Goddess of Small Things

An Interview With Novelist-Turned-Activist Arundhati Roy

Although the first essay in Power Politics, "The Ladies Have Feelings So . . . Shall We Leave It to the Experts?," asks us to resist the urge to segregate fiction and politics, Roy's own nonfiction writing is totally different from Small Things—it is diamond-hard, fiercely intelligent polemic. Grappling with the dueling elements of her life as activist and novelist, she writes that art "can lead you to the strangest wildest places. In the midst of a bloody military coup, for instance, you could find yourself fascinated by . . . the secret life of a captive goldfish, or an old aunt's descent into madness. And nobody can say that there isn't truth and art and beauty in that."

In fact, Roy says that she was busy reveling in the novel's success when she clashed with the Indian government over its nuclear tests. After writing several oppositional essays (included in her 1999 collection, The Cost of Living), she quickly found herself immersed in the movement to stop construction of a dam in India's Narmada Valley, a massive project which "will alter the ecology of an entire river basin," she writes in Power Politics, submerging "forests, temples, and archaeological sites" and displacing something like 400,000 people in the area—with no governmental plans for re-housing the newly homeless residents, no good ecological or social studies on the effects of the dam. Roy heaps her wrath on the Western investors and "experts" of the multibillion-dollar dam industry while celebrating the massive nonviolent protest movement that sprang up to stop the dams—people who refused to flee their villages even as they flooded. The country's redemption, Roy writes, "lies in the inherent anarchy and factiousness of its people. . . . Corporatizing India is like trying to impose an iron grid on a heaving ocean. . ."

Earlier this year, Roy and two leaders of the anti-dam movement were accused of inciting violence during a protest outside Delhi's Supreme Court (after the court had allowed the Narmada dam construction to continue). Roy wrote her own defense (included at the back of Power Politics), which not only asserted her right to peaceful protest but also further argued the case against the dam. Unfortunately, her affidavit got her into even bigger trouble: The Supreme Court charged her with contempt, saying, "She has accused courts of 'harassing' her . . . as if the judiciary were carrying out a personal vendetta against her." The case will be heard in January 2002 and carries the risk of a jail sentence.

Roy's gig as a dissenter has replaced any semblance of a normal life, but she seems to relish the role more than she ever enjoyed the cosseted but confined life of a lit star: "I was fully prepared to be burnt at the stake," she says of her latest essays on Afghanistan, "because I realized that one was flying in the face of the white world. I don't write in order to be hated or controversial—it's almost as if I only write when I can't keep quiet anymore."

That kind of passion drives every line of her essays, making them both accessible and infectious. Roy writes and acts like someone with nothing left to lose, though there's plenty at stake for her (not least her freedom). It's eerie to hear her so casually discuss being despised: "When I wrote God of Small Things, the left was very angry with me because I critique the Communists. When I wrote the essay on nuclear bombs, the right was very angry with me. When I wrote about the dam, they said you're a foreign agent or CIA spy. But now that I've criticized the American government they don't know who I am! Maybe I'm a Latvian spy," she says wryly. "Because I am not attached to any institution or ideology, it's a little bit confusing for people to keep track. There's a lot of hostility and a lot of love for me, but they sort of cancel each other out."

Thick skin may be indispensable for a warrior, but it's not necessarily a great thing for a novelist whose forte is delicacy. Yet Roy's gift for registering the tiniest tremors from creatures great and small is also what transformed her into a political agitator in the first place.

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