Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"Every Day, One Is Insulted in India": After Winning the Booker Prize in 1997, Arundhati Roy Could Have Been a "Pretty Lady Who Wrote a Book". Instead, She Took Up a Host of Political Causes ... and Fell out with Her Country's Elite

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"Every Day, One Is Insulted in India": After Winning the Booker Prize in 1997, Arundhati Roy Could Have Been a "Pretty Lady Who Wrote a Book". Instead, She Took Up a Host of Political Causes ... and Fell out with Her Country's Elite

Article excerpt

Portrait by Ellen Nolan

Three years after Arundhati Roy published her first book, The God of Small Things, she cut off all her hair. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1997 and Roy had been hailed as a voice of an emerging nation, a literary heroine with a beautiful face, an Indian writer able to define the post-colonial imagination. Her own country revelled in her success--here was a photogenic ambassador for modern India, superpower of the future.

Knowing Roy as we do now, her reaction to the adulation seems predictable. She is a natural rebel, disdainful of mainstream popularity. There could be no way more visible to demonstrate her contempt than shearing off her long, dark hair. As she told the New York Times in 2001, she didn't want to be known as "some pretty lady who wrote a book".

Roy has not published any fiction since The God of Small Things, much to the impatience of the six million people who bought that book (and, you imagine, her agent David Godwin). Over the past 14 years, she has instead devoted her energy to India's most urgent political challenges: nuclear tests, dams, Kashmir, Hindu nationalism, terrorism, the emergence of a super-wealthy elite and the 8oo million citizens who still live on less than Rs20 (30p) a day.

Roy's version of India is uncompromising. The country, she says, is in "a genocidal situation, turning upon itself, colonising the lower sections of society who have to pay the price for this shining India". Its leaders are "such poor men because they have no idea of history, of culture, of anything, except growth rates". The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a "pathetic figure as a human being". Democracy is thriving "for a few people, in the better neighbourhoods of Bombay and Delhi". The Indian elite are "like an extra state in America". The country has a defence budget of $34bn this year. "For whom?" she asks. "For us." In her account, there is a war taking place, not with Pakistan or China, but within India's borders: the sham democracy has turned on its poorest citizens.

There is something incongruous about listening to Roy talk in her gentle voice about the Indian state's campaign of violence as we drink tea in a five-star Westminster hotel. She sits in an upholstered chair, legs delicately folded beneath her, a grey shawl wrapped around her shoulders. But then incongruity seems to be one of Roy's closer companions. She prefers to be at odds with convention, to confound expectations. "There are people who have comfortable relationships with power and people with natural antagonism to power," she says. "I think it's easy to guess where I am in that."

Roy has not limited her antagonism to India: over the years, she has lambasted US foreign policy, accused Israel of war crimes and called for the Sri Lankan government to be investigated for genocide. But her most recent book, Broken Republic, is a return to the heart of her country. In the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, she says, the government is waging war on forest-dwelling tribal people in order to gain access to the land's mineral wealth (the mountains are full of bauxite, coal and iron ore).

Of the three essays in the book, it is the second--"Walking With Comrades"--that has garnered the most attention. Roy describes her secretive journey into the Chhattisgarh forests guided by a militant resistance group of Maoist rebels who fight the Indian army and police on behalf of the indigenous population. The piece opens dramatically--the flourish of an accomplished storyteller--with a note slipped under Roy's door, inviting her to meet the rebels in the town of Dantewada at one of four specific times. She is told she must carry a camera and a coconut to identify herself.

Over three weeks, Roy follows the Maoists through the forest, sleeping in their makeshift is open-air camps under the stars. The rebels become her friends and, at times, the object of her awe ("there is a sea of people, the most wild, beautiful people"). …

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