Many had written off the chances that Arundhati Roy would return to the world of fiction. Her astounding first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Booker in 1997. Ten years and six million copies later there was still no repeat of the lyrical, whirling debut. Instead Roy turned to lobbing literary Molotov cocktails at Enron, George W Bush’s war on terror and the World Trade Organisation in the form of incendiary polemics. No one could accuse her of having writers’ block: she churned out six books, collections of her essays with titles such as Power Politics and An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.
Dispensing with story-writing she pursued a career in social activism, appearing at anti-war rallies and using her celebrity to raise the profiles of unfashionable causes — Kashmiris on death row, the rights of tribal communities in India, hardscrabble suicides in the country’s farming belt.
But at last the 45-year-old has quietly announced that she will be stepping back from the public stage to write her second novel. The last person to know, apparently, was her agent, David Godwin, who had negotiated for her a million dollar advance for The God of Small Things. “David rang me saying, ‘Why did you not tell me? I have had hundreds of calls from publishers.’ I thought it was so funny, I mean let’s have a bidding war for a non-existent book,” says Roy.
Sitting in her Delhi rooftop flat, whose dark tiled and light wood-lined interior the former architecture student designed, Roy says she has already begun writing the new novel, but has no idea when it will be finished. The whisper was that it would be about Kashmir, the revolt-scarred Himalayan state, but Roy shakes her head sending ripples through her grey-flecked curls. “It is not true. My fiction is never about an issue. I don’t set myself some political task and weave a story around it. I might as well write a straightforward non-fiction piece if that is what I wanted to do.”
A clue about where Roy is heading may be gleaned from her current reading. On her coffee table rests a book by Bono, while at her bedside are works by the radical American founding father Thomas Paine and Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. What these two writers share is their defence of the French Revolution, and an empathy with the lower classes who pulled down the ruling elite. “In so many ways Paris then could be Delhi now. It is a conceit to think that all that we say is new and original.”
Like pre-revolutionary France, Roy says that India today is poised “on the edge of violence”. As she sees it, the country of her birth is not coming together but coming apart — convulsed by “corporate globalisation” at an unprecedented, unacceptable velocity. “The inequalities become untenable.”
Roy says she is not taking refuge from her politics in the world of literature. She answers her own door and makes guests tea herself, remarkable in a country where even middle-class households have servants. Although still married to filmmaker Pradip Krishen, the flat is “her space”. He lives in another house. “Living with my own contradictions is hard enough — forcing my political views on someone else, on their lifestyle and the choices they make is not something I want to do. It distorts a relationship beyond redemption. So, I decided to have my own place.”
Roy’s dire predictions about India have left her isolated when mainstream opinion seems convinced that the country, with its nuclear bombs and slick Bollywood movies, is the next superpower-in-waiting. Roy says some parts of the country, such as the western state of Gujarat — the scene of a bloody pogrom against Muslims five years ago — are off-limits to her because of her campaigning. A few years ago she was briefly imprisoned for contempt of court while protesting against the country’s controversial Narmada Dam project. The God of Small Things produced obscenity charges and a court case that ran for a decade, only to be dismissed last week.
She first shot to prominence in 1994 with a scathing film review entitled The Great Indian Rape Trick, about the movie Bandit Queen, in which she questioned the right to “restage the rape of a living woman without her permission”.
Roy has been consistent in her view that writers have a responsibility to their subjects. She says she could not read the blockbuster Maximum City, a portrait of Mumbai by expatriate Indian writer Suketu Metha, because the book contains a passage in which the writer is a bystander while people in custody are beaten and tortured by the city’s police.
“When you witness torture you are seeing someone humiliated. In front of you. It is not a neutral act. Certainly you have the permission of the torturer, but you do not have the permission of the tortured [to record it].”
Unlike other Indian-born writers who have relocated to the United States and Europe, Roy is determined to remain a thorn in the side of the establishment in India. “Here you see what’s happening. People are driven out of villages, driven out of the cities, there’s a kind of insanity in the air and all of it held down by our mesmeric, pelvic thrusting Bollywood movies. The Indian middle class has just embarked on this orgy of consumerism.”
But she admits that the kinds of non-violent protests she has taken part in for a decade have failed in India, a republic founded on the Gandhite principles of peaceful resistance. “I am not such an uninhibited fan of Gandhi. After all, Gandhi was a superstar. When he went on a hunger strike he was a superstar on a hunger strike. But I don’t believe in superstar politics. If people in a slum are on a hunger strike, no one gives a shit.”
Roy says activists have been “exhausted” by their attempts to influence the courts and the press, and now says she does not “condemn people taking up arms” in the face of state repression. “It would be immoral for me to preach violence unless I were prepared to resort to it myself. But equally, it is immoral for me to advocate feel-good marches and hunger strikes when I’m not bearing the brunt of unspeakable violence. I certainly do not volunteer to tell Iraqis or Kashmiris or Palestinians that if they went on a mass hunger strike they would get rid of the military occupation. Civil disobedience doesn’t seem to be paying dividends.”
Instead of the Indian state caving in to the moral righteousness of the numerous causes Roy supports, she says it merely moved to co-opt its adversaries. The power of argument, even in the world’s biggest democracy, has been shrunk by the argument of power.
She feels frustrated by the state’s ability to brush aside non-violent resistance movements. “This has sapped the energy from people’s movements. The very Gandhian Narmada movement [the grassroots group which campaigned against big dams in India] knocked on the door of every democratic institution for years and has been humiliated. It has not managed to stop a single dam from going ahead. In fact the dam-industry has a new spring in its step.”
Roy says she had given ideological opponents a handy hate figure. “In India I’m portrayed more as a hysterical, lying, anti-national harridan,” she says. “In this adversarial game that goes on, you can get pinned down to spewing facts and numbers, but those are not the only truths … I’ve done that. I’ve fought that battle. But the distillation of those things into literature is a different kind of intervention.” — Â