By Claire Black
A note slipped under a hotel room door. A boy with a Charlie Brown rucksack. Two unknown men on motorbikes. Hours of walking. That was Arundhati Roy’s route into the forests of central India, an area she describes as “homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world”.
This contested land is the backdrop to Roy’s new book, Broken Republic, the central essay of which is a fine piece of reportage detailing the three weeks she spent with the Maoist guerrilla movement and the tribal people, the adivasi, who are resisting the government’s plans to “develop” and mine the land on which they live.
Roy walked for hours each day, met with the most wanted guerrilla fighters, ate and talked with the insurgents, nearly half of whom are women, and spent her nights sleeping on a blue plastic sheet, a jhillie, in “the most beautiful room I have slept in in a long time. My private suite in a thousand-star hotel.”
The language is lyrical, but Roy’s critique is excoriating. This area, already ravaged by bloody battles, with guerrillas on one side and government paramilitaries on the other, is on the brink of becoming a war zone, she argues. The army is ready to move in and forcibly clear the adivasi from their land. For Roy, the stakes could not be higher – the fight is for the very “soul of India”.
From the thousand stars of the Dantewada forests, to the five stars of a London hotel, where, over a cup of tea, Roy proves no less passionate in person than in prose. Turning 50 this year, she looks much younger. Her hair, long and curly is flecked with grey but her skin is smooth. Her clothes are quirky and stylish: wide black trousers (“homemade” she smiles) and a tailcoat. Her diamond nose stud glinting.
Roy may be one of India’s most celebrated novelists, but as a political campaigner she’s an unapologetic thorn in the flesh of the Indian state. She argues that despite the headlines celebrating India’s stratospheric economic growth (until recently 10 per cent, but now revised down to 8.5 per cent) the country stands on a precipice. She believes that success is being bought at a heavy price: millions of displaced people and an unfolding ecological disaster, while the Maoist guerrilla fighters are simultaneously scapegoats for state violence, but also empowered by the brutality of the government forces.
“They must be getting more and more pissed (off],” she says of the Indian government and her significant media profile. “They get especially furious because inside it’s OK, but outside (of India] they don’t want their image to be dented and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
But inside it’s not really OK. Still best known in this country for her 1997 Booker prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, in India Roy is an embattled campaigner. She has been dragged through the courts on spurious charges, physically attacked at public meetings and her Delhi home has been pelted with stones. After one public speech was misreported, there were calls for her to be publicly shot.
“In Chattisgarh and Dantewada and Kashmir (areas where the government is cracking down for one reason or another] the reaction is outside the news and it’s brutal,” she says. “People are killed or jailed, but with somebody like me it’s quite complex so they outsource it.”
By that she means threats, inaccurate reporting, hate mail, all tactics to make her life difficult and distract her from her campaign work. However unpleasant or dangerous, it doesn’t seem to be working.
“Right now, I only have one thing in my mind which is to say wherever I speak and to whomever I speak that India is now going to deploy the army against the tribal people,” she says. “It’s buying Russian helicopters, it has incredibly sophisticated weapons and it’s moving in. Until now it’s been the paramilitaries, now it’s going to be the army so can we just stop this bullshit about the great democracy?”
Roy has spent the past ten years writing urgent, lyrical, yet fiercely political non-fiction on everything from the social and environmental destruction caused by the Big Dam programmes, which have displaced more than 30 million people, to the Indian state’s policy regarding Kashmir, and the mining of bauxite which has left a bright red toxic scar on the landscape of Orissa making the land uninhabitable.
Combining her intellect, her courage and her charisma in her stand against the corporations, it’s clear why Roy poses a problem for politicians who want India to be seen as an investment opportunity. She also brings a novelist’s power of language to these issues: poor people are “like toxic effluent in a manufacturing process gone berserk”, the Indian constitution is used as a “spiked club” against the people it should protect, the conflict in the Dantewada forests is like “watching a democracy trying to eat its own limbs. And those limbs are refusing to be eaten”.
For Roy, the case against “development” is clear. India’s recent economic growth has been astonishing, but the costs have been enormous. It has the second highest growth rate in the world and more poor people in eight of its states than in the 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa put together. It is a country in which 836 million people live on less than 20 rupees (28p) a day and some 1.5 million babies die each year before they are one year old. But these figures do nothing to protect Roy from withering criticism. In her own country she is accused of being unpatriotic, outside India, the accusations are different but they exist nevertheless.
When commentators aren’t railing against Roy for not writing a second novel – there are interviews with Roy in which it’s almost possible to hear the stamping of petulant feet accompanying the demand as to why there is no second novel – they’ve chosen other issues with which to tarnish her reputation. The fact that she’s so angry, the fact that she won’t give up, the fact that she’s not poor and yet she speaks on behalf of the poor (for the record, Roy says she does not live off of any of her earnings for her political writing, the money goes back into political campaigns). As for the motivations behind the litany of complaints, Roy is clear.
“They would like the middle-class activists to guilt trip themselves to the point that they don’t do anything,” she says. “Or you can only be political if you wear a loin cloth and you don’t have sex and you eat goats curd. No. What they would like is to say only the poor can speak about the poor and, of course, if only the poor speak about the poor then no one is going to listen.
“There isn’t any sainthood in this. I’m not claiming to be a saint or to be Gandhi or any of that. I could go and stay in the forest with the comrades but what good would I be? You’ve just got to look at it and say ‘what is effective?’ Of course there can be levels of hypocrisy and all of that, but what can you do? I think it would be more hypocritical for me to pretend I’m some poor person and go and live in some slum and be a missionary. I’m not that.”
Most recently the criticism of Roy has been focused on her refusal to condemn the armed resistance of the Maoist guerrillas. For some people, the accusation is tactical, she says, for others it’s a refusal to face the difficult truth that there is no alternative.
“To me violence is a word that requires defining,” she says. “Are policies that push 800 million people into poverty violence? Is a forest department that is allowed to go in and pick up any woman and rape her violence? Violence is an inaccurate word. I talk about armed struggle. And I talk constantly about the diversity of resistance, of which armed struggle is just one part.”
The argument as far as Roy is concerned is that these are people fighting for their very survival in a society where literally nothing exists to help them. She has two questions for those who argue that armed struggle can never be condoned: “First, tell me one institution in this democracy that a tribal person who’s had his son killed or his wife raped can go to and expect justice? Just tell me one place and I’ll back off on everything.
I’ll back off. And second, if deep inside the forest a thousand policemen go and start burning the village down and raping women and killing them and trying to clear the land, what should they do? Can a starving person go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a kind of theatre that requires an audience and a sympathetic one – where is that audience? You tell me, I am asking.”
When Roy speaks in this way, fervent and with utter commitment, it’s clear to see why she is regarded with such hostility by those in power. Her eloquence is a fearsome weapon and so is her refusal to allow any oversimplification of issues that cannot be made simple.
“Why would I want there to be violence?” she says, shaking her head. “But to me this invocation of Gandhi and non-violence becomes absolute cowardice at some point. The economists are allowed to say what is the alternative? But the people being killed are not allowed to ask: what is our alternative?”
Roy is a captivating interviewee, which is ironic because she doesn’t think much of being profiled by a journalist. It means the same to her as book sales or literary prizes: it’s a means to an end.
“For me reading profiles of myself,” she shrugs and smiles. “I’m like, how can you who met me two minutes ago know the first f*cking thing about me?
I don’t care, write what you like but say there’s a war. That’s all I want. Obsessed with my husband or my mother? That’s fine, that’s more about you than about me, say there’s a war.”
I’m not going to argue with that, I don’t object actually. Journalists who pretend that they can offer anything more than a snapshot of a person they sit with for, in Roy’s case, just over an hour, are doing just that, pretending. But that doesn’t make it pointless or uninteresting. An hour in Roy’s company is fascinating, not least because she is someone who simply will not be reduced to anything less complex than she is.
She’s not the writer who had amazing success with her first novel and then never wrote again. She did, just not another novel. She’s not a hair-shirt-wearing ideologue, she’s irreverent and funny and warm. She’s not an exile taking potshots at what she has left behind. Roy still lives in Delhi and cannot imagine living anywhere else, at least not for long. Easy assumptions don’t apply and she’s all the more interesting for it.
By way of biography, Roy’s story goes like this. Her mother, Mary Roy, ran away from a violent father in Kerala in the south of India and married a young assistant manager on a tea estate in Kolkata. Roy left her daughter’s father when Arundhati was less than two and moved back to Kerala where her she set up and ran a very successful private school.
At 17, Arundhati left home and moved to Delhi to study architecture. There she met her first husband. They were young and their marriage didn’t last long. In 1984, she got married for a second time, to the filmmaker Pradip Krishen, while she too was working in the film industry writing screenplays. They remain married but live separately.
If it’s ever possible to look at a life in this way and draw lines of continuity, two stand out with Roy. First, a concern with social justice (her thesis as an architecture student was on the people excluded from the planning of Delhi’s urban expansion) and second, independence. Roy needs to be unfettered to do what she wants. It’s the reason that she doesn’t plan her work or her life or have a secretary or any protection.
“I can’t stand all that,” she says. “The minute you start doing that you start being unable to change. I need to be able to change. In a way I feel my lack of protection is my protection. I feel my lack of wanting to weld myself to something or someone allows that independence.”
There’s no project, she says. No advance from a publisher or commission from a magazine that took her into the forests. She wanted to go so she did. She doesn’t know what she’ll work on next, or where her attention will be focused. Suddenly her decision not to write a second novel becomes much more understandable.
“I think people ease into this careerist professionalism,” she says, “so if you’re a writer it’s your job to manufacture books as opposed to writing them and to go to festivals and spend your life emotionally invested in reviews or the awards. You have to shrink your universe in a way. To me, it’s the opposite.
“People ask me how I get feedback about my writing and I say I go and stand at the traffic lights. I go anywhere. This book (Broken Republic] is already published in every Indian language in little pamphlets, it’s distributed everywhere. People tell me ‘oh we sleep with it at night’. What more can a writer ask for?”
Of course, there are plenty who would ask for millions of sales and literary prizes and wealth. But not Roy. I suggest to her that what allows her to circumvent this is her unshakeable self-belief.
She wrinkles her nose and pulls her hair back into a ponytail and then lets it loose again.
“That kind of self-belief could be the self-belief of a rock star,” she says. “Or the self-belief of an incredible individualist. But it’s not, because I also feel very much in the heart of a crowd. In a way, writing is an incredible act of individualism, producing your language, and yet to use it from the heart of a crowd as opposed to as an individual performance is a conflicting thing. I do stand alone and yet it’s not about being an individual or being ambitious”
“I’m not ambitious. I don’t want to get anywhere, I don’t want anything more. I sometimes think that for me that is the real freedom, that I don’t want anything. I don’t want money or prizes. I want people to know that a war is going to be fought.”
For the past decade Roy has shown that she has the tenacity and bravery required for political campaigning. I wonder though how she copes with the feeling of powerlessness that comes from fighting hard and yet never quite winning. The dams she campaigned against, that she describes as “crimes against humanity”, are built now.
“And there are hundreds more planned in the Himalayas,” she says wryly. “Well, what can one say? I think you have to look deeper inside yourself for a place where you know that you do what you can do. I don’t see things as inevitable.
I see a lot of hope in the battles that are being staged in India. I feel more despair when I come here because I feel that the other imagination is gone, it doesn’t exist, except in some boutique or eccentric sense. Here the machine is rolling whereas over there, there is still that wilderness, there are still those ragged edges through which the light comes.
“We do what we do and we fight to win. It’s not that we are doing it as a project or I’ve been commissioned to write my new book or I have accepted some niche position as a critic of the government. It’s not that. It’s a battle and we are fighting.”
She says that every time she writes something she swears she won’t write again. And she never plans, of course.
“I was once asked if I’d give a lecture on human rights in two years’ time,” she says. “I said I don’t know if I’ll be believing in human rights in two years.” She laughs.
I don’t know what prompts it, perhaps she sees the look on my face that betrays however charmed I am by her, I’m struggling to make it all fit together, to pull all those conflicting views into something I can understand.
“What is the role of somebody like myself?” she asks. “To be the writer who tries to weave the stories, the bearing witness, the ideology, the philosophy, what happens on the ground. Those are the things that for me are my experiences as an architect, in cinema and as a novelist, as a person who has written about marginalisation. To deploy all your skills and training to do something, to me that is what I do.”
To focus too much on outcome, like a bottom line on a balance sheet, or to look for reassurance or rewards that her campaigning is working isn’t Roy’s style. It’s too simplistic. But that’s not to say that she doesn’t welcome a sign when it comes along.
“It takes months for any news to come out of the forest,” she says. “But just a few months ago I got this little biscuit (the notes that take news in and out of the forests] which said,” she recites from memory in Hindi. “It means ‘after you wrote, a wave of happiness went through the forest’.” She smiles. “It was signed PRO Thousand Star Hotel.” She laughs.
Broken Republic: Three Essays is out now, published by Penguin, £17.99.
• This article was first published in The Scotsman on June 18, 2011