A design firm has recreated the experience of reading Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in an online space
Lisa Rath, principal, Itu Chaudhuri Design
For those who have read Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a chaiti (semi-classical song) by Hindustani classical legend Rasoolin Bai, that resonates through its chapters, might be of significance.
It certainly was to Lisa Rath, who has created Re:Reader, a digital experience around Roy's novel that has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Intricately designed, user friendly and avoiding any kind of clutter, the Re:Reader takes one through portions from each chapter in the book, that Rath felt, would stay with the reader and compel them to want to know more.
"Two tracks by Rasoolin Bai play a major role in the book. In this experience, one can actually listen to it in the background as you leaf through the chapters," Rath says, over a telephonic interview from Delhi. She continues, "The question we asked ourselves was could we take the book beyond its pages? Could the reading experience be enlarged?
The web has a way of immortalising things, make it a forever experience, that can, technically be savoured across generations. Having said that, the Re:Reader is primarily for those who are yet to read the book. I'd like this experience to intrigue them enough to make them want to go and pick up a physical copy." And that, we are told, has been happening, since its launch less than a week ago.
Rath, an NID alumni, is principal and team leader at Itu Chaudhuri Designs, a business design firm based in New Delhi. When this project was commissioned to her by Roy, she was treading on unfamiliar territory. "It's not just us, something like this has not been done before. Arundhati, too, did not really have a picture in mind. We were entirely led by our instincts. When I showed her a prototype of what we had created, she seemed to like it. She said, 'I don't care what it does, let's do this'," Rath tells us. The experience is largely typographical, with slight animation and just the right amount of background music, which again pertains to the text.
"I did not want images and videos to colour one's imagination. When you read a book, you paint your own picture. I wanted to retain that experience. When you read the word 'barsaati' for instance, a Delhi person would imagine it rather differently from a Mumbai person."
Roy's narrative is not a linear one, and that was particularly tricky for Rath to capture in Re:Reader. It took her multiple readings to figure out a right way to do it. "A lot of time went in choosing portions and deciding how to convey the same as an experience. For instance, if the chapters from three to four are linked, chapter five has no connection to them. Chapter six, again, is very different from the rest of the book put together. I would cull out portions from each chapter. And say, when I would reach the eighth chapter, I'd realise, I may have revealed too much from chapter two. Under no cost, did I want to reveal too much about the story," says the 43-year-old designer.
The Re:Reader gives readers that free hand to navigate through the chapters. Rath would also like those who have read the book to savour this experience and make the connections. "To me, it's like an online toy, and I can go on playing with it."
The designer read Roy's manuscript a month before the book was officially released. The Re:Reader, that can be accessed at https://theministryofutmosthappiness.com/ was created in under three months. While the feedback has been encouraging from all corners, the reactions of the publishers have flummoxed Rath. "The way I see it, if anything, this could be a great marketing tool to make people go and buy the real book. While Arundhati might not need the publicity, a lesser-known author could benefit greatly if this translated into sales."