Booker Prize-win­ning au­thor and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Arund­hati Roy’s lat­est novel has been side­tracked, if mo­men­tar­ily, by a con­tro­ver­sial take on Gandhi, writes Sid­dhartha Deb

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

Arund­hati Roy is mak­ing her long-awaited re­turn to fic­tion. But first she has a bone to pick with Gandhi

‘I HAVE al­ways been slightly short with people who say, ‘ You haven’t writ­ten any­thing again,’ as if all the non­fic­tion I’ve writ­ten is not writ­ing,” Arund­hati Roy says. We are sit­ting in Roy’s liv­ing room, win­dows closed against the sum­mer heat. Delhi may be roiled over a slow­ing econ­omy, ris­ing crimes against women and elec­tions, but in Jor Bagh, an up­scale res­i­den­tial area across from the 16th­cen­tury tombs of the Lodi Gar­dens, things are quiet. Roy’s dog, Filthy, a stray, sleeps on the floor, her belly ris­ing and fall­ing rhyth­mi­cally. The melan­choly cry of a bird pierces the air. “That’s a horn­bill,” Roy says, look­ing re­flec­tive. Roy, per­haps best known for The God of

Small Things — her Booker Prize-win­ning novel about re­la­tion­ships that cross lines of caste, class and re­li­gion, one of which leads to mur­der while an­other cul­mi­nates in in­cest — has only re­cently turned again to fic­tion. It is an­other novel, but she is keep­ing the sub­ject se­cret for now. She is still try­ing to shake her­self free of her nearly two-decade-long role as an ac­tivist and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual and speaks, with some re­luc­tance, of one “last com­mit­ment”. It is more dar­ing than her at­tacks on In­dia’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Kash­mir, the Amer­i­can wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or crony cap­i­tal­ism. This time, she has taken on Mo­han­das Gandhi.

She has been asked by small In­dian press Navayana to write an in­tro­duc­tion to a new edi­tion of The An­ni­hi­la­tion of Caste. Writ­ten in 1936 by BR Ambed­kar, the pro­gres­sive leader who drafted the In­dian con­sti­tu­tion and con­verted to Bud­dhism, the es­say is per­haps the most fa­mous mod­ern-day at­tack on In­dia’s caste sys­tem. It in­cludes a re­buke of Gandhi, who wanted to abol­ish un­touch­a­bil­ity but not caste. Ambed­kar saw the en­tire caste sys­tem as morally wrong and un­demo­cratic. Read­ing Ambed­kar’s and Gandhi’s ar­gu­ments with each other, Roy be­came in­creas­ingly dis­mayed with what she saw as Gandhi’s re­gres­sive po­si­tion. Her small in­tro­duc­tory es­say grew larger in her mind, “al­most a lit­tle book in it­self”. It would not pull its punches when it came to Gandhi, she says, and there­fore would likely prove con­tro­ver­sial. Even Ambed­kar ran into dif­fi­cul­ties. His views were con­sid­ered so provoca­tive he was forced to self-pub­lish. The more Roy speaks of it, the more mired in com­pli­ca­tions this last com­mit­ment seems.

Roy leads me into the next room, where books and jour­nals are scat­tered around the kitchen ta­ble that serves as her desk. The col­lected writ­ings of Ambed­kar and Gandhi, vo­lu­mi­nous and in com­bat with each other, sit in tow­er­ing stacks, book­marks tucked be­tween the pages. The note­book in which Roy has been jot­ting down her thoughts lays open on the ta­ble, a frag­ile in­ter­me­di­ary in a nearly cen­tu­ry­old de­bate be­tween gi­ants.

“I got into trou­ble in the past for my non­fic­tion,” Roy says. She swore she would never “write any­thing with a foot­note again”. It’s a prom­ise she has been un­able to keep.

“I’ve been gath­er­ing the thoughts for months, strug­gling with the ques­tions, shocked by what I’ve been read­ing,” she says, when asked about the es­say en­ti­tled The Doc­tor and The Saint. “I know a lot is go­ing to hap­pen. But it’s some­thing I need to do.”

The pub­li­ca­tion of The God of Small Things in 1997 co­in­cided with the 50th an­niver­sary of In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence. It was the be­gin­ning of an ag­gres­sively na­tion­al­ist, con­sumerist phase, and Roy was seen as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Brand In­dia. The novel, her first, ap­peared on The New York Times best­seller list and won the Booker Prize. It sold more than six mil­lion copies.

Bri­tish tabloids pub­lished be­wil­der­ing pro-

files (such as “A 500,000 book from the pickle-fac­tory out­cast”), while mag­a­zines pho­tographed her — all cas­cad­ing waves of hair and high cheek­bones — against the pris­tine wa­ter­ways and lush fo­liage of Ker­ala, where the novel was set and which was just be­gin­ning to take off as a tourist des­ti­na­tion.

Roy’s ten­ure as a na­tional icon came to an abrupt end when, a year later, the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party govern­ment car­ried out a se­ries of nu­clear tests. These were widely ap­plauded by In­di­ans who iden­ti­fied with Hindu na­tion­al­ism, many of them mem­bers of the ris­ing mid­dle class.

In an es­say ti­tled The End of Imag­i­na­tion, Roy ac­cused sup­port­ers of the tests of rev­el­ling in dis­plays of mil­i­tary power — em­brac­ing the jin­go­ism that had brought the BJP to power for only the sec­ond time since in­de­pen­dence — in­stead of ad­dress­ing the abysmal con­di­tions in which most In­di­ans lived. Pub­lished si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the English-lan­guage mag­a­zines

Out­look and Front­line, the es­say marked her be­gin­ning as an overtly po­lit­i­cal writer.

Roy’s po­lit­i­cal turn an­gered many in her up­per-caste, ur­ban, English-speak­ing au­di­ence, even as it at­tracted an­other. Most of her new fans had never heard of her novel; they of­ten spoke lan­guages other than English and felt marginalised be­cause of their re­li­gion, caste or eth­nic­ity, left be­hind by In­dia’s eco­nomic rise. They de­voured the es­says Roy be­gan writ­ing, which were dis­trib­uted in unau­tho­rised trans­la­tions, and flocked to ral­lies to hear her speak.

“There was all this re­sent­ment, quite un­der­stand­able, about The God of Small Things, that here was this per­son writ­ing in English win­ning all this money,” Roy says. “So when The

End of Imag­i­na­tion came out, there was a re­ver­sal, an anger among the English-speak­ing people, but also an em­brace from ev­ery­one else.” The ve­he­mence of the re­sponse sur­prised her. “There is noth­ing in The God of Small Things that is at odds with what I went on to write po­lit­i­cally over 15 years,” Roy says. “It’s in­stinc­tive ter­ri­tory.” It is true that her novel also ex­plored ques­tions of so­cial jus­tice. But with­out the ar­ma­ture of char­ac­ter and plot, her es­says seemed di­dac­tic — or just plain wrong — to her de­trac­tors, easy stabs at an In­dia full of en­ergy and pur­pose. Even those who sym­pa­thised with her views were of­ten sus­pi­cious of her celebrity, re­gard­ing her as a dilet­tante. But for Roy, re­main­ing on the side­lines was never an op­tion. “If I had not said any­thing about the nu­clear tests, it would have been as if I was cel­e­brat­ing it,” Roy says. “Not say­ing any­thing be­came as po­lit­i­cal as say­ing some­thing.”

Roy turned next to a se­ries of mega-dams to be built on the Nar­mada River. Vil­lagers likely to be dis­placed by the project had been stag­ing protests, even as In­dia’s Supreme Court al­lowed con­struc­tion to be­gin. Roy trav­elled through the re­gion, join­ing in the protests and writ­ing es­says crit­i­cis­ing the court’s de­ci­sion. In 2001, a group of men ac­cused her and other ac­tivists of at­tack­ing them at a rally out­side the Supreme Court. Roy pe­ti­tioned for the charges to be dis­missed. The court agreed but was so of­fended by the lan­guage of her pe­ti­tion (she ac­cused the court of at­tempt­ing to “muz­zle dis­sent, to ha­rass and in­tim­i­date those who dis­agree with it”) that it held her in con­tempt. Roy was sen­tenced to “sim­ple im­pris­on­ment for one day” and a fine of 2000 ru­pees.

When she emerged from the fortresslike Ti­har Jail the next day, her trans­for­ma­tion from In­dian icon to harsh na­tional critic was com­plete. Her hair, which she had shorn into a se­vere cut, evoked, un­easily, os­tracised woman and feisty fem­i­nist.

At­tacks fol­lowed each of Roy’s sub­se­quent works: her an­guished de­nun­ci­a­tions of the mas­sacre of Mus­lims in Gu­jarat in 2002; the plans for baux­ite min­ing in Orissa (now Odisha) by a Lon­don-based cor­po­ra­tion called Vedanta Re­sources; the para­mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in cen­tral In­dia against indige­nous tribal pop­u­la­tions and ul­tra-left gueril­las known as Nax­alites; and In­dia’s mil­i­tary pres­ence in Kash­mir, where more than 500,000 troops hold in check a ma­jor­ity Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion that wants to se­cede from In­dia.

In 2010, Roy pub­licly re­marked that “Kash­mir was never an in­te­gral part of In­dia”. In sug­gest­ing that the state of In­dia was a mere con­struct, a prod­uct of Par­ti­tion like Pak­istan, Roy soon found her­self the cen­tre of a na­tion­wide storm. A stone-throw­ing mob, trailed by TV vans, showed up at her front door. The con­ser­va­tive TV chan­nel Times Now con­vened a panel to dis­cuss whether Roy should be ar­rested for sedi­tion. Cases were filed against Roy in courts in Ban­ga­lore and Chandigarh, ac­cus­ing her of be­ing “anti-na­tional” and “anti-hu­man”.

Roy courted con­tro­versy again last month,

pub­licly at­tack­ing her pub­lisher, Pen­guin, over its de­ci­sion to with­draw Amer­i­can aca­demic Wendy Doniger’s book The Hin­dus: An Al­terna

tive His­tory. In an open let­ter di­rected at Pen­guin and pub­lished in The Times of In­dia, Roy wrote: “Now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court or­der, you have not only caved in, you have hu­mil­i­ated yourself ab­jectly be­fore a fly-by-night out­fit by sign­ing set­tle­ment. Why?” She went so far as to sug­gest the pub­lisher had be­trayed its val­ues in fight­ing “for free speech against the most vi­o­lent and ter­ri­fy­ing odds.”

Roy was born Suzanna Arund­hati Roy in 1959 in Shil­long, a small hill town in the north­east­ern fringes of In­dia. Her mother, Mary, was from a close-knit com­mu­nity of Syr­ian Chris­tians in Ker­ala. Her fa­ther, Rajib, was a Ben­gali Hindu from Cal­cutta, a man­ager of a tea plan­ta­tion and an al­co­holic. The mar­riage didn’t last long. As the child of a sin­gle mother, Roy was ill at ease in the con­ser­va­tive Syr­ian Chris­tian com­mu­nity. She felt more at home among the so-called lower castes or Dal­its, who were kept at a dis­tance by Chris­tians and up­per-caste Hin­dus. “Much of the way I think is by de­fault,” she says. “No­body paid enough at­ten­tion to me to in­doc­tri­nate me.”

The child of what was con­sid­ered a dis­rep­utable mar­riage and an even more dis­grace­ful di­vorce, Roy was ex­pected to have suit­ably mod­est am­bi­tions. But at 16, she moved to Delhi to study at the School of Plan­ning and Ar­chi­tec­ture. She chose ar­chi­tec­ture be­cause it would al­low her to start earn­ing money in her sec­ond year, but also out of ide­al­ism. She had met Bri­tish-born, In­dian ar­chi­tect Lau­rie Baker, known for his sus­tain­able, low-cost build­ings, and was taken with the idea of do­ing sim­i­lar work. But she soon re­alised she wouldn’t learn about such things at school. “They just wanted you to be like a con­trac­tor,” Roy says.

She was grap­pling with ques­tions to which her pro­fes­sors didn’t seem to have an­swers: “What is your sense of aes­thetic? Whom are you de­sign­ing for? Even if you’re de­sign­ing a home, what is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween men and women as­sumed in that? It just be­came big­ger and big­ger. How are cities or­gan­ised? Who are laws for? Who is con­sid­ered a cit­i­zen? This co­a­lesced into some­thing very po­lit­i­cal for me by the end of it.”

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, Roy briefly lived with her boyfriend in Goa, but they broke up and she re­turned to Delhi. She got a job at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ur­ban Af­fairs and met Pradip Kr­ishen, an in­de­pen­dent film­maker who of­fered her the fe­male lead in Massey Sahib (1985), a film set in colo­nial In­dia. Roy and Kr­ishen, who later mar­ried, col­lab­o­rated on sub­se­quent projects, in­clud­ing a 26-part tele­vi­sion se­ries on In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence move­ment that was never com­pleted, as well as two fea­ture films.

Roy im­mersed her­self in Delhi’s in­de­pen­dent-film­mak­ing world. The movies’ pro­gres­sive themes ap­pealed to her, but it was a world dom­i­nated by the scions of elite fam­i­lies, and it soon came to seem out of touch and in­su­lar to her. She had al­ready be­gun work on her novel when The Ban­dit Queen, a film, based on the life of ban­dit Phoolan Devi, was re­leased. Devi was a low-caste woman who be­came a fa­mous gang leader and en­dured gang rape and im­pris­on­ment. Roy was in­censed by the way the film por­trayed her as a vic­tim whose life was de­fined by rape in­stead of re­bel­lion. “I read in the pa­pers how Phoolan Devi said it was like be­ing raped again,” Roy says.

“I read the book the film was based on and re­alised that these guys had added their own rapes ... I thought, ‘You’ve changed In­dia’s most fa­mous ban­dit into his­tory’s most fa­mous rape vic­tim.’ ” Her es­say on the film, The Great In­dian

Rape Trick, pub­lished widely, evis­cer­ated the film­mak­ers, point­ing out that they never even both­ered to meet Devi.

The piece alien­ated many of the people Roy worked with. Kr­ishen, who gives the im­pres­sion of a flinty loy­alty to­wards Roy even though the cou­ple split up, says it was seen as a be­trayal in Delhi’s tight-knit film cir­cles. For Roy, it was a les­son in how the me­dia worked.

“I watched very care­fully what hap­pened to Phoolan Devi,” she says. “I saw how the me­dia



can just ex­ca­vate you and leave a shell be­hind ... So when my turn came, the bar­ri­cades were up.”

Last May, when Nax­alite gueril­las killed at least 24 people, in­clud­ing a Congress politi­cian who had formed a bru­tal right-wing mili­tia and whom Roy crit­i­cised in her last book, she was im­me­di­ately asked for a com­ment but de­clined to talk. “So they just re­pub­lished an old in­ter­view I had given and tried to pre­tend it was a new in­ter­view,” she says.

Al­though Roy won’t di­vulge what her new novel is about, she is adamant it rep­re­sents a break from her non­fic­tion and her first novel. “There’s much more grap­pling con­cep­tu­ally with the new novel,” she says.

Af­ter The God of Small Things was pub­lished, Roy be­gan to give some of the money she made from it away. In 2002, when she re­ceived a Lan­nan Foun­da­tion award, she do­nated the $350,000 prize­money to 50 small or­gan­i­sa­tions across In­dia. In 2006, she and her friends set up a trust into which she be­gan putting all her non­fic­tion earn­ings to sup­port pro­gres­sive causes.

“I was never in­ter­ested in just be­ing a pro­fes­sional writer where you wrote one book that did very well, you wrote an­other book, and so on,” Roy says. “There’s a fear I have that, be­cause you’re fa­mous, or be­cause you’ve done some­thing, ev­ery­body wants you to keep on do­ing the same thing, be the same per­son, freeze you in time.”

Roy was talk­ing of the point in her life when, tired of the im­ages she saw of her­self — the glam­orous In­dian icon turned glam­orous In­dian dis­senter — she cut off her hair. But you could see how she might say the same of the po­si­tion in which she now finds her­self. Tak­ing on Gandhi was to com­plete one set of ex­pec­ta­tions be­fore she could turn to some­thing new. “I don’t want that enor­mous bag­gage,” Roy says. “I want to travel light.”

Arund­hati Roy in 2009, top; Roy holds up a copy of The God of Small Things in 1997, left; Roy dur­ing a protest in front of the Supreme Court in New Delhi in May 2006, top right

Arund­hati Roy leaves Ti­har Jail in New Delhi af­ter serv­ing a one-day sen­tence for con­tempt of court in 2002

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