Arundhati Roy: goddess of big ideas

By: Aimee Alam

Arundhati Roy’s fans have been waiting for a follow-up to her Booker-prize winning debut novel since 1997. Meanwhile she has thrown herself into political activism – raising hackles among India’s growing bourgeoisie with fierce polemics against capitalism. A second novel is promised – but will she ever get it finished?

Arundhati Roy: ‘Most of what I’ve written is to do with being in solidarity with resistance movements.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Arundhati Roy: ‘Most of what I’ve written is to do with being in solidarity with resistance movements.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Like India and Walt Whitman, Arundhati Roy contains multitudes. She is, however, far from large. Small, delicately boned, a beguiling mixture of piercing dark eyes and bright easy smile, she is a warm presence. She turns 53 tomorrow and the grey tint to her curls lends depth to a still strikingly youthful face. Looking at her, it’s not hard to detect the author of the richly empathetic The God of Small Things, her debut, Booker-prize winning novel about family life in Kerala, that John Updike described as a “massive interlocking structure of fine, intensely felt details”.

That was 17 years ago and photos from that period show a captivating figure, at once shy and fiercely proud, wary and utterly self-possessed. The book was a huge international hit and the publishing world readied itself to cash in on a phenomenal new talent, galvanised by the fact that so photogenic an author would be a dream to market.

But the follow-up novel didn’t arrive. Instead Roy directed her considerable energies towards political activism, most especially in India where, despite her success, she has remained. It was a path that has led her to express solidarity with groups – such as Kashmiri separatists and Maoist guerrillas – that are seen by many Indians, with some reason, as terrorists. As a result Roy has become a controversial figure, an outspoken heroine in certain radical quarters, but loathed by large sections of Indian society, not least Hindu nationalists.

She has also become a prolific essayist and polemicist. She currently has two extended, book-length essays out. One, entitled The Doctor and the Saint, is an examination of caste, a subject she explored in The God of Small Things, and it forms the long introduction to a new edition of BR Ambedkar’s classic work The Annihilation of Caste. Roy’s essay traces the difficult relationship between Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. She portrays the neglected Ambedkar – born an “untouchable” – as the true hero of India’s poor, while Gandhi is controversially depicted as a self-dramatising defender of the status quo.

The other essay is called Capitalism: A Ghost Story. It’s written in a very different style from The Doctor and the Saint, which, for all its contentious opinions, is a carefully constructed argument. By contrastCapitalism reads like an extended rant, strident, intemperate, conspiratorial, and relentlessly one-eyed in its outlook. The shrill prose is hard to reconcile with the softly spoken middle-aged woman sitting opposite me in the Soho offices of her publishers.

Her basic argument is that the reforms that liberated India’s economy in the early 1990s and thrust it into the global marketplace may have created a vibrant new middle class, but have been devastating for the country’s poor. She writes of the “800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us [the 300 million members of the middle class]”.

The poor in India are of course not a recent creation. It’s been said that India’s historic problem was the redistribution of poverty, whereas now the issue is the redistribution of wealth. As Roy makes clear, there are vast and intolerable inequalities in today’s India. But the implication of her words is that to make 300 million Indians richer, 800 million Indians have become poorer in real, rather than relative, terms. As she doesn’t supply any supporting evidence for this claim in the book, I ask her if that’s what she means.

“What happens,” she says, “is that statistically people keep playing games with the poverty line. It’s not that people get richer or poorer but they keep moving the line up and down redefining what poorer means.”

She then goes on to say that you only have to visit the suffering villages of India to see the terrible plight of the poor, in particular the mass suicides of farmers whose land has been destroyed by mineral exploitation and industrialisation. This may be true, but has the rapid growth in India’s middle class caused the poor to become poorer?

She continues talking about access to water, the drying up of land etc, until I push her once again on what seems to me a crucial matter of fact. “Well, I think so,” she says finally. “For example, just things like food grain intake has actually reduced.”

This is true, though there are various arguments put forward to explain the drop, including the increase in the consumption of other foods. But there is also compelling evidence to suggest that, while India has become a much wealthier country over the last couple of decades, a hefty percentage of its population continues to experience low employment, malnutrition and other major social deprivations. It’s just that Roy never really gets to grip with the evidence.

She prefers a scattergun approach in which she attacks everything from philanthropy and the “hegemony of the United States” to NGOs funded by Coca-Cola. You could easily get the idea, for example, that arms dealing was a function of capitalism – yet there is no mention of Russia (the biggest arms exporter) or China (the third biggest). Similarly she quotes Pablo Neruda’s poem attacking the Standard Oil Company but makes no mention that he was an unabashed cheerleader for Stalinism when he wrote it. When I ask her about the omission she says she’s written about Stalinism in another essay and doesn’t want to keep repeating herself.

It’s the sort of screed that will bring head-nodding agreement from her core anti-capitalist audience, but it will do little, or at least not enough, to persuade those who genuinely want to know whether or not the new India, for all its many flaws, is an improvement on the old.

Roy is kissed by supporters in 2002 after being released from Tihar Jail in New Delhi. She had been jailed during a campaign against a new dam

Roy is kissed by supporters in 2002 after being released from Tihar Jail in New Delhi. She had been jailed during a campaign against a new dam

She is a different person altogether when writing fiction, which she says she’s able to relax into. “I don’t mean because it’s easy to write but I trust its rhythms and I don’t have to get it out there. There’s no urgency. It’s like cooking, it takes its time. I rather like the idea of just living inside it and not coming out of it.”

That’s an idea that will torment all those millions who have been waiting so many years for her second novel. It may also trouble those critics of her polemical work who hope that she’ll return to fiction at the earliest opportunity. But if there is one thing that is certain about the multifaceted Roy, she will continue to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it.

By: Aimee Alam (NSFGB)


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