Arundhati Roy is tired. Tired of being who she is expected to be. Tired of being lauded and condemned in equal measure and at the same time. Tired of having to explain herself.
Maybe this isn’t surprising. For the Indian writer and, more recently, activist (not a word she likes to use about herself, but an accurate one nonetheless) is three years into a journey which began back in 1997 with the publication of her debut novel The God of Small Things, and which has since sent her in directions she probably never expected to travel, for reasons she is still trying to make clear.
“It has,” she wrote recently in the Indian magazine Frontline, “a sort of cloying Reader’s Digest ring to it – an unknown writer who spent secret years writing her first novel, which was subsequently published in 40 languages, sold several million copies and went on to win the Booker Prize.” Cloying, maybe, but also, as she says herself, fascinating, exciting – and, in a strange way, unsurprising. This, after all, is the sort of thing that happens to writers. Not many of them, true, but famous writers are like film stars; they’re always with us, and they do what’s expected. They go to award ceremonies. They get crabby in the pages of obscure literary reviews about the talent of their rivals. They appear on late-night TV arts programmes. They do the literary thing. They know their place.
But this is where Arundhati Roy’s story diverges from the rest. She has done what few other novelists, in these louche, post-modern times, have dared, or even been inclined, to do. She has nailed her colours to the mast. Arundhati Roy is that most unusual, and welcome, of animals: a writer who takes sides.
Now she sits, small, slight, quiet and cross-legged, on the floor of her New Delhi flat, and dares anyone to tell her how a novelist should behave.
“People ask me all the time, am I a writer or an activist,” she says, “and it’s such a sad comment on our times that you can even be asked that question. Because I thought that’s what writers do, you know – they write about the society that they live in. And I want to say ‘do you think it’s my job just to be some cheap entertainer or something? Why should you even ask me that question?’”
The unexpected capture of the 1997 Booker Prize by The God of Small Things, a complex, lyrical and tragic tale of the interlocking generations of an Indian family, loosely based on Roy’s own childhood, sent the reputation of this previously unknown 36-year-old trained architect and former screenwriter into the stratosphere. The novel’s success took Roy from her quiet life in Delhi on a year-long world tour – book signings, lectures, prize ceremonies and everything else that comes with sudden celebrity. She was fÃªted wherever she went. Indian politicians went out of their way to be associated with this new ‘Pride of India’.
Then, after a year, she returned to a country that had changed forever. What had happened in her absence was to change Roy too, and change the way people saw her. In May 1998, the Indian Government conducted a series of nuclear tests in the Thar desert, and officially announced itself a nuclear power. Roy returned to a country that had thrown itself into the nuclear arms race with gusto. She hated it. In July 1998 she published an essay, The End of Imagination, in two national magazines simultaneously. The End of Imagination was a coruscating blast of wit, fact and fury against India’s BJP Government for spending its time, money and energy while its people starved and its land decayed. “The air is thick with ugliness,” she wrote, “and there’s the unmistakable smell of fascism on the breeze… India’s nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people.”
In India, you don’t write that sort of thing if you don’t want to make powerful enemies. And Roy did. The same politicians who had praised her only months before, now condemned her for betraying her motherland. In a fever of nationalistic pride, Roy was savaged for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. As it turned out, she was just warming up.
Arundhati Roy’s real ‘cause’, the one she has become associated with all over the world, was to take another year to materialise. In February 1999, the Indian Supreme Court lifted a four-year-long legal stay on the construction of the vast Sardar Sarovar dam, one of a complex of 3,200 dams being built on a single stretch of river – the Narmada which flows through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, in north-western India. Work on the most controversial dam project in Indian history was to begin again. The Narmada dams have been fought over viciously for decades. Politicians of all parties say they are needed. They are necessary for irrigation, for power and drought-relief. Dams are development. Dams are progress.
Opponents, spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the local movement against the Narmada Valley Development Plan, as the grandiose dam project is known, say these claims are lies. The dams will flood vast amounts of land, will make hundreds of thousands of people homeless, will provide minimum power for at most a few decades, and will cost billions of rupees that the Indian Government doesn’t have.
A miserably familiar story, in other words, of dams versus people; development versus democracy. But a story which Roy the novelist was about to help rewrite.
Roy began to follow the story, to read up on the facts, to talk to the campaigners. In March, she visited the Narmada valley and returned ‘numbed’ by what she had seen. In June, she published another, longer, essay which was to eclipse the controversy of anti-nuclear polemic. The Greater Common Good was a passionate dissection of the scandal that has unfolded in the Narmada valley over the last two decades. It ranged across the politics, ecology, economics and, most significantly for Roy the novelist, the personal and emotional stories behind the Development Plan and the damage it is doing – not only to the locality, but, according to Roy, to her country. “The story of the Narmada valley,” she famously wrote, “is nothing less than the story of modern India. Like the tiger in the Belgrade Zoo during the NATO bombing, we’ve begun to eat our own limbs.”
Talking about it now, the fire still flashes in her eyes. “You know, it’s such a scam – it’s such a scam,” she says. Outside, in the muggy, smoggy streets of Delhi, the monsoon has arrived. But it has come too late for many of the people of Gujarat, who this year suffered the effects of one of the worst droughts in decades. People, cattle, crops have been dying for months. It has been a political gift for the dam’s proponents.
“It’s so shocking, what they’re doing,” says Roy. Of course they immediately use it [the drought] to say ‘look, you guys, if you’d allowed this dam to be built there would not have been this drought’. And you look at their own maps of the command area where the dam’s water is supposed to go and where the drought is – there’s no overlap. And you know, they [the state Government] used 85 per cent of Gujarat’s irrigation budget for the projectâ€¦"
Figures like this are common in the battle of words over the Narmada. The NBA and its allies have amassed a formidable array of facts and statistics which highlight just how fragile the case for the dam has become. Activists say the dams will displace more than 320,000 people and affect the lives of at least a million. They will submerge more than 4,000 square kilometres of forest. Ten thousand fisher families who depend on the Narmada estuary for a living are likely to lose their livelihood when the dams are raised (though, remarkably, the Government, over the entire 20 years of the dams’ progression, has never conducted a study to determine what the effects of the dams will be on the environment downstream). The Sardar Sarovar dam alone will cost at least $450 million to construct – a sum which was originally to be provided by the World Bank but is now (following the Bank’s withdrawal, as a direct result of the NBA’s campaign) to be provided by the Gujarat Government.
The legion of facts and figures, and the complexity of the arguments for and against the dams can be numbing. But Roy is insistent that this is not an issue that can be left to the experts. That, she says, was one of the reasons she got involved in the first place. She came back from her first visit to the Narmada valley last year “convinced that the valley needed a writer”.
“A writer,” she says, by way of explanation – meaning a novelist, a creator of fiction, rather than a journalist – “has licence to write things differently… As a writer, I have the licence, and the ability I guess, to move between feelings and numbers and technical stuff and, you know, to tell the whole story in a way which an expert doesn’t seem to have the right to do. And in this case I think that’s crucial.” Roy sees the connections between the economics, the politics, the ecology and the human story of the Narmada as the key to the problem. “When I went to the valley,” she says, “I realised that what has happened is that all these experts had come in and hijacked various aspects of it, and taken it off to their lairs. They didn’t want people to understand.” Roy, on the other hand, wanted to tell the whole story. She wanted to make people understand.
And she did. She perhaps told the story of the Narmada valley too well for her own comfort. For The Greater Common Good (later published, along with The End of Imagination, as a small book, entitled The Cost of Living) became more than just an essay; it became the latest phase in the anti-Narmada dams campaign, and Roy’s support was a huge shot in the arm for the NBA and its allies. “I’ve given them a book,” she says now, with a quiet pride in her voice. “It’s like giving them a bomb or something, you know?” And it was. It exploded across the world with varying degrees of damage. Roy undertook a speaking tour last year, visiting various countries to talk about the damage the dams were doing. She gave the annual Nehru memorial lecture at Cambridge University, and attended the World Water Forum in The Hague to counter the presence and arguments of the Gujarat Government (“I’d never been to a conference before, and I’ll never go again,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “I don’t like these dead people.”). Her visits to the Narmada valley itself invariably ended in media scrums and, once, her own arrest, as she struggled to highlight the plight of the villagers and activists who, even as you read this, are promising to drown themselves in the rising waters of the reservoirs above the half-completed dam walls. Meanwhile, in Gujarat, BJP activists and ‘patriotic’ citizens burnt copies of The God of Small Things in fury at her anti-Indian insolence.
It’s easy to understand, then, why Arundhati Roy is tired. But what really exhausts her, it seems, is people’s expectations. When she first took up the cause of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, other writers, critics, even readers, seemed surprised. Roy wrote fiction. What did she think she was doing playing around with fact? Some of this attitude still persists, but she doesn’t care. “There’s no division on my bookshelf between fiction and non-fiction,” she insists. “As far as I’m concerned, fiction is about the truth.”
More recently, though, these expectations have been flipped around. Roy is now seen as a ‘campaigning novelist’, and this infuriates her too. All she is doing, she insists, is what any good novelist should – making the connections between fiction and reality. Instead, she finds that people put her into a box. She tells a story about a phone call she received after The Greater Common Good was first published. “This society editor rang me up and she said, ‘oh darling, that was such a lovely essay. Now I want you to do a piece for me on child abuse.’ So I said, ‘Sure. For or against?’ She put down the phone.”
The point, she says, is that her views have never been as easy to categorise as both her supporters and her enemies would sometimes like to make out. Yes, she opposes the dam and she opposes the bomb, but she is “not an anti-development junkie, nor a proselytiser for the eternal upholding of custom and tradition”. She believes that the growing urban-rural divide is killing India, and that the country’s newly trained legion of urban-minded ‘experts’ are more of a danger to the future than an illiterate peasantry could ever be. (“As soon as you see a river,” she says of their mindset, “your mind wants to pour concrete into it.”) Yet she refuses, too, to buy into the sometimes romantic ideal of Village India. “I grew up in a village,” she says, “and I spent my entire childhood thinking about how to escape – how to not marry someone there and how not to produce their goddam children. I’m not going back.”
Arundhati Roy did not set out to be a ‘political writer’. And if people now see her as one, that perhaps reflects on the rest of the literary world rather than her. “People say to me, ‘oh, it’s so wonderful that you’re writing about real things,’ and that it’s a political thing to do, and I say, look… to be in my position and not to say anything is a hell of a political thing. You need to think politically, otherwise you’ll be one of these people who says ‘oh, this person’s saying this and that person’s saying that, and I’m confused’. And I say, yeah, because you want to be confused. No one in the valley’s confused… If you have the luxury of being confused, be confused… it’s a political intelligence you need to understand.”
It is just such a political intelligence that informed and spurred both of Roy’s essays, and which, if you look hard enough, can be found weaving through the pages of The God of Small Things – a book which could never, in the conventional sense, be called a ‘political’ novel. “The first time I met one of the activists from the NBA,” she says, “I told her that I’d written The God of Small Things”, and she said, ‘I knew you’d be anti-dam and anti-World Bank.’" The link might not be immediately obvious, but to Roy, making just this sort of connection is crucial for any real understanding of where things are going wrong.
The novel, she says, is “not just about small things, it’s about how the smallest things connect to the biggest things – that’s the important thing. And that’s what writing will always be about for meâ€¦ I’m not a crusader in any sense.” Her opponents might dispute this but Roy is clear – has always been clear, right from the outset – about where she fits in to the Narmada struggle. As a writer, and, ultimately, as an outsider. “I can’t fight their fight,” she says quietly. “I can fight as a writer to prevent it, but my house isn’t drowning, my land isn’t being submerged, and my anger shall never be more than theirs. They have to fight. I don’t.”
But maybe she does. Maybe, now that she has started, she won’t be able to stop. Maybe now that has begun to make, and articulate, the connections between the big and the small, between beauty and destruction, between fact and fiction, she will never be able to keep quiet.
There’s a fascinating paragraph in The Greater Common Good which explores the link between Roy’s two chosen emblems of national disaster – the big bomb and the big dam. “They’re both weapons of mass destruction,” she writes. “They’re both weapons governments use to control their own people… they represent the severing of the link, not just the link – the understanding – between human beings and the planet they live on. They scramble the intelligence that connects eggs to hens, milk to cows, food to forests, water to rivers, air to life and the earth to human existence.”
Again, the message is about connections. And the failure to make these connections, she says, is what is leading India – and the West, upon which it increasingly models itself – astray. Ask her about this and she takes a deep breath. “I have to believe,” she says, “that what is being done – the dams and the nuclear bombs; the whole development model – they’re the symptoms of a terrible malaise, and that lies inside people’s heads. I don’t know how you address that… but the idea that you just accept it all makes me angry.”
This anger is clear, and the anger is directed, often, at what her country has become. Her prescription, too, if it can be called that, is interesting. “I’m not an economist,” she says (which, considering the damage economists have done to the Narmada valley could be considered a positive plus), “so I can’t really give you an alternative that works.” Nevertheless, in following through the implications of what she has seen, she is clear, at least in principle, about one thing: “The only alternative can be local”. This, she believes, has to be the future for India – decentralised economics, decentralised control; handing some measure of power back to the people it affects. “Unless that happens,” she believes, “however far into the information age three per cent of the population goes, they’re always going to be pulled back by what they’re doing to everybody else.”
Connections, again. Connections, and smallness and the need to listen, watch and understand. These are the instincts that won Roy the Booker Prize; and these are the same instincts which led her into conflict with her own Government and which will more than likely, whatever she says now, lead her to keep searching for a direction in which, in her mind, India can go and still retain what makes it India.
Whatever direction that is, Arundhati Roy is convinced of one thing: it must be one which India’s people choose for themselves, and which reflects the realities with which people have always lived – realities fashioned by everyday existence, by community life and by the patterns of nature. The alternative is there for all to see, in the increasingly atomised, mechanised and disconnected West. “When you go to Europe or America for the first time,” she says, “you arrive in a city where you don’t see any mud, and everything looks really nice, all the cars and the steel and the glass. But I look at a car and I think, ‘somehow this came from earth and water and forest’. How? I don’t know. But you need to know – you need to know what the connection is; who paid the price of what. If you at least know that, there’ll be some balance.” She smiles slightly, as if the point was almost too obvious to be worth making.
“There has to be some balance.”