all those proofs in the first place, or that the sales rep had gone to the trouble of delivering it: I’d learn about publicity and sales later. I got a job with a publisher at the end of my degree and worked in publishing for nearly twenty years, sometimes very happily. I blame The God of Small Things.

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