THE REBEL’S PEN
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
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
I SAW HOW THE MEDIA CAN JUST EXCAVATE YOU AND LEAVE A SHELL BEHIND
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