India's Arundhati Roy: Novelist Turned Social Activist Using Her Celebrity to Bring Attention to the Causes of the Villages, India's Favorite Daughter Becomes Its Most Controversial One

Article excerpt

When Arundhati Roy arrives late at night in this little river hamlet, she is mobbed and pelted with flowers. They love her here. And why not? She wants to help save their town.

Ms. Roy arrived as a public figure on the larger Indian scene only two years ago, like some dramatic, unforeseen comet. When sales of her highly original first novel, "The God of Small Things," went through the roof worldwide, it put Indian writing firmly on the map and gave this country something it never had - a bona fide celebrity author. John Updike compared Roy's arrival in fiction to that of Tiger Woods in golf.

Yet Roy is more than an exotic literary figure in her native land. She has emerged as a kind of populist conscience, a budding Pablo Neruda of India, an upstart who has bravely taken on some of India's most sacred cows.

Last year, as the nation celebrated its nuclear tests, Roy wrote a blistering critique, describing them as "folly." She made headlines by donating time and money to untouchable, or "Dalit," writers. Recently, she helped inspire and organize a massive week-long protest against one of the dams on the Narmada River that may submerge 245 villages.

Identifying with villagers

In so doing, Roy shed her role as one of India's favorite daughters and became one of its most controversial - though few disagree that, right or wrong, she's had a terrific impact on debates that lie at the heart of a country whose population this week reached 1 billion people. Like many artists she worries about the rise of extremism and a more aggressive Hinduism. But her main concern is the ever-rising gap between modern urban India and the vast poverty found in the villages.

Indeed, Roy's identification with villagers, and their admiration of her, is unusual. Famous artists here mostly inhabit a stratified world of heady seminars and splendid isolation. Not many are folk heroes willing to deal with bedbugs and bumpy roads as Roy has done in the past few weeks on the rally.

Yet Roy's outsider status is one reason her voice has emerged, say those close to her. "She is not an academic. The people she knew and grew up with were underdogs," says Rana Behl, a friend and historian at Delhi University. "She did not come through the normal patterns of social politeness and the caution public figures here are used to. She's not cut as an elite Anglo-Indian writer."

Roy's strength, say friends, is a passionate sense of justice and a feeling for everyday problems - one reason her writing attracts PhD candidates and ordinary people alike. Her appeals in print, whether for an end to the South Asian arms race, or for equal treatment of villagers, has a 19th century abolitionist fire: "Prevalent political wisdom suggest that to prevent the State from crumbling, we need a national cause, and other than our currency (and poverty, illiteracy) we have none. This is the road that led us to the bomb," she wrote in an essay that itself hit India's intelligentsia last year like a bomb.

"The young lady's writing on the Narmada dam has forced the question of the treatment of village people into urban drawing rooms where it might not have been raised," argues Sumer Lal, a senior editor at The Hindustan Times, Delhi's largest circulation newspaper. "She has married passion and facts and breathed life into a social movement that had given up hope."

Not everyone is so complimentary. This spring, after the Supreme Court of India lifted a stay on construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, Roy published a highly critical essay, "The Greater Common Good." The tract so upset the Supreme Court that in July several justices said Roy had "undermined the dignity of the court," and sought action against her. In the state of Gujarat, supporters of the dam burned the book in public. An increasingly hostile Indian press often now sneers at Roy as impractical or naive. …