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With the 1997 publication of her debut novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy became the public face of India for a lot of Americans. Small Things, which won England’s prestigious Booker Prize and sold 6 million copies, was a dazzling, intricate jewel box of a novel about twins growing up in southern India. It left a trail of imitators in its wake and resulted in an explosion of Western interest in young Indian novelists. Roy herself seemed like a ready-baked literary icon: an articulate 36-year-old woman with a delicate face and glossy locks who spoke fragrantly accented English and expressed feisty opinions.
No second novel followed, though, and Roy’s name began to fade from literary lips. Yet four years later, she is back in the American spotlight. Her stinging essays critiquing American actions in Afghanistan have been circulating all over the U.S. by e-mail. And a photo of Roy appeared in The New York Times recently, her hair now dramatically shorn to her skull, accompanying a short article about her ongoing wrangles with the Indian Supreme Court over her role in the anti-dam movement, which may eventually send her to jail. Roy’s latest book is just hitting the street, too—a second collection of essays, Power Politics (South End Press, $12 paper), which takes on globalization, privatization, and India’s dangerous love affair with dams.
If you weren’t closely following her career, this shift from celebrated novelist to embattled activist might seem startling. But it’s not like Roy hasn’t been dropping clues all along. “I’ve been political all of my sentient life,” she says in a phone interview from her home in New Delhi. Roy grew up in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, an area dominated by Syrian-Christian traditions and Marxist politics. As the daughter of a divorcée activist, Roy was something of an outcast; her mother, Mary Roy, was the founder of a liberal, Westernized school and later instigated a court case that changed their state’s inheritance laws in favor of women. Roy once told The Progressive, “Given the way things have turned out, it’s easy for me to say that I thank God that I had none of the conditioning that a normal, middle class Indian girl would have. I had no father. . . I didn’t have a caste, and I didn’t have a class, and I had no religion.”
After leaving home as a teen, Roy enrolled in architecture school but never got her degree. She segued into a new career when director Pradip Krishen—now her husband—spotted her on the street and asked her to appear in a film (or so the apocryphal tale goes); Roy went on to write several successful screenplays. She first became embroiled in controversy when she instigated a well-publicized lawsuit against the producers of the movie Bandit Queen for exploiting its illiterate protagonist, the legendary Indian female outlaw Phoolan Devi.
Around this time she started writing The God of Small Things. Although it wasn’t considered a political book, in retrospect it bears traces of Roy’s later causes. Nestled inside its febrile family saga is a scathing critique of the caste system and the hypocritical Kerala Communists who upheld this inequity. Even the landscape descriptions betray Roy’s watchful eye. (“Some days he walked along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans.”) Roy explains over a crackling international phone line, “What it is for me is that the smallest, most fragile things need to be protected very fiercely. In my essays, when you’re talking about dropping a bomb that explodes and burns everything in a one-kilometer radius, it’s not just human beings that are being killed but the earth itself. But if you say that, people think, ‘Oh yes, you’re the sentimental weirdo who cut off her hair.’ ”
The haircutting seems like a pretty loaded gesture with intimations of martyrdom that place her somewhere between Joan of Arc and Sinéad O’Connor, but Roy shrugs it off with self-effacing humor. “So what, I wanted to cut my hair—are people going to talk every time I cut my toenails? I don’t need to check my ratings every few seconds—you know, how many people love me, how many people hate me today.”
One Indian intellectual I spoke to compared Roy to Jane Fonda—a celebrity troublemaker superficially grooving on cultural uproar. (Like Fonda, Roy even taught aerobics for a while.) But Roy appears to be quite the opposite—a woman driven by a very serious, personal sense of justice. While she’s happy to be discussed in the context of established political thinkers like Noam Chomsky, she stresses her lone-wolf sensibility, rooted in that need to protect the vulnerable (whether an exploited bandit queen, a poor village in India, or the helpless natives of Afghanistan) against the multinational powers who would heedlessly trample them.
Roy suggests wearily that people make more allowances for your opinions when they appear in a novel. “Fiction is the place where one can mention beauty and tenderness, whereas the other writing is a defense of that. It’s as if you’re not allowed to mention those things when you’re arguing against the bombing of Afghanistan. You’re supposed to be hard and manly about it.”
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.