Sunday, 5 June 2011

They are trying to keep me destabilized. Anyone who says anything is in danger

by Stephen Moss
Sunday 5 June 2011

This is not an ideal beginning. I bump into Arundhati Roy as we are both heading for the loo in the foyer of the large building that houses her publisher Penguin's offices. There are some authors, V S Naipaul say, with whom this could be awkward. But not Roy, who makes me feel instantly at ease. A few minutes later, her publicist settles us in a small, bare room. As we take our positions on either side of a narrow desk I liken it to an interrogation suite. But she says that in India, interrogation rooms are a good deal less salubrious than this.

Roy, who is 50 this year, is best known for her 1997 Booker prize-winning novel The God of Small Things, but for the past decade has been an increasingly vocal critic of the Indian state, attacking its policy towards Kashmir, the environmental destruction wrought by rapid development, the country's nuclear weapons programme and corruption. As a prominent opponent of everything connected with globalisation, she is seeking to construct a "new modernity" based on sustainability and a defence of traditional ways of life.

Her new book, Broken Republic, brings together three essays about the Maoist guerrilla movement in the forests of central India that is resisting the government's attempts to develop and mine land on which tribal people live. The central essay, Walking with the Comrades, is a brilliant piece of reportage, recounting three weeks she spent with the guerrillas in the forest. She must, I suggest, have been in great personal danger. "Everybody's in great danger there, so you can't go round feeling you are specially in danger," she says in her pleasant, high-pitched voice. In any case, she says, the violence of bullets and torture are no greater than the violence of hunger and malnutrition, of vulnerable people feeling they're under siege.

Her time with the guerrillas made a profound impression. She describes spending nights sleeping on the forest floor in a "thousand-star hotel", applauds "the ferocity and grandeur of these poor people fighting back", and says "being in the forest made me feel like there was enough space in my body for all my organs". She detests glitzy, corporate, growth-obsessed modern Indian, and there in the forest she found a brief peace.

There is intense anger in the book, I say, implying that if she toned it down she might find a readier audience. "The anger is calibrated," she insists. "It's less than I actually feel." But even so, her critics call her shrill. "That word 'shrill' is reserved for any expression of feeling. It's all right for the establishment to be as shrill as it likes about annihilating people."

Is her political engagement derived from her mother, Mary Roy, who set up a school in Kerala and has a reputation as a women's rights activist? "She's not an activist," says Roy. "I don't know why people keep saying that. My mother is like a character who escaped from the set of a Fellini film." She laughs at her own description. "She's a whole performing universe of her own. Activists would run a mile from her because they could not deal with what she is."

I want to talk more about Mary Roy – and eventually we do – but there's one important point to clear up first. Guerrillas use violence, generally directed against the police and army, but sometimes causing injury and death to civilians caught in the crossfire. Does she condemn that violence? "I don't condemn it any more," she says. "If you're an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation."

Her critics label her a Maoist sympathiser. Is she? "I am a Maoist sympathiser," she says. "I'm not a Maoist ideologue, because the communist movements in history have been just as destructive as capitalism. But right now, when the assault is on, I feel they are very much part of the resistance that I support."

Roy talks about the resistance as an "insurrection"; she makes India sound as if it's ripe for a Chinese or Russian-style revolution. So how come we in the west don't hear about these mini-wars? "I have been told quite openly by several correspondents of international newspapers," she says, "that they have instructions – 'No negative news from India' – because it's an investment destination. So you don't hear about it. But there is an insurrection, and it's not just a Maoist insurrection. Everywhere in the country, people are fighting." I find the suggestion that such an injunction exists – or that self-respecting journalists would accept it – ridiculous. Foreign reporting of India might well be lazy or myopic, but I don't believe it's corrupt.

She sounds like a member of a religious sect, I say, as if she has seen the light. "It's a way of life, a way of thinking," she replies without taking offence. "I know people in India, even the modern young people, understand that here is something that's alive." So why not give up the plush home in Delhi and the media appearances, and return to the forest? "I'd be more than happy to if I had to, but I would be a liability to them in the forest. The battles have to be fought in different ways. The military side is just one part of it. What I do is another part of the battle."

I question her absolutism, her Manichaean view of the world, but I admire her courage. Her home has been pelted with stones; the Indian launch of Broken Republic was interrupted by pro-government demonstrators who stormed the stage; she may be charged with sedition for saying that Kashmiris should be given the right of self-determination. "They are trying to keep me destabilised," she says. Does she feel threatened? "Anybody who says anything is in danger. Hundreds of people are in jail."

Roy has likened writing fiction and polemic to the difference between dancing and walking. Does she not want to dance again? "Of course I do." Is she working on a new novel? "I have been," she says with a laugh, "but I don't get much time to do it." Does it bother her that the followup to The God of Small Things has been so long in coming? "I'm a highly unambitious person," she says. "What does it matter if there is or isn't a novel? I really don't look at it that way. For me, nothing would have been worth not going into that forest."

It's hard to judge whether there will be a second novel. The God of Small Things drew so much on her own life – her charismatic but overbearing mother; a drunken tea-planter father whom her mother left when Roy was very young; her own departure from home in her late teens – that it may be a one-off, a book as much lived as written. She gives ambiguous answers about whether she expects a second novel to appear. On the one hand, she says she is engaged with the resistance movement and that it dominates her thoughts. But almost in the same breath she says others have "picked up the baton" and she would like to return to fiction, to dance again.

What is certain is that little of the second novel has so far been written. She prefers not to tell me what it is about; indeed, she says it would not be possible to pinpoint the theme. "I don't have subjects. It's not like I'm trying to write an anti-dam novel. Fiction is too beautiful to be about just one thing. It should be about everything." Has she been blocked by the pressure of having to follow up a Booker winner? "No," she says. "We're not children all wanting to come first in class and win prizes. It's the pleasure of doing it. I don't know whether it will be a good book, but I'm curious about how and what I will write after these journeys."

Are her agent and publisher disappointed still to be waiting for the second novel? "They always knew there wasn't going to be some novel-producing factory," she says. "I was very clear about that. I don't see the point. I did something. I enjoyed doing it. I'm doing something now. I'm living to the edges of my fingernails, using everything I have. It's impossible for me to look at things politically or in any way as a project, to further my career. You're injected directly into the blood of the places in which you're living and what's going on there."

She has no financial need to write another novel. The God of Small Things, which sold more than 6m copies around the world, set her up for life, even though she has given much of the money away. She even spurned offers for the film rights, because she didn't want anyone interpreting her book for the screen. "Every reader has a vision of it in their head," she says, "and I didn't want it to be one film." She is strong-willed. Back in 1996, when The God of Small Things was being prepared for publication, she insisted on having control of the cover image because she didn't want "a jacket with tigers and ladies in saris". She is her indomitable mother's daughter.

I insist she tell me more about her Fellini-esque mother. She is, says Roy, like an empress. She has a number of buttons beside her bed which, when you press them, emit different bird calls. Each call signals to one of her retinue what she requires. Has she been the centre of her daughter's life? "No, she has been the centre of a lot of conflict in my life. She's an extraordinary women, and when we are together I feel like we are two nuclear-armed states." She laughs loudly. "We have to be a bit careful."

To defuse the family tensions, Roy left home when she was 16 to study architecture in Delhi – even then she wanted to build a new world. She married a fellow student at the age of 17. "He was a very nice guy, but I didn't take it seriously," she says. In 1984 she met and married film-maker Pradip Krishen, and helped him bring up his two daughters by an earlier marriage. They now live separately, though she still refers to him as her "sweetheart". So why separate? "My life is so crazy. There's so much pressure and idiosyncrasy. I don't have any establishment. I don't have anyone to mediate between me and the world. It's just based on instinct." I think what she's saying is that freedom matters more to her than anything else.

She chose not to have children because it would have impinged on that freedom. "For a long time I didn't have the means to support them," she says, "and once I did I thought I was too unreliable. So many of the women in India who are fighting these battles don't have children, because anything can happen. You have to be light on your feet and light in your head. I like to be a mobile republic."

Roy has in the past described herself as "a natural-born feminist". What did she mean by that? "Because of my mother and the way I grew up without a father to look after me, you learned early on that rule number one was look out for yourself. Much of what I can do and say now comes from being independent at an early age." Her mother was born into a wealthy, conservative Christian community in Kerala, but put herself outside the pale by marrying Ranjit Roy, a Hindu from West Bengal. When she returned to her home state after her divorce she had little money and was thus doubly marginalised. The mother eventually triumphed over all these obstacles and made a success of the school she founded, but growing up an outsider has left its mark on her daughter.

Roy says she has always been polemical, and points to her run-in with director Shekhar Kapur in the mid-1990s over his film Bandit Queen – she questioned whether he had the right to portray the rape of a living person on screen without that woman's consent. It may be that the novel is the exception in a life of agitation, rather than the agitation an odd outcrop in a life of fiction-writing. But has she sacrificed too much for the struggle – the chance to dance, children, perhaps even her second marriage? "I don't see any of these things as sacrifices," she says. "They are positive choices. I feel surrounded by love, by excitement. They are not being done in some martyr-like way. When I was walking through the forest with the comrades, we were laughing all the time."

• This article was amended on 8 June 2011. The original said Mary Roy set up a school for girls in Kerala. This has been corrected.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Arundhati Roy

By Amy Kazmin
Published: June 3 2011 17:15
Arundhati RoyAs a young girl, Arundhati Roy once raided her teacher’s garden in her native village in Kerala, the lush tropical state in the south of India. She dug up the carrots, removed the edible orange roots, then carefully replanted the green tops in the soil. It took four days for the greenery to wither and the crime to be discovered. The culprit was never identified.

Roy tells this story on a sweltering night in May in New Delhi, at the India launch of her new book, Broken Republic. She argues that India’s much-touted democratic institutions now resemble the post-raid carrots in the teacher’s garden: the green tops, or external forms, are present and visible, but the substance, or essence, is missing.
Sitting with the Booker Prize-winning novelist and political activist the next morning, in her tasteful, spacious apartment, I ask her what triggered the garden raid. Was it payback for an offence committed by the teacher? “I must have wanted carrots, and it was just like, Why not mess with power?” she says, then throws back her head and laughs.
On the cusp of turning 50, Roy, once the poster-child of the new India and now its most vociferous, high-profile critic, is still messing with power. For the past decade, India’s establishment has been selling the world its story: of an emerging superpower and vibrant democracy that is enjoying rapid economic growth. Roy, meanwhile, has used her special way with words, and her fame, to challenge that narrative, creating a picture of a state serving only a rapacious middle class, and trampling the poor in its rush for high living and global status.
Her latest book focuses on India’s newest unfolding tragedy: its hidden war against Maoist rebels, who have established a firm foothold among the neglected tribal people of India’s heartland. New Delhi has ignored the tribal belt – and the hardships of its residents – for years. Now, though, the government, and India’s corporations, want to mine the minerals buried beneath the region’s soil – and are dismayed to find the Maoists in their way.

Arundhati Roy with Maoist guerrillas in Chhattisgarh State
In Chhattisgarh State with Maoist guerrillas. She describes travelling with them as ‘some of the most amazing moments of my life’
Maoists have organised tribal communities since the late 1970s, helping them fight forest officials and exploitative contractors who buy forest leaves for traditional, hand-rolled cigarettes. Now, the rebels are leading the resistance to the expropriation of tribal land. New Delhi has dubbed the ­guerrillas India’s biggest internal security threat.

In late 2009, Roy spent three weeks with the Maoist guerrillas in their “liberated area”, in Chhattisgarh State. Her experiences travelling with them – “some of the most amazing moments of my life,” she tells me – are at the heart of her new book. Her sympathetic depiction of the Maoists has provoked angry accusations that she is too starry eyed about a violent movement with no qualms about killing Indian troops. Yet she makes no apologies.

“For me it was such a wonderful thing to see those people standing up to the most powerful forces in the world,” she says. “There is such a romance in their resistance. I believe that, and I hope I never lose the capacity to allow romance into my life, without being frightened, and without trying to protect myself.”
Roy with Narmada dam protesters outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi
Roy with Narmada dam protesters outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi, 2006
She insists she does not endorse violence, or armed struggle, yet she feels that tribal communities have few options to protect their way of life, as they confront the concerted efforts of state officials and large corporations to displace them. “If you are going to treat unarmed Gandhian struggles the way the [anti-] Narmada [dam] struggle [protesters] were treated, people are going to move into another zone,” she says. “It’s not as if they are sitting around saying, ‘Should we struggle or should we not?’ They don’t have a choice. They have nowhere to go.”
At the culmination of her journey with the rebels, she says she was reluctant to leave the forest. “I was so happy. I was saying, ‘Let me stay here,’ and they were saying, ‘No, you go. We can’t,’” she recalls. “I was in a forest, which I love being in, and it was real. It wasn’t some tourism, or some holiday. All the things that interest me were together there.”
We are far from the forest now, sitting face to face, curled up on the two corners of a sofa in Roy’s living room-cum-work space in one of New Delhi’s most affluent neighbourhoods. One wall is lined with books, and a large flat-screen TV. Elsewhere, the walls are adorned with a portrait of Howard Zinn, the late US historian; a poster that says “Stop Dams”; and a large photograph of a Maoist fighter, his weapon next to him.

A bowl of sliced mangos is brought out by the household help, and Roy invites me to share it with her. “Let’s eat mangos,” she says, sweetly. “There is nothing like mangoes. I once thought I would retire and eat mangoes in the moonlight and generally have a good time. Help yourself.”
. . .
Roy was raised by her mother, Mary Roy, a strong-willed, temperamental woman, who repeatedly violated the social conventions of her conservative Syrian Christian community in Kerala’s Kottayam District. First, she entered into a love marriage with a Bengali Hindu. Then she divorced him. She returned to her native village of Doty, in Kerala, with her children when Arundhati was one-and-a-half years old.
It was the early 1960s, and in the tight-knit, family-oriented Syrian Christian society, the mother’s transgressions marked out her children. “I grew up in a very frightening situation,” Roy says. “My brother and I were not accepted as members of that community … I was on the edge. It was like ‘nobody’s gonna marry you’. None of the assurances that normal families, and normal communities, offer their children was available to us. So there was always that questioning, that instinct to see things from the point of view of the most vulnerable.

“I was not indoctrinated the way normal Indian women are,” she adds. “Nobody had time to indoctrinate me. There was a direct relationship with the world; it was not mediated by any protection.”
At 16, Roy left home, coming to New Delhi to study architecture, and fend for herself in the big city. “I used to have chai with all the beggars, and they thought that I was from some drug cartel,” she tells me. “And I didn’t deny it because I thought, at least they’ll think I have some protection, I’m not just on my own. From there, you learn to ask the question from the bottom, as opposed to the top.”
Arundhati Roy receiving the Booker Prize for 'The God of Small Things'
In London, October 1997, receiving the Booker Prize for her debut novel, ‘The God of Small Things’, for which she was paid a £500,000 advance
When her debut novel, The God of Small Things, was published in 1997, she became an object of adulation for India’s middle classes, less for the quality of her book – which many never read – than for her £500,000 advance, and later her Booker Prize. With her success, she was embraced as a living symbol of India’s arrival on the global stage. But following her strong condemnation of the country’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, defying the mood of national euphoria and pride, attitudes towards her began to change.

“I was shocked at how even musicians and painters were celebrating the nuclear test, and I could smell the fascism on the breeze,” she recalls. “Here was a chance to say something in a major way and, of course, to earn the hatred of everybody who had so celebrated me. I felt that if I didn’t do it, I would never really be able to write. You start censoring yourself. You start playing to some imaginary audience who you want to please, and it’s just finished.”

Since then, her fiction writing has been on the backburner, while she has dedicated herself to political activism, travelling to remote corners of the country, attending political meetings and writing essays on topics from India’s dam-building to its judicial corruption and its abuses in the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. “You get drawn into a world where people realise, here is somebody who is not frightened of saying something. All of the last 11 years has been unplanned. It’s been a process of deepening your understanding,” she says.
In her political writing, Roy has been scathing in her description of India’s two-decade old economic liberalisation programme – which is widely credited with bringing unprecedented opportunities to many – and seemingly contemptuous of the emerging middle class.

Her diatribes have made her something of a hate figure for many Indian nationalists. There is also a feeling among a number of liberals and left-leaning activists, who have a concern for social justice – and for many of the issues she raises – that her strident polemics are too extreme. “I know I alienate people, but there isn’t any possibility of writing about these things where everybody is going to agree with you,” she says. “I am not scared of alienating the middle class. I am saying what I think. I know the entire establishment obviously disagrees with it, and would like me to shut up, or soften it or be more tactical, but I am saying things in a space that no one says.”

“When I write something, I have to spend a few days filtering out the fury,” she adds. “I don’t do anything to be deliberately provocative.”

Certainly there is plenty in India to be angry – even outraged – about. I ask tentatively whether she really feels that economic reforms have brought no benefits at all. I am thinking of the remote villages, and impoverished slum dwellers, now connected to a wider world by mobile phones. After a moment’s reflection, she answers.
“It’s as though you had this churning,” she says, slowly. “You had a feudal and very unequal society. In this churning, this thin milk separates into a thick layer of cream, and a lot of water that can be just slop. The thick layer of middle class that has been created becomes a great market. Suddenly, there are so many people who need cars and A/Cs and TV, and that becomes a universe of itself. Of course it looks great. Then there is this unseen thing that’s just being drifted off.”

Isn’t is possible that India’s growing middle class might begin to push for reforms that might make India’s democratic institutions function better – for all its citizens?

“You tell me one thing that a poor person in a village can do to get justice if something goes wrong,” she says, her voice rising slightly. “There is nothing they can do. If someone gets caught and then put into prison for five years for the wrong thing, do you think that a normal villager can do anything about it except swallow that shit and just live a life of nothing?”

Roy says she was delighted when India’s ­on-going telecommunications spectrum scandal came out, complete with leaked tapes of intercepted phone calls by a powerful corporate lobbyist showing the close interrelationship between India’s politicians, its companies and its media elite.
“It was like an MRI that confirmed our diagnosis of everything – the role of the media, the interconnectedness of judiciary, corporates and the ­politicians – it was laid bare,” she says. “While everyone was expressing shock, we were stretching out on the beach saying, ‘Wow, now we don’t have to work that hard.’” And then she giggles.

Roy says she is ready to make a change, perhaps return to fiction, which has been interrupted by her political engagement. “I feel like I’ve done a very interesting journey over the last 11 years, but now I’m ready to do something different. Two years ago, I told myself, ‘no more, enough of this’, and I was working on some fiction. Then this huge uprising happened in Kashmir.”

Extricating herself from activism won’t be easy. India’s army is building up its presence in the tribal areas and conflict is likely to intensify. After a relative lull in violence, two recent Maoist ambushes have killed 20 Indian troops. The government’s answer won’t be long in coming. Even now, as the interview winds up, Roy is preparing to rush off to a public meeting to speak on the growing crisis.

“I can’t stop thinking about that place, the people I met and what I saw – the violence and the hope – all of it together,” she says. “And I can’t easily tell myself that it’s very important for me to write another novel and give up on all this. It is not an easy thing to do – to just look away.”

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s South Asia correspondent. Arundhati Roy’s book ‘Broken Republic: Three Essays’ (Hamish Hamilton) is published on June 13.