May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

“Among winners of Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize, Arundhati Roy is surely the only one whose novel’s acknowledgements include friends who kept “my spirits up and my hamstrings in working order.” But the 38-year-old Indian writer produced her acclaimed first book, The God of Small Things, over a period of nearly five years by sitting at her computer for five hours each day before teaching a New Delhi exercise class. A daily hour of aerobics, she told PEOPLE last fall, “is my way of preserving my sanity.”

Since The God of Small Things shot up the international bestseller charts a year ago, interviewers have commented nearly as much on Roy’s exquisite cheekbones and opulent black hair as they have about her inventive prose. And yet the diminutive (5’1″) author has admitted to being puzzled by the double takes: “It is only recently that anyone has told me that I was good-looking.”

Her novel, a tragic tale of telepathically joined twins and social strife, draws on Roy’s own life. Like her protagonists, she and older brother Lalith grew up in Kerala, India, snubbed by neighbors and even relatives because their mother, Mary, a Christian, had married a Hindu, Rajib, and had divorced. At 17, Roy moved to New Delhi, where she studied architecture and lived for a time in a tin shack. She later baked cakes for tourists in the beach resorts of Goa. When she was 22, director Pradip Krishen spotted her riding her bike and cast her in a film, after which she began writing screenplays. A decade later, she and Krishen, now 48, married.

Roy is still devoted to aerobics and jogging, says friend Aradhana Seth, a filmmaker, and she “loves to massage her hair” with herbal oils. But she “doesn’t dwell on her beauty” and is “fed up” with those who do, says another filmmaking friend, Nahid Bilgrami, explaining, “Of course it is irritating to be told you’re beautiful if you want to be taken seriously.” Given the passionate response of readers around the world, Roy’s looks don’t seem to have stood in her way.

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