"NUMBERS USED to make my eyes glaze over. Not any more. Not since I began to follow the direction in which they point. Trust me. There's a story here." So writes Arundhati Roy in her book of essays, The Algebra of Infinite Justice (Flamingo, pounds 8.99). But that's not the right kind of story, people whine. We want one like the last one. Can't we have mangosteens and lime pickle, and baby bats crawling up old ladies' saris, a sky-blue Plymouth with chrome tailfins, and a pair of seven-year-old twins in a mossy old house by a river?
No. The new book is about the rise of Hindu fascism, the mammoth dam- building programme in the Narmada Valley, India and Pakistan's nuclear face-off, and America's War on Terror. "People have been outraged and said, `It's not your job' to write about these things. It's so ridiculous," says Arundhati Roy indignantly. "Or people say, `It's so nice you're using your fame to talk about these issues.' That's like telling a footballer, it's so nice you're using your fame to play football. It's different if you're an actor and you're saving the rainforest ... But I'm not endorsing some side product. I'm doing what I think is my main work. I'm writing."
The Algebra of Infinite Justice collects essays, lectures and articles written between July 1998 and October 2001. Tackling irrigation projects and import restrictions, World Economic Forum meetings and World Bank annual reports, export credit agencies and India's privatised power supply, Roy puts on a pair of metaphorical rubber gloves and sticks her hand down the U-bend of current affairs. Prodding away at years of bureaucratic bullshit, she attempts to reclaim these subjects from the obfuscatory, sleep- inducing language of social policy documents, to reveal the human cost of government actions. But what's the cost on her, of having to give up her limber, free-flowing novelistic language to play the bureaucrats at their own game and stick to Gradgrindian facts?
"It's a sleight of hand. It's my fundamental belief that I actually break all these rules, and that's what makes people crazy," she says. "Are you an academic, are you a journalist, a sociologist, a hydro-electric expert? What are you? I'm saying the story must be told with facts, with stories, with feelings, with all kinds of skills. So when I say, `Let's get back to the facts,' what I mean is, `I can do that too.' " f Just a few individual stories are thrown into the mix, but they stand out all the more poignantly. Like the man in a tin resettlement hut, displaced by a dam, who counts off on his fingers the 48 kinds of fruit he used to be able to pick in the forest, and who has never been able to buy his children a piece of fruit since.
Roy flinches when she's called a writer-activist (she says it makes her feel like a sofa-bed). She's "a writer", and believes her novel "is no less political than any of my essays ... There's a sort of political vision, a way of seeing, which is just expressed in different ways," she says. "Sometimes it's a film, sometimes an architectural thesis, sometimes a novel, sometimes non-fiction, sometimes it's just walking down the street and the way you look. Fundamentally, running through all these things is a way of examining the relationship between power and powerlessness. I'm very interested in that relentless circular fight."
It was more than five years ago that Roy published The God of Small Things, her lyrical first (and so far sole) novel. Before it was even published, it was a cause celebre. British literary agent David Godwin made his famous overnight dash across the world to sign up Arundhati as soon as he read her manuscript - then auctioned her novel off for what was reported to be the biggest ever advance for a first novel.
Then came the Booker Prize win. She was the first Indian woman to win the award, and the first non-expatriate Indian. On TV, the publishing doyenne Carmen Callil choked out her verdict that Roy's book was "execrable'; while Arundhati, back at the Guildhall, herself was delivering an altogether more gracious acceptance speech, claiming modestly that hers was not the better but "the luckier book". …