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A visual translation of Arundhati Roy’s novel

London-based designer David Eldridge speaks of his collaboration with Arundhati Roy and the making of her book covers

The cover is an amalgamation of different photos of a nondescript tomb in Delhi.
The cover is an amalgamation of different photos of a nondescript tomb in Delhi.

There are books that have remained perennial reader favourites, but there are very few books with covers that have become iconic. Memorable ones that immediately spring to mind are two: the airplane and a madcap uniformed man dancing over Joseph Heller’s name on the cover of Catch-22 (1961), and the bowler hat-clad man with one cogwheel eye on Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962). Then there is Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things, the original cover of which used its publisher Sanjeev Saith’s close-up of lotus leaves and a pink flower on a murky water surface. So enduring has been this cover, designed by David Eldridge of the London-based design firm Two Associates, that several subsequent editions of the novel have not strayed from the lotus motif.For her second novel, Roy has been equally particular about the cover. Meru Gokhale, editor-in-chief, literary publishing, Penguin Random House India, says they created many options, but Roy didn’t like any. She was independently in touch with Eldridge, and one day last winter called Gokhale home, saying, “I think I have the cover."

Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

This cover will feature in all editions of The Ministry and has an image of a decaying white marble gravestone. “It was Arundhati’s idea to have some details ‘falling off’ the cover; the flower on the spine, the seal on the front flap," Eldridge says in an interview published on the Penguin Random House website. He also created a seal that includes a crow frozen in flight from a picture Roy sent him, as well as other animals that feature in the novel.

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A rough plan by David Elridge for the cover of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’.
A rough plan by David Elridge for the cover of ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’.

In an email interview from London, Eldridge speaks of how he created the cover of the new novel. Edited excerpts:

How did you come to design the cover of ‘The God Of Small Things’?

Arundhati came to my studio in south London and we worked on the cover together over the space of a couple of days, gradually designing and exchanging ideas on the image and the type.

When did the author approach you to design the cover of her new novel?

Twenty years whistled by and then David Godwin (her agent) called saying that Arundhati had written a new piece of fiction, and would I be interested in putting forward some design proposals? Initially, I discussed approaches with David; then I started communicating with Arundhati directly.

How different were the processes of designing the two book covers?

The God Of Small Things had a shorter time in the design process. At that time, it had yet to be recognized as the major literary achievement that it has become but we were both pleased with the cover and it has lasted a long time. It’s always difficult to produce something with such longevity, it’s a testament to the collaboration that it has. Ministry appeared out of a long silence of fiction output from Arundhati so it was amazing to be involved. The amount of time allocated for design was longer and it allowed us to be quite analytical in what we produced.

Roy was closely involved in all aspects of the book cover?

Talking and working with the author is a unique opportunity for an avid reader or a designer to see further through the written page of what they produce. In a sense you read the work with four pairs of eyes. The brief was through conversation rather than a written form. I would work on the visual process, send it to Arundhati, who would always reply rapidly. The result was a mellifluous process rather than the more common stop and go of other books’ paths. Our collaboration was unique for me. Arundhati’s contributions were always suggestions, tips and turns that made the cover grow. It allowed me to step sideways and look again by having someone make me add and take away.

What was it about the image you used in the cover that appealed to you?

The images were an amazing catalogue of one set of gravestones; there were about four or five I could envisage being amalgamated into one composite, thus making a construct for the typography. That idea came through relatively quickly, the rest of the process was refining the idea to as close to perfect as time would allow.

What were the details that you added to the original photograph, and why?

All details came from the original photographs. I merely isolated some parts that seemed to work better than others and placed that into the main design. The original seal ideas survived in a smaller form and appear in a ghostly way and as a licence stamp logo in the text layout.

As a designer, what were your thoughts on reading the novel?

Once I had read some of the advance material of Ministry, I began to see the form of the novel; it felt original and very strong. The crow frozen in flight is a fabulous passage in the book and a personal favourite. Maybe it’s because I read as I visualize but it has a stark and surreal quality that just leaps off the page.

If Roy hadn’t sent you the images of the tombs, which direction would you have gone in?

I played around with seals and type in the beginning. It would have been a flat-looking book if Arundhati had not sent me those pictures. The grave images are crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of time. If you look closely, all simple things have this inner depth; hopefully, this cover reiterates that.

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