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Booker winner Arundhati Roy on democracy in peril

Arundhati Roy. Photo/Alamy

Soon to speak in New Zealand, Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy discusses her complex relationship with her native India with Sally Blundell.

In a neglected graveyard in Old Delhi, Anjum, a Muslim hijra, or transgender woman, sets up a makeshift home. Others join her – untouchables, Muslim converts, addicts, the impoverished and the abandoned drawn together in a multi-faith caste-less sanctuary, a place of freedom, equity and acceptance. “And humour!” says author Arundhati Roy of her 2017 novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a bounteous, baggy, densely populated story unfolding from the slums of Delhi to the disputed valleys of Kashmir. “If you think about who lives there, and who dies there, it is a revolution!”

Roy is on a video call from her Delhi apartment, where she lives with her two rescued street dogs amid shelves and piles and a precariously leaning tower of books in a country she loves and critiques in all its uncertainty, corruption, humour and hope. India is a microcosm of the world, she says. Versions of what happens there happen everywhere. “The difference in India is in the scale, the magnitude and the sheer proximity of the disparity. In India, your face is slammed up right against it.”

She has mapped that disparity since 1997, when her first book, The God of Small Things, scooped the Booker Prize. It has since sold more than eight million copies worldwide and been translated into 42 languages. As she writes in her introduction to My Seditious Heart, a just-released Bible-sized collection of talks and essays written between 1994 and 2016, her fortunes “seemed to have been touched by magic”. But as the royalties rolled in, there was also the discomfiting realisation that she was now considered one of the faces of “the confident, new, market-friendly India”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

This was 1998. India was pushing ahead with a radical programme of neo-liberal free-market fundamentalism, corporatisation and privatisation. A new middle class was emerging, extreme poverty was increasing. To make 300 million Indians richer, she argues, “800 million Indians have become poorer”.

That year, too, India had tested its “Hindu bomb”. Pakistan had countered by detonating a “Muslim device”. Sweeping the country was a new wave of flag-bearing, chest-thumping Hindutva – a wildly populist Hindu nationalism defined, she writes, through “a hatred of the Other” – the Other being Muslims.

In such circumstances, she decided, “silence would be indefensible”.

“So I had to write to make it clear I was not part of that parade of people who they were putting forward as symbols of this new India,” she says. But where The God of Small Things was about family, love and loss, could she write equally compellingly, she wondered, about irrigation? Dams?

“Could I turn these things into literature? I tried.”

She did, and she does. The Seditious Heart covers government corruption, capitalism, globalisation, environmental degradation, Chinese imperialism and “the fissures and cracks of caste” – the engine, she says, that runs modern India.

Photo/Getty Images

She writes about think-big dam projects in the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh that swamped villages and rendered thousands homeless; the 2002 massacre of about 2000 mostly Muslim citizens in the state of Gujarat (India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, has been criticised for looking the other way). In 2017’s The Doctor and the Saint, she compares the state-sanctioned reverence for Gandhi with the “invisibilising” of politician and social reformer BR Ambedkar, who sought to rid India of its caste system. If you go into the poorest house in India, she says, “you don’t find a portrait of Gandhi, you will find a portrait of Ambedkar”.

Her non-fiction writing has riled those in public office. She has been imprisoned “for one symbolic day” after criticising the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Narmada dam. She has been charged with sedition over her outspoken support for Kashmiri independence. A further charge of criminal contempt still lingers after she wrote about the jail sentence for life of GN Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound professor of literature, for his “Maoist links”.

What she finds more distressing, however, is the lack of compassion in the face of violence. When she wrote about the slaughter of Muslims on the streets of Gujarat, for example, people turned away, she explains, as if to say: “So what?”

“Today in India you have the kind of politics where, when you speak of a massacre, it does not allow any form of indignation among many people. It is a divisive politics where certain people are killable, tortureable, displaceable, disposable. It is not just the top people oppressing the people at the bottom, it is that everyone is oppressing someone below them. It is a kind of hierarchical thinking that precludes solidarity, equality.”

In fiction and non-fiction, Roy writes to fill that vacuum, to puncture that lack of empathy, but where fiction “dances out of me”, she explained in a lecture in 2002, “non-fiction is wrenched out by the aching broken world I wake up to every morning”.


“Each of these essays was written at a time when the main consensus – locally, nationally and internationally – was so bullying, not just from the mainstream but even from people you thought would think otherwise. I felt, you can’t accept this. So whether it was nuclear tests and the celebrations around them, whether it was the dams, whether it was the announcement of Operation Green Hunt [when paramilitaries were sent into forests to “deal” with suspected Maoist insurgents] or whether it was what happened after 9/11 – there was a point of view missing and that was when I would write, when that silence just became so noisy, even though I kept telling myself, ‘Enough, do something else’.”

Roy, pictured in 2009: has riled those in office with her non-fiction writing. Photo/Getty Images
Roy was born in 1961 in Shillong, in the northern state of Meghalaya, to a Syrian-Christian mother from Kerala and a Hindu father, the alcoholic manager of a tea plantation. She was two when her parents separated and her mother, Mary, took her and her older brother to Ayemenem, a village in communist-ruled Kerala in the country’s south-west, where Mary set up a school for girls, and the setting of The God of Small Things.

After a brief stint at secretarial college, Roy moved to Delhi to study architecture. Reluctant to spend her life making “beautiful homes for wealthy people”, she applied her skills to film-set design. She wrote two screenplays and married film director and writer – and a widower with two children – Pradip Krishen. They now live separately.

Since then, her name, her face, the sparkling clarity of her words have come to represent local resistance to the battery of big war, big dams, big ideologies, big bombs and the obfuscation of language. “When language has been butchered and bled of meaning,” she writes in 2004’s Public Power in the Age of Empire, “how do we understand ‘public power’? When freedom means occupation, when democracy means neo-liberal capitalism, when reform mean repression … why, then, public power could mean whatever you want it to mean.”

But she resists the sobriquet “activist” – as she said in 2004, “writing covers it”. She is not, she says, giving a voice to the voiceless – there are no voiceless, she writes, “only the deliberately silenced” or the “purposely unheard”. And she resists any sense of “responsibility” to address the inequities around her.

“Responsibility sounds very noble,” she says with a laugh. “But there is some art which is naughty and mischievous, saying, ‘Come on guys – surely you can’t take yourself so seriously that you can just turn on people, that you can bully minorities, bully indigenous people, bully the weak’.”

In 2014, after Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister (he was re-elected in May), she returned to fiction, writing The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She had already written about Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the associated right-wing Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (or RSS), and about corruption and extreme nationalism, and had no wish to repeat herself.

“I don’t think there is this huge division [between fiction and non-fiction] – I work in whatever form I feel I can say what I want to say – but fiction is my great love and my first love. The novel to me is the church for writing. It is the most beautiful, complicated, complex way of saying something and then maybe the simplest way of saying complicated things. The Ministry is about everything I could not say in the non-fiction.”

But as resources shrink, seas rise and people retreat into the silos of tribe, caste, race or nation, the voice of dissidence, including her own, will grow.

“I dedicated one of my books of essays to ‘those who have learnt to divorce hope from reason’. Being unreasonable is the only way we can have hope. Despite what happened in the election, you still have teachers, writers, villagers – everywhere there are people who are just not buying it, who are fighting it in their own way. I am often among people who battle every day, but when you’re in there with them it’s not all grim.

“I see people fighting with their backs to the wall, but they are still laughing, with bleak humour maybe, but things are happening, people carry on. The most hopeless people, the saddest-looking people, are the ones who are not involved in the battle at all.”

MY SEDITIOUS HEART, by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton, $75)

Auckland Writers Festival: An Evening With Arundhati Roy, Victory Convention Centre, Auckland, July 17.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.