David Eldridge takes us through the designs of Arundhati Roy's long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and how the beauty of decay inspired its cover
How did you come to design the cover for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness?
I designed The God of Small Things, Arundhati’s first book, back in 1998. The creative process for that first one was very collaborative; we worked together closely in producing the final design. So for the new book, I was asked to work up some cover designs – and I was so pleased to be asked!
How was Arundhati involved in the design process this time?
Arundhati was pivotal in helping to find the right tone for the cover. We worked iteratively: I would send designs and then she would feed back overnight.
It’s wonderful to have a truly open-minded author. Arundhati really allowed me follow my own direction, to explore and experiment, whilst also being so constructive and engaged, adding in key ideas that eventually made the design lock together as a whole.
What inspired the design?
The initial idea came out of some gorgeous, rich images that Arundhati sent me: they were simply photographs of beautiful old gravestones.
One of the novel’s core settings is a graveyard – it becomes very important in the story and it speaks to many of its themes and ideas – so it felt right to reference that setting on the jacket.
I spent some time examining the gravestone photos Arundhati sent. One in particular sang out at me, and that became the starting point for constructing the front cover panel.
How did you create the image?
I started from my favourite gravestone photograph, and added in details from some of the other gravestones too, building a composite image from many parts. I wanted to give the cover real depth, so my next step was to convert the gravestone design into a digital 3D model. I combined this model with the Photoshop composite image, which allowed me to add in effects: conveying light, eroding and distressing parts of the stone to create the sense of age and decay.
Overlaid on the gravestone, I added the core motifs. Each of these details was created as a standalone element, because I knew that foreign publishers would need to be able to move them around. For example, the rose slightly overlaps the title text, and the length and position of that text will change on foreign language editions – so it has to be able to move, to be adaptable for every edition of the book across the world.
Where did the all the individual details come from?
It was Arundhati’s idea to have some details ‘falling off' the cover; the flower on the spine, the seal on the front flap. I love how this makes the design flow onto all the parts of the cover. The seal especially is a useful device, as it links the full-colour part of the cover into the bespoke patterned ‘endpapers’ at the front and back of the book, as well as appearing in foil on the case. Hopefully it will be used as a chapter dingbat – one of those ornamental motifs that break up the text – within the book, too.
The seal began as an old clipping I found on a collectors’ website, delcampe.net. I remembered one particularly evocative piece of writing in the book that describes a crow suspended in the air. I wanted to use that as a kind of icon, so Arundhati sent me a picture of the crow that was her inspiration. I drew the seal’s central image from her picture, filling the rest of the space with other animals from the book. And you can see how the seal’s unusual border shape echoes the gravestone panel on the front cover.
What is the most important element of this cover for you?
I like the fact that, on closer inspection, the objects of beauty are in fact in the process of decay. Also, there’s a tiny fly caught in time on the front of the book – I like him very much.
More about the author
THE SUNDAY TIMES #1 BESTSELLER and THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
'Magnificent - unlike anything I've read in years. An absolutely dazzling, original, and ultimately profound novel... A masterpiece. Very few writers can write with such intense and yet precise emotional intelligence. Arundhati Roy is properly special. We should be grateful to have her among us.' Mirza Waheed, author of The Book of Gold Leaves
'Roy's second novel proves as remarkable as her first' Financial Times
'A great tempest of a novel... which will leave you awed by the heat of its anger and the depth of its compassion' Washington Post
The first novel in 20 years from the Booker-prize winning author of The God of Small Things
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on a journey of many years-the story spooling outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi into the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, 'normalcy' is declared.
Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration. It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. For this reason, they are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender. This ravishing, magnificent book reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy's storytelling gifts.
'A novel that demands and rewards the reader's concentration, this is a dazzling return to form' Independent
'This novel is a freedom song. Every page has the stamp of Roy's originality. Such brutality, such beauty' Amitva Kumar, the author of Immigrant, Montana
'Intricately layered and passionate, studded with jokes and with horrors... This is a work of extraordinary intricacy and grace' Prospect Magazine
'Gorgeous, supple, playful... Roy writes with astonishing vividness... Again and again beautiful images refresh our sense of the world' The New York Times Book Review
'A masterpiece. Roy joins Dickens, Naipaul, García Márquez, and Rushdie in her abiding compassion, storytelling magic, and piquant wit. An entrancing, imaginative, and wrenching epic' Booklist starred review